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hovering between the quest for absolute truth and the pursuit of utter nonsense
gloss, n.
  1. A brief explanatory note usually inserted in the margin or between lines of a text.
  2. An extensive commentary, often accompanying a text or publication.
  3. A purposefully misleading interpretation or explanation.
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"The limits of my language means the limits of my world."
-Ludwig Wittgenstein
"An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it."
-Mahatma Gandhi
Segal's Law:
A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure.
"Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And East is East and West is West and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste more like prunes than a rhubarb does. Now, uh... Now you tell me what you know."
-Groucho Marx

~ Tuesday, December 18, 2007 ~

Not in Miracles
The story of the oven of Akhnai is one of Judaism's all-time greatest hits, so I figured it'd be a good one to present to my students in Monday School. While I was preparing the lesson, though, I found something that I'd never noticed before.

The story, found in Bava Metzia 59, tells of a dispute among a group of sages over whether a certain type of oven can transmit impurity. The question comes up because the oven is an innovation for its time. Most ovens are just simple one-piece deals, and it's clear from the law that because they fall into the Container category, they can transmit impurity. If a normal oven becomes impure, it has to be carefully cleaned before it can be used again. This is annoying for people who are trying to cook. But there's a loophole: if a container shatters, the resulting pieces are said to neither acquire nor transmit impurity, because they are not containers. So some fellow named Akhnai apparently thought up an oven that can't transmit impurity because it's not, technically, a container. He took a bunch of ceramic pieces, assembled them into an oven shape, filled the spaces with sand, and coated the whole thing with glaze. Each individual container-piece can't transmit impurity, and the oven was made of all the individual pieces, so the oven itself can't transmit impurity either. Voila! An everpure oven. Clever, huh?

But according to the rabbis, not clever enough. They ruled that the oven, although made of pieces that were by themselves always clean, was a thing different from its component parts. When put together, the pieces become a whole container, and this new container becomes susceptible to the dirtiness of whatever should happen to creep in and die.

But there was one sage who disagreed. Rabbi Eliezer said the oven is indeed everpure, just as Akhnai had intended. He tries to prove to three other rabbis that he's right, but instead of explaining his reasoning and citing proof-texts to support his claim, as he should have, he calls on the powers of heaven to convince his opponents. Apparently Rabbi Eliezer has a way with the laws of nature.

First he points to a carob tree. "If I'm right," he tells the guys, "let that carob tree show it." This is the equivalent of "If I'm wrong, may God strike me down right here," only more impressive, because the carob tree instantly uproots and launches itself one hundred cubits into the air. The other rabbis aren't impressed, though.

"The law is not in a carob tree," they tell him drily.

"Well then, if I'm right, let that river show it," says Rabbi Eliezer, and suddenly the river starts flowing backward, but the other rabbis just shake their heads.

"A river flowing backward is not a valid argument," they point out.

"Well if I'm right," says Rabbi Eliezer, who is apparently too frenzied at this point to notice that his method isn't working, "let the walls of the Beit Midrash show it!" One of the walls of the house of study immediately starts falling over.

"You stay out of this," Rabbi Joshua snaps, and the wall stops falling, but out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer, it doesn't go back upright either. ""Anyway," Rabbi Joshua says to Rabbi Eliezer, "the answer is not in a wall."

At his wits' end, Rabbi Eliezer cries out, "If I'm right, let heaven show it!"

And a voice calls down from heaven, "Why are you still arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? Don't you know he's always right?"

And Rabbi Joshua says to the heavenly voice, "Go to hell." Just kidding. He says, "Lo bashamayim hee," which means, "It is not in heaven." This is where everyone who knows their Tanakh starts laughing or groaning, because Rabbi Joshua is quoting a piece of Deuteronomy out of context. (I imagine it must have been, for them, like it would be for you or me to hear the punchline to that joke about the king sending his pages to sneak through the yellow fingers: it'd be the same experience of hearing a familiar, oft-repeated phrase reinterpreted in a new context, leading to a surprising answer that was not the original intention of the phrase. Remember, these guys had quotes from the Tanakh filling their collective consciousness; some of them had the whole thing committed to memory. For our part, we have corporate slogans filling our collective consciousness. How far we've come.)

