6.29.2009

For Those Who Find Reading Annoying...a Parshat חקת VIdeo!

Two minutes of teaching on why--maybe--Moshe Rabbenu was denied entry into the land. Consider it either a pilot, or a train wreck...

video

Quote for the Day

Hail forms in strong thunderstorm clouds, particularly those with intense updrafts, high liquid water content, great vertical extent, large water droplets, and where a good portion of the cloud layer is below freezing (0 °C (32 °F)). The growth rate is maximized at about -13 °C (9 °F), and becomes vanishingly small much below -30 °C (-22 °F) as supercooled water droplets become rare. For this reason, hail is most common in midlatitudes during early summer where surface temperatures are warm enough to promote the instability associated with strong thunderstorms, but the upper atmosphere is still cool enough to support ice.
Late Afternoon Fury
Ravavi
Love's fury
is as natural and,
as incongruous
as
a hailstorm
in summer.

6.28.2009

Banter from the Brothers Weinstein

"I have to have a molar removed."

"Holy Molar!"

"Yeah, it's the bitter tooth."

6.26.2009

Michael Jackson, Reverend Al, and Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor

Rock fans never saw Michael Jackson as one of them. The glitz, the choreography, and the polish were too mainstream for those whose primary fare was outside of Motown. Maybe, I'm wrong. I was in Israel from 1975-1986 and never experienced close up the cultural icons of that time. Consequently, I am profoundly bored by all the attention paid to the death of MJ, and have turned off my radio until further notice. I guess I can only be critical because he never made me happy, so, I have no inclination to countenance his alleged indiscretions/crimes/sins.

The whole notion of celebrity is stunning to me. All these people milling about his star on Hollywood Boulevard, and the Apollo Theater in Harlem mourning a man of dubious character and--I guess prodigious talent--as if they knew him. He may have been a leader of an industry, but he wasn't their leader. They just liked to watch him sing and dance.

The poet John Berryman in his collection Love and Fame deals with this phenomenon from the celebrity's side. He offers that fame's prime motivation is the quest for love of "her". If I'm famous, maybe she will love me. The love from the audience, unfortunately, is unrequited by design because they applaud, cheer...and leave. He is left without them, and, more imprtantly, without "her". One can imagine the letdown if, afterward, one goes home alone, or even worse with a surrogate for the object of his desire.

But what of the audience? Why do they feel so close to someone who wouldn't acknowledge, let alone recognize their presence? They have the songs, they have the films. Truly, what have they lost? Two more live appearances or concerts?

The audience imagines a relationship that will never exist, and as long as that hypothesis remains untested, the fantasy remains. Watch what happens, however, when the object of the audience's affection snubs a fan, displays bad temper, or in some other fashion, dispells the mythified connection.

"I'm not gonna put no flowers on his Hollywood star--he was sooooo rude!" I've heard it said that the fastest way to hate a novel is to meet the author.

Goodness, there are so many pathetic people in the world.

6.25.2009

Quote for the Day

Actions may speak louder than words, but since when did noise bring clarity?
--Ravavi

Rabbi Jay Miller ז"ל

It is with tremendous sadness and not a small amount of regret that I mourn the passing of Rabbi Jay Miller. There are many of us from the golden age of Brovenders who will always bear his exacting brand of Torah study. He was a man unique in his talents and his flaws, but I always felt the two were inextricably tied, and as often is the case, without the other, the one would not exist either.

In the '70's when learning Gemara was all but closed to Ba'alei Teshuva, Rabbi Miller developed a method of learning that could achieve in a year what most day schools could not achieve in twenty, or fifty for that matter. The daily first year Mishnah class had a quality of perpetual high drama. Studying Mishnah and Gemara could only be characterized as a gladiator sport where he was always the last man standing. There would be no such thing as a slow day in Miller's shiur.

Excited, irritated, mystically enveloped in a veil of tobacco smoke, he took Mishnahs we thought we understood, and then after rendering them inscrutable, he helped us relearn them correctly. He admonished us, shrieking, "Don't think, just do what I do!" Many of us, I'd like to believe the best of us, loved him for it.

The fierce discipline, passion and commitment belied a softer side that would emerge only when he deemed necessary. I remember when we were helping pack up his books prior to his moving from Yerushalayim to New York. At one point, he opened a can of olives to share with us. He then saturated the olives in olive oil because Chazal said that olives cause one to forget, while olive oil helps one to remember. (Horayot 13b) He explained that these are the simple ways we keep the Talmud present in our lives and actions.

