Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Sotah

Just a quick thought. The crazy thing about sotah is that it works about equally well if it kills nobody at all. Think about it- it is only used when there are only two people who know whether or not the woman is guilty, and both of them have a vested interest in keeping the information secret. If the woman is actually guilty and nonetheless gets away with it, she's hardly going to tell anyone. She goes off, perhaps with her faith challenged, perhaps thinking at her husband cheated on her, but the husband is happy and the society continues to function thinking that everything works.

The more important use of the water is to keep everybody scared off, both of adultery and later of failing to admit it and agreeing to go through the ritual. Even if nobody ever dies, belief in the efficacy of the whole thing is probably not going to be shaken- firstly, because there's a general presumption that only the innocent would dare to go through with something that they know will kill the guilty and is besides shameful and scary, and secondly, because the whole thing is probably so rare that nobody thinks that there's an overwhelming trend (after all, they stopped the practice when there were a lot of adulterers.) And when everyone really does believe in it, only the innocent will dare to go through with it, so that there becomes absolutely no practical impact to the question of whether it would kill the guilty.

Everyone avoids adultery to a large degree, chooses uncompensated divorce the rest of the time, and the truly innocent have a foolproof way of convincing their communities and husbands of their innocence, all without actually ever requiring open miracles. Not that I'm saying that it didn't actually work the way the text claims- miracles and all- but it doesn't need to. (And after all, the gemara says that even G-d lies for shalom bayit....)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Random Philosophical Question

Question for thought and discussion*:

Would you pay for a pleasure that you will not remember after having experienced?

Example: You are offered the choice of two meals, equal in nutritional value. One is entirely bland- not unpleasant, not pleasant. The other is extremely yummy. You can pay a small sum of money and receive the second, which you will enjoy quite a lot. The catch: as soon as you have finished eating, you will not remember what decision you made and will have no memory of any pleasure you experienced. Would you pay for the pleasure?

If yes: Would you pay to have a really pleasant dream that you will not remember upon waking?

If no: What if you remembered your decision for ten minutes following the meal? Twenty? An hour? A day?

Would it make a difference whether there was an objective record of your decision which you could not access? What if you could access the record or otherwise deduce which decision you made but you would still not remember the experience of pleasure? Does it matter whether or not you notice and/or derive pleasure from the money saved? Does the kind of pleasure make a difference? In continuity a factor- does it matter if you will remember a point when you remembered the pleasure without memory of the pleasure itself?

I have absolutely no answers, myself. And I'm not looking less for philosophical answers than for some clues as to how people are wired, because it is a fact that we pay for pleasures that we know we will remember only in the short term- is this merely because we choose to ignore that fact in making our pleasure-related choices or is the experience of pleasure itself sufficient without any impact on later memory?

*preferably in my comments, because I love comments

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Inspiration

and inspiration hits
like an itch in the back of the throat
and you cough up words

lego towers shaking with their own weightiness,
spiral staircases of ever-metaing cliches,
trackless trains thundering to no point whatsoever,
collages of actual genius,
pictures worth about three words each

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Shavuot Potpourri

Not a real post, but I have school tomorrow (at last!) so scattered thoughts from over my Shavuot:

