Sunday, July 26, 2015

Presenting "Adam Ha-rishon," according to Arutz 7

Mammal at the time of the early Cretaceous Period
A fossil that had been collecting dust in a museum in Germany was recently "rediscovered" by an American academic leading a field trip. The fossil shows an early snake-like creature, estimated to be 113 million years old, possessing small, vestigial legs. These are legs that, in an earlier epoch, had been larger and were used for walking, but which atrophied over the course of millions of years as the snake elongated and became a slithering creature. Some modern snakes are thought to still bear such vestiges. Boas and pythons have small buds protruding out where their hind legs would otherwise be, which they use to grip during mating.

This isn't the first time such a fossil has been found, so I'm not sure what all the hubbub is about. But that's immaterial to what I wanted to get at here, which is an article posted by the Israel news site Arutz 7, reacting to the recent find: "Proof of the Torah? Snake Fossil With 4 Legs Found." Here's the argument: The Serpent in the Garden of Eden narrative was cursed to crawl on its belly, implying that prior to that it could walk. The 4-legged snake fossil clearly shows that walking snakes (or proto-snakes) were once on Earth, thus "proving" the Torah's account that such a creature existed.

Now, I fully admit to feeling a twinge of excitement when biblical narratives or characters find support in extra-biblical finds, such as seals discovered last December dating to the 10th C. B.C.E., which attest to administrative complexity previously unknown from the time of Kings David and Solomon. I still get a kick out of the famous Deir 'Alla Inscription found in Jordan back in 1967, which explicitly references the "seer" Bala'am ben Be'or.

I love this kind of stuff, anything arcane having to do with Judaism and ancient Israel. But I love it in a fun, nerdy, "extracurricular" sense. It has no impact either way on my religious commitment. I'm not looking to "prove" the Torah. To me, the Torah proves itself, when we succeed in using it to create a "holier" society, one which values life, champions the oppressed, aspires to an ever higher mode of conduct. What does the theoretical existence of a walking, talking snake have to do with whether I deal honestly in my business transactions, or host guests for a Shabbat meal?

Nope, I'm not a literalist. I don't think the Torah was ever meant to be read literally. It's meant to convey teachings, ideals, and the framework for a way of life (i.e. the commandments). Besides, no religious Jews are pure literalists, after all. Otherwise they'd ascribe to God "literal" hands, feet and fingers, human emotions like regret, and so on.

So the idea of a 4-legged snake doesn't particularly excite me, religiously speaking. If not for the fact that there are religious folks out there - Jews and Christians alike - who actually take seriously the idea that this might be a "proof" for the Torah's veracity, I wouldn't bother spending any time discussing it.

But let's go with this idea for a second. The Arutz 7 article states:
According to experts, the fossil was apparently in a stage of adaption, indicating previous versions likely used their legs to walk.
So the author accepts the idea of evolution? Wait, not so fast:
Dr. Nick Longrich of the University of Bath, an author in a new study on the find ... made clear they weren't just "vestigial" evolutionary leftovers.

"They're actually very highly specialized - they have very long, skinny fingers and toes, with little claws on the end... they've stopped using them for walking and they're using them for grasping their prey"
Snake fossil with tiny legs; photo credit - Dr. Dave Martill
First off, who says that in order for a limb or organ to be considered "vestigial" it has to be completely useless? Snake legs were once used for walking, then at a later (smaller) stage to grasp prey, and now (nearly gone) for gripping during mating. This also goes for human vestiges. According to the Wikipedia entry on vestigiality: 
Other organic structures (such as the occipitofrontalis muscle) have lost their original functions (keep the head from falling) but are still useful for other purposes (facial expression). 
The Arutz 7 author then states (bold added): 
Longrich was expecting an in-between species which would suggest an evolution of the snake species, but he was "really blown away" to find a full-fledged snake - just with legs.
Look at the way this is written. By adding the bold phrase (which doesn't appear in the original BBC article he's drawing from), the author makes it sound as if Dr. Longrich was expecting to find evidence of snake evolution, but bang - there's a snake with legs. Therefore it must not have evolved!

But this is a dishonest representation of Dr. Longrich, who is a self-stated evolutionary biologist. In fact in his own bio, he mentions snake evolution specifically: 
I’m interested in the origins of new kinds of organisms, including the origins of birds from dinosaurs, and the evolution of snakes from lizards.
Okay, enough of my unsolicited rescue of the good professor in the face of a religious hijacking. I just want to make one more point relating to the title of this post.

If one wants to accept this 113-million-year-old 4-footed snake as "proof" for the literal reading of the Genesis narrative, aside from the fact that the Serpent also talks, which would require highly specialized anatomical structures not present in a snake (or a donkey for that matter), we also have the problem of timing.

