Friday, August 14, 2009

Did the Rabbis Believe Their Myths

I just came across a cool essay by Chaim Milikowsky, originally a 1997 lecture but published in a 2005 book, Ancient Fiction (available in its entirety on Google Books), about whether the Rabbis believed their stories. (He says no, but it's more complicated than that.) It's basically a rabbinic version of Paul Veyne's great book.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Religion and Ritual are Useless Words

A rant on various related topics:

The word "religion" doesn't meant much. The OED says the English word "religion" is of doubtful etymology but appears to come from the word for being bound (or even imprisoned, in some early usages). The modern Hebrew word for religion - "דת" - originally means law or practice. Nothing in antiquity - when, incidentally, Christianity, Judaism, and countless other "religions" grew up - was called "religion." There was no category into which you could put all the building blocks of religion, nor could this non-category exclude other elements of life. I don't know whether it was a medieval or modern creation, but the concept of "religion" doesn't draw much of a clear circle around any given set of... well, anything.

Nor, for that matter, does "ritual", another late-comer. And even if it could draw a neat circle around a certain set of practices, does a circle that includes brushing one's teeth right alongside child sacrifice really mean that much? Is it useful?

Of course, Departments of Religion at universities do make sense. One day, in fact, I would be happy to be hired by one. But that's pragmatic. Many academic disciplines are like that. We need some way of organizing subjects. And the colloquial use of the words religion and ritual is useful as well - it's not quite accurate but it's way quicker than spelling out all the details of what exactly we mean when that's not even relevant (or particularly plausible in a given setting).

What's important to me is that we don't actually think of all those things that make up "religion" (or a given religion) and "ritual" (or a given ritual) and their meanings as the meaning of every other religion and ritual. What is so glorious about embracing religion is that it doesn't - and could not possibly - mean just one thing or work in just one way.

And practices should be distinguished from one another - and prioritized over one another - based not on whether they are "religious" or "ritual," but on their individual content, and the other practices to which they're most related. (I feel like I'm railing against linguistic racism.)

There's a great line from the Simpsons in the episode where Lisa and Ralph date. Ralph is walking her home and doesn't know what to say to make conversation, so he says, "So, do you like... stuff?" When someone says "ritual is great" or "ritual is terrible" or I like or don't like ritual, they might as well be saying "stuff is great," or "stuff is terrible," or I like or don't like stuff. Almost everything can be called a ritual. So it's not a category.

People who describe religion or ritual as such are a priori incorrect in their descriptions.

And it's also why I think it makes perfect sense to think some rituals are great, and other rituals are stupid, and others are neither here nor there. "Picking and choosing" (so often criticized) is actually what discerning, thoughtful, good people do. There is no such thing as religion whole cloth, or ritual whole cloth.

Unless of course you're chareidi, and you think all the mitzvot came directly from God's mouth to the Talmud and medieval responsa and codes and into your chareidi rabbi's mouth, and should not be distinguished or measured or thought about. Sure, in that case, it makes perfect sense to talk about Jewish ritual as all one thing. But then you have to be chareidi, so I decline.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ignorance, Doubt, Uncertainty

I've just finished Richard Feynman's book What do You Care What Other People Think: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. The last chapter is his lecture, "The Value of Science". In it, one of the very important things he says is this:

The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn't know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty -- some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.
... What, then, is the meaning of it all? What can we say to dispel the mystery of experience? If we take everything into account, not only what the ancients knew, but all of what we know today that they didn't know, then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know. But in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel.

And there is a difference between speculation and uncertainty, and between ignorance and humility. Science knows this. So do all philosophers after Kant, and if not by then, then certainly after Mill (if they bothered to read On Liberty with even one eye open). What drives me up a wall is when people think that uncertainty - the kind of doubt that Feynman talks about - is a bad thing, and a discredit to a good idea.

I do not know anything with certainty, but only because there is no such thing as certainty (though of course, I suppose I can't be certain that's the case). But I do know that suggestions that are worth it - and we can line up a whole slew of criteria for each area of thought - deserve the limelight. We can indeed be more sure of one thing than another.

Talking to a friend recently, she seemed to indict the suggestion that we try on (and I say buy in 10 colors!) gender equality in Judaism, due to the fact that we don't entirely know what the future of Judaism will look like under those conditions. Besides the fact that I do have a fairly good picture of it (since at least in my personal life I already live it), why would such uncertainty be a problem? We never know what the future will look like; everything is an experiment - a theory that we take on until some new data confounds it.

The gender equality thing is a no-brainer, to me at least. But Feynman's point that the embrace of inevitable uncertainty is a social value that we cannot do without is terribly under-appreciated in our culture(s). I don't valorize doubt (I once heard an entire High Holy Days sermon, and have heard of many others, about how doubt is a fantastic thing - to me that's all nonsensical apologetics); but I do embrace its inevitability and the humility that inevitability engenders. And the calm. And the sense of equality among human beings, and religions, and lovers.

I think.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Obvious

A lot of my dissertation work right now seems superficial, because it all seems so obvious.  But nobody has said these things yet, so they haven't entered into the front-of-the-mind pool of things we draw on.  