I remember thinking that it doesn't matter whether olives and olive oil contain these properties in fact, but for him it was a simple act of affection and fealty to bring what our Sages had said into the world, reminding us that remembering Torah is important and forgetting any apart of it may even be a sin. Such was his devotion, to and his compulsion for learning.

If everything we contribute emanates from the skills we are given, then Rabbi Miller singularly, selflessly and passionately was the one who taught me, and countless others, everything.

6.24.2009

Updates on the Multiple Intelligence Myth

In the latest Chronicle for Higher Education, an article entitled, Not every child is secretly a genius, explores the gap between what we wish to believe and what is true--and the gap is enormous when speaking of the theory of multiple intelligences. Everyone wished to believe Howard Gardner when he single handedly revolutionized educational theory in the '80's, but the idea turns out to be...wrong. Not only unprovable, but wrong! One might say that a theory that persists long after it has been disproved is no longer a theory, but a religious belief, and a bad one at that.

I dealt with this issue back in April for those who are interested, but Christopher Ferguson makes some interesting points in his critique of the theory that does not let the facts get in the way. Here is a quote worth pondering:
The theory of multiple intelligences fundamentally conflates intelligence and motivation. (my emphasis) It's a fatal flaw. Motivation is certainly important, and it works alongside intelligence to produce results. However, having the raw biological machinery of intelligence is simply irreplaceable.
The great mystery of motivation. Even though native intelligence is required for many cognitive tasks, without the desire to engage in them one might argue that the raw material just remains raw, unrefined and not particularly useful. Of course, this discussion is a sideshow. Let's face it, skill building is a necessary evil if one is going to get to the fun stuff and skill building is drudgery for many of us. We may as well admit that some of us are never going to be able to acquire the skill.

Still, we know some people are mechanically inclined where others aren't, but the presumption is that a physicist so inclined to get his hands dirty could fix a car if he wished to. He could learn to do it. The same is not true for one with limited "g" (the moniker for native intelligence).

We need to deal with the world as it is. As Lenny Bruce once said, "What is, is. What should be, is a lie."

6.23.2009

The Talmud and The Passions of Those Who Left it.

Biographies of great failures make for wonderful reading, but paltry sales. Isaac Rosenfeld is a case in point. He is the Saul Bellow who never happened.

A new biography by Steven Zipperstein chronicles this cautionary tale of promise unfulfilled. Phillip Davis offers a thoughtful review of this all but forgotten man of letters. I was taken by a quotation lifted by Davis from Rosenfeld's review of another classic The Rise of David Levinsky that, according to Davis, is not only a reflection of Levinsky, but of Rosenfeld himself:
Levinsky is a man who is not at home with his desires. Because hunger is strong in him, he must always strive to relieve it; but precisely because it is strong, it has to be preserved.
Are we supposed to be comfortable with our desires? The Gemara in Succah seems to think not. At least King David wasn't. In the famous Bible story where David covets the wife of another, the Gemara provides "context".

David himself precipitated this episode when he wondered why he was not included among the forefathers when people offered their prayers. God answers that it is because he has not been tested as they were. David asks for a test, and God complies even revealing to him the nature of the test--something he never did for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. David succumbs to his desires causing the Sages to comment:

A man has a small organ that is sated by starvation, but starved by satiation. (Sanhedrin 107a)
The same seems to be true for the consumption of simple carbs as well. As it is written: Bet you can't eat just one...But stay away from them altogether and ones desires will be muted. In other words, one is better off eating none.

With sexual desire, however, "eating none" means no family life, no intimacy, no physical expression of love, so we live by necessity, uncomfortable with our hunger, but hungry none the less. Levinsky, Rosenfeld are examples of this age old struggle.

He who serves his Creator, enrages his passions (Midrash Ruth Rabba 6:1)

6.22.2009

The Most Important things I learned Came from Shop Class?

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work is philosopher/bike mechanic Matthew Crawford's meditation on the value of skilled labor as a work choice. He eschewed the life of a think tank wonk for the joys of rebuilding master cylinders, and making Harley engines hum. He claim that the problem solving of such work helps him understand Heidegger. The integration of the mind with one's hands.