If the biblical Serpent, as the Arutz 7 article suggests, is the "ancestor" of today's snake and dates back to the early Cretaceous, then of course Adam and Eve (who spoke to the snake) would also have to date to the early Cretaceous. Which besides throwing the whole Seder Olam out of whack, is pretty difficult to envision. Humans are included in the order Primates, the first of which didn't evolve until some 50 million years after the fossil in question. There were however mammalian ancestors of primates in the Cretaceous, scurrying under the legs of the T-rex and Triceratops. Who were they? Little furry guys like the one pictured above.

The Arutz 7 article indignantly begins:
"Scientists have long scoffed at the Torah account of how the serpent in the Garden of Eden walked upright..."
Yeah, scientists, stop scoffing at that! Instead (thanks to articles such as this), start scoffing at Adam - and correspondingly the very "image of God" - as being a tail-bearing, insect-eating prehistoric rodent!

Yes, yes, I hear the rejoinders. Who says this fossil is really from 113 million years ago, not just 5700 years ago? Who says the 4-footed snake ever really evolved into the zero-footed snake? Well for one, Arutz 7 does, explicitly referring to the "113-million-year-old oldest ancestor of snake," and describing the snake's legs as "a stage of adaption, indicating previous versions likely used their legs to walk."

Point being, you can't have your evolution and deny it too. It's also a perfect example of the way literalism and the resulting apologetics create far bigger problems than the ones they're attempting to solve. Want all the "scoffing" to end right now? Then speak about our tradition in ways that make sense. Don't belittle the work of scientists or distort their words. Make the choice to understand stories like the Garden of Eden narrative reasonably, i.e. non-literally. It's really that simple!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Online Jerks - 9 Causes and 9 Solutions

A friend of mine, Brian Blum, wrote a candid piece in the Jerusalem Post about his experiences with online "bullying," in the form of malicious comments he's received in reaction to his articles. (I put "bullying" in quotes not to minimize the problem but to distinguish it from children who are cyber-bullied to the point of being suicidal. Hence my use of the term "jerks" in the title.)

Steve Martin in "The Jerk"
After reading the article, I started reflecting on what causes people, droves of them, to engage in such gratuitous verbal cruelty in online settings. And it occurred to me that there are a myriad of psychological and social factors converging here. Here are a few that come to mind: 

1) Online culture is such that "strong" comments are rewarded with likes and attention - i.e. positive reinforcement. 

2) People identify way too much with their "opinions." When an article or comment challenges their opinion, offers a different idea, they take it as an attack on them, which puts them in a defensive and/or belligerent space. 

3) The urge to find fault, to critique, is very strong. It's so much easier to destroy than to build, and cutting someone down grants a sense of power and accomplishment to people without their having to spend all the time and energy creating. 

4) People's rapid-fire perusal of online material (and tendency to "skip" if they can't read it in 10 seconds) results in pithy, coarse and superficial exchange. One-liners and put-downs are favored over depth of thought. 

5) A certain shamelessness and even "pride" in cruel and unkind comments has become normative. People are increasingly comfortable using their real names when slamming others, because they want to be seen as unapologetic, valiant soldiers for the "cause." 

6) Even adults can possess a childish lack of tact and restraint. No filter. Negative emotions are put immediately to writing. 

7) We often become numb to humanity, to the fact that there are people with real feelings behind the ideas we encounter. 

8) We're highly impacted by our environment. Being around unkindness begets more unkindness. It lowers the bar for human interaction. 

9) Some people are simply jerks. They started off that way on the playground, and it continues into adulthood.

Okay, now that I've clarified and kvetched a bit about this, let me offer what I think might be a positive response - a sort of "tikun" - to each of the above points. 

