Thursday, May 26, 2016

Plato's Midrash


I was listening to lecture about Aristophanes when the lecturer brought up Aristophanes' role in Plato's Symposium. The philosophers who had gathered for the event were discussing love. Aristophanes, fed up with their over-intellectualizing, makes a ridiculously over-the-top speech about how when the gods had first created people, there hadn't been two genders, as there are now. The first people were round, androgynous creatures and were essentially two people stuck together back-to-back. They were enormous, and rolled around the world, looking to fight with the gods. The gods separated each creature into two people, but allowed the halves to find each other again. Today people still look for their missing half, and love is gift from the gods.

This story struck me as familiar. There's a midrash that describes Adam Harishon in exactly the same way:

Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed Be He created Man, He created him as an Androgynos.Resh Lakish said that at the time that [Adam] was created, he was made with two faces, and [God] sliced him and gave him two backs, a female one and a male one, as it saysAnd He took from his sides,[2] as it says, [3]R. Berachya and R. Chalbo and R. Samuel b. Nahman said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed be He created man, He created him from one end of the earth until the other, filling the whole world. He created [Man] from the east to the west. From where do we learn [that man was created from the east to the west]? As it says,  of the earth to the other]? As it says [4]And from where do we learn that before.[5] And from where [do we learn that man was created from one end Adam filled the space of the whole earth? As it says, [6]

Not only does the midrash describe a  two-sided giant proto-human, it even uses the same Greek word as Aristophanes, "androgynous," to describe it.

There are so many interesting things about this.
  • When I learned this midrash, no one mentioned Aristophanes. Like me, most frum people learn the midrash and have no idea that they are reading something that originated in Greek philosophy.  
  • It's yet another example that shows that the Jewish communities of the past were influenced by the cultures around them, so much so that elements of those cultures made it into what many people consider the Divinely-inspired, transcendentally meaningful explanations of Tanach.
  • It proves that extant ideas have been read back into tanach. Plato's Symposium predates this midrash by six hundred years, and  two-faced Adam is brought up by Resh Lakish, who had been immersed in Roman culture. There's little doubt that the idea came from the Symposium. Yet they manage to find proof-texts to hang the idea on.
  • Perhaps most interesting of all, the amoraim quoted in the midrash didn't get the joke! Aristophanes was being deliberately ridiculous to make a point, and these amoraim took him so seriously that 1700 years later, little kids in yeshiva learning parshas Bereishis learn that Adam was originally an androgynous two-sided creature.



It's also notable that in Aristophanes' version, there are three types of creatures, double-sided male, double-sided female, and male-female. After separation, each was motivated by love to seek it's other half, and Aristophanes says that this is all good, love is a gift from the gods, and we should leave it at that. The midrash conspicuously leaves out the part about double-sided males and females. Maybe because it doesn't fit with the narrative in Bereishis about Adam and Chava, maybe because of its positive attitude towards homosexuality, or both. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Metaphysical Amiratzim

I recently heard an interview with James Flynn, the namesake and discoverer of the Flynn Effect. While doing research on intelligence, Flynn noticed that IQ tests have to be renormed every few years. Tables for scoring IQ tests are derived by administering the test to thousands of subjects. For convenience (it makes the math easier), the average result is given a score of 100. IQ tests measure people's performance not against some objective standard of intelligence, but against the average performance of people in their cohort, the people in their age group in their era. The tests have to be periodically renormed because average scores keep drifting upwards.

What this means is that if someone were tested today and scored with the tables used in the '40s, he would score as a genius! It's nice to think that we're all getting smarter, but reversing that experiment exposes an absurdity. If we were to take a current IQ test back in time and test someone from our grandparents' generation as a young man or woman, they would score as profoundly retarded. Obviously, the generation that created the first computers and jets was not made up of people who were not intelligent enough to  care for themselves.

So what was happening here? Flynn found that in some areas that IQ tests measured, like math skills and vocabulary, there was little to no change in the scores between cohorts. What changed was people's performance on sections that required abstract thinking. People kept getting better at it. The rising scores didn't reflect a change in people's intelligence, it reflected the diffusion through our culture of a particular way of thinking. People in the past tended to think concretely, about things that effected them directly. Not because they were intellectually incapable of thinking abstractly, but because they had no reason to, and were unlikely to ever encounter abstract modes of thinking. They didn't have the intellectual tools for it.

