Thursday, November 22, 2018

Cognitive Shock Treatment - A Reflection 10 Years On

Image credit: affen ajlfe, Flickr
In June of 2008, I had the dubious distinction of being featured in a blog piece called "Torah and Relativity: Attack of the Jewish Cranks," penned by Mark Chu-Carroll, a PhD computer scientist.

It went through an essay I'd recently posted online in which I speculated that seemingly miraculous phenomena attested to in Solomon's Temple, such as the center-most lamp of the Menorah staying lit all day, the Showbread staying warm for a week, and the Ark fitting in the Holy of Holies despite its staves being too long to fit, could be explained by way of Special and General Relativity.

In Chu-Carroll's essay, my ideas were taken to task and I was roundly mocked. What I want to do here in this reflection is two things: 1) highlight where exactly I went wrong in my thinking, and 2) talk about the role of mockery in critique.

When Cognitive Bias Leads to Far-Fetched Explanations

Let's start with this one:
Mr. Bar-Cohn claims that these are strange events that require some explanation: there must be a reason why one particular lamp's oil lasted longer that the others, and there must be a reason why the bread stayed fresh for so long. (Apparently explanations like "different lamps can end up burning fuel faster or slower depending on minor variations in how they're built, airflow, etc." don't fly.) No, it can't be anything mundane: it must be a miracle!
Actually, I wouldn't have called it a miracle. I assumed the Torah to be a repository of "ancient technology," and that "energy" was somehow at the heart of what we now take to be miracles. That was my presumption, my bias, and it led me into building what I thought was a creative "solution" to explaining things that were otherwise hard to explain on naturalistic grounds.

But the author is right, in doing so I failed to consider other simpler, more plausible explanations. He mentions some possible physical explanations that would account for the lamp staying lit and bread staying fresh. This is an important point, and we see this kind of thinking all over the place.

For instance: A person claims to have seen a ghost. They had some sensory experience presumably. But why not assume it was simply a flash of light, wind, an optical illusion or hallucination? Or this? Why posit a far more radical thing, that the deceased can live on as quasi-spirit entities which have nothing better to do than meander through our houses and spook us? Because the person believes that such things exist, and therefore the road for mental suggestion has been paved so that the experience is interpreted in kind. When a door shuts on its own, or a movement is caught out of the corner of the eye, the mind goes right to "ghost" and the belief is confirmed. Confirmation bias.

Which is exactly what happened in my case, except it wasn't an experience. My belief about the Torah encompassing a technology was "confirmed" when I managed to devise a creative (albeit totally erroneous) explanation using "physics."

And of course there's an even better explanation for the Temple phenomena - that they simply didn't occur, that these are legends which were passed down, and which the rabbis of the Talmud taught, in order to inspire awe and wonder in relation to God and the Temple.

"Science-ish" Ignorance and Misconceptions

Let's continue:
So he looks to the Torah again, and - suprise (sic.)! - he finds a list of other events that he argues show time dilation. Of course, he misses one of the most important parts of the real scientific method... in science, real science, you try to prove that your hypothesis is wrong... That's not the approach of Mr. Bar-Cohn. No - he takes the classic crank route: he only looks for evidence that his hypothesis is correct, never for exidence (sic.) that it's wrong.
Right. Even if we were talking about real data, carefully selecting the data that fit your hypothesis is called cherry-picking. It's bad science, and it's dishonest when done knowingly. And of course in my case, we're not even talking data, just interpretations made with the help of the bias I discussed previously.

I also offered a speculation that the long lifespans of figures in the early stories of Genesis could be explained by residual "energy" left over from Eden, in Special-Relativistic fashion, to which the author responded:
And that would blow away a ton of other Jewish fundie arguments about the long lifespans - provided this bozo actually understood what relativity means. But he doesn't. So he appears to think, for example, that you could have people living in a time dilation field age more slowly than other people, while still experiencing the same amount of subjective time as people outside of it. 
Well, I could potentially counter that everyone at the time was living in this time dilation field, aging slowly. But again, what's a simpler explanation: that the Torah is merely conveying the sense of a legendary time period by attributing lifespans in the hundreds of years (like other ancient cultures), or that the earth went through a hitherto undetected, inexplicable time-dilation effect, and that the Torah tradition knew about it all along? The second thing that's important to note here:

I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. 

