Author Archives: Geoff Mitelman

Geoff Mitelman

About Geoff Mitelman

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds, and is being incubated at Clal - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he received the Cora Kahn Prize from the Cincinnati faculty for the most outstanding sermon delivery and oratory. An alumnus of Princeton University, he received multiple prizes for outstanding scholarship in Biblical and Judaic studies. In addition to My Jewish Learning, his writings about the intersection of religion and science have appeared on the homepages of several sites, including The Huffington Post, Science and Religion Today, and WordPress.com. He was interviewed by BBC Radio’s World Have Your Say about the religious implications of the Higgs Boson, and is also on the planning committee for the new URJ 6 Points Science Academy. For seven years, he served as Assistant and then Associate Rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. He lives in Westchester with his wife Heather Stoltz, a fiber artist, and their daughter Caroline.

Why Bernie Madoff Didn’t Lurk in Dark Alleys

We all know that one of the Ten Commandments is “Don’t steal.” But it’s also hard for us to imagine Bernie Madoff or Jeffrey Skilling in a hooded sweatshirt in a darkened alley mugging a little old lady. And yet clearly, Madoff and Skilling violated that two-word, easy-to-understand commandment. So we have to ask: how in the world were they able to justify it?

A large part of that justification is because different forms of stealing have different “feels” to them. Physically taking money from another person feels more violent, more immediate, and less justifiable of an action. “Cooking the books,” however, can easily feel explainable by the perpetrator. It’s pretty easy to follow the commandment “Don’t steal” if it simply means, “Don’t go around robbing people in the middle of the night.” But Skilling and Madoff did steal – and stole significantly more money than all the armed robbers in America combined.

In fact, when people don’t deal in cash directly, they actually are able to rationalize their actions, and thus end up stealing significantly more money from people.

Cash Keeps Us (More) Honest

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely ran a fascinating study in the MIT dorm rooms to examine what might allow people to steal without feeling all that guilty about it. At first, he put six Coke cans in a communal refrigerator. Within three days, all six cans were gone. No doubt, people thought, “No one will notice, and hey – free Coke!”

He then put six one-dollar bills on a plate in the refrigerator. They were left totally untouched.

Why? As Ariely explains:

When we look at the world around us, much of the dishonesty we see involves cheating that is one step removed from cash. Companies cheat with their accounting practices; executives cheat by using backdated stock options; lobbyists cheat by underwriting parties for politicians; drug companies cheat by sending doctors and their wives off on posh vacations. To be sure, these people don’t cheat with cold, hard cash (except occasionally). And that’s my point: cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money. (Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 218-219)

There seems to be a psychological block that prevents most of us from simply forcibly taking cash from people, but allows us to rationalize small falsifications that ultimately end up being the same thing as stealing. And that is why, in fact, the Torah has more to say about honesty in business beyond just, “Don’t steal.” In Leviticus, the Torah even regulates what might happen one step away from money that might lead people to cheat.

Honest Weights and Measures

Leviticus 19 contains some of the most important and most famous laws in the Torah. The Ten Commandments appear here, as do the verses, “You shall not stand by idly while your neighbor bleeds” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole chapter is known as the “holiness code,” implying that beyond just being ethical, treating people fairly is truly a sacred obligation that God demands of us.

The very last laws in chapter 19 say, “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah (a unit of dry measure) and an honest hin (a unit of liquid measure)…” (Leviticus 19:35-36)

Why did this law have to be written in the first place? The simple answer is: you don’t forbid something from happening unless it has already been occurring. So clearly, there were people who would falsify their weights and measures. Cheating and stealing are nothing new in today’s society!

And that’s what makes this commandment so important and valuable. If the Torah had simply said, “Don’t steal,” our natural ability to rationalize would have given people the opportunity to say, “Well, if I weigh down my grain a little bit, no one will really notice. And after all, everyone else is doing it, so it’s not really stealing.” Instead, the Torah teaches us, “Don’t cheat even – perhaps especially – when you’re one step removed from money.” It’s a lot easier to steal when you’re one step removed – and that’s why that commandment is needed.

