Saturday, October 31, 2009

Teacher industrial complex

No longer will one person teach his fellow and brother saying "Know Hashem". For they all will know me, from their smallest to greatest, says Hashem. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will no longer remember. (Yirmiyahu 31:33)

Given the obvious benefit to everyone of doing teshuva, it is surprising that so few people manage to do it. There is only one possible explanation for this fact. Clearly, there must be powerful forces in society have an interest in our not doing teshuva.

The above verse from Yirmiyahu makes clear why. There are more than 100,000 teachers in Israel, and a similar number teaching Jews in the rest of the world. The verse makes clear that when the mashiach comes, and we all due teshuva, teaching will no longer take place.

Obviously, this represents a severe threat to the job prospects of all those teachers. The stated goal of teachers, particularly in religious schools, is that students emerge with the knowledge and ethical commitments that will allow them to fill positive and productive roles in society. This goal is broadly accepted, and few people would dare to publicly question it.

But one cannot discount the powerful incentive, in terms of job security, for teachers to encourage precisely the opposite characteristics in their students. In addition, teachers are uniquely and worryingly positioned to have influence, whether positive or negative, over their students. While certainly many teachers have pure intentions, it is inevitable that many others do not.

The effects of these teachers' negative influence cannot be known with certainty, but are undoubtedly vast. It is certainly difficult to confront entrenched interests with so much power, but perhaps the following steps can help in taking back our society. First, we need an immediate moratorium on the hiring of new teachers and building of new schools. Also, a watchdog organization must be set up to monitor contacts between teachers and the gambling, weapons, and pornography industries, all of which have a shared financial interest in the misbehaviour of our children.

Only thus can the effects of the teacher-industrial complex, unseen yet with such a hegemonic influence on our society, be countered.

Tower of Babel

An interesting article about languages.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

For the record

Shortly after acquiring my first ever digital camera last fall, I brought it with me on a hike (to the southwest part of the Carmel). I had the usual reasons for taking a camera with me. But I did not envision what the camera would take away from me.

Quickly I found myself doing pretty much nothing but snapping photographs. Instead of appreciating the sights around me, I was treating them in a purely functional manner. As I walked along, I constantly evaluated whether or not what I saw was worth recording. The pictures I ended up with were great. But I missed out on all the other reasons for hiking: the calmness of a landscape undistracted by modern development; the in-your-face beauty of forests, springs, and wildlife; the anticipation of never knowing which unique archaeological site or strange flower awaited me around the next bend. I returned from the hike with plenty of JPGs, but not nearly enough memories.

Of course I am not the first person to act this way. It is said that some tourists spend so much time and effort on taking pictures, that they never get around to actually experiencing the place they are in. They succeed in using their surroundings, as photo opportunities, at the expense of enjoying them. I had heard of this attitude, but it was a surprise how naturally I started doing the same thing.

My experience with the camera reminded me of the novel "The Famished Road", by Nigerian writer Ben Okri, which I had read in college a few years previously. One of the novel's main characters (Jeremiah) owns a camera and, in addition to taking family pictures and the like, he photographs riots and other events to support the poor in their fight for political standing. But the camera's usefulness soon turns into an unhealthy dependence. Rather than rely directly on their perceptions, people prefer to consult the photographic record for their facts, and are helpless when it is taken away from them.

Jeremiah's camera has great significance in the novel, as it is implicitly compared to the author's pen. A major theme of the novel is the challenge of converting a dynamic oral tradition (of folklore and legends) into a static form (the written novel) while not losing all that is vital and valuable in the process. The photographer Jeremiah failed at this. The author, through the novel's unusual choice of structure, tries to do better.

This challenge was not unique to West Africans like Ben Okri. The Jewish people had to face it too, nearly 2000 years ago when the Oral Torah first began to be written down. It was advantageous, and perhaps inevitable, to convert all that knowledge into a form that could survive the death of any individual. But presumably it was not done earlier because along with the advantages came costs. As the centuries pass and successive layers of commentary build up, it becomes progressively easier to focus on the minutiae of the uppermost layer, rather than on the broad ideas which underlie the entire system.

Returning to my camera: Soon enough I realized what the camera was doing to my hiking experience. With a little effort, I trained myself to keep the camera way in the back of my mind. Now, only if I see something striking do I consider whether it's worth a picture. At other times I try to ignore the camera entirely. I have struck a balance between use of the camera and use of myself. Now I think I get the optimal usage out of both of them.