I hadn't - and still don't have - anything but the most superficial introduction to physics, let alone Relativity Theory. I was making speculations based on total scientific ignorance. As the author says:
The problem with it is, that's not how time dilation works. It's a fairly typical example of trying to understand a complex phenomenon that is really described mathematically, believing that you understand it and can work with it using nothing but informal prose.
And in relation to my "General Relativity" speculations regarding the Ark, he says:
To get the time dilation effect that he wants for the ark - to keep bread oven-fresh and warm for a week - would entail an absolutely astonishing gravitational field, and tidal forces that would tear the earth apart... Relativity does nothing to help: it solves a small problem (why a loaf of  bread supposedly stayed warm) and replaces it with a much bigger problem (why the earth didn't shatter into a new asteroid field due to tidal forces of a massive localized gravity field).
Right, so not only was I speaking from ignorance, but I also got rid of a smaller problem by introducing a far bigger one. This is precisely what makes so many claims outlandish. Whether it's paranormal claims of UFOs, ghosts, or telekinesis, religious claims explaining miracles, or conspiracy theories about 9/11 or the moon landing, for any of these to be true would require any number of momentous, untested, unevidenced - and therefore highly improbable - assumptions to be accepted. The author concludes:
It's also typical of what always drives me crazy about fundamentalists. Why can't a loaf of bread staying warm just be a bit of poetic license? Why can't talk of how long a day is for an angel just be a bit of poetic phrasing, instead of a bogglingly stupid way of talking about the speed of light?
Tough medicine to take, but he's right.

Shock Treatment: Is There a Place for Mockery?

This rebuttal to my essay was an emotional and intellectual shock to the system. Not only were my precious creative ideas demolished, but I was ridiculed as a "fundie" (fundamentalist) and other epithets, both in the piece itself and in the comment section. I was heartened by one commenter, who noted:
I was slightly distracted by the number of ad hominem references (e.g., bozo etc.) in this post. I have no sympathy for crackpots, but demolishing their position does not require (nor is it aided by) constantly calling them bozos and idiots.
But I don't think it's any coincidence that this take-down coincided with my foray into skepticism and desire to learn more about critical thinking, science, and the perils of cognitive bias. Certainly it led to me pulling my article, as well as my "Torah Technology Institute" website. It led to a total reevaluation of my approach to Torah. And I thank Dr. Chu-Carroll for that. Truly I do. It was a painful process of transformation, but I haven't looked back.

Could this have been accomplished without my having been mercilessly mocked? I'd like to think so, but I wonder whether a bit of shock therapy wasn't precisely what I needed to give me the proverbial "kick in the rear" to move forward in my thinking more definitively, more rapidly.

But where it comes to mockery as a strategy, I suppose I'd tentatively conclude as follows:

I think there is a place for "general" mockery where it targets ideas, subject matter. There's a place for humor and bluntness, shaking our heads and venting frustration at unfathomable ludicrousness and ignorance.

But there are almost always better ways to argue and change minds than through mockery. And when it's personal, directed toward an individual, that is another thing entirely. The idea of a group reveling in another person's humiliation not only reflects an aspect of human nature that can hardly be called our most noble side, it runs counter to the ethical values to which I personally subscribe.

Even on the rare occasion when a ridicule-laden essay manages to change the subject's mind (note the astonishment in the author's "update" at the start of the article), it's probably best thought of as a "mitzva ha-ba'ah be-aveira" - a good thing which comes as a result of a wrongful act. And social interaction where the ends justify the means I don't think is a place we want to be.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Cultural Mitzvot and Religious Mitzvot

The law codes of the Torah routinely intertwine ritual and ethical/interpersonal rules. It is a holistic system intended to create a nation which conducts itself in an elevated, Godly fashion. This lack of ritual-ethical distinction also attests to the fact that in ancient times "religion" was not a separate category. It was an inextricable part of the societal and personal mindset. Offering sacrifices or first fruits to the god was, no less than fair business practices, part of being a moral person, an upstanding member of society. It would betray a character flaw to act otherwise.

Early on in Jewish history however, a problematic phenomenon was identified whereby ritual performance was being carried out by people who were ethically compromised. This was harshly criticized in the very first chapter of Isaiah:
"What do I need your abundant sacrifices for?" says YHVH... "I have no desire for the blood of bulls, lambs and he-goats... Don't bring any more vain offerings; it is abominable incense to me... I detest your new moons and your holidays, they are a bother for me... And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; when you increase prayer, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash, purify; put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil. Learn to do good; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, do justice for the orphan, fight for the widow." (Isaiah 1:10-17)
The formal distinction between ritual and ethical/interpersonal mitzvot was later recorded in the Mishna, which stresses the greater weight of responsibility needed to atone for interpersonal sins than for sins against God:
Sins between man and God, Yom Kippur atones for. Sins between man and his friend, Yom Kippur does not atone for until he appeases his friend. (Yoma 8:9)
And the centrality of the ethical/interpersonal mitzvot was stated famously in the Talmud, when a non-Jew asks Hillel to teach him all of the Torah "on one leg," i.e. in a single sound bite:
[Hillel] converted him and said to him, "That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study." (BT Shabbat 31a)
We know, as did the great luminaries of the tradition over the past 3000 years, that ethical scrupulousness is the bedrock of the Torah. And yet, it is the ritual observances which are routinely obsessed upon, which have the tendency to become fetishized. Why?

Because it is rituals which identify us outwardly as "Jewish." Performance of a ritual is an act of tribal/communal signalling. It is a declarative act of association with an in-group, the connection to a particular culture. And there is certainly something to that. Not only do we need ritual, culture, and group identification on the human level, but if we drop Jewish rituals, over time (generations) we cease to identify as Jews.