Rabbinic epistemology is not very hard to plumb.  Part of my dissertation does this.  

Stating the obvious is underrated.  Scholarship - or important thought of whatever kind - is not always about making profound observations; sometimes it's about bringing to the fore what might otherwise be overlooked.  We overlook great things sometimes, so how much the more so do we overlook small things.  

Either that, or these are self-serving thoughts to justify a not-so-impressive dissertation.  Well, at least I'll have something to say at job interviews if I'm called out on this.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Wisdom Entails Consistency

A professor at the University of Oklahoma has written a brilliant book about Socrates' epistemological theory.  He might be all wrong, but he's a damn good writer and it's a well thought out and compelling book.  

One things he tries to prove is that part (or maybe most - I didn't get to the end yet) of Socrates' epistemology is that wisdom entails consistency.  That is, a person who has true wisdom will not have inconsistent beliefs.  That's why in the Socratic dialogues, essentially all he has to do is show that some of the interlocutor's own beliefs contradict some other belief (namely, the belief in question that is the topic of the dialogue).

This sounds pretty familiar.  The rabbis of the Talmud (early and late) had much the same epistemological theory!  That's why it bothered them so much if the Bible seemed to contradict itself, or if one rabbi seemed to contradict another.  If the Bible as a whole, and the rabbinic project as a whole, are to bear wisdom and truth, they cannot bear inconsistencies.  

It is a sound epistemological theory.  I shall write about it in my dissertation.


It does not apply to emotional or practical life.  I feel two contradictory things at once -  nothing's wrong.  (Actually, something's right: I am not forcing one to acquiesce to the other.)  I make a decision today that does not accord with my decisions yesterday -  nothing's wrong.  (Actually, something's right: I'm able to live a full and experimental and adventurous life.)  

Epistemology is great.  But it should not confused with anything other than epistemology.  

Back to dissertation work.... Later alligators.  

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


I've just read the first chapter of what appears to be a very cool book of essays: What do You Care What Other People Think: Further Adventures of a Curious Character,  by (and about) Richard P. Feynman.  In this first chapter he writes about how his father instilled in him a love for all things science (he was a Nobel Prize winning physicist - apparently a pretty important scientist).

At one point he explains the special kind of scientific thinking his father taught him by contrasting another child's experience of a nature walk with dad, with Feynman's own.  The other kid learned the name of the bird over there.  Feynman learned to notice what it's doing, and why it does it.  (It's picking at its feathers because of lice, or something like that.)  He says that his father taught him early on to distinguish knowing the name of something, and knowing something.

Yes and yes.  This resonated quite deeply.

But the more I think about it the more I also appreciate the other side.  Names do matter.  Sure, knowing the name and going no deeper than its pronunciation probably doesn't matter all that much.  Unless of course the pronunciation itself tells you something about it.  The name "Zalman" is a Russification of "Solomon," so I know something about this person's ancestry, or the people his parents admired, just by hearing his name.  Or when I meet someone named "David," I can learn a bit from how he says his own name: Duh-vid, Day-vid, Dah-VEED, Dah-weed."

And if it's a made-up name, say, in a book, I can learn something about what the author wants me to know about this person.  Like the two sons in the book of Ruth, Machlon and Kilyon (literally, disease and destruction), who die young and quite early in story.

And then there's context.  If a man buying chicken and rice from a street vendor is addressed right then and there as "Yossi," this might mean something to bystanders.  Perhaps he'll choose to go by "Joey" for the moment.  

I was once in a store with a guy named Shalom, who needed to give his name for an order.  "What's your name?"  "Shalom."  "Wow!  Talk about a Jewish name!"  "Yeah, and I'm not even Jewish."  "Really???"  "Just kidding, I'm Jewish."  "Hahahahah!" 

And then there's my name.  On the one hand, it's kind of a cheerleader name.  Jenny.  Once in college a friend said it was kind of a funny name for me.  I like the irony.  And on the other hand,  it's the name of my grandmother's beloved sister, whom my grandmother adored, and talked about as having such deep wisdom and such a gentle manner.  I hear both resonances when my name is spoken.

I suppose Feynman's right.  Just knowing a name is not enough, and it's certainly a far cry from knowing the thing, or the person.  But knowing why the name is the name, what it means and how it's pronounced, actually can be a big part of knowing a thing, or a person.

Shoot - I should be working on my dissertation.  

Dissertation.  Just the name makes it sound so....  Oy.

Monday, May 25, 2009

If Religion is an Expression of Love...

Skipping to the punch-line of a longer discussion, if the relationship between God and Israel is one of love and affection, and the acceptance of the Torah is an expression of that love, one glaring conclusion will be that rather than seek out the minimum necessary for us to do to uphold the Torah, we will seek out the maximum.  If my lover gives me a list of things that will make him happy, I will happily try to do everything I can and more.

But there is also this: Our lover will not demand of us more than we can do, and will understand when we fall short that we have done our best.  We will work out together how best to manage the love relationship, how best to satisfy each other's needs, and the extent to which we will accept compromise.  And disappointment. 

The challenge is this: Being honest about what we are capable of.  Being honest in our self-assessment.  Not tricking our lover into accepting less than is possible.  

So in the end, religion being an expression of love means two things at once: First, we will want to do as much as we can.  Second, it will be ok if we cannot - or simply do not - live up to the expectations set upon us, as long as we are honest with ourselves and with the Lord.  

Looking forward to Shavuos.

Monday, May 18, 2009


God said, "Be my people."

And we said, "Ok."

But then we said, "No wait, can we talk first?

And God sighed.  

We said, "We're just not sure.  Can we talk first?"

And God said, "Yes, my children.  We can talk."

So we stood there at the mountain, and we talked.  

We talked for hours.  Like old friends.

We talked about our relationship, about where we'd been together, and how far we'd come.

We talked about our future. And our fears. 

We talked about promises, and about uncertainties.

We cried some.  And a few times we laughed, but not in a silly way.  

We looked into each other's eyes.  We imagined the Lord's eyes.  

And God said, "Be my people."

And we said, "Ok.  For now."

And we said, "We love you."

And God said, "I know."

And a few years later we had children.  And then some years after that, they had children of their own...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Yet another reason to love academia

The room I'm in right now, in Bobst Hall  at Princeton University, has four long tables arranged in a rectangle, with a podium behind the front table, the top of the rectangle.  About 25 people sit around, a bit less than half of whom are prominent professors in rabbinics (Yale, Princeton, U Penn, University of Chicago, Tel Aviv University, and JTS are represented), and the rest of whom are graduate students in rabbinics from around the world (America, France, Austria, Germany, and Israel).  This is a 2-day conference entitled, "The Rabbis and Others in Conversation" - meaning, the ancient rabbis of talmudic literature and the "conversations" represented in the literature  between them and various non-rabbis (right up my dissertation league).  

There are as many women as men.  
Everyone is polite.
There is fervent discussion of everyone's ideas, agreeing, disagreeing, suggesting further research, asking and answering questions.
Many of the women are beautiful, and they are also full-voiced and smart, and many of the men are soft-spoken.
The ages span from about 25 to about 70.  
Some are religious Jews, some are secular, and some are Christian.  And some are something else.
Over breakfast, lunch, and dinner we discuss the papers, or Hebrew grammar, or sports.
No one is belittled.  No one is exalted.

But mainly it's the women.  They are beautiful and smart and strong - old and young - and that's just the way it is.  It is all as it should be.  There is a fantastic feeling of equality and freedom.  Gender is in the room in a comfortable way, not in a way that puts any of us into a box.  Smart women are not desexualized, and intelligent men are not macho.  It is not all about power - who has it and who doesn't and how it's wielded.  This room is about collegiality and learning.  And there are an equal amount of men and women, scattered together around the table.

This is not how it always feels in academic environments, and certainly not in the field of rabbinics.  But sometimes it feels this way, and today is one of those days.  It never feels this way in other environments though, at least not in Jewish ones.  I love academia.  I love being a part of this world.  This is the world in which to cultivate the freedom and equality, particularly regarding gender but also regarding religious orientations and other matters, that I've described at this table in Bobst Hall at Princeton.


Right, Wrong, Convincing, Compelling, Interesting, Important

What does it mean to do a good dissertation in the Humanities?

For certain subjects it's clear: Prove that something existed that nobody has noticed so far.  Answer a question that has bothered us for decades.  Introduce an entirely new hermeneutic to your field.

You heard it here first: I am NOT going to do any of those things.  I have a perfectly fine sense of my own capabilities, and they are not nill, so I do not mean this self-deprecatingly, but I am not one of those who will write a ground-breaking, stop-the-presses dissertation.  (And incidentally, I'll be perfectly satisfied and proud of a career that includes nothing of the sort.)

But I do want to write a good dissertation.  I'd kind of like to write a damn good one.  It's just very hard to figure out what the criteria are, and then how to achieve that.  

I know I don't want it to be "wrong."  That would be awful.  Gotta not be wrong.  But not being wrong doesn't exactly lead to being "right."  I'd like to make a "compelling" argument, but if I succeed at that, it doesn't necessarily mean my argument is "convincing."  And even if I'm both "right" and "convincing," my work might still not be "interesting."  And even if it's "interesting," that doesn't mean it's "important."  


Then there's this problem, especially when working with midrash.  Let's say I'm commenting about a given story in rabbinic literature.  Then someone comes along and says, "Meh, it's just a story.  It's a good story!  But stop making it into such a big deal.  It's clearly just about [fill in the blank]."  A major scholar at this graduate student conference at Princeton that I'm at right now has essentially done that to both me and another student.  How do you counter that?  

Here's my advice to myself: What do you do? You make suggestions and see if they resonate with colleagues and teachers.  You don't assume you can prove anything, and you dismiss those who would dismiss you because of that.  You find your voice, knowing that while yes, there are a million things that could be said about this stuff, you have something of your own to say.  You accept that, inevitably, some people won't like your work.  And inevitably, some people will.  You try to decide whose opinion matters to you, and you refuse to be paralyzed by insecurities, fears, and ego.  

At least you try.  And sometimes you remind yourself: It's just a job.