Jews, at least American Ashkenazic Jews, have not been great fans of earning a living with one's hands even though the Sages of the Talmud often had day jobs as cobblers, blacksmiths and farmers. The adulation of intellectual abstraction created a reaction called hasidism which legitimated Jewish artisans and their sincere aspirations to connect to the Divine.

I never understood why craftsmanship was not more of a Jewish value. Certainly, the dictum, Torah Im Derech Eretz urged people to have a profession, but for what purpose? Only to earn a living so as not to rely on the kindness of relatives or strangers, or in order that ones learning be informed by ones work? Crawford argues the latter, as would I. The best learning comes from the integration of worldly experience with lofty ideas--the merger of heaven and earth.

The problem is a question of balance and prioritizing that such a life presents. How much time should be devoted to each enterprise? One might follow Shammai's advice:
Fix set times for Torah. (Pirkei Avot 1:14)
I assume he means every day. Shammai knows that the demands of work are such that they can easily take over most of the day. Therefore, he argues, part of the day's routine has to include the Jewish examined life--Torah study.

As for those who denigrate the elegance of building cabinets, or the feat of diagnosing and curing an ailing carburetor, I am not among you. I stand in awe of those who do these thing well because I know if they examined their work, as Crawford does, they can teach me things that I would never get on my own.

6.19.2009

Back from the sea, zeal renewed, strength restored...

And still scorchin'. After this short break, I realize what a gift teaching is. There I was, sitting outside with my laptop near Rehoboth Beach, but actually next to a small bay on the other side of the ocean. It was time for my Maharal class given on the Web through webyeshiva.org. My students who appear from California to Poland on my screen through their webcams are ready for Torah from רחובות.

The Maharal opens the second chapter of Netiv Torah (The Pathway to Torah) with a Talmudic passage from the Tractate of Ta'anit (Fasting).
Why is the Torah likened to water? As it is written, 'Let all who are thirsty come to the water.' (Isaiah 55:1)

Just as water from a high place always seeks out a low place, so too, Torah is only maintained in one who's awareness [of self] is lowly.
(Ta'anit 4a)

The Maharal explains that Torah is pure intellect and has no connection to the material world. Therefore, in order to receive Torah, one must be in a state of humility. Humility is what the modern Hasidic masters would call the Bitul Hayesh, the nullification of self. The opposite of which is Gasut Ruach (grossness of spirit, arrogance). Arrogance is the most material, and the crassest of all qualities. Why the most material? Because of its emphasis on size, on being bigger, and being the best. By definition, the arrogant are subjected to the realm of form and matter, and that is their limitation. No matter how big you are, you are only that size and no more.

The humble, however, by nullifying self as much as possible, have forfeited the realm of size, for something a tad more than nothing. Thus paradoxically, they have no limitation. Like water, the humble have transcended size by going to the low place, and therefore are capable of receiving and maintaining the Torah.
Rabbi Yehoshua Bar Chanina was speaking to the daughter of Caesar. She observed, "What magnificent wisdom contained in such an ugly container!"

Rabbi Yehoshua asked, "In what kind of vessels does the Caesar keep his wine?" "In vessels of earthenware," she replied. "People as important as you keep wine in vessels so common?" He queried. "What should we keep them in?" she asked. "In vessels of gold and silver", he answered. She did as he suggested and the wine turned to vinegar.

The Caesar asked her, "Who told you to do this?" "Rabbi Chanina did", she said. The Caesar asked Rabbi Chanina, "Why did you tell my daughter to do this?"

Rabbi Chanina replied, "Just as she told me, so I told her. (
Ibid)
The Gemara wonders whether it is possible for the handsome to learn? The answer is that they can, but if those who were handsome were less good looking they would have learned more.

This story demonstrates that the most precious of liquids is only preserved in the humblest of vessels. Torah, like these liquids, require the utmost care in order to be preserved. That care requires all who wish to receive it to be self-ignored and Torah absorbed.

A vacation isn't a vacation without a little learning!

6.12.2009

Quote for the Day

Don't you feel a lot more like you do now than when you first came in? Well...don't you?

6.11.2009

Stephen Tyrone Johns of Blessed Memory

I think a gesture of support should be made for this man's family. We spend so much time obsessing over our enemies, we, especially during these difficult times, should look to support our friends. According to the Washington Post, Johns has a son and was recently remarried. Now, maybe Wackenhut securities will make bulletproof vests available to its guards.

One can only hope.