For these reasons, I believe, we've tended to be highly "protective" over matters of ritual observance. However, this can also produce unhealthy side-effects among individuals and communities, such as neurosis over performance, feelings of drudgery attached to ritual, social judgment, communal one-upsmanship, religious coercion, loss of perspective, neglect of ethics, and situations where ritual-fulfilling criminals are welcome in synagogue. Such situations generate the understandable response: How can you call people like that "religious"?

We shouldn't be surprised that such people would be labelled religious. Of the two categories of mitzvot, ethical and ritual, which is the one which we typically view as "religious"? It's the ritual mitzvot. Because we naturally associate "religious people" with 1) ritual performance and 2) affiliation with a religious community.

And it is very difficult to rid the mind of this association. If someone dresses like us, talks like us, performs the same rituals as us, identifies with our cultural in-group, there is a strong, human, instinctual "pull" to align with that person over someone in the out-group.

But this is where I think we ought to recognize the fatal flaw of the tribalist tendency, and use our better "spiritual common sense" to override our pre-programmed instincts. To accomplish this, I would suggest that we reframe and rebrand the idea of being "religious." And my proposal is this: Where it comes to the distinction between ritual and ethical mitzvot, let's start thinking of them as follows:

Ritual = Cultural Mitzvot

Ethical = Religious Mitzvot

What this does is recognize that yes, ritual observance does serve an important cultural function. We need cultural identity, group affiliation on the personal level, and we also need it in order to survive as a Jewish people. However, it is an acknowledgement that as deeply personal and meaningful as Jewish culture and particularism can be, these are merely the outer trappings of Jewishness. Ritual performance is a husk, a shell, a levush (garment) a kli (vessel). The inner core of Judaism, the deeply religious, idealistic, Godly, holy, spiritual aspect of Judaism, concerns the ethics, decency, sense of justice, and compassion with which we conduct our lives and interact with fellow human beings. That is the kernel, the essence, the ohr, the inner light which illuminates and fuels the entire enterprise.

If we accept this "reframe," it will change our approach to people, and to the mitzvot.

Morally corrupt, criminal individuals may indeed be "cultural" Jews, identifying with a certain in-group and performing certain rituals, but they are not "religious" Jews, since their inner core is lacking. Individuals who are scrupulously honest, who help strangers under their burdens, who try to ease the suffering of others, who truly care about the welfare of fellow human beings, but who rarely perform Jewish rituals or make outward Jewish identity statements, may not be such "cultural" Jews, but they are very much "religious" Jews in the inner, spiritual sense.

As far as an ethos surrounding the mitzvot themselves, this formulation obviously puts a greater priority on ethical mitzvot. These are not just platitudes of "let's all be nice." When Hillel said to go study, he meant it! The halakha is positively brimming with details and nuance over all the situations wherein we need to apply sensitivity in our dealings with people. We should be scrupulous, machmir, highly concerned over the way our words and actions affect others.

Insofar as the cultural mitzvot, the rituals, I would suggest that they not be so much the subject of "concern" per se, but rather that they should be celebrated, embraced, and enjoyed. All the halakhot pertaining to rituals should thus be geared to making them more meaningful, more enjoyable. If they are felt as a burden, then we are doing something wrong. Accommodations within halakha should be made for such individuals and communities. This should be a priority for rabbis and halakhists, in order to encourage greater cultural, ritual participation, and in order to ease suffering - which is an ethical, religious priority! Likewise, it should be anathema to judge people on their levush, their garb, their ritual performance. Because that is at worst a cultural lapse. However, it is a religious lapse to cause people suffering by antagonizing them over their ritual performance.

With that, I wish everyone a Shabbat shalom. Yes, Shabbat, one of my favorite cultural mitzvot!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Turning Prayer into Advocacy - Torah portion Chukat

Journeying from mount Hor, the Israelites "spoke against God and Moses," aggravated from lack of water and from eating manna, which they call leḥem hakelokel (despised or rotten bread). In response, the people are set upon with fiery serpents (neḥashim haseraphim), "fiery" possibly meaning poisonous or referring to the burning sensation of the bites they sustained. [1] After a multitude die, the people approach Moses and ask for help:
וַיָּבֹא הָעָם אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמְרוּ חָטָאנוּ כִּי דִבַּרְנוּ בַי-הוָה וָבָךְ, הִתְפַּלֵּל אֶל יְ-הוָה וְיָסֵר מֵעָלֵינוּ אֶת הַנָּחָשׁ וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל מֹשֶׁה בְּעַד הָעָם
And the people came to Moses, and they said: We have sinned when we spoke against YHVH and against you; 'hitpalel' to YHVH so that he will remove the serpent from upon us; and Moses 'hitpalel-ed' on behalf of the people. (Num 21:7)
The meaning of 'hitpalel'

What exactly is lehitpalel? The usual translation is "pray." Is that to say then, that we envision Moses "davening," with eyes closed, swaying back and forth in quiet supplication? Did he go up to a mountaintop and cry out to God in exasperation? What did Moses actually do in his prayer? Though the more basic question is this: Why would Moses "pray" when he's able to stroll over to the Tent of Meeting and converse with YHVH face to face?

