Friday, April 29, 2011

Random Musing before Shabbat – Kedsohim 5771 – Oil & Water (redux 5763)


I'm only one day post-op and not quite able to focus enough to write an entirely new musing this year. So please forgive this redux from 5763 about shatnes in a modern context.

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Kedoshim 5763
Oil and Water?

What is it, this compulsion we have to try and do things that G”d (or nature, if that's how you choose to see it) does not permit to occur naturally. Is it just curiosity, stubbornness, or perhaps hubris?

Oil and water won't mix. We can create an emulsification or suspension, but we can never get the oil and water to actually mix together. Their separate identities will always be there. Still we try.

Were we to succeed in changing this natural order, however, we would no longer be able to clean our clothes, or dishes, or linens, and other things. For it is the very fact that certain substances and water won't fully mix together that enable most cleaning agents to work their "magic."

Our scientific studies of nature and the way this universe was constructed have led us to the ability to combine all sorts of things that won't combine naturally. We routinely cross-pollinate plants and create hybrids. We do the same with animals. Many of these hybrids we have created have greatly benefited humankind. (Whether, in the long term, they have all benefited our entire planet is yet to be determined. G”d and nature don't work on our time scale.)

So why should we, knowing the great benefit we derive from hybridization, listen to the Torah when it instructs us in this parasha to not make kilayim -- hybrids -- combinations of two things that would not normally be combined ? Why should we not plant two different kinds of seed in the same ground?

Not that any of us have had recent experience yoking an ox and a cow together as a team to pull a plow -- nevertheless, simply from the sheer physical differences between them, one can see why it might not be a good idea, why they might not work well as a team, unless moving in a straight line wasn't important all the time.

There most definitely are plant species that should not occupy the same field. Similarly, there are plant species that might benefit from being planted in the same field. Perhaps the former but not the latter is what the Torah is referring to?

Plants that can be cross-pollinated to produce better plants, or healthier plants, or insect-resistant plants, or higher-yield plants -- while the rabbis of the Talmud may disagree, I don't see those as kilayim.

It's a radical way to view things, but consider this--if G”d had not intended for us to be able to creating useful hybrids of plants and animals, then perhaps we wouldn't be able to. Those things that we are able to create -- perhaps they are not true kilayim. Maybe at one point we couldn't combine them, but now we can.

The rabbis teach us that G”d created everything just as it is--who are we to meddle with the natural order of things? Yet, if G”d created everything as it is, then G”d created us with the ability to create these hybrids. It seems to follow that creating such hybrids is as G”d intended, for G”d has given us the ability to gain knowledge and learn to do so. One can explain this simply as free will, and, as we all know, free will can be used for purposes both good and evil. So it is certainly arguable that our creation of kilayim when we cross-breed or create hybrids is a defiant act of free will, rather than a part of the natural order. We can and do combine things that wouldn't normally be together for nefarious ends.

G”d has clearly demonstrated that G”d could and might interfere if and when we do things we really aren't supposed to do. We learn this from the very beginning-both with the expulsion of Adam and Chava from Gan Eden, and in the story of Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel. Admittedly, there hasn't been such obvious interference since then, but perhaps the interference comes in more subtle ways. Nevertheless the fact remains – G”d created us, we create hybrids from things that might not normally mix. Ergo, these hybrids are just as much part of the natural order as we are!

Now, I'm not sure I fully buy that argument, still, it makes one think.

There remain some things that, try as hard as we may, we cannot turn into kilayim. There remain things we cannot combine. Oil and water, for one example. Then there are things that we can combine together, but shouldn't. Like the things that come together to make a nuclear weapon work. Or the things that come together that make anthrax easy to disperse. People and money. There's that free will again.

However, the fact that there are things we cannot combine shows that there are limits even on free will. On TV, in the movies, and in the pages of books we can dream about things contemporary physics says are impossible,like faster-than-light travel, or "molecular transporters." (Of course, with physics, the answer is often "just wait a decade or two and we'll re-invent the field yet again.)

Since we have this free will, how do we know what to mix and what not to mix? The Torah offers some specific examples, although they make little sense to us in these times. So what is it that the Torah is teaching us? Simply that there are some things that probably shouldn't be mixed.

The rabbis take a fairly narrow view of creating kilayim. They, in fact devote an entire tractate of the Talmud to it. G”d forgive me for my hubris, but I think the rabbis may have missed the point. The Torah wasn't trying to be that specific.

The greatest danger from accepting the traditional view about the concept of kilayim might be to think of Israelis and Palestinians as kilayim. G”d forbid that we aren't able to ever find a way for them to mix and live together in harmony.

What I learn from what the Torah has to say about kilayim is that there are some things which may never be able to be mixed together, and others which, even if they can, should not. However, the Torah does not say that everything that at one time did not seem natural to mix together should always remain so. To help us use our free will to determine what "unnatural" combinations might not be kilayim, the Torah offers insight. Not only in the specific passage in Leviticus 19;19, but by using the entire Torah and all the other learned writings of our people, and working and learning to understand what it is that G”d does not intend for us to combine and make into kilayim.

And here's an interesting question: By bringing together my view of kilayim and the traditional view in the same musing, am I attempting to create yet another kilayim?

