In the hospital, part of the routine was, every day, “What is your name? What is your date of birth? Where are you? What day is it?” Being me, I began to be facetious. I would answer the nurses: “Are these philosophical questions?” Or, “Where am I? The same place as yesterday! What day is it? The day before tomorrow!” It was all very good-humoured; I knew why the questions were necessary, and I did eventually cooperate and give accurate factual answers.
And inevitably I thought of the High Holydays and the dramatic prayer, Un’tanneh Tokef: “All who enter the world come before You like b’nei maron”. The phrase means “like soldiers in single file”, or “like sheep scrutinised by the shepherd”. The message is clear. All of us have to face investigation by the Almighty. “Who are you?” is one of His questions, and “Where are you?” is another. These are philosophical questions, and dry facts are not a sufficient answer.
Martin Buber’s dialogue philosophy insists that “Who are you?” is not as simple a question as it seems. The real question is not an interest in my name, but a search for relationship. Relationships can be “I-thou” if we enter into each other’s being and engage each other’s personality, or “I-it”, if the encounter is merely on a technical level which does not necessarily engage anything deep and meaningful.
An example comes in an essay by Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Patient as a Person”. Heschel asks, What do the doctor and patient see in each other? Is the patient a unique individual with a heart and soul, or “an ingenious assembly of portable plumbing”? Is the doctor “a prophet, a watchman, a messenger” – or “a plumber, whose task is to repair a tube in my system”?
It is not only in hospital that you might think you are no longer you, and risk being regimented and dehumanised (not, I add, that this was my own experience). You board an aircraft and your individuality hardly exists any more: “Hand luggage in the overhead racks or under the seat in front! Mobile phones off! Seat belts fastened! No leaving your place until the captain has switched off the ‘Fasten Seat Belt’ sign!”
Another example. Enter your bank (if they haven’t already closed down your branch) and the odds are that these days nobody knows you or even cares. Look for help in a department store, and customer service is probably no longer in their dictionary. Phone a government office, a business firm or whatever, and get the surprise of your life if you actually get answered by a human voice.
When I was a resident student in a London college, there was often pressure in the kitchen. I chose the wrong moment to have a row with the cook. “I don’t give tuppence for your B.A.!”, she shouted at me, and got back to the culinary crisis. (Fortunately we later became the best of friends).
True, there are moments when your B.A. and indeed your whole soul history are irrelevant. When you stand up in a rowing boat and proclaim, “Give me some derech eretz: after all, I have a B.A.!” you will be told to sit down and behave yourself. But B.A. or not, the patient, the passenger, the customer, the client, the other person, whoever they are, must, most of the time, not be allowed to be dehumanised and become an “it”, a mere piece of plumbing, an anonymous data entry, a soulless statistic. Maybe this is why our Jewish tradition is so averse to counting people, to reducing others to mere cogs in the wheel.
Note how careful Heschel was to call one of his books, not “What is Man?” but “Who is Man?” Each human being is a unique, precious personality. This Rosh HaShanah, look at yourself and see if you can give the philosophical question, “Who are you? Where are you?” the answer that no-one else can give, only you.