A Rose by any other Name

(Published in the Arizona Daily Star, November 6, 2022) 

Arthur Yavelberg 

While I am not a Catholic, I’ve never had a problem with the Trinity. The idea that there is one essence that manifests itself in different forms in different contexts was no challenge to me. The same is true of Krishna in Hinduism, by the way. Depending on the seeker–the nature of the seeker and the surrounding culture–Krishna could take any form that would be positively received. When I was teaching in Chicago, it was not false humility to recognize, for example, that basketball great Michael Jordan and I could say exactly the same thing, but Jordan would get rapt attention while I would be lucky if there was a drowsy yawn. 

In the Bible, when Moses wants to know the name of God he should use when addressing the Israelites in Egypt, God answers with “I am Who I am (or, maybe even more precisely, “I will be Who I will be.”) (Ex. 3:14) The vagueness of the text is intentional and significant. God is infinite and unlimited—the “Ein Sof” “Without End) in the Kabbala of Jewish mysticism. Labels and names, however, define and establish limits. They set boundaries. A pencil is a pencil and not a whale. However, it is very difficult for human beings to relate to the Infinite. As a result, the first Hebrew letters of God’s statement–”Y-H-V-H”–became vocalized into the acronym “Yahweh” and was later Anglicized into “Jehovah.” In so doing, that which was meant to be mysterious and ineffable was turned into a fixed identity and all its inherent limitations. In Biblical imagery, the extraordinarily enigmatic “fiery bush that was not consumed” (Ex. 3:2) was transformed into the idolatrous, Zeus-like “Old Man” of Michelangelo atop the Sistine Chapel. In this context, it is little wonder that Muslims take the Second Commandment “Thou shall not make any graven images” (Ex. 20:4) far more seriously than their spiritual brothers. 

We don’t usually think in such terms about ourselves, but the paradigm is the same. I am a father to my sons, a son to my father, a chessplayer (sort of) to others and, these days in particular, a voter to be wooed, albeit very temporarily. Furthermore, besides all these persona–originally from the Latin for theater “masks”–there is a rather ambiguous “me” that expresses itself in all these different forms. This “me” chooses one face for one role and another for a different audience and setting. Indeed, the myriad performances are such that it is the rare individual who can distinguish between that which is real and that which is pretense. 

Mystics talk about the “true Self” that is our fundamental identity that is more essential than the conscious ego. I cannot say I have experienced this Self–well, not personally, anyway–but I can’t say it would surprise me that one exists. It just reminds me of the Lincoln/Douglas debates back in the 1800’s. When Stephen Douglas accused Abraham Lincoln of being a hypocrite, “Honest Abe” replied: “If I had two faces, do you really think I would walk around with this one?” As it is, if I have an inner “true Self,” I don’t understand why It couldn’t have used a face like, say, Tom Cruise. That would likely sell more books…and have gotten my students’ attention in class. 

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  1. I enjoyed reading this although it just makes me wonder about the difference between real and pretense and an individual’s ability to differentiate. Often, it is the audience, people we deal with in whatever capacity, that interpret our words, actions, motives to fit their expectations. We can only control the delivery and not how it translates. Is anyone ever their true self? What does that really mean? Philosophically it is an appealing concept, but practically it has little impact on our daily interactions.
    Very thought provoking, Arthur.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Your point that “practically it has little impact on our daily interactions” is intriguing. Maybe the “impact” depends on what we hope to achieve by those interactions. For example, besides the routine stuff–say, the cashier at the supermarket or maybe business colleagues (though imagine what might happen if someone genuinely answered the trite “How are you?” of such interactions)–most interactions are intended to get to know someone better or to become better known to someone. There seems to be something in human nature that wants to survive, yes, but also wants to be accepted by…what? kindred spirits, maybe? If so, it could be important for us to recognize when we are being real or pretending. Otherwise, the people with whom we might be kindred spirits cannot recognize us if we are always pretending. Does that make sense?

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