My head is spinning as I contemplate that one. It ought to keep me occupied for all of Shabbat. So with that I'll stop and wish you and yours a

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011, 2003 by Adrian A. Durlester

Some previous Musings on this parasha:

Kedoshim 5768-Unfamiliar Spirits
Kedoshim 5760 & 5765 - Torah for Dummies

Akharei Mot-Shabbat Hagadol 5771 -  Ultimate Tzimtzum
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5770 - Redux 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5769-Schroedinger's Cat 5769 (Redux 5761 w/new comments)
Akharei Mot/Shabbat HaGadol 5768  - Why Wait for Elijah?
Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5767 - Insults Don't Weigh Anything?
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5766-Redux 5761 & 5762
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5764-Whither Zion?
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5761 - Schroedinger's Cat & Torah
Akharei Mot 5765-The Ways of Egypt and Canaan (revised)
Acharei Mot 5763--Immoral Relativisms?
Acharei Mot 5760-The Ways of Egypt & Canaan

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5771 – Admat Yisrael

Ezekiel has a particular preference for referring to the land of Israel not as “eretz Yisrael” but instead as “admat Yisrael.” Semantically, “eretz” and “admat” are effectively interchangeable, but there’s a subtle difference.

Eretz, ארץ can be translated as “earth” or “land.”  This is “land” in the sense of specific territory or country. It is the earth in the sense of the entire planet. As is typical of Judaism, with its predilection for separation and opposites held in tension, means earth as opposed to that which is heaven, or sky. Where eretz is used to mean “ground” it is generally in the sense of the surface. It is the noun most frequently used in phrases like “people of the land” and also in geographical descriptors.

Admat,  אדמת is the construct form of adamah, אדמה, meaning “ground” or “land” generally in a property sense, or usage sense (as in ground or land used for agriculture.) There’s no denying some connection between adamah and adam, the name of the first created human being, and a word also meaning a man or mankind. (There’s no getting around the gender here, though it is interesting to note that adam, אדמ is a masculine noun, whereas adamah אדמה, is feminine. Adam is believed to come from an Assyrian word that means “to make, produce.” Thus we have the male maker or producer, adam,  working the female soil, adamah. There’s lots of fodder for discussion.)

Ezekiel’s preference for “admat Yisrael” is likely connected to his exilic audience. It hints of a promised land with fertile soil that is the true home to the exiles. It subtly shifts the nature of their yearning to return. One might want to “retake” eretz Yisrael, whereas one is more likely to simply desire to return to admat Yisrael. It speaks of a deep connection to the land because it is land that has been tended by them and their ancestors, and not simply by fact of possession.

All of this is fascinating, but what brought me to this matter of the difference between admat Yisrael and eretz Yisrael is its use near the end of the special haftarah for Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh. In 37:12, we read

Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: Thus said the L”rd G”d: I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the land of Israel (admat Yisrael.) (37:12 JPS)

In the following verse, we read:

You shall know, O My people, that I am the L’rd, when I have opened your graves and lifted you out of your graves. (37:13 JPS)

Like many before me, I choose to read Ezekiel’s words as metaphoric, and do not expect an actual resurrection of the dead, even though such resurrection remains a normative understanding of Judaism to this day (affecting burial practices, for example.)

Yet understanding “admat Yisrael” as being subtly different from “eretz Yisrael” raises interesting questions about what Ezekiel has written and prophesied. G”d is lifting our dead bodies out of their graves in the adamah of galut, to be returned to the admat kodesh, the holy land of Israel.

If we dismiss the following verse for a second, we can think of this as more like Jacob’s body being brought up from Egypt and buried in Israel or Joseph’s bones being returned to reburied in Israel. It’s a promise that those who have died in galut (exile) shall have their bodies returned to Israel. Perhaps nothing more.

But then we get the next verse:

I will put My breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil (admat’khem.) Then you shall know that I the L”rd have spoken and have acted”—declares the L”rd.(37:14 JPS)

Yes, easy to read as metaphor, but surely calling into question the idea that Ezekiel was merely talking of returning dead bodies from their graves in exile to be buried in their native soil.

Nevertheless it still feels as bit softer to me. G”d could have chosen to resurrect the bodies of dead Israelites buried in exile, and brought them back to life to be an avenging host to retake “eretz Yisrael.” As a rhetorical device, Ezekiel might have found that quite effective. Yet somehow Ezekiel knew that this was not the message the people needed to hear. This is not a war cry to avenge and retake the land, it is the longing of an exiled people to simply return to living and working upon their native soil. I can’t help but think of linking this to present day circumstances in the land of Israel. In fact, it helps me clarify my connection to Israel. Whatever my issues with the powers that rule “eretz Yisrael” I can remain connected  through my heritage to “admat Yisrael.” Maybe it is time for us to rethink how we here in modern galut/diaspora refer to Israel. Is it “eretz Yisrael” we seek, support, and love, or “admat Yisrael?” The choice is ours.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5769 - Valley of the Dry Economy
Pesach VII 5768 - Department of Redundant Anamnesis Department
Hol HaMoed Pesach 5767-Not Empty
Intermediate Shabbat of Passover 5766-A Lily Among Thorns
Pesach VII 5761 (Revised 5765)
Hol HaMoed Pesach 5764-Dem Bones & Have We Left Gd behind? (5578-60)
Hol Hamoed Pesach 5763-No Empty Gestures (Redux 5762)
5761-Pesach VII-Redundant Anamnesis

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Akharei Mot-Shabbat Hagadol 5771 – Ultimate Tzimtzum

Reading the words of the last of the prophets, Malachi, as we do in the haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol, before Pesakh, I begin to see how Judaism may have sown the seeds of its own eventual displacement by Christianity. In fact, it may be G”d’s own fault that things turned out as they did.