I had heard all of this before. What caught my attention in the interview was when Flynn pointed out that there had always been a small minority of people throughout history who could think abstractly, and listed talmudists among his examples. Could this explain the gemara's contempt for the am haaretz? Imagine yourself as an amora, intelligent, educated, and so comfortable with thinking in abstractions that you don't even realize that's what you're doing. You interact with a farmer who is illiterate, ignorant, and, it seems to you, unable to even think. Sure, he can design and build buildings and farming equipment, come up with clever ways to increase his crop yields and keep away pests, and other practical, hands-on things. But ask him to apply logic to a pair of pesukim to see how they are similar and what we can learn about what is discussed in one from what is discussed in the other, and he's completely lost. It's not just that he can't do it, he doesn't even understand what it is you want him to do.  Of course you think he's an idiot.

The farmer isn't an idiot. He's just lacking a particular set of tools. It's like asking a guy who's never seen a screwdriver to assemble a piece of furniture, and concluding he's mechanically inept because he thinks the pointy things with ridges are badly-made nails. He won't be able to put the thing together. He won't even understand what it is you want him to do. You hit nails, you don't turn them. Everyone knows that! But show him what a screwdriver is, explain to him how screws work, and give him a chance to practice, and he could end up working for IKEA.

This all came to mind over Yom Tov when I saw this sign at a keilim mikvah in Brooklyn.


My initial reaction was to ridicule whoever had written the sign. Tevilas Keilim is not a metaphysical or mystical concept? You don't get much more metaphysical and mystical than dunking clean utensils in dirty magic sky-water to wash off the taint of possible involvement in worship of other gods. Here, in red and white, was proof that the frum community was made up of theological morons, philosophical amiratzim who don't recognize a metaphysical ritual when it stares them in the face.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps they weren't stupid. They just didn't have the intellectual tools to see their own religion as metaphysics. And why should they? The wider questions of theology and metaphysics, and the similarities and mechanics of different religions and mythos didn't affect their day-to-day lives. To them, "metaphysical" probably means something like, "Kabalistic."  The sign is probably meant to convey that toiveling keilim is halacha and not a kabbalistic minhag. These same people, complacent in their ignorance of theological terms and lacking the ability to recognize a mystical ritual meant to affect metaphysical impurity might, if given the tools, become adept at thinking about religion.

Perhaps that is another reason to put together a book explaining why people might conclude Orthodox Judaism isn't true. To provide the tools and motivation to even the devoutly religious members of Orthodox society to develop an appreciation of a different way of thinking about their religion. One that understands that "metaphysical"  can include not only those things they consider esoteric but also things that they take for granted, like tummah, avodah zara, and God.

That's almost certainly a grandiose overstatement of the effect of anything I might write, but I'll take motivation where I can get it.



On a related note, I have been working on an outline for the book I proposed a few months ago. It's slow, but so far I have a sixteen page outline, and it continues to grow. When I finish the outline I'll clean it up and post the basic format (Chapters, headings, subheadings, specific topics) for suggestions.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Better Angels of Our Nature

I recently finished reading "The Better Angels of Our Nature" by Steven Pinker, and I highly recommend it. It's just short of 700 pages, so it took me a while to get through, but it was never boring and was packed full of fascinating insights into why people are violent - and why they are less violent now than in the past.

The thesis of the book is that violence has declined steadily over the history of civilizations. Despite the widespread belief that we are living in exceptionally violent times, we are in fact living in exceptionally peaceful times. Wars today kill more people (in whole numbers) than did wars in the past, but there are far more people and far fewer wars than there used to be. As a percentage of the population killed, even the cataclysms of the 20th century, the world wars, barely make the list of the greatest episodes of violence in history. The author documents how violence has declined across the board, from warfare to the justice system (we no longer have public executions or break people's arms and legs, thread them through a wagon wheel, and leave them to die) to the way we discipline our children, to our recognition of the rights of other people.

When people decry the abysmal morality of our society, they are usually talking about sex. (They're completely wrong about that, but that's a different post.) Pinker has convincingly shown that in terms of violence and recognizing the rights of others not to be harmed, there has never been a more moral time.

If I were motivated, I could have written a dozen posts inspired by this book. Instead, I'll just write about a couple of things I bookmarked.

The first speaks to the often-heard idea that morality comes from religion. For most of history, it was the norm for heretics and apostates to be tortured and killed. This wasn't cruelty for its own sake,  but was the logical result of the belief that heretics would suffer an eternity in Hell, and could be saved from this fate by confessing their sins and recanting their heresy. As terrible as torture was, it was better to make the heretic suffer for a few days or weeks now and so motivate him to repent than it was for him to suffer even worse torment for all of eternity. As for someone who spread heresy, he had to die to prevent him from causing others to be damned. Pinker makes the point that this logic still holds today, yet people in the West are horrified at the idea of torturing or killing heretics. While there is some cross influence between religious and moral beliefs, it is for the most part their morals that inform their religious beliefs, not the other way around.