  • When speakers introduce a paradox into their philosophical lectures, how often do you think it's really a question of having a source that doesn't agree with their theses that they have to do something with?
  • My favorite Megillat Rut thought is still the one I read on vbm.com during seminary: Rut and Job are actually pretty similar stories- a person who lost everything, who feels that G-d has turned against them. The difference? In Job, the victim spends some 40 very long-winded chapters pondering the reason for his tragedy, trying to dissect and analyze the workings of G-d. In Rut, humans take the tragedy and deal with it and get on with life- painfully, but resolutely, and most importantly with kindness. It's an oddly areligious book- there is nothing divine nor superanatural; instead, humans deal with tragedy by making the world a better place for other humans. Job ends with G-d coming down and basically saying that the whole discussion is pointless- humans cannot understand Him and there's really no point in trying. Rut ends with birth and hope for the former victims, leading to royalty and, of course, Mashiach.
  • So the above dvar torah has a really funny story attached to it. I was called upon to deliver it at 8 am Shavuot morning, without notice, after having stayed up all night, when we all really wanted to stumble back the 40 minute walk to seminary and sleep until havdala, but the seminary instead forced us all to come to a kiddush that a very sweet donor was throwing for the school, which was really very nice except that nobody could eat because of the aforementioned exhaustion. So anyway, I gave this dvar torah because it was the only one I knew and besides I really did like it, and after I finish one of the madrichot comes over and says, "Oh my gosh, that was so perfect. This family- their son died and they got really involved in tzdaka organizations." To which I said, "Oh" in a tone that I hope conveyed all of the my-freaking-goodness- are-you-kidding-me- why-didn't-somebody-blinking-tell-me- do-you-think-I-would-have-had-the-I-don't-know-what- to-actually-say-that- holy-mackeral-I-can't-look-at-them-blast-blast-blast feeling that it was intended to convey.
  • So I went to a wedding on Monday night and it was so very nice and my favorite bit was watching the chosson watch the kallah coming down the aisle with this wubbly little look on his face, and of course I had the girly moment of wanting there to be somebody who looked at me wubbly and then last night it occured to me- G-d looks at me wubbly. That's right, G-d- the one with the lightning and fire and rainbowness and inscrutibility and all manners of infinitude- He looks at me wubbly. And frankly, He thinks I'm adorable. (I know it's cliche, but addiction to nonconformity is itself a cliche)
  • Talmud is so funny when it's being ironic. It supports the general thesis that all really intelligent people have finely honed senses of ironic humor.
  • Did you know that there is a street called Rut in Katamon and the explanation line on it reads "Wife of Boaz, grandmother of David?"
  • Do you know who's a cool character? Yoav ben Tzruriah. Someday, I want to give a shiur on him. He keeps popping up here and there doing insane things and getting away with them.
  • I sometimes think that if I were not so painfully self-aware I could easily become a performer. You know the type- the one whose quirkiness dominates every conversation; who will do shtick at every wedding, regardless of talents or closeness to the principles; of whom it is constantly said "I love him, he's such a character"; who really doesn't mind when everyone is looking at them or wonder what's being thought behind the faces or worry that he looks like an idiot. It sounds like it would be wonderously refreshing, but perhaps from the inside it's completely different.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Exactly

A terribly fun article, mostly because it accords with my personal ire.
Favorite quote:
Israel is an immature democracy, poorly governed; its political class is mediocre and corrupt; it floats precariously in a lethally hostile Muslim sea; and it really could use a constitution.
Did you know that yesterday I was at a forum about the EU and when one of the speakers said "ICompared with its neighbors, Israel is low on corruption", every single person in the room snickered quietly? In unison.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Chinuch

I was sicced onto this article by Yoni, since apparently I have not been getting ired enough in the recent past. The approach of the author is not, I may say, unfamiliar to me, although I had never had the whole thing spelled out in quite so much detail- R' Grossman was the principal of my former high school and I may well recognize the people behind some of his anecdotes. (I don't seem to have made it in there myself.)

Well, first of all, let me say that there's a lot valid there. I think that he is correct that people do not stop being frum because of the temptations, seductions, and lures of the 'Goyish' street, but rather because they are dissatisfied with what they are being offered in their schools. I certainly agree that harsh discipline is the wrong approach the problems and everyone should go for understanding and discovering underlying issues whenever possible. I think that he is also correct that it is time to fight the battle that is in front of us instead of the one that we fought in the past, or would like to be fighting now.

I do not, however, agree on what that battle is. I do not think that 'mussar haskel' and warm life lessons are insufficiently emphasized in our chumash and nach classes; the conclusion that many people are intellectually dissatisfied with Judaism but stay for emotional reasons does not, for me, naturally lead into the conclusion that we must create emotional bonds so that people will stay. I do not believe that students are being educated with too large an emphasis on the cognitive and intellectual, and I do not believe that suitable gentle peer pressure will be enough to make everybody realize that everything they are taught is 100% right. I can't say that I think that a question about why tzniut is emphasized so much more than other midot is necessarily indicative of deep rebellion, as the article seems to assume we will assume. I don't really think that the goyish street is actually a cesspit of stupidity, emptiness, and fleeting pleasures, but that's a bit of a different issue

And- perhaps this is bias speaking- I certainly not believe that children are simply 'empty shells, waiting for the right teacher to fill the vacuum'.

I'm not sure that I believe that I have the answer for the chinuch problems, but I certainly have a novel suggestion: Why don't we try assuming that the students are intelligent, reasonable people, who are bothered by genuine cognitive and intellectual concerns? It's not, of course, always true. Most teenagers are pretty dumb, and those that aren't are so young and proud and earnest and confused and simplistic that they might as well be. (I speak primarily of myself).

But maintaining this illusion will 1) give them the feeling that you view them as actual people with minds and thoughts and contributions and so forth, instead of charming little tabula rassa's just waiting to be filled up with lovely sketches of kollel husbands and wives, 2) will let them know that questions- their questions- are valid and not necessarily contradictory to being Orthodox and that nobody is going to run after them screaming "An atheist! Burn her!" and 3) might actually give them some useful answers or tools to discover them.