The thing he's referring to in Deuteronomy is a bit where Moses is reminding the people that obeying the law is not so hard that they can't do it. "It is not in heaven," he tells them, "but rather, it's right here in front of you, well within your reach." The implication is that God wouldn't be asking us to do the impossible, so we should stop complaining about how hard it is to obey his law, and just start doing it. It's not so far from "Hard work never killed anyone," so I can imagine lots of school boys having a less-than-fond association with that quote.

"Rebbe, how am I ever going to learn all this? It's impossible!"

"Joshy, stop complaining. Lo bashamayim hee."

"Yeah, but maybe I'm still not tall enough to reach it."

So imagine how satisfying it must have been for those school boys to grow up and transform the quote from something that might have been used to say, "Get back to work," to something that means, "Now we're in charge."

And that's exactly how it's interpreted. In this story, the quote is used to prove that it's through the discussion and reasoning process, not through miraculous revelation, that we arrive at The Truth. We're in charge now. That doesn't mean we can go around changing (or casting away) the laws, willy-nilly, but it does mean the final decision rests in our hands. Liberal Jews are just crazy in love with this story, as you can imagine, because it lends official weight to the outlook they were going to adopt regardless. If the Talmud says we're justified, we really must be right!

I'm not sure the story is meant as a sincere suggestion that we ought to crown ourselves the New Lawmakers, though. After this exchange, Rabbi Jeremiah explains and defends Rabbi Joshua's position by quoting another passage, and I discovered today while I was preparing the lesson that this second quote isn't just taken out of context, as the first quote is; it's used to support a view that is the exact opposite of the view expressed in the original text. The result is not only a twisting of the passage's meaning but also a shocking departure from what I would have thought was a basic Jewish value.

Here's how it goes. After the Bat Kol, the heavenly voice, comes and speaks in defense of Rabbi Eliezer, and Rabbi Joshua responds with "lo bashamayim hee," the narrator of the story asks, "What did he mean by this?" and then quotes Rabbi Jeremiah for the answer: "We pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because [God Himself had] long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, 'acharei rabim l'hatot [after the majority must one incline].'" This is a quote from Exodus 23:2, which, when I read it on Monday, I discovered to be saying exactly the opposite--after the majority opinion you must NOT incline, even when you really think you should. The beginning of Exodus 23 is talking about the obligations of a witness who's testifying in court about a dispute, and it's listing reasons why the witness might be tempted to present a biased report of what happened. He might adjust it to agree with the majority opinion, for example, or perhaps to favor the poor and downtrodden. The text is reminding the witness not to do either one. Why? Because even more important than favoring the poor or agreeing with the majority is preserving the integrity of the court investigation process. Obviously! The piece that Rabbi Jeremiah quotes from Exodus, "acharei rabim l'hatot," isn't about bowing to the majority at all; it's about refusing to do so, for the sake of uncovering the truth. Doesn't the second view sound more like Judaism? And yet, Rabbi Joshua brazenly asserts that God has always told us to follow the majority. Ridiculous.

The thing is, I think he knew just how ridiculous he was being. I suspect the whole story is intended as a big joke. A joke with a lesson, but still a joke. And it's got the character of a joke, hasn't it? "There were four rabbis sitting and arguing" might as well be "Three guys walk into a bar." One is against the other three, and the proofs he brings are exaggerated and irrelevant, just the way they should be, if we're trying to tell a silly story. I suspect the schoolhouse wall's falling was added later to explain how the real-life-wall in question got that way, because not only is it the odd one out (all the other examples are outdoor, natural things; this one is indoor and man-made) but also because it interrupts the story; it flows better without it. Anyway, without the schoolhouse wall incident, we have three events, which is also what you'd expect in a joke. And at the end of the story, we get two punchlines. First is the subversive reinterpretation of lo bashamayim hee, and second is the just-plain-ridiculous reinterpretation of acharei rabim l'hatot. The second quote seems, to me, like a big wink, a way of indicating just how facetiously they meant the first quote. I might have taken lo bashamayim hee seriously if it hadn't been for acharei rabim l'hatot.