The First Thing We Will Be Asked When We Die

The Rabbis even elevated honesty in business to become one of the highest values we need to live up to. In fact, in the Rabbinic mind, the first thing God will ask us when we die is not, “Did you believe in Me?” or “Did you pray?” No – according to the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), the first question we will be asked when we die is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?”

We sometimes say that we know we are acting honestly if we can look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning. But perhaps that is not enough of a judge. After all, our ability to rationalize could make it very easy for us to say, “Well, it’s just a small thing I’m taking.” Moment by moment, we can easily find ways to steal that feel OK and won’t cause us to lose sleep.

So to truly bring ourselves up to our highest standards, the question should not be, “How do we feel about ourselves right now?” It should really be, “How do we want to feel about ourselves at the end of our lives?”

Only by having our day-to-day actions live up to the values we espouse can we truly be proud of the actions we take.

Posted on April 19, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Torah as Food

If you’ve ever walked down the condiment aisle of a grocery store, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by the ever-expanding number of varieties of mustard or salad dressing. But for some reason, ketchup has stayed essentially the same since it was created. How come?

According to Malcolm Gladwell, what makes ketchup so amazing is that it hits all five of the basic tastes at once — we get sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (that proteiny, full-bodied taste in chicken soup and soy sauce). There really aren’t many other foods that hit all five. So the reason ketchup has stayed the same is that it encompasses all five of our major taste-senses.

And in fact, that’s the reason kids like ketchup so much. When they’re faced with a new and potentially scary food, they can use the fact that ketchup gives us everything we need in order to make this new food palatable.

So the “essence” of ketchup seems to be two-fold. First, it encompasses all the major taste-senses. And second, its universality allows it to be an outstanding complement to a whole range of foods, providing stability and comfort when we are faced with a new taste.

How is Torah Like Food?

The rabbis often made comparisons between Torah and food. It’s not hard to see the connection — in the Rabbis’ mindset, both Torah and food provide sustenance, both are seen as gifts from God, and both help give us strength.

But it’s not just the idea of “food in general” the Rabbis focused on. They often looked at very specific foods (and usually ones that everyone ate, and knew some facts about), and asked, “How is Torah like this particular food?”

For example, when children start to learn Hebrew, the teacher is supposed to put a dab of honey on each letter. Why? Because “Torah is as sweet as honey.” Notice that the focus is on the main aspect of honey –when we’re comparing Torah to honey, it doesn’t really matter that honey is made by bees, or that it takes a long time to make, or there’s always a little extra drip that you have to find a way to get off the spoon. No, the Rabbis want children to focus on the sweetness of honey, and hope that Torah feels just as sweet in their mouths.

Torah as a Fig-Tree

Let’s look at another example — this time using a food we don’t know as much about. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba compares Torah to a fig tree and asks, “How is Torah like it?”

“Why are the words of Torah like a fig tree? As a fig tree yields its fruit whenever it is shaken, so does Torah always give us new teachings whenever it is repeated.” (Eruvin 54a)

What is the “essence” of a fig tree that allows it to be compared to Torah? Because the more you shake a fig tree, the more figs come down. So just like a fig tree, the more we grapple with Torah (“shake it,” if you will), the more insights will come out of it. In fact, we can find something specific about almost any food — its  “essence” — and we can try to ask, “How is Torah like it?”

So even though this may border on the heretical, let’s ask: how is Torah like ketchup?

How is Torah like Ketchup?

We certainly know a lot more about ketchup than we do about fig trees, and as we’ve seen, the Rabbis had no problem comparing Torah to a wide range of foodstuffs. And the eternal and universal nature of ketchup certainly has echoes of what Torah could be. So how is Torah like ketchup?

My own suggestion is this: ketchup does not stand on its own — it is always used in conjunction with another food. And no one has succeeded in changing ketchup because it gives us everything we need taste-wise. We need its stability in order for us to branch out and explore a wider variety of foods.

Similarly, Torah does not stand on its own. It is to be used in conjunction with what is happening in our own lives. And the eternal nature of Torah (we’ve been studying it for 3000 years!) can help us evaluate the new information that comes out every day.