Let’s face it – we’re a stubborn lot – have been from the beginning.

From the very days of your fathers you have turned away from My laws and not observed them. (Mal 3:7 – JPS)

It is yet another restatement of a perpetual theme and a perpetual problem. It’s an impossible situation. G”d creates us and gives us free will. G”d then gives us laws to follow. In hindsight, it might have been better to hold off on the free will, allowing humanity to develop first with a strong sense of duty, obligation, and obedience to their Creator. Do we not, in dealing with children, begin by using strict controls and gradually allowing them greater freedom? Is this yet another example of Bad Parenting 101 by G”d?

G’d continually offers the Israelites the opportunity to turn back to G”d and follow G”d’s commandments. At every turn G”d sent patriarchs, messengers, and prophets to proclaim these opportunities. We might acquiesce for a while, but eventually we drift back into our stubborn defiant ways.

We get away with it. We are like the savvy child, envelope-pushing teenager. We discover our parents can be manipulated. We discover our parents aren’t always consistent with follow-through. Sometimes punishments are meted out, sometimes the punishments get forgotten or overlooked. Sometimes our parents just don’t have the energy or will to be the enforcers. So we get away with it, and keep on pushing to see how much we can get away with. They are our parents, and they love us.

It is no surprise that Malachi put these words in the mouths of the people:

“It is useless to serve G”d. What have we gained by keeping G”d’s charge and walking in abject awe of the L”rd of Hosts?” (Mal 3:14 – JPS)

We figured out the inconsistency. We learned that we can often live with the consequences of our disobedience. They’re not so bad.

Like any parent, G”d gets mad. Typical of any parent, G”d often feels remorse for acting upon those feelings. You can be darn sure that the children figure that out, and play it for all it’s worth.

G”d may punish us, but, in the end, we get forgiven, or get another chance. Eventually, G”d develops another strategy. G”d will send a messenger, a prophet (in the case of this haftarah, Elijah) that will just set everything right, put righteous behavior in our hearts.

It’s a fairly logical step from there to the idea of a permanent atonement in which expiation is made through the life of a martyred prophet. Seen from the Christian point of view, it lends credence to the common Christian predilection for reading and interpreting the Tanakh as foreshadowing and preparation for the coming of their understanding of the messiah. As reluctant as I am to admit it, as a Jew, there may be something to the idea that G”d, having given up on the idea of humanity (and in particular, the Jewish people) willingly and steadfastly clinging to and following G”d’s commandments, decided to go another route.

It is a common misperception on the part of Jews and other non-Christians that the sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth simply becomes an easy out enabling people to continue in their sinful ways, knowing that, in the end, they will be forgiven. That is not, with rare exception, a normative understanding of Christianity by Christians. We Jews often revel in what we believe is the superiority of our system (largely a construct of the rabbis) for expiation of sin, which requires continual effort, and which is moment by moment (for the most part-though Yom Kippur is slowly evolving into our own momentary substitute for continual effort.) Christianity is not as simplistic as “Jesus died for your sins, go ahead and sin, you’ll be forgiven.” Self reflection and making regular expiation for sins through prayer or action forms is not unique to Judaism, and is a normative expectation of Christianity and Islam, among other religious traditions.

All that being said, there’s a lot of indicators in the Torah and Tanakh that G”d’s methodology for dealing with the effects of having given humanity free will has gradually shifted over time and exhibits G”d’s ever-increasing frustration that perhaps humanity won’t get there by itself.

As a strategy, it’s not a bad approach. While it’s easy to suggest that perhaps G”d made a mistake in giving us free will from the outset, one can also argue that it was and still is worth the risk. If, in the end, it’s all about G”d controlling us so that we obey, it seems a pretty unsatisfactory outcome for both G”d and us.

We Jews know (and knew at the time of the first stirrings of the Jesus cult) that this is not an easy situation to address, and that it is likely to endure, perhaps in perpetuity. We Jews have taken one approach to addressing the tensions inherent in the system. Christians, Muslim, and others have taken different approaches. I’d like to think that it’s not a matter of which approach is the right one. The struggle continues. It’s possible that the best solution is that there not be a definitive outcome.That humanity’s free will shall always be in tension with that which is best for humanity (which, if you work from a more religious perspective, is what G”d tells us is best.)

