The Jewish tradition seeks to startle us, to challenge our routine and our dogmas. Slavoj Zizek, the Slovene philosopher and social critique writes poignantly about this point.
“There is an overwhelming argument for the intimate link between Judaism and psychoanalysis: in both cases, the focus is on the traumatic encounter with the abyss of the desiring Other, with the terrifying figure of an impenetrable Other who wants something from us, but does not make it clear what this something is - the Jewish people’s encounter with their God whose impenetrable call disrupts the routine of human daily existence; the child’s encounter with the enigma of the other’s (in this case, parental) enjoyment,” (Zizek, How to Read Lacan, 99).
This is what Emmanuel Levinas similarly calls “the ethics of alterity” and what Buber refers to as the “I and Thou.” It is about human encounters and the responsibilities born out of them. Encountering the human face and presence is indeed the birth of the ethical moment. Poverty is not an abstraction and it can take consistent conversations with the homeless to remember the pressing needs. So too, social change does not happen from the email or the office but in the streets and in relationships. Being in relationship with G-d is described as being panim-el-panim (face-to-face). How much more true for humans where the face can be taken literally. Perhaps one of the most powerful ways that one may encounter the Divine is in the face of the human, in the calling of the ethical moment of the encounter.
Zizek explains the thinking of Jacques Lacan, the 20th century French psychoanalyst. “For Lacan, the ultimate ethical task is that of the true awakening: not only from sleep, but from the spell of fantasy that controls us even more when we are awake,” (Zizek, How to Read Lacan, 60).
To truly live we must break free from fantasies and from our slumber. To do this, we must take off the veils that block us and hide us from true encounters with G-d and man. When we have the true courage to see and be seen, we can awaken our deeper spirit and our authentic self.
Sigmund Freud often took a very negative approach to the human psyche and to human nature. Here is how he understood the depth of the myth of Gyges:
The bit of truth behind all this [talk of virtue]—one so eagerly denied, is that men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, but that a pow¬erful desire for aggression has to be reckoned with as part of that instinctual endowment. The result is that their neighbor is only to them not only a possible helper or sexual object, but also a temptation to them to gratify their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without recompense, to use him sexually without his con¬sent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him; homo homini lupus—who has the courage to dispute it in the face of all the evidence in his own life, and in history?
But we need not, and must not, view ourselves and others in this way. Humans are capable of doing terrible acts of evil but we are also capable of performing tremendous acts of love. With each new human encounter we must see the beautiful potential in the face of that other.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."