So how is Torah like ketchup? Because just as ketchup encompasses all we need, but needs to be used as a companion to another food in order to be fully utilized, so too does Torah encompass all we know, but needs be used as companion to our life experiences in order to be brought into this world.

Posted on March 22, 2012

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How Should We Talk About Science and Religion?

As someone who loves both religion and science, I often struggle with how they interact.

Are they in opposition to each other? Do they need to be reconciled? What happens when new scientific knowledge challenges the tenets of my faith?

Part of the difficulty in talking about science and religion is that there are several different ways we can discuss their interaction. Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, the Director of the Dialogue for Science, Ethics and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, outlined several different models in an outstanding talk. Therefore, inspired by her, I want to share four different ways we can frame the discussion about how we talk about science and religion.

Contrast

The Contrast model is probably the most common way people speak about the interaction of science and religion. Often, this view is boiled down to the idea that “science deals with ‘how’ and religion deals with ‘why.'”

Stephen Jay Gould popularized it with the phrase “Non-Overlapping Masteria” (NOMA), which he describes as follows: “The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap.”

But there are two problems with this paradigm. First, religion has theories about what the universe is made of — for example, Jewish tradition has statements about the way the world came into being and why the world is the way it is. And science is now talking about morality and even meaning, with books like Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape about the science of morality and The Brain and the Meaning of Life by Paul Thagard about neuroscience and meaning. Thus the magesteria, in fact, do overlap.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, it’s simply not true that science talks only (or even primarily) about “how” — there’s a lot of “why” in there, asking questions like, “Why is there something instead of nothing? Why do our brains work in the way that they do?” Similarly, religion doesn’t talk only (or even primarily) about “why” — there’s a lot of “how” in there, asking questions like, “How do did humans come to be? How should we act in this world?”

So for people who view themselves as both scientific and religious, the Contrast model often makes them comfortable. But as science enters into the realm that has historically been the purview of religion, and especially if we look more deeply at religion and at science, this model stops working very well.

Concert

The Concert model is the opposite of the Contrast model, as people try to directly reconcile science and religion. It is another attractive outlook to those who are both dedicated to their faith and committed to reason, since it means they would not have to reject either. This model makes claims such as the concept of a “day” in Genesis may actually be billions of years, or that the crossing of the Red Sea was actually finding a swamp that could be crossed at low tide.

But here, too, there are problems with this view. After all, science is always changing, discovering new data and revising theories. If science and religion are in concert, what happens to religious faith when new scientific evidence arises? Indeed, not only physics and biology but also human sciences such as archaeology, political science and history are helping us understand who we are, why we do what we do, and our place in the universe. So if religious faith is based on science, what happens when science presents new evidence?

Indeed, this model makes it hard to do a critical analysis of Biblical texts, and that type of study frequently leads to a crisis of faith. In order for it to work, this model requires significant mental gymnastics, and forces people to maintain only a surface understanding of both science and religion.

So while this view may be appealing at first, it is actually quite fragile. All that needs to happen is for science to discover something that contradicts a deeply-held belief, and people will easily elect either atheism or fundamentalism.

Conflict

The Conflict model is the paradigm that gets the most press, and it claims that religion and science are inherently incompatible. It’s the idea that if you buy into one, you must reject the other. This worldview is exemplified by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on one side, and people who deny evolution because it contradicts the Bible on the other.

But while this outlook generates the most passion from people on the extremes, there are a vast number of people who do not buy into it.

An article in the Huffington Post describes recent work by sociologist Elaine Ecklund, who

…interviewed 275 tenured and tenure-track faculty members from 21 research universities in the United States. Only 15 percent of respondents said religion and science were always in conflict, while 15 percent said the two were never in conflict. The majority, 70 percent, said religion and science are only sometimes in conflict.

Similarly, a study from Pew Research Forum showed that “a solid majority of Americans (61%) say that science does not conflict with their own religious beliefs. Even among those who attend worship services at least once a week, a slim majority (52%) sees no conflict between science and their faith.”

Thus while zealous advocates on each side often dominate the discussion, there is a large silent majority who do not see science and religion as inherently in conflict.

