Towards a Philosophy of the Muslim-Jewish Encounter by Lucas Oro Hershtein

Lucas Oro Hershtein

Philosophy is – or at least it used to be – not about ‘understanding’ but about finding a new way of ‘experiencing’ life. It is – or it should be – a ‘spiritual exercise’ that can change the way in which we are in the world – including how we relate to others. Our universe is, first of all, a ‘symbolic’ one. Underlying this universe, there is a core of philosophical ideas. Although invisible – or invisibilized – these ideas filter the world we turn our face towards and give us in return what we conceptualise as ‘reality’. Any search for a new ‘model’ of dialogue between Muslims and Jews should rest in a critical look at the philosophical approach on the basis of which this dialogue has been traditionally pursued. In a few words, this means that the classical Western paradigm of subjectivity needs to be deconstructed.

If man discovers himself, individually, as a mere ‘object’ of his own knowledge, and understands this knowledge as originary and founding, when he directs his gaze beyond the horizon he finds nothing but a world made by those ‘others’ who can be only encountered, as well, through the mediation of his own symbolic universe. Being thrown into this world, man asks ‘why’. ‘Why is there something rather than nothing’, he wonders. And he finds that everything that exists can be reduced to a knowledgeable being – an ‘object’ that he can trap into his net of concepts, stripping it of any life and turning it into nothing more than an ‘example’ of what he ‘already’ knew. Therefore, every particular ‘other’ is for him nothing more than an instantiation of a universal. Each of them is not an individual person, with his own scars and hopes, but the phantasmagorical representation of a ‘totality’ – ‘Muslims’ and ‘Jews’. Any relationship with the other becomes, consequently, only a matter of an objective and representational knowledge.

Western philosophy is always ontology: it asks why there is something when it could be nothing. All that exists can be designated and known – that is, absorbed into an intelligible object. Within this world of knowledgeable beings, man discovers the presence of others. Nevertheless, although they are there, they do not bother me. They do not talk to me; they never request that I look at them. There is no urgency in my links with them. This is the paradoxical ‘sleep of reason’ of man – who, being himself trapped within a world that is all about ‘otherness’, and willing to recover his own humanity, reduces every ‘other’ to be no more than a poor, objectified reflection of the universal abstractions through which he projects himself into the world. Although the other one is here, and nothing separates us, he is too far away from me. I can learn about him, I can listen to his story and I can even empathise with his pain, but in the end, when the tide recedes, we are nothing but two different shores. The veil of the infinite finitude of knowledge falls between him and me – and any ‘us’ with which we would like to dream is only an illusion, because there is no possible ‘togetherness’ when my relationship with the other is sieved by representation.

Man tries to assimilate the otherness that exceeds him by ‘knowing’ the other person. Since knowledge is always relative to what is already known, only by consuming the other’s subjectivity, objectifying it, can man recover his own freedom. The other becomes, therefore, merely the topic of a discourse about him. ‘Muslims’ and ‘Jews’ are no more than abstractions about which I can talk. Trapped inside my knowledge, there is no ‘rest’. Their subjective reality disappears, and their infinitude becomes a single word: ‘Muslim’, ‘Jew’. The word encloses them, dissolves them away. Their voice is lost in the marshes of instrumental reason.

A real dialogue between Muslims and Jews – one that can go beyond talking ‘about’ others to talking ‘with’ them – calls for a different philosophical foundation, based not on ontology but on ethics. Man is thrown into being but he is not the one who creates the questions – on the contrary, he is interpellated by the others. Their infinite faces have their gazes fixed on me. They do not want me to ‘understand’ them – since their call is beyond logic. There is nothing I can win or lose from them. They are just there, muttering without words: ‘I am here’. The other is no longer a concept – a universal ‘Muslim’ or a universal ‘Jew’– that can be known or ignored, but an individual existence that demands that I look at him. He is there and asks me to answer his call. While the world of ontology is a world of finite concepts, the world of ethics is composed of those whose eyes are looking at me. The veil of universality is torn away by the infinitude of the ethical call.

When we relate to others on the basis of knowledge, we do not laugh or weep at them: we ‘understand’ them. As abstractions, we can only talk ‘about’ them; they are the topic of a discourse that does not say anything at all. They are neutral: as abstract universals, they have been cut from reality and we can only see, once and always, the same: ‘Muslims’, ‘Jews’. Their voice becomes the meaningless echo of the man who does not want to hear the appeal of a concrete person calling him. The ‘I am here’ appeal resounds but he cannot listen to it. While knowledge is finite and clearly limited, each individual human being instantiates infinity. This is why the first mentioned appeal – ‘I am here’ – from one human being to another one is the ground of existence.

No matter how one may try to understand another person, it will always be impossible to know him entirely. In the end, it is only possible to realise that the other person will always be unknowable. Paradoxically, the other is radically unique – it is a complete alterity – and, at the same time, is other-than-me. When the Torah says, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, the neighbour is a stranger to me, but at the same time is ‘my’ stranger: he can be a stranger because he is far away and close at the same time. From the point of view of the ‘traditional’ model of dialogue, all that is ‘beyond’ me – the alterity of the stranger – is reduced into the sameness of a theoretical abstraction. On the contrary, from the perspective of a ‘new’ model of dialogue, the answer to the appeal of the other – ‘I am here’ – is not a matter of changing my ideas about him, but of responsibility. I am there, he is there: what would I do? This is the human question: not a metaphysical dilemma – ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ – but an ethical, urgent call: ‘How will I answer to the other’s gaze?’.

To deconstruct the relations between Muslims and Jews in order to re-create them, they should be seen not only as a historical, social and political phenomenon but also as a way of understanding human subjectivity. Western philosophy is more than an ideological reflex of the contemporary world: it also plays a pivotal role in constructing its symbolic skeleton. This is why a ‘new’ way of understanding the encounter between Muslims and Jews needs an alternative model of subjectivity, ethical and not ontological, based not on knowledge but on openness.

The dialogue that we aspire to create is ‘real’ because is not a ‘dimension’ of the self but the existential reality in which the self comes into being and through which it fulfils and authenticates itself. The radical ethical call is the departure point of a philosophical understanding of the Muslim-Jewish dialogue as based not on identity but on difference, not on universals but on the ‘rest’ that breaks down abstractions, and not on knowledge but on existence – not on my own existence, on existing by myself and through myself, but on a shared one. On this basis, we can aspire to create an authentic togetherness between Muslims and Jews.

Behind the claim that Muslims and Jews can not only talk ‘about’ each other but also ‘to’ each other is the profound understanding that we can do something much bigger than changing the way in which we ‘understand’ the other: we can imagine a new way of living next to the others. This openness is – in the end – nothing but authentic love: recognising in the other what is absolutely unique about him or her. The true ground for this recognition is not knowledge but faith: faith in the other, and faith in my infinitude opening towards him. My fidelity, my confidence is not about ‘knowing’ the other, and in supposing that, in accordance to what I know, everything will be in conformity with what I know. Fidelity means, on the contrary, not knowing. As Jean-Luc Nancy says, ‘When one is faithful to someone, one does not know in the end about this person at all, nor about what he or she will become later on in life. But if one is faithful to him or her, one is faithful without knowing’. This opening is what makes us human beings, and this confidence – this true love – is the basis for a new encounter between Muslims and Jews, finding the mystery of the divine in the face of the other who is calling for me.

Lucas Oro Hershtein