Contrary to the popular notion, the verb hitpalel in Biblical Hebrew does not mean "pray." It comes from the root palal - to pronounce judgment, to arbitrate or intercede, or speak up for someone (or oneself) in a matter of judgment. Cognates include palpel in Aramaic, to argue, and palālu in Akkadian, to supervise, go out in front. [2]

The picture to have therefore, is of Moses as an advocate, arguing his case in front of the judge, or throwing himself on the mercy of the court (palal also being a cognate of naphal, to fall down). The text does not tell us what Moses said, so we're left guessing as to which strategy he employed.

Despite the mistranslation of hitpalel, our modern-day concept of prayer is often viewed in the Biblical sense, as facing the divine judge with the desire to gain a more favorable judgment. (Though people tend to use the supplicatory approach, as opposed to the "arguing the case" approach.)

Can we persuade God? - Philosophical vs. Biblical approaches

The working assumption seems to be that God is able to be persuaded. This is a theological position with which Maimonides would take issue. He says explicitly that any human terminology used to describe God – not just corporeal terms like God's "hands" and "voice," but also descriptions of God as a "king" or "judge" – must be taken as a metaphor. [3] According to this view, the whole courtroom/judgment motif is metaphor, as is the concept of "changing God's mind" with our supplications, since that ascribes psychological malleability to God, a distinctly human characteristic. For Maimonides, the Torah describes God as having attributes such as "mercy" only for our sake, so that we strive to imitate God and thus cultivate higher character traits. [4]

Tablet of Shamash, solar deity of justice, 9th C. BCE
Maimonides' theology represents the "God of the philosophers." It starts with what he considers to be the philosophically "correct" concept of God, and then works to demonstrate how the Torah can be understood in that light. From a historical perspective however, it is far more likely that ancient Israelite theology conceptualized YHVH in much more down-to-earth, human terms, e.g. envisioning God as actually getting angry and forgiving, and as being a monarch and judge in the plain, literal sense. The word elohim does after all mean both "God/gods" and "judges." Like other gods throughout the Ancient Near East, YHVH was little doubt viewed as an actual divine ruler who could be petitioned for clemency.

Thus when the Torah tells us that Moses interceded on behalf of the people, it was meant to convey his literally conversing with YHVH, divine monarch and judge, and succeeding in being persuasive enough for YHVH to change his mind, relent, and offer a solution.

Training ourselves to be advocates

What can we glean from the above about the concept of prayer in our day? Perhaps we can go back to the original idea of hitpalel, the idea being that we should learn how to "intercede" and "advocate." When faced with hardship and suffering in our own lives and the lives of people around us (whether we know them personally or not), there are two basic modes of reaction: One is to do nothing, either because we've become apathetic, numb to suffering, or we've given up, lost the necessary "grit" to keep fighting for better outcomes. Another reaction, which is embodied in the term hitpalel, is to train ourselves to be advocates, to care deeply and passionately, to display an unapologetic ethical bias toward people's well-being, and to summon the energy, courage and inextinguishable resolve to keep pushing for that well-being, as if the situation depended on us.

Because to the extent that we can do something about it, it does depend on us.


[1] See Baruch Levine, Numbers 21-36, Anchor Yale Bible, pp. 86-87, 2000.
[2] See Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, Köhler, Stamm and Baumgartner, 1993; also The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2005.
[3] See Maimonides' Guide for the Perlplexed, chapter 46 and others.
[4] See Guide, ch. 54.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Disarming the Character Assassin Within - Torah portion Korach

I had the privilege of participating in a "Bibliodrama" this week, led by Yael Unterman. Bibliodrama is an interactive, group role-playing activity involving a Biblical (or other) narrative. Participants take on the perspective of specific people/characters (or even, occasionally, objects) in the text, and in the process they illuminate aspects of the story, and aspects of themselves as projected into the narrative. The result is a sort of improvisational "modern Midrash."

The topic of the Bibliodrama this week was Korach and his rebellion against Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16-17). One of the questions posed toward the end was whether we resonated more with Moses' perspective or with Korach's perspective. Well, any "good" villain in a story will have motivations to which we can relate. And I do relate to Korach's vision of more of a "democratic" system of governance, as he says to Moses and Aaron regarding their leadership:
רַב לָכֶם כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם יְ-הוָה
It is excessive for you, because all of the community - all of them - are holy, and YHVH is among them... (Num 16:3)
In other words, why should Moses and Aaron be the ones who lead the people, preside over sacrificial rites, and lord over them with laws? The people of Israel are all equal under YHVH, who is among the entire nation, not just a few privileged individuals. I can hear that argument. I also resonate with the idea of democracy - rule by the people - over aristocratic or dynastic rule. And it is easy to see how rulers throughout the ancient world, claiming their leadership to have divine sponsorship, could exploit that belief in order to exercise absolute control over the people.