So, in thinking it over, having given us free will does not automatically put us on a trajectory that inevitably leads to Christianity as a solution. It merely leads to Christianity (and Islam, and Judaism as they have evolved) as possible responses. A clever G”d will recognize that, as creatures with free will, having options on how to reconcile that with religious obligations is probably a more successful approach than simply trying to make us all act and believe the same way. It does not require supersession, but co-existence. It’s G”d saying “by giving you free will I have limited my options, so I leave it to you to figure it out.” That’s pretty brave on G”d’s part, because invariably one of the solutions we’ll come up with is that there is no G”d. Rather than fear the “death of G”d” perhaps we  can look at it as the ultimate act of tzimtzum?

[A reminder to my readers that these writings are thought processes revealed, and deliberate efforts to examine an issue from all sides. Don’t assume they reveal my own beliefs and understandings.]

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Akharei Mot/Shabbat HaGadol 5768  - Why Wait for Elijah?
Akharei Mot 5765-The Ways of Egypt and Canaan (revised)
Acharei Mot 5763--Immoral Relativisms?
Acharei Mot 5760-The Ways of Egypt & Canaan

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5770 - Redux 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5769-Schroedinger's Cat 5769 (Redux 5761 w/new comments)
Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5767 - Insults Don't Weigh Anything?
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5766-Redux 5761 & 5762
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5764-Whither Zion?
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5761 - Schroedinger's Cat & Torah

Monday, April 11, 2011

You, Ewe, Yew, U

[Cross-posted from my Yoeitzdrian blog.]

Note: This is a blog post in progress. I plan to continue editing and updating this post, so please keep that in mind while reading it.

The other day a 10-year-old of my acquaintance told me that she had noticed texting shorthand had become so routine for her that it had started  cropping up in her regular keyboarding when she writes papers and things for school (well, “papers” seems a bit much, but, like the comedy line from Avenue Q  “but they’re kindergarten, so they’re very short.”) She particularly cited using “u” quite a bit on place of “you.”

Now this is of course not surprising. Texting shorthand has been finding its way into school work at many grade levels for some time now. Slang and other types of shorthand have been finding their way into common usage throughout the history of language.

A first instinct might be to knee-jerk react negatively to the usage of texting shorthand in regular writing. I will admit that an initial thought I had in my head was “tsk, tsk.” Though I’m far from perfect, I do try and pay due attention to spelling, grammar, syntax, sentence structure, etc.  I’m not sure how I would react if a student sent  me a written assignment using all shorts of texting shorthand (unless they were sending it to me as a text message or a tweet at my request!)  However, as I began to mull it over, I saw there is another side to consider.

Being strict about grammar, spelling,  sentence structure, use of clauses, et al has its place, and is of value. Whether or not it is always of value is open to debate.

In a “No Child Left Behind” world in which standardized testing is the yardstick, and we strive to create “Stepford students,” spelling (and grammar, et al) is almost a requirement.  If we leave this already clearly doomed to failure NCLB approach behind, we become open to a world where other things besides having every jot and tittle in its place is important.

Consider how we in Jewish Education struggle with teaching Hebrew to our students. Consider as well that modern Hebrew speakers read a form of Hebrew that, like its true ancient ancestor, does not use vowels! Often, the only way to know what a certain word is is through context. Now there’s a skill worthy of teaching our students.

It seems fairly self-evident to me that, in many cases, texting shorthand used in regular writing isn’t much different. Understanding the context of what is being communicated will help the reader who is unfamiliar with the shorthand understand it. It also helps the reader who is familiar with the shorthand understand it.

Now I recognize the value of spelling, and for a great many words which come from or are built upon Greek, Latin and other language roots, knowledge of these roots and their spelling can enable a student to decipher newly encountered words made up from those roots. (Hmm, sort of like Hebrew again. Knowing Hebrew roots, prefixes, suffixes, etc really is the key to learning to understand Hebrew. Yet knowing the vowels is less so, for one can ascertain with reasonable certainty, the vowels used to shape the roots into meaningful words from the context.) So not every word is, IMHO (as Tom Lehrer once said, the rest of you can look that up when you get home) a candidate for a texting shorthand substitute. I’m not sure what the appropriate criteria might be for determining which texting shorthand substitutions might be appropriate in which circumstances.

I discussed this the other day with a now retired elementary school teacher I know (who also happened to have taught the student to which I am referring in this post.)  She did feel strongly that teaching correct grammar and punctuation was important, and she wasn’t ready to wholeheartedly embrace the use of texting shorthand in school work. She responded somewhat differently when I mentioned a related bit of information. Some time ago, a college professor of my acquaintance, who diligently writes out her notes by hand and shares them with her students, was surprised when one of her students told her that the notes were useless because he couldn’t read cursive writing.

I fully expected the retired elementary school teacher to “tsk, tsk” this as well, but she surprised me by relating that during the last few years of teaching, she had begun to argue with her superiors and the school system about their continued insistence of teaching students cursive writing. She believed there were far more important skills to be teaching to students, and cursive was one we could easily do without.

So I asked her why, when she had little difficulty giving up cursive, she wasn’t as amenable to texting shorthand being used. Unfortunately our conversation was interrupted at that point and I’ve yet to discover her answer.