The same balance can be achieved in regard to Jewish tradition. A person's Torah study often tends to the extreme of being either emotional and inspired, or technical and withdrawn. The same imbalance can carry over into how one lives their life. Ideally, of course, a person will achieve both aspects simultaneously. It is certainly a challenge to unite the Torah's logical and emotional aspects. But if you ever meet someone who has succeeded at it, or to some degree succeed in doing it yourself, you intuitively realize that you could never choose to live your life in any other manner.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The status of animals

The simple meaning of parshat Breishit indicates that before the flood, animals had a much higher status than at present. They had many characteristics and much of the same role that human beings now have.

Evidence for this assertion includes the following facts:

- Animals could speak, for example the snake.
- Animals could listen to speech: “God blessed them, saying: Be fruitful and multiply...” (1:22)
- Animals were potential spouses for mankind: “God formed from the earth every animal of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man... but the man did not find a helpmate for himself.” (2:19-20)
- Man was not allowed to kill animals for food. (1:29)
- Animals too were not allowed to eat animals, but had to eat plants instead. (1:30)

This depiction is surprising. Our first impulse is to explain away each of the above examples as being metaphorical. But putting them together, it is hard to escape the conclusion that they form, at least, a single and more daring metaphor.

It is equally surprising to see an extremely similar depiction in a different context.

ÅgThe wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and the calf and lion and cattle together; and a little child will lead them. The cow and the bear will graze; their young ones shall will down together; and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The baby will play on the hole of the asp, and the child will put his hand on the basilisk's den.” (Yeshayahu 11:6-8)

Here we have many of the same elements as at the beginning of Breishit: Animals and humans coexist. All animals are vegetarian. Humans and snakes are friends, not enemies.

As hard as it is for us to understand the role of animals described here, the similarity between Breishit and Yeshayahu cannot be accidental. Apparently, we are being told, when God first created the world animals had a much higher status than they do today. Due to some kind of sin, the world had to be destroyed and remade with a different role for animals. But someday, in the messianic era, the world and animals will return to their original state.

When did the change in animals' role occur? Clearly a big change occurred at the time of the flood. The flood is justified by the judgment that “all flesh had corrupted its way on earth” - all flesh, apparently including animals. While Adam and Eve had a task in the Garden of Eden, Noach had to make the world he lived in, saving the animals in the flood and planting grapes after leaving the ark. Furthermore, right after the flood humans are allowed to eat animals and animals may eat each other. From this point on, animals' lives are no longer holy, and humans now rule over animals by force. Granted, even Adam and Eve were told to “have dominion” (1:28) over the animals. But perhaps this expression has less forceful and hostile connotations than what Noach was told - “Your fear and dread will be upon [all animals]... and they are delivered into your hand.” (9:2)

Besides the flood, there is at least one other event in which animals are punished. The snake's behavior in the Garden of Eden earns it a lower status and more hostile relations with humans. This seems similar to the punishment all animals received in the flood. Perhaps snakes lost their status at this point, and other animals lost their status at some later point prior to the flood. In the messianic era, when all these sins and punishments are repaired, perhaps the last to be repaired will be that of the snake. In this final stage of redemption – the final words of Yeshayahu's description, in which humans and snakes once more coexist peacefully – we will truly have returned to the Garden of Eden.

(Heard from R' Baruch Gigi. Possibly derived from R' Kook's writings on vegetarianism.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The snake

It is strange that humans in the Garden of Eden are tempted by a snake. The strangest part, of course, is imagining how an animal could approach humans as an apparent equal. (I plan to partly address that question in a future post.) Another interesting question is: why a snake? Why not a different animal?

To possibly answer this, let's look at some background information about the sin in the Garden of Eden:

1. Eating from the tree makes humans aware of the their nakedness, and the first baby is born afterwards
2. The tree of “knowledge” may be related to “knowledge in a biblical sense”
3. The “fruit” may allude to “being fruitful and multiplying”
4. The fruit is described as very attractive looking ("a desire to the eyes, and beautiful to perceive"), which is why the woman has trouble keeping herself from eating it.
5. The woman's punishment apparently relates to her desires and their consequences.

It is clear from all this that the sin is very closely related to sexuality.

With that background, let me mention the following idea:

6. In popular culture, the word “snake” is sometimes used as a euphemism for a body part.

As support for this interpretation, note that 1) The woman is tempted by the snake, not the man. 2) The snake begins the story standing (which real snakes can't do) and is punished by no longer being able to stand.