That said, I found myself sympathizing even more so with Moses. The reason relates to the remaining words of the above verse:
וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל יְ-הוָה
...and why should you lift yourselves above the congregation of YHVH?
This is an accusation. Korach believes that Moses and Aaron made themselves rulers, as opposed to having been selected by YHVH. As I said above, given the Ancient Near Eastern context, where every ruler and his brother considered themselves emissaries of the gods, it would be reasonable, even prudent, to maintain some cynicism about claims of divine appointment. 

What's more, Korach didn't have the benefit of the Torah text in front of him. Yes, we know, from having read the narratives of Exodus, that Moses was approached by YHVH, that he did not want the job, that he came up with one reason after another for why he shouldn't do it, to the point that YHVH became downright angry with him (Ex 4:14). We know the formula repeated countless times, "YHVH spoke to Moses, saying..." We know Moses' frustrations with the people and his misgivings about being their leader. But we are in the privileged position of sitting behind the scenes and having an omniscient, God's-eye-view of the narratives - words, emotions, and interactions to which other people in the story, including Korach, were not privy.

So again, that is another vote of sympathy for Korach. However, it's also one for Moses, whom we know - from our God's-eye-view - is being falsely accused. He and his brother did not "lift themselves" above anyone. Moses took on the job as leader with extreme reluctance, and every step of the way since then has been difficult, fraught with tough decisions, hardships and quarrels. He's had to intervene with YHVH on behalf of the people to keep them from being destroyed. His marital life has suffered for it. And if he had a silver shekel for every gray hair on his head he'd sprouted on account of the supposed "privilege" of being their leader... To then be accused of taking the leadership for his own benefit??

So I very much relate to Moses' exasperation. Not only is he falsely accused, but Korach is clearly a charismatic figure and manages to touch a nerve with people who are likewise unhappy with the status quo. And the fact is, it hasn't exactly been rosy in the desert. Yes, the Sinai theophany was pretty spectacular, but even there the people couldn't bear to hear God's voice. Building the Tabernacle was a positive, feel-good project, but then of course Nadav and Avihu got burnt alive on the day of the inauguration. From hunger to hopelessness to idolatry to rebellion to death by sword, fire and plague, it's been one miserable experience after the next. That also has to be part of Moses' frustration. All these trials and tragedies happened under his watch.

If Korach had simply said that the wilderness journey could be going better, that would be one thing. If he even went so far as to suggest that Moses and Aaron's leadership strategies need fine-tuning, or to disagree with the structure of governance, that too would be within the bounds of reasonable criticism. But to impugn their very character, their motivation as leaders, to suggest that they "lifted themselves" above the nation presumably for no reason other than their desire for power, that they were in the business of taking for themselves rather than tirelessly giving, looking out for the well-being of the people at the expense of their own families, their lives, probably their very sanity at times - that is an entirely different type of criticism. It's not strategic differences. It's not an accusation of error or even negligence. It's the presumption of maleficence, corruption, deliberate self-aggrandizement at others' expense.

My takeaway message is this: There is unfortunately no shortage of corruption in this world. But unless we have actual inside, first-hand knowledge, unless we know for certain, we should not be in the business of accusing people of possessing nefarious motives, of covertly planning to harm others, or even being involved in whatever they do solely for purposes of self-enrichment. Because it's a form of blood libel, character assassination.

To criticize a person for poor judgment, ignorance or incompetence - that is fair game (though preferably done tactfully as opposed to abrasively). But to question someone's character simply because it "appears" or "feels" intuitively right to do so, or because it's "convenient," e.g. it serves a political or ideological agenda - that itself is morally corrupt. Accusing someone of "taking" is itself an act of taking. (Indeed the Torah portion opens, "And Korach took...") It is stealing a person's honor, their good name. I say "stealing" because it is something that rightfully belongs to them and was unjustly wrested away. And yet we do it so casually, so freely.

I'll give a mundane example. I was stuck in traffic one day and noticed the source of the pileup - a man was standing by a car, right there in the middle of the road, engaged in a conversation with the driver for what must have been a full two minutes, with all the other cars just sitting there waiting. How utterly self-centered and inconsiderate! I was nearly at the point of getting out of my car and giving him a piece of my mind... And am I so deeply glad I didn't, because a moment later the man walked around to the back of the car and began pushing it.

I had, in my mind - and nearly to his face - impugned this man's character. It "looked" as if he was completely thoughtless and self-absorbed. But of course the very opposite was true. He was going out of his way to offer another person help. He was actually giving, not taking.