1) Don't let rude, insulting, gratuitously cruel comments stand.
The verse (indeed the halacha), "You shall not stand over the blood of your neighbor" (Lev. 19:16) comes to mind. That is, you should not watch idly while one person intentionally inflicts pain and suffering on another. When you see a hurtful comment, say something. No, don't yell or insult back. Tell them that you oppose that kind of talk. Where applicable, suggest to the moderator/person posting to delete the comments or at least warn the commenter. And voice your support to the person attacked - even if you don't agree with their opinion. Because this isn't about opinions. It's about being a decent human being. We need to negatively reinforce unkindness - make it unpopular, unacceptable.
2) Have a little humility about your opinions.
Our opinions change. They're highly influenced by our peer group. And what's more, our opinions are not us. Yes, part of life is thinking about issues and championing what we think is the best approach. But recognize that more important than being "right" is creating a decent world. And berating people, belittling them, because you think they're wrong is creating a worse world. Period. I'd much rather be surrounded by kind, thinking, decent people with whom I don't agree than a bunch of loudmouthed bullies who happen to share my political or religious beliefs. People are more important than ideas. Humanity trumps opinions.
3) Think about what you're doing when you offer criticism.
When you encounter work that someone has done - an effort that they put their time, energy, heart and possibly their money into, think twice about how and whether you critique it. Yes, you could have done it better, said it better. But did you? Nope. And yes, there are mistakes in it. There are always mistakes. People will invariably find something wrong. How many times have you not put something "out there" for fear of all the naysayers, armchair critics, and eviscerating comments? Then why would you possibly feed that system? Sure, there's a place for thoughtful, intelligent critique. That's called "feedback," and it's essential. But maybe try this on for size: Think about it as "giving" feedback, "offering" something to the person. You don't want to "harm" them, after all - you want to "help," so why would you possibly say anything insulting? Let's take it further: Even if you disagree, find a way to appreciate something they've said - whether it's a point they made, a fact that they got right, research they did. Anything. Not only does it create a more conducive atmosphere for creativity, for constructive feedback, for positive human interaction, but it also lowers the person's defenses and increases your chances of actually being heard when you offer your feedback.
4) Invest in some depth.
The fast pace at which we consume online content is a very real impediment to reading longer, more nuanced, balanced and reflective thoughts. There's only so much content we can "invest" in per day. (Even as I write this post, I'm conscious that you're investing your time, so thank you for that!) Which is partly why insults work. They get the message across in just a few words, and they do a splendid job of catching people's attention. 
You complete moron!

I apologize - I really don't think you're a moron. But it works. Your eyes went right to it, partly because "less is more," and also because insults stand out. And it probably gave you a tiny "jolt" of a negative feeling. It did something to you, stirred something within you, just like it does to people who fly through comment threads, causing them to take notice. That's what we're up against here - statements that "work" in terms of capturing attention but which hold no substance whatsoever. And they're everywhere. What do I suggest then? a) Be thoughtful anyway. Don't get sucked in. Just because something "works" doesn't mean we should do it. After all, theft "works." Extortion "works." b) Be concise. It is possible to be thoughtful without being "linguistically overindulgent." Besides, it's your readers' time you're taking. Be considerate of that. c) As a reader, instead of focusing on "breadth," racing through gobs of posts and comments, try for a little more "depth." Learn to identify thoughtful expression, and invest your time and thought-energy there.
5) Be a soldier for civility.
Don't hide behind anonymous comments. Unless you're talking about personal privacy issues (e.g. speaking about topics you'd be uncomfortable discussing under your real name, which is a perfectly appropriate use of anonymity), use your own name. Be willing to take responsibility for the type of speech you use. If you're unkind behind a mask, it's no less of a soul-sucking endeavor for you. You're training yourself, one comment at a time, to be unkind in real life. It starts with anonymous comments. You then get emboldened (i.e. shameless) enough to say these things under your real name. And if you can be rude to complete strangers to their (online) faces, that doesn't bode well for your real-life intimate relationships. Instead, take "pride" in being decent and kind. Let that be your calling wherever you go, online or offline. Absolutely, continue to "fight the good fight," but above all be a soldier for decency, for reasonableness, for civility. Remember, there's a name for a person so zealous about advancing their cause that they're willing to harm as many people as it takes along the way: a terrorist. Be a hero instead.
6) Think before you write.
It's that simple. When you read something that gets you riled up - and that includes negative, hurtful comments! - take a breath and notice what it's doing to you. Feel it. Pause for a moment and tune in. It's basic "mindfulness." If you stop, you allow yourself the space to decide what kind of thoughts you want to express in the world. Even if you still want to voice some of that "feeling," you may decide to be more measured and even-keeled about it. The goal is to interrupt the instinctive "lash-out" drive and give yourself a choice. It's about honing the mature adult within. We don't have to be so reactive. We can set the tone of our lives and our interactions. We can be the "Kung Fu masters" of our own emotions. Yeah, Kung Fu. That's what I'm talking about!
7) Know there's a real person behind the name.
Every person you see, whether you're walking in the street, in line at the supermarket, stuck in traffic - everyone, everywhere - they're all mired in challenges. Unbelievable, heart-rending challenges. They've known tragedy. They've known misfortune and disappointment. They've loved and lost. They've tried and failed. They're struggling in a zillion different ways - could be money, health, family, self-esteem, trauma, loneliness, weight issues, addiction, anxiety, or they're just totally overwhelmed with life. My gosh, how could my default be anything but compassion to everyone? "Com-passion," in the literal sense of "suffering with each other," being with people in their struggles, wanting to make their lives that much better. And it goes without saying: How could I possibly ever want to add another ounce of pain into that equation? Well, behind that article you just read is a "someone," a real person. Behind every name and icon you see on posts and talkbacks, there's a person sitting at their computer or pecking on their phone - someone also trying to find their way in life, with untold struggles and challenges. So be easy on each other! We're all, after all, people. Yes, even those who are mean and cruel. Even the bullies. In fact they're probably suffering the most. They just lack the tools to be able to deal with life the way you can. Point being, we can't be so focused on "what" we're arguing over that we forget the fact that there's a "who" on the other side.
8) Seek out healthier environments.
Find groups where thoughtful, civil, good-spirited discourse is the norm. By exposing ourselves to sludge, we get... sludgy. By exposing ourselves to light, we become "enlightened." There's only so much time in the day, and in our lives. So if you want to help yourself and do something good for the world, choose your neighbors wisely. If you lament the fact that the "bar" for what passes as acceptable conversation seems to be dipping ever lower, be the person who raises the bar!
9) Let it go.
This last point is definitely a "note to self" - just let it go. Yes, there are jerks in the world. There are bullies. You don't have to "convert" them all. You don't have to "punish" them. You don't have to "react" to them. Just focus on doing your positive thing in the world. Do it with as much energy and passion as you can, and don't get bogged down with all the darkness. Because doing your thing is going to do a heck of a lot more good in the world than anything else. Your energy is a precious and limited commodity. Don't let the jerks of the world suck the life out of you. They don't deserve it!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Signs That We're Lumping People Together

