Friday, May 26, 2006

It is now one week since one of Israel's great leaders, a pillar of the Labor Party, former head of the Histadrut, Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, was taken from us at the age of 100. It is most appropriate that we honor his memory with the words he wrote upon the death of one of his heroes:

[We] were shocked to hear of the terrible tragedy that has befallen the nations of the Soviet Union, the world proletariat and all of progressive mankind, upon the death of the great leader and extolled commander, Josef Vissarionovich Stalin. We lower our flag in grief in memory of the great revolutionary fighter, architect of socialist construction, and leader of the world's peace movement. His huge historical achievements will guide generations in their march towards the reign of socialism and communism the world over.

Yeah, verily, Ben-Aharon, deserves no less a lament. Indeed, as the press universally declared this week, he was the "last of the giants". (Hat tip: Amnon Lord)

Monday, May 22, 2006

Sometimes an old song transports me back to my youth. Songs that were very popular at a particular time but then (usually justifiably) dropped off the radar screen can be particularly powerful this way. For example, if I hear two bars of Tony Orlando singing "Tie a yellow ribbon 'round that old oak tree", I actually feel as if I'm on a particular spot on the Grand Central Parkway. Same for Paul Simon doing "Me and Julio down by the schoolyard".

A weird thing happened last week. I was listening to the BeeGees in my car (all you fineshmeckers can keep your jokes to yourselves...) and with each song I sank deeper into my youth. Man, did they have a string of dated songs or what. How Deep is Your Love, More than a Woman. It kept on coming.

Here's where it gets weird. I seem to have gotten stuck back there. All of a sudden everybody is talking about the fact that Yudi K. and Mordechai W. are sexual predators. Hello! Hello! Scotty, can you beam me back to the 21st century! It can't be that these depraved maniacs, whom everybody my age knew about in our youth, are actually still out there, can it?

If I listen to Gary Pucket and the Union Gap or Jay Black and the Americans, what will happen? Will Man will land on the moon and the Amazin' Mets win the World Series? Or maybe the New York media will finally run a story about Eli T., whose victims would've been better off if he'd just stuck to breaking and entering.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

I spent some time this Shabbos reading the Orthodox Forum book on the “conceptual approach to Jewish learning”, which in this case refers to the Brisker derech.

The eponymous lead article is by my revered teacher, RAL. Like everything RAL writes, the article is a masterful review of all the relevant issues revealing complete control of the sources and thorough grasp of all their intricacies.

It’s also quite tedious. Now I don’t really expect a discourse on the Brisker derech to be zany and madcap. But is fluid and to the point really too much to ask? Yes, the use of a hundred fancy words where ten ordinary ones would turn the trick is part of the problem but not all of it. If you’ve read enough RYBS, RAL and RSC, you’re probably already accustomed to the sorry results of the sesquipedalian impulse. No, there’s a bigger problem here.

(Time out to say one thing: It would be arrogant of me to even state the obvious fact that RAL is an exemplary scholar and human being. He does not need my worthless approbation. If my style is a bit irreverent, this should not be taken as reflecting any lack of awe on my part for RAL’s brilliance and character.)

Let us begin with an example of Brisker conceptualization that RAL cites in the article. Consider a particular requirement for a succah to be kosher, say, that it have more shade than sun. If a succah fails to satisfy this requirement is it not a succah, a succah but not a kosher one, or a kosher succah in which one is not yotzeh the mitzvah? I assume that if RAL chose this example to make his point that there are numerous consequences to how this particular question is resolved. There had better be because I was pretty clear on the more-shade-than-sun requirement until the fairly fuzzy conceptualization kind of threw me. So I would hope that there’s some payoff lurking here.

Let me explain. People in my line of work are not afraid of abstraction. But abstractions are pointless unless they offer the benefits of parsimoniousness. That is, if a whole lot of details are subsumed by a single abstract rule, the rule has explanatory power and is a plausible candidate for use in generalizing the known details. If the abstract rule is more complicated than the details it subsumes, then the rule has no explanatory power. You might as well just enumerate the details and be done with it.