But what becomes of this we're-in-charge outlook that we liberal Jews have treasured for so long? Do we admit it has no basis in the ancient texts? Do we acknowledge that what we're doing today isn't anything like what the rabbis were doing long ago? Do we still get to call ourselves Jews?

Let's go back for a minute to the story itself. The argument over the purity of the oven is not really about whether authority lies with us or with God; it's about whether the oven was or wasn't capable of transmitting impurity. It's true that it was made of broken pieces, but to argue that if each piece can't transmit impurity, then the resulting whole can't transmit impurity either is like arguing that if a single piece of trash can never be a heap by itself, then many pieces of trash will never comprise a heap either. When you put the broken pieces together and assemble them in an oven shape, you have a container, and so of course it can transmit impurity as well as any other container. (Rabbi Eliezer was wrong to argue that it can't, and he was even more wrong to think that he could prove it with miracles. The first is forgivable; the second is grounds for dismissal, and indeed, Rabbi Eliezer gets excommunicated for it.) The real struggle isn't between God and humans over who establishes the law; it's between miracles and reason over what establishes the truth. When reason wins, God isn't being dethroned at all. He's being strengthened. The Jewish idea of God is more reason than miracle, anyway.

So Rabbi Eliezer, for all the credibility his perfect record had given him, seems to have slipped up for once. And because he tried to prove his point with miracles instead of trying to explain it one step at a time, he never noticed his mistake. How, then, was he able to wreak miracles, to call upon the Bat Kol, for the sake of proving a spurious argument? Shouldn't his miracles only have worked if he was correct in his position? Apparently, being able to do miracles is not the same as being right. And we saw this elsewhere, too--Pharaoh's sorcerers achieve miracles right alongside Aaron and Moses, and we know how that turns out. We get warned elsewhere against being swayed by miracle-workers, too--it's understood that other people could have actual power to work miracles whether they were using those powers to convince people of the truth or to deceive them. We're taught to keep a good hold on the teachings we've been given, no matter how marvelous the idol-worshipers' miracles are. The point is, miracles don't prove anything. Judaism has its share of miracles, but it's really not a miracle-based religion. Miracles don't prove God's nature and they don't prove the nature of the law; that kind of thing is either self-evident or it isn't, but whether Akhnai's oven transmits impurity is a question whose answer can only be revealed through careful thought and discussion. A tree flying into the air, a river running backward, and a wall tilting are all impressive, but they have nothing to do with the nature of the oven, and even a Bat Kol doesn't trump logic. What's the lesson? Don't trust miracle-workers and heavenly voices. That's cheating. Figure it out for yourself. The answer is not so hard to find that it requires a prophet to find it. It is not in heaven. It is very near to you, in your own head, on your own bookshelf, and in your discussions with your peers, and you can figure it out.

So what about that earlier question, "Are we still Jews?" Well, I think it's clear from this that to say, "from now on I'm going to decide what the law is according to my own wishes" does not fall under a traditional definition of Judaism, but as long as we keep genuinely trying to seek the truth through reasonable methods, then yes, we're still doing what the sages before us did. As it happens, we're also doing what God wants, as the epilogue to the story shows. Sometime later, Rabbi Nathan asks Elijah the prophet what God was doing while Rabbi Eliezer and the other sages were arguing, and Elijah says, "He was laughing with joy and saying, "My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me!" Apparently, God doesn't want us to be swayed in our opinions by flying trees or heavenly voices or anything else but sparkling clear reasoning, and he was just pleased as could be to see that we'd finally reached the point where he no longer needed to reveal his teachings through miracles, the point where we were so wise and so learned that we could finally work together to figure out for ourselves what the law is, what we ought to do.* Either that or God could tell it was all a big joke, and it was just killing him.