It seems to me that substituting “u” for the word “you” is not an entirely inappropriate form of shorthand, and could become normative. I can understand how an etymologist might object, but from what I know of the etymology of the word you, there’s little to be learned from the spelling that would give  a modern reader a clue to its meaning. Knowledge of correct spelling and roots might be useful for words like philosophy or anamnesis. I’m just not convinced this is as useful when it comes to words like you.

“What about homonyms?” I hear you cry. To the rescue comes context. However, I probably would not approve of “u” becoming a universal substitute for homonyms of the word you like ewe and yew (though I daresay that context would probably allow this to work in some cases-though not all. The sentence “I love u” is easily readable. What about this sentence: “U took that ram and u and u mated them” ? Not quite as easy to decipher.)

Another frequent and ubiquitous substitution is the number symbol “2” for the word “to.” Purists might argue that we have potential homonym problems here, but again I suggest context comes to the rescue. “Me 2!” is no less understandable than “Let’s go 2 your house.”  Now, turning to the Judaics side briefly, how might you feel about seeing this: 2bishvat ? 2b’av? Now we’ve complicated things. We’ve taken a Hebrew number represented by Hebrew characters (15)  and replaced it with a numeric symbol. It might make getting across the point that “tev-vav” is a representation of the number 15 in Hebrew a bit more difficult and confusing.

Let’s be honest-we’ve been using all shorts of symbolic shorthand for decades, even centuries. Think about mathematical and scientific symbols. Consider abbreviations like “etc. Not all abbreviations are free of potential confusion. Most likely only context would reveal what the abbreviation “St.” is representing in a given situation-street or Saint.

When I say 10KB you probably know I mean ten kilobytes. There’s a fair chance if I write “go check the online KB for that software” you’ll know I’m using KB to represent “Knowledgebase.”

Context doesn’t always come to the rescue as easily as we might hope. I am reminded of the  bit from “The Odd Couple” in which Oscar is ranting about a note that Felix left for him and complains that it took him hours figure out that the “F U” at the end of the note stood for Felix Ungar!

Here’s one for you: He knows that He is the symbol for Helium. No problem figuring that one out, right? I am @ home. Pretty obvious, yes?

Is it problematic if these symbols, forms of shorthand, and abbreviations find their way into common written usage? I’m not sure. Personally, I wouldn’t be thrilled to read a book (even on an e-reader) that rendered Shakespeare as “2 b or not 2 b…”

A common defense used by those who utilize texting shorthand is “everyone , including you, understands what I wrote, so why is this a problem?” A common response form those rigidly insistent on a fixed and static form of written language is that it usually and often makes it harder to understand. It’s a vapid response at best.  For those who understand the new shorthand, abbreviations like “WTF",” “FWIW,” and “ROTFLMAO” can actually be easier to understand and make a more emphatic and pointed form of communication than if these expressions were fully written out.

There is a controversial project, the Evolution of Human Languages project, that is attempting to trace the history of written language back to a prototype system of symbols common to early humans around 50,000 years ago and found at mutliple sites of early human settlment. Some linguists have embraced the idea, others reject even the concept, stating that languages are too fluid to be studied across truly large spans of time (current thinking seems to place the outer limit of useful historical study around 7-8,000 years.) I am beginning to wonder if our technology is bringing us full circle, back to a form of written language that is less formal and structured, easier to write and use.

I’ve devoted a good deal of time and effort in my life in learning to write properly according to established conventions (though I would point out that are variations in the standards-witness the manual different “style manuals.”) The same is true for many of us. A certain amount of jealousy or frustration may be involved in our knee-jerk reactions to the increasing “threat” of email and text shorthand finding its way into common written usage.

Except for the few true curmudgeons among us, most of us are using email, chat, twitter, texting on cell phones, etc. We must admit that the use of shorthand and abbreviations is, to a large degree, not just convenient but necessary. So we excuse our own use of the shortcuts in those situations. Is continued stubborn resistance to any usage of these abbreviations and forms of shorthand in more formal writing truly logical and appropriate. Now, the obvious argument to raise here is the “slippery slope.” If we allow some shorthand, we’ll simply open the floodgates to all.

History has not proven this true.  Telegraphy, radio, television, computers, e-mail – all have been heralded by some as signs of the death of written language. Written language will survive as it always has. The forms it takes in the future may be less familiar, but that is the nature of language – it changes and adapts.

Since I’m writing these words from Amherst, MA I can hardly pass up the opportunity to remind us all that Emily Dickinson was thought of by some of her contemporaries as posing a similar attack upon the conventions of writing. Now her work is view as brilliant.

Then there’s Twitter.  Being forced to say something meaningful in 140 characters or less. Is that necessarily a bad thing? I, for one, am often criticized for being verbose, and I struggle to be concise and on point. Using Twitter is actually helping me to hone the skills required. The same is no less true for digital natives.

I came across this quote on 
while perusing the internet for fodder for this post.

I would actually argue that effective tweeting and texting require a higher level of literacy, because you need to have a solid understanding of the language before you can abridge it.

The author of that blog also makes the point that Twitter and texting eliminate the availability of formatting like italics, bold, and underline that we use as aids to help us convene meaning, tone, and intent. Trying to make your point without the benefits of formatting text is actually more difficult, and helps to sharpen communication skills.