Clearly, the main principle that needs to operate here is dan lechaf zechut, judging people favorably. This is not just a religious platitude. Not knowing how to engage in favorable judgment is in fact the source of so many harmful, unjust accusations - from day-to-day experiences like the above example, to outright conspiracy theorizing and blood libels. To neglect favorable judgment is to ascribe guilt and questionable motives without real evidence, stealing a person's good name. If we think of ourselves as critical thinkers and seekers of justice, if we want to prevent misrepresentations and wrongful accusations from snowballing into intense, prolonged disputes, then the issue of judging favorably and not impugning the character of others ought to be something we make serious efforts at putting into practice.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Tzitzit and the Reminder of Responsibility - Torah portion Shelach

Numbers 15:37-41 presents the commandment of making tzitzit (tassels) on the edges of one's garment. The Torah uses the word "kanaf" to describe the location on the garment the tzitzit is to be made. Many translate kanaf as corner [1], though lexicons also suggest edge, extremity, extension, hem, wing or skirt. [2]

As Jacob Milgrom points out, there are numerous ancient Near Eastern reliefs in which certain people are depicted with tassels on the hems of their garments. These hems are displayed as scalloped, cut like an umbrella, where arches meet at points around the circumference. That meeting point is where the tassels project, and the tassels are in fact extensions of the embroidery of the hem, rather than strings added as attachments. The tassels would either hang by themselves or have flowers or bells embroidered at the tips. [3]

The below relief found at the Medinet Habu mortuary temple of Ramesses III depicts what might have been the original tzitzit.

Egyptian Relief c. 1190 BCE in the burial complex of Ramesses III

The relief shows representatives of various peoples conquered by Ramesses III. Among them, second to left, is a Semite with tassels, and at the far right is a Philistine with tassels. Each of the tassels hang from a kanaf, i.e. the downward, "wing-like" projections of the hem.

Which begs a couple of questions: If this is the sort of tzitzit the Torah had in mind, clearly this was a fashion style of the day. Why should it be made into a "commandment"? And if indeed other peoples wore tzitzit, why would the Torah say: "See it and remember all the commandments and do them" (Num 15:39)? I would expect the "reminder" object to be distinct to Israel, something which specifically evoked the commandments, as opposed to tassels which the Philistines and other peoples also wore.

Milgrom speaks about hems and tassels being highly significant in Ancient Near Eastern cultures:
The more important the individual, the more elaborate and the more ornate was the embroidery on the hem of his or her outer robe. The tassel must be understood as an extension of such a hem.
He goes on to cite Akkadian texts where people's hems being cut off signify the removal of a part of the person's essence. This applied to exorcism, wherein cutting off the hem was done in order to purge an evil spirit. Likewise, divorces were effected by the husband cutting off the hem of his wife's robe. A prophet would "sign" his report to the king by enclosing a lock of his hair and a piece of his hem, or an impression of his hem would be made on a clay tablet.

In the Bible too, David famously cuts off the hem (kanaf) of Saul's robe. (I Sam 24:4) This was significant not simply because it meant that David could have killed Saul, but also because the hem itself symbolized Saul's position of authority - which was "cut off." And indeed Saul later responds, "Now I know that you will become king." (v. 20)

An additional feature of the Israelite tassel is the explicit command to add a string dyed with tekhelet (sky-blue). Tekhelet dye, being prohibitively expensive at the time, was primarily reserved for the noble classes, royalty, and priests.

Being commanded to wear decorative tassels containing tekhelet on the hem of one's garment might thus be understood to convey the Israelite self-concept of being a "kingdom of priests" (Ex 19:6). It was part of the Israelite democratization of religion and priesthood, whereby holiness and elevated conduct were not reserved for a small and elite priestly class, but things to which every Israelite individual was enjoined to aspire. A person would gaze at the tzitzit and be reminded that whatever their socioeconomic status, they were a part of a larger project, a higher calling, a covenant.

Which in effect answers the question as to why a specific Israelite reminder - the tzitzit - should be something worn in other societies. To use another example, if I have a wedding band on, the fact that other couples or people of other religions wear them does not diminish its personal significance to me. Just the opposite - the fact that a wedding band has a universal meaning enhances its personal significance. Likewise, the meaning in ancient Israel of such a hem + tassle + tekhelet configuration would have been readily recognized and understood. It symbolized elevated status and significance, and also responsibility.

Kings, prophets and other people of authority were not simply "privileged" classes - they had a great sense of weight upon them as being responsible for the welfare of the people, a responsibility which they saw as stemming from the divine. For the Israelites, the status of being "holy" is contingent upon accepting the responsibility of the commandments:
לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת כָּל מִצְו‍ֹתָי וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים לֵא-לֹהֵיכֶם
In order that you remember and fulfill all my commandments, so that you will be holy to your God. (Num 15:40)
Which is of course the proper way to understand leadership in general. The mindset should not be a desire to wield power and control, to attain high personal status and honor, or think of oneself as "better" than anyone else. Instead, it should come with a profound sense of awe and responsibility - weightiness and commitment, determination and compassion - carried out in the spirit of humility and joy. All this pertains to the attitude we ought to have toward the mitzvot.