So the image of the snake may be chosen to further develop the role of sexuality in the story. And this not the place to elaborate.

The midrash that the snake wanted to mate with the woman probably flows from these considerations (as well as the fact that the man too tried mating with animals).

In order to uphold my reputation, please forget that I ever said what I just said. But I do think this idea explains some things pretty well. Even if you can't repeat it at the Shabbat table.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Knowing good and evil

Since in light of modern science it's hard to take literally a description of 2 original humans alone in the world, here is how I understand the meaning of the Adam and Eve story.

Animals of a single species are essentially interchangeable with one another. As time passes some die and new ones take their place. But this transformation is of little significance; what matters is the species not individuals, and the species is effectively immortal. Within an animal's body cells continually die and are replaced by new cells; within a species animals die and are replaced by new animals. Both forms of death are insignificant, except from a biologist's perspective.

What is true of animals was also true of early humans, until they developed moral awareness. From the moment on, it was no longer possible to speak of individual humans as interchangeable, like cells in a body. Along with moral awareness comes a unique identity and personality - a soul. When a person dies, there is no identical, interchangeable person to take their place. Someone else takes their physical place, living in the same house, or working in the same profession. But morally speaking, this is a completely different person.

At the moment that he/she was tempted to eat from the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil, the immortal Adam - meaning Adam the species - ceased to be relevant. Adam the individual - and his children, their descendants, and all the other individual humans - became the focus of attention instead. Each of these people has their own unique identity, and each has a finite lifespan. The death introduced into the world by "knowledge of good and evil" was not physical death, but the death of moral identities. And the new sexuality which accompanies the "knowledge" is not the mating urge, which always existed, but rather the new ability to create new and unique moral identities.

Once Adam and Eve were confronted with the choice to obey or disobey, even before they chose wrongly, they had already made the transition from an immortal "species" to morally-aware "individuals". Had they chosen correctly, they would have stayed in the Garden as immortal individuals.

Such a state should not be so hard to imagine. It is well known and accepted that our inner identities - our souls - can themselves be immortal. Indeed we speak of them returning to the Garden of Eden, the place of immortality, after death. That is exactly what Adam and Eve would have achieved immediately had they not sinned.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

R' Nachman and R' Soloveitchik

Here is an excerpt from R' Nachman of Breslov's tale "Seven Beggars":
At the far end of the world there is a mountain, on the mountain top is a rock, and a fountain of water gushes from the rock.

This you know: that everything in the world possesses a heart, and the world itself has a great heart. The heart of the world is complete, for it has a face, and hands, and breasts, and toes, and the littlest toe of the world's heart is more worthy than any human heart. So at one end of the earth there is the fountain that flows from the rock on the mountain top, and at the other end is the earth's heart.

And the heart desires the mountain spring; it remains in its place far at the other end of the earth, but it is filled with an unutterable longing, it burns with an endless desire for the distant fountain of water...

Because of its great longing, it sometimes tries to go to the fountain, but if it goes nearer to the foot of the mountain it can no longer see the spring on the top of the mountain, and so it must remain far away, for only from a distance may a mountain peak be seen. And if it were for an instant to lose sight of the spring, the heart would die, and then all the world would die, for the life of the world and everything in it is in the life of its heart.

So the heart remains longing at the other end of the earth, longing for the spring that cannot come toward it, for the spring has no share in Time, but lives on a mountain peak far above the time that is on earth. And the mountain spring could not be of the earth at all, since it has no share in the earth's time but for the earth's heart, which gives the spring its day.

And as the day draws to its close, and time is ended, the heart becomes dark with grief, for when the day is done the mountain spring will be gone from the earth, and then the earth's heart will die of longing, and when the heart is dead all the earth and all the creatures upon the earth will die.

And so, as the day draws to a close, the heart begins to sing farewell to the fountain; it sings its grief in wildly beautiful melody, and the mountain spring sings farewell to the heart, and their songs are filled with love and eternal longing.

But the Truly Godly Man keeps watch over them, and in that last moment before the day is done, and the spring is gone, and the heart is dead, and the world is ended, the good man comes and gives a new day to the heart; then the heart gives the day to the spring, and so they live again.

The symbolism seems clear to me. The "heart of the world", and the spring issuing from the mountain, represent the human soul and God. It is not obvious which is which, but my inclination is to identify God with the spring. This is because water symbolizes Torah; Mt. Sinai had a spring issuing from it (Shemot 17:6, 32:20, Devarim 9:21); and the spring "could not be of the earth at all... but for the earth's heart" - that is to say, God is transcendent and absent from the world, except in the human soul, while the human is fundamentally part of the "earth" or physical world.