The bigger problem is that while the Conflict model produces a lot of heat, it rarely creates light. It regularly devolves into unproductive arguments and ad hominem attacks, and causes both scientists and religious people to become either overly aggressive or feel themselves to be “victims” of the other side.

So even though for some people, this is an outlook they hold strongly to, it is much more likely to shut down conversations than to open them.

Contact

This is the outlook that I find most resonant. In this model, science and religion can remain in their own spheres, but when it is appropriate, they can also mutually inform each other, and provide us with a variety of ways to help us know what it means to be human. Indeed, its great value is that it reminds us that both religion and science have to be understood in the context of human experiences, because both religion and science are human endeavors.

The Contact model reminds us that science is not independent of the scientists who pursue their field of inquiry. After all, while the universe may be 13.7 billion years old, and humans may have evolved on the African savannah, it has only been since modern times that human beings have sought to undertake a rigorous understanding of fields like cosmology, paleontology, psychology, neuroscience and biochemistry. We have to remember that not only does scientific knowledge provide information, it is deeply influenced by the passions, the curiosity and the personal experiences of the scientists who pursue it.

Similarly, our own personal experiences influence our religious outlook. People’s feelings about religion are naturally affected by how they were raised and what has happened in their own lives. In the words of Rabbi Laura Geller, “All theology is autobiography.” And while religion is older than science, it is still a human creation, helping us structure our human experiences, and asks deeply human questions like, “How should I act? What should I value? Who should I choose to associate with?”

When we place science and religion in the context of human experiences, we recognize that both science and religion are driven by human needs and are victim to human foibles. The Contact model thus encourages humility in both science and religion, reminding both sides that there are things we do not know, and things we will never know.

So the other crucial piece to bear in mind for the Contact model is that “religion” and “God” are two separate things. “God” is bigger than any one human being or group of people; “religion” is our particular attempt to understand God, and is necessarily limited. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “[R]eligion for religion’s sake is idolatry…The human side of religion, its creeds, its rituals and instructions is a way rather than the goal. The goal is ‘to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8)” (I Asked for Wonder, 40-41)

So for those of us who feel connected to God, when we forget that religion is not Divine, but human, we can easily fall into the trap of arrogance and narrow-mindedness. Micah thus reminds us that justice, mercy and humbleness are truly the most important values.

Indeed, our ultimate purpose in life is to strengthen ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. Science does that by giving us a fuller understanding of the world, by advancing knowledge, and by examining the relationship between theory and evidence. Religion does that by giving us a sense of purpose, by strengthening communities, and by giving us a potential glimpse of the Divine.

When we remember that both science and religion are human enterprises, we can remember that the most important question isn’t whether they need to be viewed separately, or if they can be reconciled, or if they are inherently in conflict.

The most important question is: how are they being used?

(This post also appeared on Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on February 23, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Give Your Brain a Rest

Generally, our minds have no problem with coming up with lots of ideas — it’s fairly easy for us to think about creating something new. And with perseverance, we can often turn our ideas into reality.

But too frequently, we don’t recognize which ideas should have just stayed in our minds until we’ve already expended our time, our energy and our resources — just think about New Coke, Qwikster or M. Night Shyamalan.

So is there way for us to better determine which ideas are worth pursuing in the first place, and which are not?

It turns out that there is. While hard work is the way ideas get actualized, rest is an effective way for us to evaluate our ideas.

In a recent article for Wired, Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment which shows the value of a mental break. In this study, 112 students were given two minutes to create as many solutions as possible to the problem of how to improve the experience of waiting on line for the cash register. Half the group was then told to go straight to work with no break, while the other half played a unrelated video game for two minutes, giving their brains a short respite.

While both groups came up with the same number of ideas, there was a huge difference in terms of how well they recognized good ideas. As Lehrer explains:

[G]iving the unconscious a few minutes…proved to be a big advantage, as those who had been distracted were much better at identifying their best ideas. (An independent panel of experts scored all of the ideas.) While those in the conscious condition only picked their most innovative concepts about 20 percent of the time — they confused their genius with their mediocrity — those who had been distracted located their best ideas about 55 percent of the time. In other words, they were twice as good at figuring out which concepts deserved more attention.