Yes, observing the mitzvot should bring personal enjoyment and fulfillment. But part of the meaning we derive from the mitzvot is the greater calling that they evoke, where it's not about what we "get" out of them, in this world or any other. And it's certainly not the perverse notion that the mitzvot - or being Jewish - makes us inherently "higher" or "better" or "holier" than anyone else. It's about embracing our responsibility to lead by example with ethical scrupulousness, interpersonal grace, and to elevate the world around us with compassion, creativity and joy. That level of deep caring and refinement is what it means to be a "priest." It is a weight of responsibility that we lovingly and eagerly accept, and for which tzitzit is meant to serve as a reminder.


1. See Baruch Levine, Anchor Yale Bible, Numbers Vol. 1, p. 388; R. E. Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, p. 479; J. Milgrom, Of Hems and Tassels, Biblical Archaology Review, Vol. IX, No 3, May/June 1983.
2. Brown-Driver-Briggs, edge, extremity; Hebrew Aramaic Lexicon, skirt of a garment.
3. J. Milgrom, Of Hems and Tassels.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Switching off the Blame Machine - Torah portion Beha'alot'kha

Numbers 11 begins with a brief yet violent episode:
וַיְהִי הָעָם כְּמִתְאֹנְנִים רַע בְּאָזְנֵי יְ-הוָה וַיִּשְׁמַע יְ-הוָה וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ וַתִּבְעַר בָּם אֵשׁ יְ-הוָה וַתֹּאכַל בִּקְצֵה הַמַּחֲנֶה
And the people became as evilly self-aggrieved in YHVH's earshot, and YHVH heard and he flared his anger, and a fire of YHVH burned upon them, and it consumed at the edge of the camp.
Ravaged by fire, the people cry out to Moses, who entreats YHVH on their behalf and the flames subside. The place is then called Tav'era for the "burning" that took place. The whole incident takes up a mere three verses (Num 11:1-3), and we never hear about the reason the people were upset to begin with.

Mit'onenim as "self-aggrieved"

What did the people do which caused YHVH's anger to flare? They are described as "mit'onenim ra." The verb hit'onen (התאנן) occurs one other time in the Bible, in Lamentations 3:39: "Why should a living human yit'onen, a man regarding his sin?" Both cases are typically understood to mean complain, grumble or murmur. [1] However, the verb is widely thought to stem from anan (אנן), which means to mourn or sigh [2], leading some to employ the translation "grieve." [3]

My above translation is based on the reflexive hit'onen, rendering it "make oneself aggrieved," or simply "self-aggrieved." Meaning, even if the people's distress was linked to an external issue [4], that sense of being aggrieved took on a life of its own. I chose the translation "evilly" for ra, as opposed to "bitterly," wanting to convey how it must have been perceived to YHVH to warrant such a severe and violent reaction. (Though I cannot possibly see anyone's complaint or aggravation being so "evil" as to merit being burned alive. Or more precisely, I can understand it from an Iron Age perspective, just not according to modern ethical sensibilities.)

Seeking a pretext

But I want to focus on this idea of being "self-aggrieved," where the self-generation or perpetuation of the aggrieved state is the primary interest of the story, as opposed to any external causes of distress. The Midrash Sifrei on this episode views the word mit'onenim as stemming from ta'ana (תאנה), which means "occasion" or "pretext." According to the Midrash, the people involved sought any pretext to distance themselves from YHVH. [5] To what end? Judging from other instances in the Torah, it's a reasonable bet that they wanted to abort YHVH's mission and return to Egypt. [6]

The advantage of this interpretation is that it explains why the story offers no explanation for the complaint - because it wasn't really about any one issue or problem. The people were ready to point to anything as the alleged reason for being aggrieved, as long as it presented something concrete to latch onto, an anchor to place blame.

Psychological takeaways: More self-awareness, less blame-fixation

The self-perpetuating, blame-seeking connotation of the word mit'onenim is something we all engage in to a degree. We have a certain feeling, mood or emotion ("A"), then point the finger at what we determine to be the reason ("B"), and then the conversation ends up focusing exclusively on the alleged reason, even when the causality of B leading to A is dubious at best.

For instance, when I'm feeling down and someone asks me, "What's wrong?" my first instinct is to pick out one or two things that aren't going well, or else enter into a litany of all the various problems I'm currently dealing with. But did any of these things "produce" the mood I'm experiencing? Is my feeling really the "result" of these things? After all, some of the supposed "reasons" I'd point to are no doubt chronic issues, and it's not as if I'm in a bad mood perpetually.

Yes, there are times when a specific event precipitates a feeling of distress. But even then, I wouldn't call it a "causal" relationship, since the meaning we attach to the events in our lives is really up to us. We don't have to react in one particular way. And much of the time, it's not even a question of a specific event. We start with "A," the feeling or mood, and "B" is simply something we latch onto, point to, place the blame on, because it's the lowest hanging fruit, the first issue that comes to mind. And then all the energy goes into how to deal with "B," which may in fact blow the issue of B out of proportion, in addition to it not being the true "cause" of the mood.

Moods and feelings arise for any number of complex reasons, from subconscious memories triggered, to physical sensations like hunger or exhaustion, to minor interpersonal exchanges or things we've watched or read which leave us with a certain feeling. It's a confluence of factors which are often difficult to trace or articulate.

