Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Hundred Dollar Ritual


The arm tefillin is put on first, on the upper part of the weaker arm. A blessing is recited and the strap wrapped round the arm seven times. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to put on Tefillin...

- Sunny, fierce Michele came to find me at Starbucks this morning. The first thing she tells me is yesterday walking by the art gallery with an exhibit on angels seeing her ran out and handed her a hundred dollar bill. Astonished, I ask her, What time was this?
- Slow down. Why astonished?
- At the very moment she was grasping her hundred dollar bill firmly in hand I was letting a brother hundred dollar bill slip away,
- Which Starbucks was this?
- Beverly Hills.
- Ok. Go on.
- I'll start over. Michelle is an always beautifully and colorfully dressed, self confessed spiritual women in her forties. For the past few weeks she's been sleeping on the steps of the Catholic Church down the street. She's told me how she has to fend off the attentions of the drug addicts, alcoholics and schizophrenics that hang out there. Shouldn't she go someplace else? I ask. Where was she before? It doesn't matter, she answers, everywhere she goes she is persecuted by shadowy organizations. Anyway the story I want to tell you is not about her, but about the hundred dollars, because right about the same time she was pocketing her cash I was being accosted by two college aged kids in black suits, white shirts and broad brimmed hats, students at a local Yeshiva (a Jewish religious school). They wanted to perform a ritual on me that involves leather straps being wound around your arm and a box strapped to your forehead. I was familiar with the sect they belonged to, I told them, and I didn't want them to work their magic on me. The taller young man asked me:
- Why not?
- I believe rituals are harmful.
- Why?
- Can I show you what I reading? I'll turn the computer around. I'm about three fourth through this book, Henri Bergson's 1922 published detailed argument against Einstein's claim time is an illusion. Time rather is one more dimension with the three dimensions of space in a four dimensional universe. Do you agree with Einstein, believe time is an illusion?
- No. Why are you reading on this subject?
- Obviously Einstein wasn't stupid. What went on in his mind: why was it not obvious that the statement he was making that time is an illusion was being made by him in time? Should I tell you why?
- Can I put on the teffillin?
- No. I'm in progress explaining to you why not. In philosophy since before Plato, from the time of Parmenides, movement has been a problem. We experience movement, but we have a problem knowing we do because knowledge is always static. If we want to picture how an object moves between two points, we have to imagine the object instant by instant a bit more in a forward position. Do you understand? I see you don't. Try to imagine something moving now. Well?
- What do you do for a living?
- Nothing. Listen. Here is what I want to suggest. When you say your words, do your rituals, you are doing much the same as Einstein did when he said time is an illusion. In ritual, you reenact a story of death and rebirth in the company, present or imagined, of others doing the same. You forget your weak, dying self in the group performance, and then with the ritual over, see yourself reborn strong. The movement that got you to that point was performed by a dying self, and is left behind once you are reborn in strength. Your past is forgotten in ritual. Einstein's claim that time is an illusion is an example of ritual thinking. It hides the problem of movement in forgetting and ranks the whole world, oneself included, in a complete immobility that allows all potentially to be known.
- Ritual is our way of reminding us of god's love and his commandments.
- Yes, you wear an outfit whose difference from fashion works to remind you: but this way of dressing is not a ritual, rather is a practice: no initial weakness, group not required, and as you say, no forgetting.
- What do you say I am forgetting? Let me put on the tefillin and tell me what you feel.
- You would be harming me.
- But how?
- Because you are practicing ritual. By forming a destructive relation between us, by me being used by you to achieve, you believe, a reward by god, as he raises you from weakness to strength.
- No, it would be good for you too, and good for the Jewish people as a group.
- It works even if one doesn't believe in it? Despite my disbelief I'd be closer to god? It seems that way because in the movement of ritual the participation of an complete stranger is forgotten in the outcome. Maybe if first you compensated me for the damage you'd do establishing an destructive, distancing human relation with me. How much are you willing to pay? A hundred dollars?
Now the other young man who has very apparently been bored pulls out of his front pants pocket and unfolds a new hundred dollar bill. I ask:
- Is that real?
- Yes.
- You want to give me a hundred dollars?
- Yes.
- Is there more where that came from? Where did you get it?
- From my father.
- A gift from your father. Pocket money. If you give me your money will he give you more?
- I don't know. I'll call him and ask...
- Well: what is did he say?
- He said he wouldn't.
- Ok then. I'm tempted, I have to admit. One hundred dollars. Look, here comes a customer for you.  
I make my escape.

Further Reading: