Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Just a link

I know, I know, I owe a real post. Accept instead this link to Mike's interesting post on anti-Bible rhetoric and rape.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Wave of Rock

I know, I know, two posts in a day, this is crazy talk. But it looks like I have a bit of time 'til the roommates are ready to leave the computer lab so here goes.

I watched School of Rock yesterday. A cute movie, all in all, and really there is no good reason that it should have gotten me all deep and philosophizing.

But. The one thought that kept popping into my head throughout the film was how uncannily well this movie went with The Wave. No, really. A charismatic teacher sweeps into class with a whole new movement, overturning the way that the school has been run and the values that the kids have been taught, and sweeping everyone along with his ambitious ideals and plans for the future. The movement not only unites the class, but it gives social standing and confidence to students who were the losers beforehand.

A stretch? Perhaps. But it would be startlingly easy to write "The Wave of Rock", in either of two equally valid forms.

1) Dewey Finn comes to the elementary school, bringing with him the gospel of rock. All the children quickly embrace his idea and devote themselves to the project of creating an awesome band. Except for Mary, a quiet girl who enjoys learning actual information and looks askance at the anarchy inherent in Dewey's rock-centric rhetoric. As time goes by, she notices more and more hostility on the part of her classmates towards those they see as representing or supporting 'the Man'. When she tries to pull out the band, she becomes a class pariah, rejected by her peers, singled out in class, and pressured to rejoin the project. The movie ends with either Dewey unveiling the fact that it was all a test, or a camera shot over the crowds of children, dressed alike in School of Rock t-shirts, chanting Dewey's name in unison, with ominous music in the background.

2) Burt Ross has a crazy new idea for his class- a new order of discipline that will unite the students and maybe even change the world into a better place. At first, the kids are dubious, but quickly they get into the idea. Ross forms them into a cadre, giving them each special jobs and encouraging self-confidence in every member of the group. The movie ends with a triumphant rally. The camera zooms over the jubilant crowds, singling out the faces of kids who especially benefited from the movement- friends who met or became closer through their involvement, the loser who is now a valued member of the class, and so forth.

Weird, I know. But I guess it just proves the power that the storyteller has. And the general tendency to ignore the fact that nonconformity can and does often contain its own homogeneous brainwashing.

Visit from an Authoress

Today, an authoress came to visit our Ulpan and tell us all about what it's like to be an authoress. The speech, frankly, was insanely dull. The women subscribes to a more mushy-gushy style of thought than I could ever tolerate, the speech was an hour and a half long, and to top it off, she was deliberately lowering her level of speech so as to adapt to our limited vocabularies.

She did, however, say one thing that caught my attention- that she likes to write because she can create a world in which she is like G-d, where she can decide who lives and who dies, who is happy and who miserable. That she likes it because the real world seems cruel, chaotic, and arbitrary, and writing lets her create a world that is governed by rhyme and reason and so forth.

My G-d, what a ghastly thought. I know how I govern the world of my stories. I kill characters because it seems the thing to do, because I want to see how they react, because it makes for a more interesting plot. Once I killed a fairly major character because I liked the effect of his blood on the snow.

And it's not like I don't like my characters. I can create a character with whom I identify strongly, bring him up from a child with endearing little character traits, put him through school, give him a family and a mode of thinking and children and aspirations and who knows what and kill him simply because I have thought of an interesting way to phrase the scene. Or bump off one of his children just because I think he would cope with it entertainingly. Or inflict and remove a wound as my whim takes me, depending on whether at that moment I think he'd be better with a scar. And even as I do it, I feel bad for the poor thing, really I do. I mean, he has one lousy life.

Miri says that it's just me. She says that she never kills or tortures a character just for the fun of it. But then, she adds that she will give them troubles just because it seems the thing to do, or because the story needs it, or because it's the thing to do.

I don't know. I think I would prefer for the world to run entirely by chance than for it to be run like a story, with G-d dropping tragedies down on us just because we suffer so darn interestingly.

Or maybe it is simply that- that we have to suffer because otherwise there is no story. Because you can't have a book or a life without conflict. And maybe better authors planning more ordered books have better motives than my arbitrary, capricious ones. But even so- of all the images of G-d that I have ever attempted to conceive, the one of Him sitting at a writing desk, notebook open before Him, is probably the one that appeals to me the least.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

My Rules of Intellectualism

or: The Five Principles that I wish I had Known in High School when I was Busy Picking Silly Debates that Got Nowhere and Accomplished Nothing and Acheived Absolutely No Clarity and were Really Just There to Keep Me from Going Out of My Mind from Boredom.

1) Shut up. No, really. Just close the mouth. That's better. No, you can't talk yet. Just hush...that's better.

