Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink. It’s quite a paradox.
We’ve all either come into conflict with those with whom we have an inexplicable bond, over things we care about deeply, or avoided conflict with these others over them, but the conflict is always there, always lurking amid potential interactions. And we’ve each had to navigate these minefields in our own way. This is the shameful story of one of my navigations.
Early one day, I opened my email to find some very strange messages: three friends had written to console me. Apparently, a mutual friend of ours had sent an email to me, cc’d to the three of them, that lambasted me so harshly they were concerned for my welfare. One was apologetic, as the author of the email was her husband. Another, the mother-in-law of this fellow, averred that she’d “always liked me,” as if I were already swinging from a structural beam, or had taken a header off the roof of a skyscraper or a picturesque cliff. The third person copied in – just a good friend who had himself witnessed the writer’s and my brewing antagonism over the years – I think, urged me not to take anything in the offending email to heart.
I hadn’t read the email in question, because I had long ago had my email-handling software funnel all correspondence from this fellow into a folder labeled with his name, a colon, and the value-free word “crap.” After reading these other, sympathetic, emails, I went and found the offending missive in that folder and, rather than read it, shoveled it into the email furnace. For that reason, I got all the delight of getting my wounds salved without receiving any of the wounds. It was all salve.
Had I read the email, I’m sure I would have needed the soothing voices of the concerned folk. I even got a few more apologetic texts from the wife, so I told her, and I paraphrase, “I didn’t read it. I have too much respect for him to want to think of him saying nasty things about me.”
And the fact is, it’s true. I think he’s an amazing person. He’s a unique combination of traditional and unorthodox, has a rigorous yoga practice, and goes above and beyond the dharma he considers it his duty to follow.
He lived in Seattle for a while, where he worked for Microsoft, started a pop-up restaurant, and did a few other things to accumulate enough money to build his parents a house in Kerala, pitch in with his wife to pay for the raising and schooling of their two daughters, and help with the raising of yet someone else’s daughter in India. He’s an auto-didactic scholar of Western philosophy and literature, a lifelong devotee of the Vedas, and a pupil at the feet of an ecumenical guru in the far north, toward the Himalayas.
Some time after this incident, back in October of what I guess we’re still calling 2020, but should really just call Lost Covid Year, his wife informed me of the death of her father-in-law, and told me that her husband, whom I’ll refer to henceforth as “Voltaire,” one of his favorite writers, would surely appreciate a timely message. I wrote to him:
“Sincere condolences on the death of your father. I often pause from my daily mental and emotional nonsense to recall with gratitude the hospitality you and your parents extended to me during my visit. With respect, I wish that you might be visited with blessed memories, or, as my people say, with their idiosyncratic grammar, “may his memory be for a blessing.’”
And that was all true. I don’t say things about people’s departed friends or relatives that I don’t feel. He and his parents were very good to me when I visited them in Palakkad, Kerala, and I’ve often thought of that time with deep gratitude.
I didn’t think about it any further. I didn’t know if he’d appreciated the email or not. But this week, during Memorial Day weekend, Voltaire came into my mind when I was reading a paper by the author of The Heathen in His Blindness, a fascinating book, which Voltaire had introduced me to. The book was partially inspired by the work of Edward Said, who most definitely paved the way for academic critiques of Western intellectual hegemony, of which critiques this book might be the most influential since Said’s own Orientalism.
In addition, Voltaire’s wife, my friend, posted a fetching video he’d made of some of the goings- on near the Ganges, where he, his wife, and his mother are currently having to quarantine while a surge of covid-19 ravages India.
Well, shame on me. I got curious, for some reason, to know exactly when Voltaire had sent that nasty message I hadn’t read, so I went back looking for the sympathetic missives from his wife, her mother, and our mutual friend. I couldn’t find them, for the life of me. Perhaps I’d deleted all traces of the event.
But while I was searching for those, I stumbled onto an email I’d missed last October. It was from Voltaire. It was in response to my condolence email. He had responded after all. He had appreciated it, and ended with the statement, “I want you to also know that of all the many condolences that I have got, yours is the first mail I responded to. And I never ever lie.”