To those who insist on sticking their feet into the mud- you might want to try reading a little poetry. In particular, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias. The mighty edifice that is the form and structure of the English language as it exists today my look as vain and forlorn as the shattered statue of Shelley’s poem.  Changing TELAWKI (the English language as we know it) will not bring about TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it.) On the other hand, due caution ought to be observed. The introduction of email and texting shorthand into common English writing may have unexpected consequences. Or, as Robert Heinlein put it, TANSTAAFL (There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.) OMG, I used the word “ain’t.” It’s the end of the world as we know it.

Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy aka Yoeitzdrian)

Some online links pertaining to this subject:

This discussion from the BBC website is from 2003!

I’ll post more links as I come across them.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Metzora 5771 – Afflict This!

OK G”d, so which is it? Are you responsible for every little thing that happens, or not? Where does our free will fit in? Do you only pull strings for major events? Does anything happen by mere chance?

These questions, and more, went running through my head as I revisited parashat Metzora once again. This time I was particularly struck by this text:

When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess… (Lev. 14:34)

I found it odd that, out of all the various forms of plagues, skin diseases, etc. dealt with in this parasha (as well as Tazria) only in this instance does G”d declare G”d’self to be the cause/source of the affliction.

G”d is most assuredly capable of inflicting diseases, skin conditions, and more upon human beings. The Torah certainly tells us of a few times when this happened. From this, are we simply to assume that all the afflictions in Tazria and Metzora are caused to happen by G”d, even if it doesn’t explicitly say this? Seems an awfully big leap, if you ask me. In addition, if we accept that as the case, then it begs the question of why, in the case of afflictions of houses, does G”d specifically self-identify as the cause.

It is possible that there might be cases of houses afflicted by plagues that were not caused by G”d, and that, in such case, the rules and remedies prescribed in the Torah don’t hold? How is one to know the difference between a G”d-caused afflicted wall and a non-G”d-caused afflicted wall?

Rashi doesn’t directly address my question but does suggest that these afflictions upon walls were placed deliberately by G”d in order that it would cause the Israelites to tear down those walls and find within them treasures hidden by the previous occupants. That provides a somewhat offhand explanation of why G”d would be noted as the direct cause of this tza’arat of walls. Not a very satisfying one at all.

Subtle issues of translation also contribute to the problem here. Which is the more accurate rendering: “when I place an affliction…” or “I will place an affliction…” or “and I place an affliction…” Subtle yet significant in terms to trying to understand what’s going on here. Rashi views it as a statement of definitive action “…I will place…” citing the textual difference in this sentence and other sentences where it speaks of such infections on people and clothing, saying “if there is an affliction of tza’arat.”

So Rashi clearly notices that there is something different about this situation, yet surprisingly does not mention that it is only here that G”d self-identifies as causing the afflictions.

Now, taking into account our understanding of tza’arat as being a condition that is reflective of a person’s guilt, bad actions or bad intents, it makes sense that people, to some degree, self-afflict themselves with tza’arat (and, I suppose, their clothes) whereas walls and houses, being inanimate, must have tza’arat placed upon them by an external force. Yet if we follow this line of reasoning, it sort of takes G”d out of the equation when it comes to tza’arat afflictions of people and clothes, at least some of the time.

So I’m right back where I started. OK G”d, so which is it? Are you responsible for every little thing that happens, or not? Where does our free will fit in? Do you only pull strings for major events? Does anything happen by mere chance?

Are these questions even answerable? Do I really want to know the answers? Is this a worthy use of my time?

All good questions to ponder this Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Some other musings on this parasha:

Metzora 5765-Defiling the Tabernacle
Metzora 5763-Not So Irrelevant
Metzora 5760-Even Lepers Bring Good News

Tazria-Metzora 5770 - Excessive Prevention
Tazria-M'tzora 5767-Once Impure, Not Always Impure
Tazria-Metzora 5766 - Comfort in Jerusalem
Tazria-Metzora 5758/5764-Getting Through the Messy Stuff
Tazria-Metzora 5761-Lessons For Our Students
Tazria-Metzora 5762-Sing a Song of Leprosy

Tazria/Shabbat HaHodesh 5771 - It's Good To Be the King
Tazria 5765-If Naaman Can Be Forgiven...
Tazria 5760-Preventing Spiritual Rot

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Paying It Forward – My 2011 Birthday Experience

[Posted both here and on my Yoeitzdrian blog]

Yesterday was an amazing day. It was my 56th birthday, and I spent the morning teaching Jewish music to kids at the SAJ, most of the afternoon on a bus back to Amherst, and a quite evening here with a wonderful birthday dinner and desert.

What made it truly amazing was the many, many birthday greetings I received on Facebook, e-mail, and other electronic fora. I was, frankly, overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who sent me greetings. The vast majority of those greetings were not the product of some app, but the effort of an individual friend, colleague, or family member. Most, were, indeed, short and terse, but many were obviously individually crafted and not generic at all. Some of you may believe that’s important. I am no longer so certain that is the case.

Even those who turned over the task of sending me a birthday greeting to an automated app still had to take the time to add my name to the list of those they wanted to included among the recipients.