And yet it’s not simply taking a break that helps us evaluate our ideas — it’s also about using that rest to engender positive feelings. As Lehrer tells us, “Taking a break is important. But make sure you do something that makes you happy, as positive moods make us even better at diagnosing the value of our creative work.”

So rest and joy are two things that can help us assess our ideas before we try to transform them into reality. And those two aspects are what define one of Judaism’s signature contributions to the world — Shabbat.

Judaism recognizes that unbridled creativity isn’t all that constructive. And so Jewish tradition has even set up guidelines to help us deliberately stop creating. According to the Mishnah, there are thirty-nine specific activities that are prohibited on Shabbat, which include lighting fires, writing, and cooking. The common theme among those thirty-nine items (called melakhot) is that they were the specific actions that the Israelites undertook when the were building the mishkan, the dwelling-place for God.

So even though building the mishkan was sacred work, the Torah reminds us that even sacred work needs to stop for one day a week. And to the Rabbis, that meant that no matter how important our work may be, on Shabbat, anything we want to make, anything we want to do, anything we want to design — it has to wait.

And yet taking a break is only part of Shabbat. While we are supposed to be intentionally non-creative on that day, the Rabbis also outline certain things we should do to help make Shabbat a day of joy and peace. Not only are we supposed to shamor, “guard” Shabbat by avoiding certain tasks, we are also supposed to zachor, “remember” Shabbat by elevating our sense of holiness and delight.

So on Shabbat, we’re supposed to have a festive meal, with special food and a celebratory atmosphere. We’re supposed to be with friends and family — and to truly be with them. We’re supposed to read, to reflect, and to rediscover the blessings in our lives.

Ultimately, Shabbat is there to remind us that it’s far too easy for us to fall into the trap of constant business and constant busyness. And as Lehrer argues, constant creativity prevents us from distinguishing mediocrity from excellence.

So if we want to invest our precious resources in developing only our best ideas, then we need to structure our time so that we have an opportunity to stop creating, and give our brains a rest.

(This post also appeared on Sinai and Synapses.)

Posted on January 26, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Getting Our B’nei Mitzvah to Understand (and Love) Torah Study

Helping 13-year-olds understand a 3,000-year-old text is challenging, to say the least.

After all, trying to glean lessons from the Torah for 21st-century America is hard enough, even if you have some background in text study. So when you have only 13 years of life experience, go to religious school for only two hours twice per week, and are still learning the skills you need to write and speak effectively, it’s even harder.

Yet as our kids become b’nei mitzvah and create their d’var torah – the teaching they deliver about the weekly Torah portion on that Shabbat morning — we often miss a great opportunity. Not only can we help them understand the content of that particular Torah portion, we can also help them appreciate the process by which we can engage with serious Torah study.

In other words, we have a golden opportunity to use the “what” as a vehicle to develop excitement around the “how.”

Formulating Good Questions

At Temple Beth El, we wanted to help our students truly embrace the process of Torah study. So to prepare our b’nei mitzvah, we decided to experiment with the “Question Formulation Technique” (QFT), designed by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana and outlined in their outstanding book Make Just One Change.

The purpose of the QFT is to shift how learning occurs: rather than having students respond to questions proposed by the teacher, the students themselves develop the questions that most effectively direct their own learning. After all, if the students are the ones posing the questions, then they will naturally develop a deeper level of ownership over their own learning.

The rules are simple — the teacher begins with a prompt that can lead to multiple lines of inquiry. For example, the teacher might write on the board something like, “Religion does more good than harm,” or “A synagogue should be a sacred and spiritual community.”

Then, in small groups, learners need to come up with as many questions about that prompt as they can. Their instructions are:

• Ask as many questions as you can.
• Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer the questions.
• Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
• Change any statement into a question.

After creating their long list of questions, the learners then focus on the handful that speak to them the most — and so that’s the direction where the research, the discussion or the conversation goes. And so since the learners create their questions, and the learners then choose the ones that excite them the most, the paradigm shifts radically: instead of the teacher imparting information from the top down, the students are creating their learning from the bottom up.