Yes, shame on me, because I wrote back to him:
“I appreciated this very much. I haven't responded till now because of my own interpretations of Jewish ideas of tzedakah, which have led me to contain interpersonal streams of gratitude, going out and coming in, within a discrete mental/emotional compartment.”
That, of course, was a lie. I hadn’t responded, because I hadn’t known that message existed. See, unlike Voltaire, I frequently lie. I never lie during the Moment of Truth, though. I just make shit up.
It wasn’t entirely a lie, the thing about my midrash on tzedakah. And it’s not a midrash. It’s an opinion by me on an opinion of Maimonides on charitable giving. I mean, stretching the definition, it might be considered a midrash, with a small em, given that I am a Jew, and a free- wheeling freelance type, like Bob Dylan only not as crazy or talented.
I was referring to Maimonides’ eight rungs on the ladder of tzedakah, have you heard of this? The lowest kind of charity is to give grudgingly. I mean, it’s giving, but you shouldn’t be a jerk about it. The highest level of tzedakah is to help set someone up to be self-sustaining. As Voltaire and his wife did with the girl in India. You know, teach the man to fish, and provide maybe a rod and reel, maybe a tackle box, a six pack in a cooler, and a couple recipes.
I was referring to the second highest level, though, where the giver doesn’t know to whom they’re giving, and the receiver doesn’t know where the gift came from. It’s anonymous all around. It’s like double-blind charity. The second best.
Interestingly, Maimonides never said what level it is when it’s double-blind and the receiver is set up to be self-sufficient. Would that be somewhere in between the highest and the second highest? Of course not! Anonymity makes the best even better! And, come on, it’s hard to pull off anonymity when you’re providing someone with what they need to lift themselves out of economic precariousness.
Maimonides didn’t think of that, and he was basically the top Rabbinic thinker of the 12th Century. Maybe he thought it would never happen. He never read Great Expectations. He figured it would be impossible for someone to conceal their identity while also contriving to give someone a good life start. Like a kickstart. But now we have Kickstarter and all the other giving sites, most if not all of which offer anonymity.
Was Maimonides unimaginative? Certainly less imaginative than Dickens. Or did he just figure that, anonymously or otherwise, setting someone on the road to independence topped them all? Yeah, it was probably that. He’s wrong, though.
Anyway, the ostensible idea behind this lie is that I didn’t feel my thanking him for his thanking me would be seemly. Just accept the thanks. It’s convoluted logic, especially if explained by a ridiculous man. And obviously, what really happened was I’d been averse to receiving any communication from him at all. And now I was mildly shamed, if not exactly ashamed.
Lest you think I’ve learned my lesson to give at least a cursory glance to any email from someone I respect conditionally, I have not. Embedded in Voltaire’s thank you email was the following statement: “I love the Jewish people, but I reject the western liberal identification of problems and I think its solutions whether in relation to race or gender are going to be worse than what it is.” I do not want to unpack that. I don’t want to address it. I don’t want to discuss it. I don’t know what he means by liberal, and I don’t care. I have no desire to trap myself again in the endless cycle of semantics, misunderstandings, insults, and convoluted explanations involving thousands of years of what may or may not be knowledge.
Voltaire adds, after asserting his philo-Semitism (a form of Orientalism, I might note, but don’t get me started, don’t get me started) and his rejection of western liberal solutions, "Our disagreements are about that,” as if that had been the whole of our epic struggle during the past decades. As a contrarian, he sometimes moves in radical Hindu nationalist circles, so our disagreements bleed out all over the map, they hemorrhage over the entire collection of disagreement atlases. But of course, it’s always more complex than that.
If there ever was a case of the agony of influence, his influence on me is one. And shame on me for not diving into that nutritious cesspool of contradictions with my mouth wide open.
I cannot but accept that shame. Shame, shame on me. This has been the Moment of Truth. G’day, myte!