Sure, I got plenty of automatically generated birthday greetings from businesses like CVS, my insurance agents, financial planners, and from many of the online fora to which I am subscribed. Are those heartfelt? Probably not many of them. Are they just marketing tools?  Probably so. I don’t mind. And the coupons can be a nice bonus. At the same time, I don’t feel as obligated to acknowledge those birthday greetings.

Yet I felt so blessed for all those birthday greetings, that I am taking the time to respond with a thank you to each and every one-and believe me, that’s a lot.

I can already hear some of you thinking “it’s not about the quantity, it’s about the quality.” Like all supposed truisms, even this one has levels of subtle complexity. Quantity is relative, anyway. I don’t have the huge numbers of friends and followers that celebrities do. My numbers of friends and followers are actually pretty small in the scheme of things Facebook and Twitter. Nevertheless, I must admit that the quantity, in this case, did come as a surprise. I received far more birthday messages than I ever expected. So the quantity did contribute to the overall good feelings produced by this mass onslaught of birthday wishes. However, it wasn’t the quantity alone.

Made easier by the technology or not, people who are my friends and colleagues still have to make the initial decision to send me a note on my birthday. That’s quality. It tells me, I think, several things. It tells me that these many friends and colleagues are good people who care enough to send me a birthday greeting, to engage in a simple act of kindness. It also tells me that I must have, at some point, had an impact on their lives in some way.

The diversity of people who sent me greetings is amazing. Yes, that sheer diversity is the product of technology, and the ease with which it makes possible re-connecting with people. I heard from grade school, high school, college and grad school classmates. I heard from people at every synagogue, school, job with which I have ever been associated. I heard from people in every community in which I have ever lived. I heard from students I have taught, and from teachers who taught me. I heard from friends, neighbors, employers, colleagues and more.

The collective effect of all this has been to increase my own positive feelings of well being, and caused me to feel extremely blessed. As I stated in one wall post, I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to friends, colleagues, and family.

Here it is the next day, and I am still basking in the positive, reinforcing glow of this experience. I suspect it will last for a while.

I’ve had lots of nice birthdays over the years. In terms of some of them, this year was far less in terms of actual physical interaction, didn’t have much in the way of a party or presents. (Well, except for the best present of all which is the good feelings I’ve gotten from all those greetings.)  I’ve been thrown some humdinger birthday parties over the years, including ones that reunited me with people I hadn’t seen in a long time. I remember those experiences, and I also remember the relative lengths of the afterglow, the endorphin release. This year’s afterglow seems stronger, more resilient.

While songleading yesterday, teachers had their students sing me a happy birthday wish, and the effect was, indeed, heartwarming. Would that have had the same impact if it were virtual, sent as a video, or some other electronic form? I’m not sure. So there remains a power in face to face experiences. Yet I have discovered here a truly impressive power in a more virtual and electronic experience, and I cannot deny that it was no less impactful than the in-person experiences I had for my birthday.

Something, at least for me, made this Social Media birthday experience different. Many synagogues with which I have been affiliated have done things to acknowledge birthdays (and have even been using technology solutions for years to generate personalized letters or postcards from generic texts.) For me, those just didn’t have the power of this recent experience. Something is different, and trying to figure out what that something is is what we need to suss out.

So now comes the obvious question. How can we harness the forces of Social Media to help bring this experience to others, in general, and in a Jewish context? I’m not speaking here of the particular effect of birthday greetings, but the positive feelings I experienced as a result.

I’m aware of the risk that analyzing the effect of this experience could wind up imploding the experience for me. Nevertheless it’s a risk I’m willing to take. There’s something here – I can’t quite put my finger on it yet – but it is something that re-affirms my belief that the internet, like the aether that preceded it, carries more than simple bits and bytes, electrons, pieces of data. I could feel the warmth of the good wishes that people were sending me, despite the obvious lack of real-time, in-person interaction. I know the experience is reproducible.

As always, there are cautions to be observed. As a form of media, social media can be abused. I think of all the televangelists who used the power of television and radio to sustain their ministries financially. I was tempted to say “bilked their listens out of millions of dollars.” However, I feel I can’t be that cynical right now. If my theories and beliefs are correct, it is certainly possible that many of those listeners were actually moved and affected by their virtual encounters with a televangelist. Their desire to support those ministries was sincere. It is even possible that some of the televangelists were sincere.

It’s equally possible that some televangelists were masters of techniques and tools designed to produce endorphin release in their viewers. It’s possible my own birthday experience this year is similar, except that it wasn’t the result of a deliberate or intentional effort. So, as we explore the power of technology and Social Media for good, we can’t ignore the risks and perils as well.

It’s not just a matter of a risks vs. benefits analysis.  That can only tell you when something’s good marginally or significantly outweighs its potential for bad. For me, it is a matter of seeking to be as aware of possible of the potential negative outcomes, and structuring what you create the minimize or even eliminate them. I’m not so foolish as to believe we can really know and predict every possible outcome, but we certainly have the tools and experience to enable us to work towards the good.

Help me turn my good experience into something good for others. Let’s explore the possibilities, potentials and pitfalls together.

-Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy, aka Yoeitzdrian)

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, April 1, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Tazria/Shabbat HaHodesh 5771 – It’s Good To Be the King

Among the many prejudices I acknowledge is a general bias against people who are wealthy. It’s a bias that I, raised in the public housing projects of New York City and coming from a family with lots of Wobblies and members of the Socialist Workers Party, will admit to readily. It’s a bias generally exasperated through experience in the Jewish community, primarily the community outside of large metro areas like NYC, Chicago, etc. though it can be just as exasperated in those places as well.

I’ve written about this before. There is a segment of the Jewish community which I’ll call, for lack of a better name, working class, which one seems to find primarily in the large metro areas. Yes, those areas have more than their share of Jews who are doctors, lawyers, CEOs, etc. However, it has been my experience that outside these metro area, one doesn’t find many “working class” Jews. If you’re one of my many friends from the several smaller Jewish communities where I have lived, don’t take offense yet – read on.

At least in the liberal Jewish world, being an active member of the Jewish community is expensive. Large percentages of the Jewish community do seem to have more than adequate resources to deal with this (although, as is typical in the US these days, the large middle and upper middle classes are feeling the squeeze.)

Striking off in a somewhat different direction earlier this week the radio program On Point apparently had a show discussing the difficulties of the extremely wealthy.  I wasn’t able to listen to the show, but I saw the subject in a Tweet to which I hastily responded how I didn’t have much sympathy for them.  My brother-in-law happily chimed-in echoing my sentiments.

All these thoughts and more were on my mind as I perused the special haftarah for Shabbat HaHodesh. At the very end the prophet tells us these things:

  • When a ruler makes a gift to his sons, it becomes their inheritance
  • When a ruler makes a gift to one of his subjects, it only belongs to that subject until the next Sabbatical year
  • A ruler may not take property away or rob property from his subjects in order to endow his sons, but may only endow them from his own property.

That last part I like, the rest of it, not so much. I have really struggled with this. It seems an unfair sort of fairness. If a King chooses to bestow his largesse on me, why do I only get its benefit until the next Sh’mita year?

I began to wonder what the lesson is here. Surely rulers have as much right as any parent to pass on their holdings to their offspring? Nevertheless it still grates on me how, even today, we allow the very wealthy and powerful to pass on their holdings to children who did little to earn them. Some children are lucky to be born into wealth. Others are born into poverty (yet, surprisingly, might consider that just as lucky!)

When I step back and examine these texts, I begin to get a glimmer of intent. As with so many things in Judaism, it is about balance. As I am constantly reminding others, I must remind myself: “Equal” and “Fair” are not always the same.

There is a clear enjoinder here for the ruler (or the wealthy, if you prefer) that their property shall only be obtained fairly and justly. They cannot abuse those beneath them in order to accumulate more property. You cannot examine the rest of the text here without keeping this in mind, though it might have been easier to understand if this enjoinder had been placed in the text before the other statements.

The Torah teaches that we must not pervert justice to favor either the poor or the rich. Not only must we do this in action and deed, but thought as well.  My knee-jerk bias against those with wealth is not an appropriate way to think.

I still think it stinks that the sons of rulers get to keep their gifts whereas the rest of us peons have to give them back at the next Sabbatical year. To some degree, I accuse this text of attempting to pervert justice in favor of the rich. I’m adding this text to my list of irredeemable texts that I’ll try to find a way to redeem.

For the moment it will have to suffice that reading this text has caused me to be observant of my own biases, and to reconsider them. Yes, when you’re living hand-to-mouth, it is hard to be sympathetic to the cries of the nanny-hiring set complaining about the high cost of a day school education. There’s been a recent kerfuffle caused by some day schools suggesting to families that they can’t really offer them financial support unless they’re willing to make more sacrifices like giving up expensive vacations, etc. Part of me understands the point of view of the schools, though I still think it’s a tacky thing for them to do. It is important, however, that I work so that part of me also understands the point of view of the families. As I mentioned earlier, the middle class is getting squeezed. Life requires balance, and being able to take a nice family vacation is not an unreasonable expectation of any family where the parents are working hard to give their children a good education. (Though I hasten to add, from my own childhood experiences, that good family vacations need not be expensive.)

Money is not a panacea. It doesn’t fix everything. So yes, even the very wealthy can have problems. It’s a step in the right direction, I suppose, if I at least stop being automatically unsympathetic to the wealthy.  That doesn’t require me to be sympathetic, though it could lead to it. Oh, the places Torah can take you…

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Some other musings on this week’s parasha:

Tazria-Metzora 5770 - Excessive Prevention
Tazria-M'tzora 5767-Once Impure, Not Always Impure
Tazria-Metzora 5766 - Comfort in Jerusalem
Tazria-Metzora 5758/5764-Getting Through the Messy Stuff
Tazria-Metzora 5761-Lessons For Our Stuents
Tazria-Metzora 5762-Sing a Song of Leprosy

Tazria 5768 - Just Not Good Enough is Just Not Good Enough
Tazria 5765-If Naaman Can Be Forgiven...
Tazria 5760-Preventing Spiritual Rot

Metzora 5768 - Human Nature
Metzora 5765-Defiling the Tabernacle
Metzora 5763-Not So Irrelevant
Metzora 5760-Even Lepers Bring Good News