You don't always have to be fighting, to be picking your next argument, to be analyzing and counteranalyzing for weaknesses and talking points. Just listen. What are they saying? No, really, explain it to me. Can you formulate their argument? Can you flowchart it? Can you chop it and dice it and toss in a couple of its implications and a handful of its premises?

Let them finish. Your question on the first sentence shouldn't be an excuse to stop listening to the rest of it. Especially when it's not really a question, but a snarky attack at some flaw in their reasoning.

2) Be clear. Focus, as Michael Medved would say, like a laser beam. You don't need to go into the whole windup, with rant and example and clever turn of phrase. If there's nothing that you disagree about enough to be able to simply swoop in on a discrepancy, then do you really disagree or are you just arguing out of principle?

Stop talking past each other, orating at each other, tripping each other into little vicious circular tangents of semantics or nitpicking. Find the core difference- the b'mai ka mafligei- and fight about that. That ought to be quite enough.

3) Boil down. Alright, you've got the actual point of disagreement. Is that based on something else? A premise you don't share? An assumption that you're not willing to make, or that you think is obvious? Almost every argument falls back to one or more other arguments. Get as far back on the Hydra's neck as you can.

Bickering about the rule about knee socks? Isn't it really a debate about the importance of mandating religious standards versus personal independence? Or maybe it's a fight about religious tolerance versus believing in only one legitimate path? Or maybe, just maybe, it's really just you not wanting to have to go buy new socks? Boil it down, redefine.

4) Pick and choose. You can't fight everything that you and your co-debater disagree about in one setting. Stick to your topic and its immediate premises. The person who supports knee-socks may also be against your learning Talmud, but you don't have to start duking out everything about every belief. If it's directly relevant, than there you are. But don't bring it in just because it's always irked you and you really want a chance to get into it. There will be other chances. There are always more chances.

5) Know when to stop. Sometimes, there's nothing left to fight about. You've boiled things down to a premise so basic, an logical jump so obvious or (for the other person) so ridiculous, a difference of opinions that are so firmly held that you're never going to get anywhere. Ever. Maybe, possibly, if the other person isn't quite as smart as you, you can trap them, puzzle them, or race beyond them, but you will never convince them.

Or maybe you've boiled your differences down to something that really isn't that big a deal at all. You would do X 49% of the time, I'd do it 50%. You are slightly less in favor of Y. I value Z a bit more than W, but they very rarely come into conflict.

It's okay to stop. I mean, yes, it means you might just have to find something else to do with the last five minute of your recess, but that's okay too. And another twelve hours of point and counterpoint, jab and foil, nitpicking and example aren't really going to do anything. You don't have to 'agree to disagree', but it's okay just to agree to stop arguing and talk about the weather.

The only other point that I would have is more a rule of morality than of debate, but I would still like to mention it, because it's important. Obvious, but important. Don't debate people that you dislike, and don't dislike the people you debate. Arguing should be a way of connection, not an excuse to vent all your dislike of an idea/principle/system/theory onto the head of the perfectly lovely person that happens to be supporting it. And if you don't like the person you're fighting, you're going to be associating their flaws to their position and vice versa, making it difficult to have a really intelligent debate and virtually impossible to ever accomplish anything in your argument

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Awesome Rant

Okay- I don't have time to post my reactions to this, but go read it, yell at it, agree with it, all that good stuff.

More Female Stuff

So, I was really hoping to be able to move off of the whole female subject. Today, however, a random friend started reading my blog. While reading this post, he came upon the line where I cunningly avoid getting into the whole mess about my thoughts about female rabbis and decided that I couldn't just leave it like that. So here goes.

Firstly, I understand why women were originally not intended to be halachic decisors. Back when being a Rabbi was really being a Rabbi, when you had to know just about everything to be able to make halachic decisions and being a Rabbi meant being the leader of the community, it really makes some sort of sense. I mean, look. In a normal society 99.9% of people aren't going to be the intellectual elites. The .1% that are, will have to be 1)the absolute best at the whole learning thing, 2) able to free themselves from other time committments and 3)willingly supported by the community. A woman might well be able to pull off 1), is practically speaking very unlikely to get 2) and would rarely get 3). There were always a few crazies (yes, Bruria, I know), but it wasn't easy.

Nor should it necessarily be so. I am willing to accept innate differences in the natures and missions of men and women. Not very PC, but there you go. And I am certainly willing to go with the notion that any reasonably ordered society needs some sort of division of labor and different roles for the different people, as befits their particular needs and characters. Can I say for certain that women would be less suited to roles of academia and/or leadership? No. But I do not think that it is a coincidence that almost all human societies have evolved into this form, nor do I think that it is a coincidence that G-d set up our system this way. I happen to have my own theories as to why this is the case, which have to do with the fact that women have less of an innate predilection towards jerkiness, but I am not in love with these theories, certainly not enough to fight for them. The point is, for whatever reason, it makes sense for a society to not have everybody running around being all metaphysical and so forth and it makes sense that the very small percentage of people who are going to be that way should be male, if only because they are naturally more seperable from certain vital activities. (translation: women biologically have the babies, something that is not very conducive for them running off and learning for years without the burden of their family).

Now, that all applies to the time when S'micha was real, something that is no longer the case. Now s'micha simply means that you knew enough to pass some sort of an exam, has no halachic significance in terms of actual "s'micha" and simply functions as permission for you to make halachic decisions, something that many people with 'Rabbi' in front of their names prefer not to do anyway. So, from a halachic perspective, I don't really see any problem with creating a title/role for women with the equivolent function of saying 'We officially acknowledge that you know a lot of Torah'.

Do I want to become one of those? No, not really. And this is for two reasons. Firstly, because I don't really see the point. I mean, if I know a ton, so wonderful, I'll be clever. Do I need some title testifying to that? Shmuel the tanna never got S'micha. Nor, for that matter, did D'vorah Han'via or Chulda or Esther or in fact, anyone that the Torah chooses to tell us about. A title might be convenient for determining, say, qualifications for being a female Gemara teacher, but I don't know if it's worth the whole communal rift and so forth. And secondly, because I am conservative. I prefer not to be on the fore-front of movements, even ones that I would have no problem with joining when they are older. Is it cowardice? Yes, probably. But it is also a general distrust of movements like this that are usually inspired by motives that I don't like- ego, resentment and so forth. Of course, that's often what it takes to get a movement started, but that doesn't mean that I want to be a part of that. The world may need its angry people who start things like that, but they still make me nervous and I would prefer to jump onto the bandwagon once I am confident that it's not evil or anything like that. Again, it may simply be cowardice and a distaste for conflicts, but there you go.

Monday, September 04, 2006


I have started to notice a vague correlation between my posting and the number of hits that I get. Which is enough to inspire me to post even my musings are not really sufficiently fleshed out for this forum.

And on the subject of inspiration...I have come to the conclusion that I don't really believe in spirituality. What does that mean? Not that I don't believe in holiness or closeness to G-d. Not that I don't believe in moments that make you feel all warm and inspired. Not even that such moments don't have their religious uses.

But here's the deal- I don't believe in this whole spiritualization of Judaism. I went to a speech on kabbala where the speaker was listing things that can be spiritual- singing, dancing, meditation- and mitzvot. Which treats spirituality as the goal and mitzvot as a helpful means of getting there. I don't believe that. Spirituality- by which I mean a feeling of closeness to G-d - is all very well and good, but that's not the point.

The point of human existance, according to Judaism, is to serve G-d, emulate, and become close to G-d by obeying His commandments. Zeh hu. Warm mushy-gushy feeling does not appear on the list. (I am not referring to kavana, which is part of the mitzva and involves the intellect- intention and awareness- rather than the emotions.)

Of course, a feeling of inspiration is often quite useful, given that humans aren't all that good at the self-discipline thing and often need emotions to inspire them towards the correct actions.
But the emotion there works as a means to an end. And of course, somebody who is genuinely close to G-d may have a feeling of being so and thus feel spiritual. However, the spiritual feeling is simply a symptom, side-benefit, or result of the genuine closeness.

What's the nafka mina? If Person A goes and climbs a mountain and communes with the stars and recites poetry and gets the biggest spiritual high in the world and Person B spends six hours making food packages for needy families or checking a mountain of lettuce for bugs or building a sukkah and feels nothing, Person B has acquired more holiness. Now, if Person A's communion then inspires them to do useful things, then he can get as much or more holiness as Person B. And of course, it would be nice if Person B felt close to G-d, because 1) it will make it more likely that she will do these good things in the future, because humans crave that sense of closeness and 2) because her actions really are meritorious and a proper understanding of the world would involve being aware of that fact and it's good to understand the world properly.

BUT the spiritual high itself means nothing. It's not holiness, it's not sacredness, it sure as heck isn't righteousness. It's an emotional massage. It's a feel-good pill of warm fuzzies, whether it comes from your lovely mountaintop, or a Kabbalat Shabbat with songs and dances, or a group meditation. Sure, it feels nice. Sure, it makes you feel holy. But that's not the point. Your feelings- they may be totally off-base, they may be an accurate representation of reality, they may be a useful tool for gauging growth- but they're not the point.