"We don't employ Arabs here." Posted on Facebook last November, as of today has upwards of 14,000 likes. 14,000 people who clearly are fed up with Jewish blood spilled here in Israel at the hands of Arabs - whether it's a Hamas "career terrorist," a thug throwing a Molotov cocktail at your car, or the guy who's been working with you for years and comes in one day brandishing a knife or rifle.
It's a statement that there are consequences to all this, and that we'll choose "life" over being the nice guy if we have to... I get all that. I even sympathize with it.

Nonetheless, I object to signs like this, for two reasons:

1) Arguably one of the most destructive forces in the world is the inclination to lump people together and condemn them based on their ethnic, racial or religious "category" (whites, blacks, Catholics, Arabs, Chinese, Jews, etc.), rather than judging them as individuals. That's the mentality which fuels neo-Nazis and white supremacists. It's what enables terrorists to walk into churches, mosques and synagogues and indiscriminately slaughter worshipers. It's what allows Hamas terrorists to gleefully lob missiles into Israeli population centers. In short, it's what gets people to rationalize killing or harming innocent people. They're part of the "group" - therefore they're not "innocent."

No, deciding not to employ someone because of their "category" is not the same as killing them. Not remotely. I can fully understand, for instance, a synagogue in Har Nof being very reticent to hire Arabs after last year's massacre. But not to hire is one thing. To proudly enshrine that fact in writing and distribute it on the internet is another.

"You are your group" is the message this sign sends - which happens to be the very same message used throughout the world to paint all Jews and Israelis as "evil." It's precisely what "liberally-minded" stores do when they put up BDS anti-Israel placards. It's a message we know to be unjust and untrue, the same one anti-Semites routinely use against us! Can we really not see that?

Engaging in a "flame war" of obnoxious placards is not the solution to our problems. All that does is further ignite tensions, and sully our own character in the process. No, the right solution, the long-term one, is to educate people about what real evil is: losing sight of individual goodness.

2) Arabs/Palestinians are here in Israel, just like Jews are here in Israel. Neither of us is going anywhere. The only way we're going to make this work is if we can train ourselves to effectively distinguish between the light and the dark - decent and indecent, people who want to succeed, thrive, and work together, and people hell-bent on destruction and bloodshed. And while I understand a store owner not wanting to "gamble" on who they're hiring if they see it as a risk to life and limb, to put up a sign like that says we've given up making distinctions.

Though it's coming from a desire to project "strength" and "tzedek" (rightness), what this sign says to decent Arabs is that it doesn't matter to us what kind of people they are. It tells them that their true enemy, the real roadblock to normal life and reasonable coexistence, is not the terrorists but the Israelis.

I would like to put my voice on record as saying that my allies are people who are unabashedly and genuinely anti-terror and committed to working together - whether they're Jewish, Muslim or Christian, Arab, Israeli or Druze. I believe we need to extend a hand to people of like mind and fight terror together - not drive potential allies away, which is exactly what signs like this accomplish. I believe that good people finding one another and fighting for a future together is not only our best chance at succeeding here in Israel - it's also the "strong" and "right" thing to do.