6.09.2009

A Jewish Look at Affirmative Action

Judge Sonia Satomayor's nomination to the Supremes has raised the hackles of conservatives, and they point to her dismissive response to a lawsuit where a white fireman was denied promotion after having passed the required exam. The reason given was that no minorities had passed, so because of concerns for diversity in the department, nobody was promoted.

It is clear to me that anyone who believes in fair play should have a problem with what can only be construed as reverse racism. Because of advances in race relations, I do believe that such a decision would no longer fly, but years ago, when whole groups were closed out of certain professions, redress for past wrongs was a much more resonant justification than it might be today.

The Biblical Noah, was called "A righteous pure man of his generation..." The Talmudic commentators wondered why was it necessary to say "of his generation"? One opined that it was only in such a wicked generation would he have been considered righteous, while the other disagreed saying that if Noah could maintain his morality among these folks, any other generation would be a breeze.

If a child goes to school hungry every day, and on his way to school passes two crack houses, maintains a good attendance record and a "B" average, that is a feat of profound commitment, at least according to the second opinion. He has exhibited exemplary character, and should be given "extra credit" for overcoming the obstacles of poverty, and crime. He should be given credit for the tested content of his character. According to the opinion that praises the good man in a morally challenged neighborhood, where one begins is more important than where one ends up. We are interested in the whole trajectory of achievement and not just the bottom line.

In other words, we reward on merit alone, but the definition of merit has to reflect the entire reality, and not just test scores. How many suburban kids with all their advantages would have fared as well in these circumstances.

Redress for past wrongs encourages bitterness among those who feel guiltless. My being white does not make me responsible for past injustices of other groups, but my advantages over one who is disadvantaged, should matter, if we are to be a fair society.

For a look at the two opinions and their intriguing metaphors, click here.

6.07.2009

More theories regarding smart Jews...and others

Nicholas Kristof sides with nurture over nature when it comes to native intelligence. He cites three over-achieving groups: Chinese Americans, Blacks from the West Indes, and, of course, Jews.
A common thread among these three groups may be an emphasis on diligence or education, perhaps linked in part to an immigrant drive. Jews and Chinese have a particularly strong tradition of respect for scholarship, with Jews said to have achieved complete adult male literacy — the better to read the Talmud — some 1,700 years before any other group.
This very complimentary statement is misleading. As far as I can see, there wasn't complete adult male literacy 1700 years before any other group. It was, however, a mitzvah for every male to be literate because learning was a sacred activity. Talmud Torah was the meeting ground for rich and poor, patricians and peasants, artisans and merchants.

Kristof argues against the geneticists who contend that there are race based differences in regard to intellectual ability. It goes without saying that it doesn't matter how smart you are if you don't use your brains, but, if you are innately endowed and apply yourself, it would stand to reason that you would achieve more than one less endowed but equally ambitious. One might teach physics in high school, while the other may be a Nobel laureate. It doesn't ring true that anyone who works hard and is insanely ambitious, regardless of innate ability, will be on equal footing with the hardworking gifted.

What is true and more to the point is that everyone, and I mean everyone, can be successful if educational values are reinforced from an early age. The immigrant drive that is often referred to as the common denominator of all groups is assimilationist and materialist in nature. The Chinese and the Jews originally viewed literacy as a tool for wisdom, and as a vehicle for transmitting traditions. When this was the purpose of literacy, believers rich and poor through succeeding generations continued to uphold these values.

When groups transformed learning from a sacred task into a capitalist tool, they actually jeopardized the future of that group's academic excellence. Once a family established itself and the material struggle was no longer necessary, succeeding generations became considerably less ambitious--and less brilliant.

The problem of being comfortable is only a problem when the purpose of knowledge is to achieve comfort.

After 10 years of Talmudic study, I once read a modern Hebrew short story in the original language, and, on a whim, I sat down and translated it into English whereupon it was published in Commentary magazine. I then edited a translation series and added two very different books to my list of publications. One was a medieval Kabbalistic lexicon, while the other was a modern history of Israel. I didn't have to go back to school, I had skills that were transferable, because for years I had been learning for its own sake without a report card in sight.

Over and over again, I have found that the by product of spending years mastering what is perceived to be an arcane discipline, has been a very practical use of that time, even though that was never the intention.

When the quest for knowledge is only for material gain, and cultural acceptance it cannot be sustained.

As it is written:

One who does not learn Torah for its own sake would have been better off not being created at all.