I sat through 4 years of high school and I had inspiration and gushiness and love and morals and trust until they poured out of my ears. My heart was played on day after day, and my notebooks managed to look after themselves, but nobody was really doing much to deal with the head.
What I didn't get was answers. Or a license to ask questions. Or a reassurance that I was respected by those who claimed to hear me but who poured my words into their molds and boxes so that they could help the only ways that they knew (more love and so forth).What I didn't really get was a sense that my religion actually was valid and brilliant. Which is a pity. 'Cuz I tend to think it is.

*All this relates to the intellectual style rebel. The behavioral rebel- the kind who wants to act out and talk to boys or wear pants or both (maybe even at the same time)- they usually straightened out in seminary unless they had been turned off by censure and harsh discipline- another point that I agree with in the article- or had the intellectual issues as well.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Sefer Shmuel

So this afternoon I read the end of Sefer Shmuel I for a shiur. The shiur focused on the chronology, which is problematic and confusing, but preparing, I was more struck with the tragedy of the whole story. All the characters are so miserable in their own complicated ways.

I mean, obviously we feel bad for David, who is not only described as perfect and holy, horribly tormented and oppressed, but also gets all of Tehillim for us to feel his pain. But all of the other characters have their own twisted storylines of tragedy interweaving so that the sefer is like a really good novel, but not a very happy one.

Take Michal: falls in love with David, gets lucky enough to marry him. Early in the marriage, her father tries to kill him, forcing her to turn against her father and not see her husband again for quite a while. Meanwhile, she gets handed off to another husband as revenge against her husband's 'rebellion'. The new husband seems quite fond of her and maybe she's vaguely happy. In any case, soon enough she gets taken back to David in another power statement. Yay, true love. Except that he's picked up another couple of wives in the meantime, who already have kids by him and everything. The only other time we see her, she's trying to assert her dignity and acting very acerbic to the husband that we were told she loved; he snaps back at her and mentions that G-d likes him better than her and her father's household (all meanwhile dead). She has no more children to her dying day, possibly because her husband no longer likes her. Oh yeah, and fun little point- her five children, as survivors of Shaul, are given by her husband to be murdered to buy off Shaul's blood guilt.

Or Yonatan: he may have gotten the hang of it that David will be the next king, but he's willing to accept that. He doesn't believe that his father would really try to kill David, but when convinced, he's takes David's side and gets cursed out in front of the whole court. Other than meeting David in secret from time to time, he has no contact with him until his last battle, where he probably dies under the impression that David is fighting on the other team.

Or Shmuel, who selects Shaul as king and then is told by G-d to reject him. He is upset but still has to be the one to yell at Shaul pretty forcefully. While still feeling bad about this, he is told to get over Shaul and commit treason against him by picking somebody new.

But Shaul is really the most tragic character of all. He's really like the figure in Greek myths who tries to thwart the oracle and never does. It's not clear whether he believes Shmuel that he's been rejected as a king- maybe he thinks it's later down the generations, or that he'll die early, or that he can repent. But in any case, as soon as this happens, G-d deserts him- something we probably can't imagine never having had G-d rest upon us- and instead a depressed, raving sort of mental illness attacks him. The harp player he finds helps out, except that pretty soon he becomes a national hero, that everybody seems to like better than him, who can fight the battles that the king should be handling, but can't since G-d doesn't like him anymore. He sees everybody in the nation falling in love with David- his own son, his daughter, the people, and probably he remembers the prophecy and gets freaked out. But there's nothing he can do. He tries to fight it. He sends people to get David and finds that his daughter and son and personal prophet who anointed him and (he thinks) all the priests are with David. He tries to chase him himself and ends up naked, raving in public and being mocked by the entire nation. For years, he tries to catch David, occasionally coming to himself beset by remorse. The whole effort just sends away his best warriors so that they're not there for the final battle that kills him. Maybe if he hadn't, he or one of his sons might have survived. Maybe if he had been willing to let David be king, it would simply have been a son-in-law coming to power instead of the son, who seems sort of okay with the whole idea. But he can't accept it, partially because a king can't accept people rebelling, especially when their fatal flaw has been to not be assertive enough, and partially because he can't, physically can't survive assuming that G-d really has rejected him.

His death is perhaps the only heroic part. He realizes that G-d has entirely left him- no prophets, no priests, no spirit of G-d- and he turns to witchcraft that he feels are so evil that he tried to anihilate them. And he is told that he will lose the war, that he and his sons will all die. Everything he wanted to deny is true, undeniably so. It is with a sort of tragic grandeur that he goes to field, knowing that he will die, determined to do so with the modicum of dignity left to him. He dies alone, killed by himself, possibly finished off and certainly looted by a passing stranger, but I think that his death was as a king.