The Jewish Boy

June 13, 2017  •  1 Comment

The Jewish Boy, 2017

 

"The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation."

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"The Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me."

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"The face resists possession, resists my powers....  The face speaks

to me and thereby invites me to a relation..."

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"The face is what forbids us to kill."

 

-Emmanuel Levinas [1]

 

In the fourth chapter of Night, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel recounts a scene from his time in a Nazi concentration camp that few readers can ever forget. Wiesel describes the public hanging of a young Jewish boy accused by the Nazis of sabotage. Public hangings by the Nazis were not uncommon in the camps as part of the comprehensive strategy of terror. But never had the Nazi guards publicly hung a young boy. When describing the boy, Wiesel notes that he "had a delicate and beautiful face -- an incredible sight in this camp." As the boy dropped from the gallows, it became clear that his little body did not have sufficient weight to snap his neck, ensuring a quick death. Instead, his body twisted and writhed as he slowly suffocated to death.  As his delicate body dangled in sky, Wiesel notes that a change came over the otherwise hardened prisoners. For the first time, they came face to face with the profound sense of the absence of God. What kind of a God allows delicate-faced little boys to be tortured to death as public spectacle? For Wiesel there was no easy theological answer, just an overwhelming sense of divine abandonment in the presence of irredeemable evil. Like the prophet Jeremiah, all Wiesel could do was shake his fist at God, crying out in anger and protest, demanding that God be God. [2]

As I was walking in the Jewish neighborhood of Antwerp, Belgium recently I decided to sit and rest near a busy intersection. It was morning, and the Hasidic parents were escorting their children to school on their way to work. As Jewish men gathered to cross the street, a little Jewish boy with "a delicate and beautiful face" turned around to watch me as I began to photograph him. His gaze met mine.

I do not know the boy's name. I do not know his age. I know nothing about him, save one thing. I know his face, framed as it is by his strange shylocks. His posture and position next to the grown men, themselves strangely attired, accentuate the smallness, fragility, and awkwardness already carried in his gaze. His might just as easily have been the face of that other Jewish boy twisting on the end of a Nazi rope.

In the end, it was the gaze of his "delicate and beautiful face" that stopped me in my tracks. This was no mere photo op. Here was a disruption, a call to something deeper than a snapshot stolen on the run. Here was a brief but powerful call to connection, empathy, and even moral and spiritual transformation.

Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas helps us make sense out of our encounters with the gazing faces of such strange and foreign others by seeing in them both a disruption and a summons.

Here was a disruption of my common ways of seeing the world that assume that it and others must conform to my expectations and norms if they are to be worthy of my moral regard. Here in the face of this particular Other was resistance to my desire for sameness that anonymizes and invisibilizes individuals, thus blunting my sense of empathy with and moral obligation toward them.  Here too was a summons out of  inauthenticate selfhood, rooted in anxiety and control. Here was a summons into an intersubjective world rich with empathy, moral obligation, and affective regard for the wellbeing of a strange and foreign Other. In his face, I found an invitation out of the habits of my false and hegemonic self that tempt me to look away to avoid his gaze, thereby short-circuiting the emergence of empathy, connectedness, and spiritual transformation that meeting his gaze might occasion.

It is difficult for us to grasp the depth of evil that produces genocides. We are sometimes tempted to explain such evil by appealing to supernatural origins and the idiosyncrasies of individual personalities. Only demons and devils could twist a person into a Hitler, we say; thus tacitly reassuring ourselves that he is a monster thoroughly unlike the rest of us. Other times, we chalk Hitler up to mental illness, his evil the product of an atypical psychopathic personality; again tacitly reassuring ourselves that he is an exception, an anomaly.  Such explanations are false because they eclipse the social forces and broader cultural dynamics that produce such so-called "madmen." 

The danger of such "explanations" is that they prevent us from engaging in more self-critical analysis. When Hitler and Holocausts are presented as suddenly storming unannounced onto the stage of history, it discourages us from asking the deeper questions of who built the stage on which they appeared. The truth is that that the grounds for such evil must be first be cultivated over time in society, a complex process that ultimately enlists all of us as accomplices eager to look away from the face and gaze of those strange and foreign others in our midst who seem to threaten us. Evil leaders are to a significant extent the byproduct of the societies that produce them.

When I view The Jewish Boy, I see the "delicate and beautiful face" of not one but two Jewish boys, the first on an Antwerp street corner, the second twisting on the end of a Nazi rope. My hope is that this photograph prompts viewers to place themselves purposefully among the outsiders, to look into their eyes, to be drawn out of themselves into communion with those who are foreign and strange.  Only when we meet the gaze of such particular faces can we encounter their, and ultimately our own, fullest humanity.

As I linger still awhile longer over this photograph, I catch a glimpse of yet another Jewish boy, but one whose name I know. He wandered in the temple, lost, vulnerable, and probably afraid while his parents searched frantically for him as they backtracked toward Jerusalem. His parents found him, of course, but only after the teachers met his gaze, greeted him, and discovered in his face the possibility of the healing of the nations. [3]

 

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1. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Duquesne Press, 1969), 201, 207, 197, 198; Ethics and Infinity (Trans Richard A Cohen, Dusquesne Press, 1964), 86. I am indebted to Bruce Young who identified these and other quotations that synopsize key elements of Levinas's philosophy. See http://english.byu.edu/faculty/youngb/levinas/face.pdf.

2. Elie Wiesel, Night. (Trans. Marion Wiesel. Hill and Wang, 2006)

3. For the account of Jesus in the Temple, see Luke 2:42-52.


Comments

Gale Reeves(non-registered)
photography - how it moves us deeper into thought/feelings/action...
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