The soul and God sense each other and try to meet one another. But exactly at the moment of closest approach, the line of sight between "heart" and "spring" (man and God) is blocked. The "heart" and spring sing love songs, but can no longer approach one another. Eventually the day ends: the failure of man and God to meet results in frustration and eventual abandonment of the task. But when all seems lost, another day begins, and God and man's struggles to meet each other begin again from scratch.

The dynamic here is very similar to what R' Soloveitchik describes in his book "Uvikashtem Misham". There, drawing on the metaphor of Shir Hashirim, God is the male lover and humanity the female. God knocks on our door, but we are lying in bed and at first do not have the energy to get up and answer. When we finally get to the door, God has already stopped waiting. We then go out and search the streets for God, who is presumably only a short way off, but without success. Then, it is implied, we return home and the story repeats itself. Both sides passionately desire a meeting, but at no point does the meeting ever occur.

Both of these stories seem overly pessimistic, as the cycle repeats itself without God and humanity ever managing to meet. I can think of two responses to this criticism. First, at least in R' Soloveitchik's metaphor, it is possible that despite all the failures so far, the two sides will someday succeed in meeting. Second, eventual failure is not necessarily a pessimistic conclusion. All human lives are destined to fail, through death. But that eventual failure does not erase the value of efforts performed beforehand. Similarly in our stories, the effort is valuable and "on the record", even if the desired conclusion is not obtained.

When reading a religious parable as complex and poignant as these two are, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the author is describing their personal experience in all its depth and detail. Perhaps no two Jewish leaders have inspired more dissimilar followers than did R' Nachman and R' Soloveitchik. For that reason, it's interesting how the two rabbis' religious experiences were so very similar.

Of course, the explanation may be that the kind of experience R' Nachman identified and tried to steer his followers away from, R' Soloveitchik identified and saw as ideal.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ibn Ezra on creation

"In my opinion, this paragraph [3rd day of creation] is connected [i.e. overlaps in time] with the previous paragraph [2nd day]. For the rakia [“firmament”/sky] was not made until the earth became dry... behold, on one day they [sky+earth] were created." -Ibn Ezra, Breishit 1:9

By implying here that what was listed on one day of creation was NOT all created on one physical day, Ibn Ezra can be added to the list of commentators who believe the first chapter of Breishit may be interpreted non-literally. This, of course, is important as it allows for compatibility with modern science.

Ibn Ezra's view on this issue is much more significant than that of Rambam or modern commentators, because their conclusions were heavily influenced by knowledge of contemporary scientific theories, while Ibn Ezra's opinion seems to derive solely from textual factors.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Secret sauce

There is a commonly used electronic device called a transistor. Among its parts are a "source" and a "drain".

Funnily enough, at least sixteen different people have received patents in which they described the transistor source as a "sauce" rather than a "source".

After finding one of those patents by accident, I decided to look for another, more famous misspelling. Sure enough, two people have received patents related to "nucular" power plants.

I can imagine making this kind of mistake in an email or blog post. But to make it in your final patent application - and then to have the patent office approve it - is just incredible.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Sukkot note

At dinner on Friday night, this lady guest mentioned how special the sukkah was, being the only mitzvah that a person is "surrounded by" and "inside".

I was tempted, but refrained from replying that there is another such mitzvah: yishuv eretz yisrael.

Later on, the same woman proudly mentioned how great her community was for refusing to sleep in the sukkah, because it was "too holy" for anything as mundane as sleeping.

This time I really should have replied, saying "That may have been true in Eastern Europe. But here in Israel there is holiness everywhere, not just in the sukkah. If holiness was a reason not to sleep then we couldn't sleep anywhere in Israel. So clearly it is not an impediment." And maybe, for good measure, I should have mentioned Shmuel Alef 3:3 where it says that Shmuel was sleeping in the Temple. Since the sukkah is so closely related to the Temple (think "ananei hakavod", "sukkat david hanofalet"), that should have proved the case that sleeping in the sukkah is OK.

But again, partly out of politeness and partly out of lack of confidence in my Hebrew (or both together - it's easier to simply make yourself understood than to do so politely), I refrained from commenting.

It's great to be able to refute people on their terms as well as on objective terms. But it's a little frustrating when such a chance comes up and for whatever reason you don't take it.