The second is a group of studies about violent offenders. It was found that these people's brains are different from typical people. The area of the brain that controls impulses and modulates behavior is smaller in criminally violent people than it is in typical people. If a typical person was involved in an accident that damaged his brain so that he was no longer able to control his impulses, would we hold him morally responsible for his violent actions? I don't think we would. Then what about people whose brains naturally develop that way? How can we hold them morally responsible? And yet, the American justice system is  structured to be punitive rather than rehabilitative.

Similarly, it was found that people's capacity for self-control could be boosted by feeding them sugar. The pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for higher functions like self control, burns a lot of energy. Controlling yourself literally requires energy, and the more you do it, the less energy you have available and the more difficult it becomes. Add energy, and you're ability to control yourself shoots up. In other words, you're best prepared to resist eating a chocolate bar after you've eaten it. As I've said many times before, if there is a God, He's a practical joker with a nasty sense of humor.


The last piece I'll mention is a study that, "looked at twenty-five civilizations in Asia and Europe and found that the ones that were stratified into hereditary classes favored myth, legend, and hagiography and discouraged history, social science, natural science, [and] biography." Does that sound familiar?  The study's author suggests that this is because it is not in the interest of those in the controlling classes to have scholars uncover the truth about the past (or present) and cast doubt on their descent from heroes and gods. Or in the case of the frum world, pious holy men and superhumanly adept scholars.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

What is Chometz?

When I learned about Pesach as a kid, I was taught that when flour and water are mixed together the mixture begins to rise after eighteen minutes, and this makes it chometz. The implication was that this was a physical change. Before eighteen minutes the dough had not yet begun to rise, and so it was still kosher l'Pesach. After eighteen minutes, it was chometz.

The problem here is that this isn't the way the world works. Yeast is a naturally-occurring parasite that lives on grains and other produce. When it is wet it metabolizes starches and sugar to make more of itself, giving off gasses in the process. It is these gasses that make bread rise. Eighteen is a magic number in Judaism, but yeast doesn't know that. Fermentation begins as soon as the water and flour are mixed together, not eighteen minutes later.

The problem can be solved by reclassifying chometz as a legal rather than a descriptive definition. Dough becomes chometz after eighteen minutes because that's the rule rather than because of some physical change. This sidesteps the empirical problem, but leaves two others.

The first is that this wasn't the original understanding. When the halacha was first formulated, people didn't know about microorganisms like yeast or how their lifecycles affect our baking. They just knew that if you mixed flour and water and left it alone long enough in a warm place, it would rise, and that by adding a bit of already-risen dough to a new batch, you could make it rise faster. Why this happened was a mystery. It wasn't until the invention of the microscope in the 1600s that it was discovered that there were tiny things on grain, and it wasn't until the mid-1800s that it was understood that these things were alive and were what made bread rise.

Given their lack of modern knowledge, it was reasonable for the formulators of the halachos of chometz to assume that it took some time for whatever it was that made bread rise to start working. If you watch a batch of dough, it certainly seems that it takes a while before anything happens. The importance of eighteen led them to use that number, and for millennia it was thought that dough doesn't begin to rise until eighteen minutes after the water and flour are mixed together. It is only in the last hundred and fifty years, when we learned how it really works, that it became necessary to reclassify chometz as a legal rather than a physical definition.

The second problem is that it makes the definition of chometz arbitrary. There is no discernible difference between a batch of dough that has been sitting for seventeen minutes and one that has been sitting for nineteen minutes. Instead of something real, chometz becomes a rule in a game we're playing called "Judaism." It's no longer that chometz is a different kind of thing than non-chometz, and we avoid that thing during Pesach because the nature of the holiday is such that chometz affects us differently than it does the rest of the year. Instead, chometz and non-chometz are separated only by  the rules of the game. They are the same thing, but the rules say that after eighteen minutes we call dough "chometz" and treat it as if it were different than non-chometz.

Some try to save the sense of chometz and non-chometz really being different types of things by shunting the difference off into the metaphysical world. Although here, in the physical world, we don't see a difference, in the olam haemes there is a profound spiritual difference between them. Putting aside the oddity of people who decry the corrosive effects of "Greek wisdom" embracing a Platonic conception of the cosmos, this is obviously a post-hoc attempt to save the reality of the distinction between chometz and non-chometz. Right up until we knew differently, it was assumed that there was a real physical difference. As soon as we found out how fermentation really works, the difference was shunted off into an inaccessible metaphysical world where it is safe from empirical investigation.

