Friday, June 16, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Sh’lakh L’kha 5777- Of Brains, Anamnesis, and Torah

I just love it when fate comes in and happenstance is fortuitous. I had been planning to revisit an older musing for the parasha, Sh’lakh L’kha on the topic of remembering – or more specifically Anamnesis.

Then, just before sitting down to revisit the topic, and after having done some research intended to clarify and even change my earlier thoughts on the topic, I happened to be glancing at my Facebook feed and come upon an article link that intrigued me. So naturally I clicked on it. The article was just published over a year ago, in May 2016. I was surprised, given my interest in the topic, that I hadn’t seen it come across any of my feeds sooner.

This article, “The empty brain” published online in the digital magazine Aeon, was written by Robert Epstein, a “senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California. He is the author of 15 books, and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.”

In the article, Epstein challenges the currently predominant approach to understanding how the human brain works, which he calls the IP (information processing) model. This model presumes that the human brain functions, at least metaphorically, like computers – they are essentially information processors. Epstein takes a different view, which he sums up this way “Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer.” It should be noted that the IP understanding of the human brain is endorsed and supported by many in the brain research and neuroscience fields, along with many other respected scientists and thinkers in other field (like Stephen Hawking, Ray Kurzweil, et al.)

I recommend the article to you. I’ll come back to it in a bit. First,on to the topic at hand – anamnesis. It’s a word I threw at you, dear readers, back in 2000 and again in 2005, and one I’ve sprinkled here and there into other musings. It means, in a most basic sense, recollecting or remembering. In a religious sense, it can mean bringing the past into the present.

It’s not a word one hears being bartered about in Jewish circles a lot, and I first encountered as a student in Divinity School, where I was one of a handful of Jews amidst dozens studying for Christian ministry, or to become Christian theologians, or become Christian scholars. So it’s time I come clean with my readers, and explain that the term has a very specific meaning in a Christian context. Christian rite and liturgy is replete with examples of what they term anamnesis, and act of ritual remembrance allowing one to become part of the original event. The most common usage involves the Eucharist, or host, which is consumed in ritual worship connected to Jesus’ saying at the last supper “Do this in remembrance of me.” Catholic and Christian theology have extended the symbolism of this anamnesis beyond the mere repetition of the act to understanding the participating in the ritual invites one into the the actual mystery of the Eucharist, the passion, the resurrection, and the ascension, known collectively as a paschal mystery. (Don’t get worried if none of this makes any sense. Here’s a very simplistic, non-nuanced explanation: in some understandings of Qabbalah, Jewish mysticism, the doing of righteous acts opens a connection or channel that enables Divine attributes or emanations to flow down to the worldly/earthly/human level. In some Catholic and Christian understandings, participation in certain rites like the Eucharist enable a similar connection to understanding the Divine mystery that is, for them, G”d/Jesus/Trinity. I apologize to my readers of a more scholarly and knowledgeable level for this gross over-simplification.

Anamnesis also has specific meaning in philosophical circles. Plato’s understanding of anamnesis is that human souls are immortal, and repeatedly re-incarnated. With each re-incarnation, the soul “forgets” all that it has learned, and the process of acquiring knowledge is actually recovering the knowledge that the soul had previously.Plato viewed those who assist others in the acquisition of knowledge not as teachers, but as midwives, rebirthing knowledge the soul previously held. (Again, I apologize for the extremely simplistic explanation.

Though we don’t usually call it that, anamnesis, at least in some aspect, is part of what we do in Judaism. So many of our rites and rituals are designed to enable the “b’khol dor vador” experience as exemplified in the Pesach Seder ritual.  In the telling of the story, in the engagement in the rituals, we are bringing our memories forward, and making ourselves part of that experience. So many other rituals involve some sense of connection to the mysteries and miracles of the past, enabling us to connect with the Divine in our own here and now.

Now, it’s the time for blatant honesty. When I go back and reread that original musing for Sh’lakh L’kha from 2000,  I struggle to understand how I got to the topic of anamnesis, and how in my mind, I was making/rationalizing that connection. In those musings, I talked about the information gap in the story of the 12 scouts. We get a list of place names, but no serious narrative about what they encountered, as they encountered it. We get only their summaries – most of them all gloom and doom, with only two of them hopeful , even assured.

In that musing, I wondered why there was no narrative of the actual journey of the scouts, and only their reports. My surmise, at the time, was that it was a way of teaching us to reach the same faith as Moshe, Joshua, and Caleb. It didn’t matter what the scouts actually saw. G”d that had brought these people of of Egypt, had given them Torah at Sinai – that G”d will surely see them settled in this good,promised land. No other conclusion need be made.