In a good piece of conceptual Torah, we are faced with a number of unexplained facts about something. (If it’s a yeshivish piece of Torah, the facts will be presented as kashas in search of a terutz, but this is not essential.) Finally, the something in question is recast in some more abstract way and all the facts about it suddenly line up sensibly like ducks in a row.

Unfortunately, I’ve heard plenty of Brisker Torah in my day that doesn’t fit that bill but rather consists of abstraction for its own sake. (Or, at least, so it seemed to me but maybe I missed something.) Sometimes there are so few facts to explain that the abstraction is simply unhelpful and sometimes there are zero facts to explain (or questions to answer) so that the abstraction is utterly meaningless. Sometimes a particular abstraction actually has negative explanatory power (such as the insistence that aveilus of bein hametzarim is aveilus of shteim esreh chodesh) because it is contradicted by more facts than it actually explains. And sometimes abstraction for its own sake simply misses a point that is clear to those a bit more in touch with concrete reality (such as when the question of whether everyone at the seder needs to say the hagaddah to be yotzeh the mitzvah of sipur is framed in terms of the question of shome’a ke-oneh, completely oblivious to the fact that down here on earth the whole idea of sipur is that one person talks and the others listen).

One result of abstraction for its own sake is that the dearth of ground facts doesn’t allow conceptual questions to actually get resolved. Instead of proving that the proper conceptualization is X rather than Y, we are simply faced with two possibilities. But then why stop there? Assuming that it is X and not Y, we can always hatch some other equally irresolvable dilemma. And the full tree can be grown and elucidated ad infinitum, or at least until lunchtime.

That can get pretty tedious.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

For those of you already in a Yom HaAtzmaut state of mind, I refer you to my post of last year, because I’m still catching up from Pesach.

There I was on Erev Pesach, reading a few Haggadah commentaries in parallel, when I came across the following two passages. So, here’s the game: if you haven’t seen them, try to guess who wrote each. (Translations, bracketed comments and ellipses are mine.)


Matbilin, matza, maror, mesubin – This is the order [of the four questions] in the Mishnah in the Yerushalmi, Rif and Rosh..., in the siddur of Rav Amram Gaon (in the BM manuscript), in the siddur of Rav Saadia Gaon, Rambam, Tur, Abudraham… And likewise in the first printed Haggadah (Soncino 1485). This corresponds to their order [of actions] on this night: dipping (at least the first one which is only to arouse the curiosity of the children), matza, maror. The question regarding mesubin is not among the above because it was added many years after the original questions, that is, when they stopped eating while reclining year-round. Therefore, it isn’t mentioned in the Mishnah or Gemara…
We might say forthwith that there are many variations in the manuscripts of the Talmud, not only with regard to the order but also with regard to the number of questions (there are those who omit the question about maror or about roasting even during the period when the Temple existed). We might say that the reason for this is that one is not constrained to necessarily ask all the questions, even not lekhatchila (Pesachim 115b: petartun lomar), and therefore there were in the first place varying customs or there was no standard custom at all.


[Matzah] suggests to us the symbol of the naïve child and his basic experience, which must carry over into adulthood…. Hametz, leavened bread, represents the perfect, the fully grown, the end of the process… Likutei Torah phrases it as follows:
Hametz represents rising and elevation, for it swells and rises and
lifts itself up, which is not the case with matzhah, which does not rise at all... Matzah is also called “the food of faith” in the Zohar, for faith too is a matter of nullification, as one nullifies his intellect and does not seek reasons, but rather believes the truth with pure faith…

Man’s relationship to and craving for God is an experience of katnut ha-mohin, an irresistible inclination that is not related to man’s intellectual maturity… I exist in community with father, mother, and God. Attempts by the adult to substitute an abstraction for this real experience will result in depriving the latter of its living content.

The identities of the writers will be posted tomorrow.

Update: OK, so my "tomorrow" turned into something of a mañana. In any event, congratulations to two(?) anonymous commenters who nailed both authors.

Indeed, the first passage is from pages 49-50 of the haggadah commentary by the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson zt”l, whose later writing was characterized by a somewhat less scholarly style.

And the second passage is from pages 64-66 of “Festival of Freedom” by “the Rov”, Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik, who proceeds to negate his intellect for another 115 pages ("finding Him not at the level of noesis but at the level of naivete").