So what can we do when we feel ourselves upset or aggrieved? Several things: We can be aware, wiser, about not automatically falling into the trap of reacting to the mood by attaching it to "things" in our lives - or people - which aren't really the cause. In other words, switch off the blame machine. We can recognize that a mood isn't "caused" and outside our control. It is ours to shape, to change as we wish, and to utilize constructively. And last, which I find particularly useful, we can simply take note of the feeling, experience it without "self-aggrieving" and giving it a life of its own, and keep in mind that this too shall pass.

1. JPS Tanakh, Num 1:11, Lam 3:39; R. E. Friedman's Commentary on the Torah, Num 11:1
2. Brown-Driver-Briggs; Hebrew-Aramaic Lexicon
3. E.g. Baruch Levine, Anchor Yale Bible, Numbers Vol. 1, p. 312
4. E.g. suffering from their journey in the desert as a whole, see Rashbam on Num 11:1.
5. Sifrei Bamidbar 85, cited by Rashi on Num 1:11
6. E.g. Ex 16:3, 17:3; Num 14:3, 16:13

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The "Power" of the Priestly Blessing - Torah portion Naso

Ketef Hinnom "Priestly Blessing" amulet, c. 600 BCE
In 1979, a pair of silver amulets were found in Ketef Hinom, a series of burial chambers southwest of Jerusalem's Old City. On them is etched, in Paleo-Hebrew script, a version of the Priestly Blessing of Numbers 6:23-27. Putting aside the textual discrepancies between the amulets and the Masoretic Text, these etchings represent the oldest surviving Torah verses ever discovered, dating to roughly 600 BCE, before the Babylonian exile. Which is significant, being that we have hundreds of examples of pre-exilic writing, most of them ostraca (potsherds with ink inscriptions) and none, other than these amulets, contain verses from the Torah.

It's also significant that the blessing was used as an amulet, and that it was found in a burial chamber. Biblical scholar Baruch Levine writes about this in his commentary on Numbers:
It was a widespread ancient custom to bury valuable or useful possessions with the dead, on the notion that the deceased would require them or enjoy them in the afterlife, as biblical concepts would have it, in Sheol. The precise text of the benediction inscribed on the amulets, if we may call the plaques by that name, might indicate further that the benediction was interpreted as being particularly relevant to the dead, as expressing the wish that the dead be protected in death and on their way to Sheol. There was also the wish that the Deity would deal benevolently with the dead in the netherworld. (Anchor Yale Bible, Numbers Vol. I, p. 242.)
Levine continues that the words "yishmor" and "shalom" both represent the desire for safety when traveling or facing the unknown, and that in fact Midrashic sources on the Priestly Blessing offer the interpretation of shalom as referring to the afterlife:
Shalom is of great importance, for even the dead require shalom... "May he protect you" - May he protect your nefesh at the time of death; may he protect your footsteps from Gehinnom. (Sifre, Naso)
"May he protect you" - for the world to come. (Yalqut Shimoni, Naso)
As Levine noted, the amulet was one of a number of possessions buried with a person, meaning it was most likely not made for the express purpose of use with the dead. Rather, it was an amulet used by the living, something people would keep on their person for apotropaic purposes, i.e. to ward off evil.

Was the original purpose of the blessing apotropaic? This goes to the question of how the Torah regards the efficacy of magic, incantations, blessings and curses. Did it view these things as having real "power"? (Perhaps it's something like the question of whether the Torah, when it mentions "other gods," is coming from purely a monotheistic perspective, or perhaps it is expressing something of a monolotrous point of view.) But regardless of how the Torah itself regards magic, it is certain that a popular belief in magic existed in Biblical times, and indeed persists to this day, including among religious Jews. This is where we encounter the difference between "rationalist" and "mystical" perspectives.

For instance, what "happens" when a kohen recites the Priestly Blessing? Does this "cause" a bounty of goodness to rain upon the receivers? Does it act as a God-sanctioned "incantation" for protection and peace? Many would view it that way. In fact a number of years back I spoke with a kabbalist who claimed that it was the Ashkenazic tradition of not reciting the daily Priestly Blessing in the diaspora which allowed the Holocaust in Europe to occur. The "shield of protection" was lifted.

According to the rationalist approach, the recitation of the Priestly Blessing does not itself "do" anything. No "levers" are pulled in the heavenly realm. Instead, it communicates the desire for well-being and peace. It is closer to a prayer. And I believe that in this approach lies no less great of a "power."

When we sincerely wish for the shalom of others, not only does it arouse and reinforce our own feelings of compassion, it means they - our friends and neighbors - don't have to feel alone. We're in this world together, facing challenges together, being there and rooting for one another's success. That sense of being part of team, of knowing there is love and support around us - that, I believe is the true "power" of the Priestly Blessing, among other wishes for one another's well-being. Not that the words themselves "do" anything for us, nor even that it "convinces" God to do anything for us. Rather, it is an expression, and perhaps a fulfillment, of the commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself."