Wednesday, December 30, 2009

About Asking The Big Questions
"The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion [to have a closed canon, for example, or a written Oral Tradition...], but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by [the participants presumption of] the limits put on the range of the debate."
The Common Good, Noam Chomsky.

[STILL editing this, sorry] I couldn't agree more in applying this to learning in contemporary Orthodoxy, as I wrestle with my own self-definition. Granted, everyone presumes accepted perspectives to play "the game", whatever the game - and plenty of the small number of secular, committed Jewish intellectuals (who "lern" - so as to be Jewish intellectuals), and Orthoprax do precisely that - but "presuming-to-play" is actually how most of us who are not legal scholars, philosophers, scientists, engineers, etc, etc, navigate our lives.

We could be fideistic and wax all "Yiddishe Kop" over the fact of how limited what-passes-for-Jewish learning can be - chewing on ever-more tiny details of every more "subtle" arguments, grasping at perceived subtlety after perceived subtlety, and be totally removed from reality of what was described in Gemara or Torah (Given in history, to -lashon bnei Adom- speaking humans, in lashon bnei would seem to matter what terms actually meant) - but the canon is indeed very closed. If we turn our backs on the breadth and depth offered by Mesorah-compatible scholarship on Talmud, Tanach, we presume in accord with certain Charedi scholars for whom interpretations lain down long ago cannot be discarded or dethroned by "mere" scholarship that suggest they were based on long-sanctioned typographical errors or ideological expurgations...they cannot be revoked "simply" because we find Rambam's corrections on Rambam! A Torah found that was written by Ezra ha Sofer would, by certain halacha, based on Torah, be considered passul because it has been hidden away - and not part from the 'living' tradition of transmitted Sifre Torah (texts themselves only exactingly-'uniform' due to the mass publication of comparison editions of the Mesoretic text with the haskamah of the Hatam Sofer - itself reprinted in revised editions after he died). Moderate Orthodox centrists who esteem currently-regnant models that eschew scholarship and history can wax "progresssive" about how much power is put in mankinds hands, but what waxs wains in seconds; reveling in an un-self-critical, limited view of our limited mesorah, how long can we take such a "strictly" - and politically - ever-"limited" tradition seriously?

We assume without real questioning a whole host of maxims and ordinances of life, to live whatever kind of life. We seldom ask the big questions - no one does. Sure, they may ask questions that are actually some other groups questions, but seldom do they thoroughly question the status of their own maxims. Does the scientific method prove the scientific method? It's worth is proven from, not to. The various maxim beliefs of philosophy and religion are likewise bound to presume certain things and not others and to simply let stand certain of those Certain Things. We believe our maxims are God Given. The more we empower limiting forces within observant Jewries (by apathy, by resignation, by neglect of darchei in learning that maintain an eye on the depth and breadth of what have been halachically-valid voices in the exchange on Judaism), the more we expand human power to limit God-Given Torah.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dr. Robert Aumann; Religion as Orthogonal

Before responding directly, let me say that the scientific view of the world is really just in our minds. When you look at it carefully, it is not something that is out there in the real world. For example, take the statement "the earth is round". It sounds like a very simple statement that is either true or false. Either the earth is round or it isn't; maybe it is square, or elliptical, or whatever. Roundness means that there is a point the center of the earth, such that any point on the surface of the earth is at the same distance from that center as any other point on the surface of the earth. Now that already sounds a little complex. But the complexity only begins there. What exactly do we mean by equal distance? For that, you need the concept of a distance between two points. The concept of distance between two points is something that is fairly complex even if we are talking about a ball that we can hold in our hands; it involves taking a ruler and measuring the distance between two points. But when
we are talking about the earth, it is even more complex, because there is no way that we are going to measure the distance between the center of the earth and the surface of the earth with a ruler. One problem is that we can't get to the center. Even if we could find it we wouldn't be able to get there. We certainly wouldn't be able to find a ruler that is big enough. So we have to use some kind of complex theory in order to give that a practical meaning. Even when we have four points and we say the distance from A to B is the same as the distance from C to D, that is fairly complex already. Maybe the ruler changes. We are using a whole big theory, a whole big collection of ideas, in order to give meaning to this very, very simple statement that the earth is round.

...What I am saying is that the roundness of the earth is a concept that is in our minds. It's a product of a very complex set of ideas, and ideas are in people's minds. So the way I think of science, and even of fairly simple things, is as being in our minds; all the more so for things like gravitation, the energy that is emitted by a star, or even the concept of a species. Yes, we are both members of the species homo sapiens. What does that mean? Obviously we are different. My beard is much longer than yours. What exactly does species mean? What exactly does it even mean to say "Bob Aumann is sitting here?" Is it the same Bob Aumann as five minutes ago? These are very complex ideas. Identity, all those things that we think of trivially on a day-to-day basis, are really complex ideas that are in our minds; they are not really out there. Science is built to satisfy certain needs in our minds. It describes us. It does have a relationship with the real world, but this relationship is very, very complex.

Having said that, I'll get to your question. Religion is very different from science. The main part of religion is not about the way that we model the real world. I am purposely using the word "model." Religion is an experience, mainly an emotional and aesthetic one. It is not about whether the earth is 5,765 years old. When you play the piano, when you climb a mountain, does this contradict your scientific endeavors? Obviously not. The two things are almost, though not quite orthogonal. Hiking, skiing, dancing, bringing up your children you do all kinds of
things that are almost orthogonal to your scientific endeavor. That's the case with religion also. It doesn't contradict; it is orthogonal. Belief is an important part of religion, certainly; but in science we have certain ways of thinking about the world, and in religion we have different ways of thinking about the world."

An additional explanation of orthogonal relationships he'd given;

Later I asked Prof. Aumann: "Shatnez is the antithesis of rationality. How do you reconcile these opposites?"
"I don't see any contradiction between shatnez and rationality," the venerable Nobel Prize winner replied. "Not everything in the world has to do with rationality. You do all kinds of things that are orthogonal."

To illustrate the meaning of "orthogonal," Prof. Aumann got up and strode to the whiteboard on the opposite wall of his office. "If you have a line," he explained, drawing a green line pointing to the right, "then you can go in the opposite direction," and he drew a brown line pointing to the left. "But you can also go off in a totally different direction," he added, drawing a purple line going straight up. "That's called orthogonal."

Returning to his seat, Prof. Aumann continued. "Shatnez is not irrational. It has nothing to do with rationality. When you sit down and play the piano, are you doing something rational? No! Are you doing something irrational? Also, no! It's orthogonal to rationality. The whole lifestyle of a religious Jew is not rational or irrational. It's a beautiful way of living.
Shatnez is part of a big whole. It's something that you can't understand by itself. If you said, 'Just don't wear a mixture of linen and wool,' it wouldn't make any sense. But it's part of a lifestyle. As part of this lifestyle, it makes sense...To understand the Torah, you have to understand it as one whole, not separate pieces. If you play just one bar of music and you don't play the whole sonata, of course it doesn't make any sense. It's part of the whole sonata, that's what speaks to you."

In acknowledging the orthogonal, we acknowledge there is more than simply Rational and Irrational. Unsaid though is that there's a world of shape as well - and size and density. Not only that - of colors, we have seven that are primary - as well as others that aren't even visible to the unaided eye. Similarly, there have been modes of knowing that mankind has utilized that this very dichotomy (rational/irrational), has helped stiffle in the world of human experience, Judaism included - a matter elsewhere discussed on this blog.

To return to Dr. Aumann, the stories of the Awards Ceremony are relatively famous, but always worth telling again;

The world got a rare glance of that "beautiful way of living" by observing Prof. Aumann in Stockholm. Although the Awards Ceremony was scheduled for late Saturday afternoon, the shortness of the Swedish winter day enabled the Aumann family to attend after the close of Shabbat. On Shabbat afternoon, they - all 34 of them - walked to a hotel located just 200 meters from Stockholm's Concert Hall, where the Awards Ceremony would take place. As soon as they made havdalah [the ceremony separating Shabbat from the rest of the week], the Aumanns dashed to the Concert Hall, arriving just 90 seconds before King Karl XVI Gustaf's arrival and the closing of the doors.

[another source continues]

Dr. David Rosen, Dr. Aumann’s son in law, described the feast: “The Kosher table settings of brand new gilded heavy silver, fresh from the kiln china and recently blown gold-stemmed crystal stood ready. Conversation flowed with fine kosher wines and special kosher old pale liquors. The Swedish menu of rare snow-grouse-breast covered in reindeer meat was NOT served to us. Our kosher contingent enjoyed a less gamy fare of goose covered in fillet of beef. That tasty texture was relished along with whole blanched green snow beans and northern forest champignons in espagnole roux."

In addition to kosher food and Shabbat observance, other challenges were overcome. The de rigueur tails and trousers with braids had to first be checked for sha’atnez, the biblically prohibited mixture of linen and wool. Since there is no sha’atenez lab in Sweden, the garment was flown to Israel to be examined. The forbidden sha’atenez was indeed found in the tails, and replaced by an expert.

Professor Aumann’s 35 family members were the largest cheering section, quite visible by their distinctive dress. The men wore knitted kippot, while the women sported colorful head coverings. It was an emotional moment as Sweden’s King Gustaf presented the prize to the 75 year- old scholar, who rose to accept his award in a white kippa that matched his flowing white beard and formal shirt.

Prof. Aumann's toast at the Nobel Banquet opened with the Jewish blessing:

“'Baruch Atah Ado-nai Elo-kainu Melech HaOlam HaTov v'HaMativ' [to which his family gave a resounding "AMEN"]; Your Royal Highness, we have, over the years, participated in the scientific enterprise - studied and taught; preserved, and pushed forward the boundaries of knowledge. We have participated in the human enterprise and raised families. And I have participated in realizing a 2000-year old dream - the return of my people to Jerusalem, its homeland.

This recognition is not only for us, but for all game theory, in Israel and in the world - teachers, students, colleagues, and co-workers…I offer my thanks to these, to the Nobel Foundation and the Nobel Committee, to our magnificent hosts, the country of Sweden, and to G-d, Who Is good and does good."

The inspiring words and the sight of the good professor surrounded by his 4 children (a fifth son was killed in Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982), their spouses and 19 grandchildren and great-grandchildren expressed Jewish endurance and continuity, as this noble scholar honored Jewish ideals and traditions, and was graciously accommodated by the Swedish royal court and the Nobel Academy.

Here's a wonderful description of the post-banquet Ball;

At the post-banquet ball, a fellow laureate, who deservedly won the Prize for discovering the bacterium that causes ulcers, jumps up on the stage and sings his own composition, “Ballad to Bacteria.” Only Robert J. (Yisrael) Aumann would at that moment be reminded of a midrash that describes a similar situation. During the meal following the brit milah of Elisha ben Abuyah, some of the secular guests at the circumcision feast sang non-religious songs. Said Rabbi Eliezer to Rabbi Yehoshuah, “They are busy with their songs, why aren’t we busy with ours?!” The rabbis began to recite Torah, then Neviim, then Ketuvim, and the words of Torah rejoiced as on the day they were given on Sinai, surrounded by fire.

At the ball, this midrash flashed through Professor Aumann’s mind. “They are busy with their songs, why aren’t we busy with ours?!” With that, he ascended the stage, stepped up to the microphone and led the predominantly non-Jewish celebrants in Rabbi Baruch Chait’s now-classic song, “Kol haolam kulo, gesher tzar meod,” speeding up into a rousing, foot-stomping refrain, “Veha’ikar lo lefached klal.”

"The world is a very narrow bridge...the important thing is not to fear"

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

R. Aharon Feldman, R. Slifkin; update to an Earlier Post
In an earlier post, I shared a story from a kiruv rabbi who informed me that R. Aharon Feldman defended certain of R. Slifkin's books against the charge of heresy during a visit with a Charedi Gadol in Israel. I later discovered from R. Slifkin's website that this storyline had been heard before, and R. Feldman denied having given such a defense. More recently, R. Aharon Feldman clarifies again, on R. Slifkin's blog, that he was not involved in a defense of R. Slifkin's books, and continues his opposition to R. Slifkin.

Just so many more bricks in the wall.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hanukkah; Posek Suggests Miracle of the Cruse of Oil Never Happened and R. David Berger on Human Action and Divine Interaction, Historical
Controversial (Kachnik, etc, etc...)R. David Bar Hayim offers the now-common insight that the real miracle is the victory of the Jews vs. Greeks - and then says the miracle of the oil was a Diaspora creation and didn't happen.

R. David Berger gives a current Religious Zionist framework for the miraculous amidst historical events and suggests ways of integrating it with more-sophisticated readingss of historical accounts of the era.

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