One of the first major figures to change the underpinnings of halachos from physical to metaphysical was the Maharal, who lived through the beginning of the Scientific Revolution in the mid-1500s. That this trend emerged just as we began to discover how the world really works should make it obvious that it was not so much a revelation about the true nature of halacha as it was an attempt to keep halacha from becoming irrelevant as it's real-world justifications were cut out from under it.


For most of its history, the halachos of chometz were thought to rest on a real difference between chometz and non-chometz. They were different kinds of stuff, and so it made sense to treat them differently. As soon as it was discovered that's not so, chometz became just a rule in the Judaism game, weakly bolstered by the unknowable assertion that metaphysically, they really are different. This is the danger that science poses to religion. Rules that were once simply a reflection of reality become arbitrary, and those who want them to be more than that are left to petulantly insist that their game is real after all,  in an inaccessible higher reality that small-minded materialists refuse to acknowledge just because there is no reason to posit its existence other than to keep religious rules from becoming arbitrary.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Women's Role

I read an article today that tried to explain why people in some other cultures have such a hard time with the idea that women should be treated as equal to men. The author pointed out that until recently everyone felt that way. He compared the way women were seen in Western society in the nineteenth century to the way we see pets today, and pointed out that the idea that women should have a say in running things (like by voting) seemed as absurd to people then as suggesting we allow dogs to vote would seem to us now.

While reading I realized that the same could be said of halacha. I think a better analogy than pets is children. Halacha treats women like ten-year-olds. Like children, women are people, and we care about them. Men may love them, be concerned about them, genuinely want them to be happy, even go to great lengths to ensure they have good lives. But the idea that they can care for themselves, should have any kind of authority, or can serve on a court or as a reliable witness is absurd. We would never think of appointing a ten-year-old as a judge. That's ridiculous. And we can understand why something like having a woman lain is an embarrassment to the men present. It's just like if, today, the only person in shul who could read was an ordinary ten-year-old.

We can trust women for some things, just like you can trust a ten-year-old with some limited responsibilities. And we can praise them for attributes particular to their position, telling women that they are more spiritual and closer to God in the same way that we praise a ten-year-old's childlike innocence and fascination with things that we have become too jaded to enjoy. But ultimately, naashim daaten kalos. Children must listen to their parents for their own good. Children and parents have different roles, and for a child to act as a parent, to have equal say in making rules, to have the authority in running the house, etc. is absurd.

We don't make rules for children or keep them from adult roles because we hate them. On the contrary, it is because we love them and care about them that we restrict them to child-appropriate roles. And the framers of halacha weren't misogynistic in the way that those who now try to restrict women's roles are. They genuinely believed, as did nearly everyone throughout history, that women are ten-year-olds.  


In the cultural milieu in which halacha developed, right up until a few decades ago, women were seen by the men in charge as ten-year-olds. Keep that in mind, and halacha's attitude towards women makes perfect sense.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

They Don't Tell Stories Like That About You and Me

The title is a clever line often heard in the frum world when someone questions the accuracy of fantastic gadol stories. (It seems itwas originally applied to the Chofetz Chaim by a lawyer.) It's meant to imply that even if the story isn't completely true, the fact that such stories are told indicate the greatness of the person they are told about.

I came across a list of the supposed accomplishments of North Korea's late leader, Kim Jong Il. Among them:

  • His birth was foretold by a swallow and heralded by a double rainbow. When he was born, a new star appeared in the night sky.
  • The first time he picked up a golf club, he shot 11 holes-in-one. He then decided to retire from the sport for ever.
  •  Kim has the ability to alter the weather simply through the power of thought.
  •  He had learned to walk at just 3 weeks and was talking at 8 weeks.
  •  As a junior high school pupil in Pyongyang, he corrected and chastised his teachers for their incorrect interpretations of history.




Are these stories true? I don't know, but they don't tell stories like that about you and me.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Monopoly on "Religious"

It is accepted as a truism within the frum world that only frum Jews are really religious. Those Jews who belong to other (presumed illegitimate) streams of Judaism are, at best, fooling themselves. No one who isn't frum really has a connection to being Jewish. It might be possible to maintain this illusion when most frum people had little contact with non-frum Jews in a Jewish setting. With the internet, that has changed.

I came across this video while browsing through Youtube.



It's called My Mothers Sabbath Candles. It was written by Jack Yellen in 1951 and is sung here by the Barry Sisters, Yiddish theater stars who broke into mainstream recording. Neither Yellen nor the Barry Sisters were what we would now consider frum. Yet my first thought when I listened to it was that it wouldn't be out of place on a CD released by a frum singer today.



I scrolled through the video suggestions Youtube generates on the side of the page, and I found this version, sung by Avraham Freid. Not exactly part of an album, and it's part of a kiruv campaign, but I think it makes the point.


I also came across this, which for some reason I found funny.