Joshua and Caleb remembered all that G”d had done for the people, and it wasn’t even a question if G”d could enable us to live in the promised land. (Yes, I know. I’m tiptoeing around the uncomfortableness of labeling this as a conquest of and eviction of the land and the existing tenants of the land – but that is, ultimately what is was. Sigh. History sadly, repeats itself. Especially for those who choose to forget the past, as Santayana said.) I think my anamnesis connection was that, we too, in our own time, can find our faith by remembrance of the things of the past. The lesson is to do as Joshua and Caleb did. Remember all the mighty deeds already done for Israel to have surety that they will be protected in present and future as well. That, I am sure, is how Joshua and Caleb were able to return with such a positive attitude about the potential (okay, I’ll say it) conquest of the land.

The Israelites blew it. They weren’t ready to enter the land, because they lacked faith it could be theirs. How many lost opportunities in our own lives can be chalked up to lack of faith?

Judaism, generally, tends to downplay the whole resurrection thing, for obvious reasons, but any truly knowledgeable Jew knows that Judaism is no stranger to the idea of bodily (or metaphorical) resurrection. Even the Reform movement has put “m’chayyei hameitim” (who gives life to the dead) back as an option it is prayerbook. We’ve heard the stories of how even the dead bodies will tunnel their way under the ground back to Jerusalem when the time comes. (In other musings, I’ve talked about how I have re-embraced “m’chayyei hameitim” in my prayers because of how I now understand those words in a very different way, unrelated to actual physical resurrection. It is, perhaps, more of an anamnesis understanding. It is about remembrance. It is about relearning that which an ancestral soul once knew. It is about entering into the Divine mysteries through an actual of worship.

And now back to the brain science article. What’s notable is how the author rejects the idea of memory as being some kind of stored, static data. We actually don’t store full physical images of what we’ve encountered.

This is the paragraph that most caught my attention for being related to Torah, Judaism, remembrance/anamnesis:

This is why, as Sir Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in his book Remembering (1932), no two people will repeat a story they have heard the same way and why, over time, their recitations of the story will diverge more and more. No ‘copy’ of the story is ever made; rather, each individual, upon hearing the story, changes to some extent – enough so that when asked about the story later (in some cases, days, months or even years after Bartlett first read them the story) – they can re-experience hearing the story to some extent, although not very well (see the first drawing of the dollar bill, above).

I love that. We re-experience hearing the story. Or we re-experience reading the book, Or re-experience hearing the song. Our brains may work in a manner that is similar to anamnesis! It uses recollection to rebuild the experience anew (and slightly changing it in the process.) Oh, how I love what that says about biblical interpretation, don’t you? Also, what is possibly says about oral transmission of texts. Yes, there is some evidence to indicate that our ancestors were better at remembering longer texts than we are, but we may be deceiving ourselves as to just how accurate the passing down was. What eventually made it into the written Torah, all of Tanakh, even recollections that made it into Talmud, Aggadah, and Midrash are all somewhat suspect – if our brain truly does know something by literally re-creating it based on some scattered remembrances.

Is the Pesach Seder designed with this understanding in mind? Are more recent versions of the haggadot buying into the IP understanding of brain science, and focusing on ways to cram in and retain data? I suspect the original haggadot were used anamnesis and were very experiential in their approach. Luckily, I think there are plenty of contemporary haggadot that haven’t abandoned anamnesis as the key to entering the Divine mysteries of the Exodus story.

Not very much about Torah today, except indirectly. But I see all that I have written as Torah in a broader sense, and I hope you, dear reader, have found the exploration a worthy experience.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Shelakh-L'kha 5775 - Cover Up? (Redux 5761)
Sh'lakh L'kha 5774 - Do You Spy What I Spy (Redux 5759)
Shelakh L'kha 5773 - They Really Might be Giants (Redux 5764)
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5772- Cover Up (Redux and Revised 5761)
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5771 - Ignorantia Juris Non Excusat
Shelakh L'kha 5769 - One Law
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5767-Cover Up II - G"d's Scarlet Letter?
Sh'lakh L'kha 5766 - Another Missed Opportunity?
Shelakh Lekha 5764-They Might Really Be Giants
Shelakh-Lekha 5762-Minority Report
Shelakh-Lekha 5761-Cover Up?
Shelakh Lekha 5760 and 5765-Anamnesis
Shelakh-Lekha 5759-Do You Spy What I Spy?

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