--B. Talmud, Brachot 17a

6.04.2009

Obama & Spielberg Make the Same Mistake

A liberal was once defined as someone who would sleep in the crack of a bed to save a marriage. I always wanted to unpack this little ditty from a Talmudic perspective. What would be the result of such an intervention?

Does it mean, he makes a cold peace by keeping the parties close, but not too close, providing the buffer that makes co-existence possible?

Or does it mean that the intervening party is about to get ___________ (fill in a synonym for violated in an unseemly fashion. Propriety doesn't allow me to fill in the blank, but you get the point.)

Once again, Obama made the classic historical error. His speech implied that the Jewish right to homeland is intrinsically tied to the horrors of World War II Europe. The Arab street response is cogent. "Give the Jews East Germany then." If Obama wishes to argue for the Jewish State's legitimacy, he is going to have to go back further than the 1940's. He has to be willing to argue that for over two thousand years of exile, Israel was the focal point of Jewish longing.

The founders of Israel knew this and placed two thousand years of exile front and center in the national anthem as the poet declared התקוה בת שנות אלפיים "The hope borne of two thousand years". This was the problem of Spielberg's film Munich. He, too, argued that the Holocaust compelled the world to give the Jews a state of their own. Maybe so, but the logical conclusion of Spielberg's argument is not necessarily a Jewish Island amidst a sea of Arabs.

In the academy, viewing Israel as an outlaw state that has no right to exist is not considered a radical position. The every fifteen minute invokers of the Holocaust have legitimated it--even among many Jews. The sins of Europe do not justify Jewish "colonialism" in the Middle East has become an academic truism in anti-Israel circles.

The modern world of realpolitik is uncomfortable with ancient memory, and, so it seems is President Obama. But if he wants to some day get out of that bed he has just invited himself into, he better get intimate with some ancient history, or better yet--Christian that he is--let him get out his Bible.

What Happened to Those Attractive Retirement Packages?

Less than twenty years ago, I worked for a corporate foundation the parent company of which had offices in the Boston metro area, where I happened to be living. They were kind enough to give me office space there instead of insisting I move to the foundation's headquarters in The Big Apple. I had the opportunity to hobnob with the regional management and sales team who were often second generation employees. The general manager of the office was about to retire. The company gave generous pensions to those whose age and number of years working added up to 80. He was fifty-five and had worked for the company for twenty-five years. You do the math--he was off to the golf course or a second career.

I am 57, and by my calculations if I'm alive and employable will most certainly have to be in the work force until I'm 75--at least. Even before the recession this was more or less true. Although companies were profitable then, these benefits are perceived as unreasonably generous now--what happened?

6.02.2009

George Eliot's Strange Affinity for Jews and Zion

On the way to the King David hotel one crosses a small alley way where a small sign attached to a stone building says "Rechov George Eliot". One of the great writers of the Victorian era, neither Jewish, nor particularly knowledgeable of Jews, Eliot wrote one of the great Jewish novels of the 19th century, Daniel Deronda.

Through the power of scholarship and imagination, Eliot, unlike her Victorian counterparts, evokes a sympathetic portrait of Jews, and Judaism. Joseph Epstein reviews Gertrude Himmelfarb's treatment of this phenomenon, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot.

When researching the novel that defined Eliot's affinity for the Jews she never actually knew, Himmelfarb reports:
Eliot's notebooks for this period contained excerpts from the Bible and Prophets, the Mishnah and Talmud, Maimonides, medieval rabbis and Kabbalistic works, as well as contemporary German scholars (Moses Mendelssohn, Heinrich Graetz, Moritz Steinschneider, Leopold Zunz, Abraham Geiger, Abraham Berliner, Emmanuel Deutsch), French scholars (Ernest Renan, Jassuda Bedarride, Georges Depping, Salomon Munk), English scholars (Henry Milman, Christian David Ginsburg, Abraham Benisch, David de Solar, Hyam Isaacs), and score of others.
Before pogroms and the Holocaust, Eliot intuited that it is Judaism that defines Jews and not victimhood. Jews are a people who dwells alone, but in that capacity have much to offer the world. Epstein's review is worth a look, and Daniel Deronda should be required reading for the successive generations of Holocaustalogians, and those who vicariously identify primarily with Jewish victimhood and not Jewish spiritual contributions.

It's time to read Daniel Deronda again.