*If that isn't what it means to become like elohim, knowing good from evil, I don't know what is.

~ prattled by Miriam at 2:17 p.m. [+] ~ 1 comment

* * *
~ Monday, December 10, 2007 ~
Inside Out
I stopped posting a year or so ago because my love life turned inside out, and it consumed my thoughts to the point that I didn't feel like anything else mattered enough to write about, but for the sake of other people's privacy, and my own, I didn't want to make any of it public. I gather from little snippets I've been reading that it's public now, at least in the circles that matter, and I think I'm ready to write about it, too. Besides, I've missed blogging.

The incompletes are still incomplete, and thesis continues to limp along, though sometimes it feels like one foot is moving forward and the other one is nailed to the floor. I have sudden inspirations and grand ideas that contradict one another, or realisations that I'm sure I can expound upon until I sit down and try, and after an hour of typing I realise I've wandered into the Wilderness of Digression because I don't really know how to talk about what I'm trying to talk about. I start worrying that I've lost my ability to write philosophy, if I ever had any to begin with, and to assuage my fears, I go and write long emails to people in which I argue in favor of or against some idea. It doesn't work, but it's led to some awfully interesting discussions.

I have two library books that are several months overdue. I've been holding onto them because I intend to use them for the papers, and I'm afraid that if I return them to the library, the librarians will unfold all the corners of pages I've got folded down as markers, but I've had them for so long that I'm not allowed to renew them anymore. I figure I should just buy them by now, but I haven't yet.

My room fluctuates from pin-neat to comfortably messy to uncomfortably messy. We are currently at the nadir of the cycle. I need to do laundry.

In addition to the tutoring job, which I still have and which I love more than any other job I've ever held, I took a job teaching at a nearby synagogue's Monday School, where I teach 4th- and 5th-graders about prayers and the Hebrew language and other Jew stuff. I took the job during the end of summer, when there was a lull in demand for my tutoring services at the same time as there was an increase in my expenditures, and the educational director wooed me with promises of gaining new tutees through my work as a classroom teacher (this has not come to pass). I'm not exactly sorry I took the job, as every experience is educational, but honestly, the primary lesson I take from this may well be that I should learn to stay out of classrooms, because classrooms have students, and students have parents, and parents have issues. I like most of the students, and I think they're into the stuff we learn, for the most part, but I like tutoring so much better that I'm pretty sure I won't be coming back.

The funny thing about that is that I wasn't planning to even be here in New York beyond the end of 2007. I was supposed to be done with the masters degree by now and off to California for the next chapter of my life, and I feel sort of vastly inadequate that I'm not, but on the other hand, my income is not negative for the first time in my life, and I have remarkable freedom here, and I've made some good friends, and on top of all that, it's New York, and I really do love this city, in spite of the little things that I don't love.

Today, while I was on my way to Monday School, I passed a young Chassidic boy who looked like he was the age of my students. He had posted himself on the corner, like they do, and he called out "Excuse me..." as I walked by. Figuring I knew what was coming, I turned around. "Are you Jewish?" he asked. Bingo.

Now, my hair was down, and I was wearing my black hat (vaguely newsboy-ish), and I'm half-Russian and currently pasty-white (it's Winter here), so it would have been harder for me to look any more Jewish than I did. I laughed. "Of course I am."

"Ok, well, do you have a menoyroh?"

