Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Yosef and the Problem of Knowledge

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, pp. 344-346:

The problem of knowledge remains. Even if the brothers believe that he really is the long-vanished Joseph..., how will they convince their father? All they have is words: no photogrqphs for the hungry eye to devour. In the event, Jacob does not believe their words.

Click here to read moreJoseph addresses the problem quite deliberately: "You can see for yourselves, and my brother Benjamin for himself, that it is indeed I who am speaking to you" (45:12)... Rashi comments: "'Your eyes see' my glory; and that I am your brother, for I am circumcised like you; moreover, that 'my mouth is speaking to you' in the Holy Tongue." According to Rashi, there are two proofs here of Joseph's identity: his circumcision (visual) and his speaking Hebrew (aural)...

[Ramban objects that many people spoke Hebrew and many people were circumcised.] Maharal offers an ingenious solution. Each piece of evidence alone -- circumcision, or Hebrew speech -- is not conclusive. But both together in the same person makes coincidence unlikely: a Canaanite who is circumcised like an Ishmaelite, or an Ishmaelite who speaks Hebrew like a Canaanite.

The truth is, of course, that this conjunction of mental sets would not stand as conclusive identifying evidence in any court. But Joseph recognizes it as good enough evidence. In offering it to his brothers, he implicitly abandons his compulsive need for certainty: he is born into the world of plausible constructions, with which one works until they are proven false...

Jerome Bruner cites a fascinating experiment with infants. He took a rubber pacifier and linked it up to a projecting system on a screen above the baby's head. The baby could bring blurred pictures into focus by sucking on his pacifier; he soon learned to step up his sucking rate in order to bring the picture into focus. He would then stop and look at it. When the picture drifted out of focus, he would turn away, suck until the picture was back in focus, and look at it again... The infants in Bruner's experiment can learn to construct their visual world, so that clarity is achieved. The blurred picture is not acceptable...

This need has informed Joseph's transactions with his world, until his confrontation with Judah. Now, he has recourse to a less crystalline, conclusive type of perception: he offers his brothers and his father data of the eye and of the ear, neither incontrovertible. Together, they form a plausible construction of reality. Perhaps, after all, the need for absolute clarity is a property of infants?

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