"A what? Oh, a menorah! Yeah, I've got one." This is funny, because I made my own little cheapy menorah out of a cereal box and foil when I realised it was Chanukah and I didn't have one. I was proud of my creation, but when my mother heard I'd been reduced to such Dire Straits, she mailed me a real one overnight, which was awfully thoughtful of her, but what she didn't realise is that there's a value to having things in the apartment that are unimportant and disposable. The Advocate understands this, and was lamenting to me only yesterday about how she wants more space, but can't bear to get rid of anything. In her case, it's mostly furniture, but for me, even the possession of a Nice Menorah is a liability. Even now, as I type this, it's staring at me with all its guilt-infliction-power on. "You're not treating me with proper respect," it glowers. "I should be dusted and polished and displayed in the window, not set carelessly on the edge of this coffee table you picked up off the sidewalk without even washing. You are a Bad Housekeeper!" Soon, I tell it, and glance in the mirror at the cereal box menorah, whose candles are burning low in the window. Anyway, my menorah-tally is greater than 0, and I told the fellow on the corner as much.

"Well, we're giving out menoyros, but if you've got one...." He showed me his supply. They looked pretty high-quality for street-corner donations. "You lit already, right?"

"What, tonight??" It was a little before 3 in the afternoon, and the sun sets early these days, but not that early.

"No, no, the past six nights."

"Oh, sure, yeah."

"Good!" He looked pleased, but a little awkward. I'd taken away his usefulness, I guess.

"Well, thanks anyway," I told him. "Happy Chanukah."

It surprised me, how it stuck with me, how happy the encounter left me. I guess most 11-year-old boys I see aren't so eager to talk to strangers, much less to find out whether they can use a menoyroh, but it's more than that. Usually, the people peddling religion on the street corners have a message for me that is about as far from "Good for you, you're doing it right!" as it can possibly be, and, well, I guess I have a delicate ego, because I like approval, even when it comes from people who don't know anything about me except that I've been lighting my menorah. There's also a little bit of feeling like I'm finally part of the club, instead of one of the outsiders. It's validation. Brooklyn is a comfortable place to be Jewish.

Compare this to the little mini-experience I had yesterday afternoon, when I was foolish enough to venture into the wilds of Connecticut to meet a new student. As her father drove us from the train station to their house, we were doing the requisite small talk, and he asked me where I went to school. I gave him the whole list, starting with CUNY, then Stanford, and then Drisha and RRC. "I was going to be a rabbi for a while," I said, to explain the latter two.

"Now that's interesting," he said. "We're Catholic, but I've always been interested in the different sort of...philosophy...of Judaism, and the history, and why the Jews rejected Christ."

I didn't burst out laughing, but I sure wanted to. Instead, I carefully told him that there's lots of information addressing that question online, if he's interested in reading about it. Granted, I'm a little touchy about that topic these days, but still, the guy's in his 50s if he's a day, and if he's so interested, why has he not done any of his own reading about this? Rejected Christ, my carefully concealed horns.

Which brings me to the main thing I haven't talked about on here yet, and the reason I sort of stopped blogging almost a year ago. I'm romantically involved with someone who would never marry a Jew. His name is The Saint, and he sparkles and shines, but the religion thing is the cause of much angst for both of us, especially him, since he'd like to be married and raising children already. Still, we soldier on, I because I'm just that crazy about him, and he because I guess he hasn't met anyone else yet. Indigo remarked to me last week, quite accurately, that if she'd told me a year ago that a year from then I'd be completely wrapped up in studying the LDS religion, I'd have never believed her. And yet, I find it a little thrilling to think that I can't predict things after all, that I don't have my future all figured out, that life still has some surprises in store for me, that it can still turn my world inside out. It's almost like I'm four years old again, and there are still wonderful new things to discover. This time, of course, my heart is going along for the ride, and a lot of the time it's painful, but on the other hand, what a ride it is.

~ prattled by Miriam at 8:43 p.m. [+] ~ 1 comment

* * *

Also, the colors changed. The outlook is still rosy, but I was tired of looking at all that pink.

~ prattled by Miriam at 8:52 a.m. [+] ~ 0 comment

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