Sacred Questions about Sacred Texts

In Judaism, questioning has always been a sacred activity. Throughout Jewish history, when we study Torah, we are asking questions like, “What might this verse mean? How can we read it in a new way? What other allusions does it have?” So applying the QFT was a natural way to help our b’nei mitzvah develop their d’var torah.

As part of our family education program, eight families came together about four months before their children become b’nei mitzvah. And we began by having them write a collective d’var torah, in order to help them understand the process. We focused on a passage from Deuteronomy 8: “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember Adonai your God, for it is God who gives you the ability to produce wealth…” (v. 17-18).

First, we unpacked what this meant — that we are not the sole producers of our success, but that we need to have a level of humility and gratitude if we have been blessed with wealth. The text doesn’t say, “wealth is bad,” but rather, “if you are wealthy, make sure you remember the true source of that wealth.”

I then wrote up four words on the board: “Gratitude for material things.” And then I told them to write down as many questions as they could about that idea, that they weren’t allowed to answer or discuss the questions, to write down every question exactly as it was stated, and to change any statement into a question. And then I simply walked around eavesdropping on the conversations.

Almost instantly, the families created a flood of questions. In less than five minutes, they had come up with over twenty different questions: “What’s the difference between what we want and what we need?” “How do we show gratitude?” “If we show gratitude, does it have to be towards God?” “What’s the difference between material and non-material things?” “What happens if you don’t show gratitude?” “If you lost all your material things, would you still show gratitude?”

The energy was palpable, as everyone was considering what it really meant to “show gratitude for material things.” After a short discussion, we decided to go in depth about how gratitude acts as a check on entitlement — an issue that is as relevant today as it was 3,000 years ago. We studied commentary, explored interpretations and shared our own opinions. And most crucially, the students now had a process to apply to the study of Torah, discovering ways to find meaning from the text.

So now, it was time to have them use this process on their own Torah portion.

They began by focusing on their specific verses that they would be reading, and came up with an eight-word description of the verses’ gist — “the special clothes Aaron wore,” “the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle,” “the laws of keeping kosher.” As two to three families joined together as a small group, each student’s summary acted as a prompt for creating a list of questions. After hearing and creating many, many possible questions, the bar or bat mitzvah student then chose the one question they would be most excited to research.

We then placed copies of Torah commentaries (The Torah: A Modern Commentary and The Torah: A Women’s Commentary) for all the families and said, “Take a look — see if you can find responses to your questions. What have other scholars had to say about what you’re wondering about?” For the next thirty minutes, families were poring over texts, excitedly yelling, “Oh! I found something!”, and began crafting their own thoughts. They proudly shared with me their ideas, and were so excited about what they themselves had created.

It was simply remarkable. Afterwards, the parents and the students shared how much they loved learning as a family, how much they enjoyed researching commentary on the Torah portion, and how smart and successful they felt as they drew lessons from the Torah. Not only did the quality of the divrei torah improve dramatically, but the students had clearly gained a new set of skills they could apply to study a whole range of texts, and perhaps most importantly, truly owned their learning process.

Building Skills for Life-Long Learning

Too often, preparing students to become bar or bat mitzvah feels like “studying for the test.” And as anyone who has ever “studied for the test” knows, the day after the test, all the information goes in one ear and out the other.

Instead, becoming bar or bat mitzvah should truly be about making a transition — namely, from being a child in the Jewish community to becoming an adult. And so as our 13-year-olds grow and develop, and as we celebrate their entrance into the Jewish community, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to teach them skills for life-long learning.

What are those skills? To be able to connect the present to the past and to the future. To be able to add their voice to a Jewish conversation that is 3,000 years old. And most of all, to be able to formulate good questions, since after all, what we learn is simply defined by the questions we ask.

So let’s help our students learn how to ask good ones.

(This post also appeared on Sinai and Synapses.)

Posted on December 29, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

How Transparent Should We Be?

Why Do Infomericals Work?

If you ever watch infomercials, you know that what they really sell isn’t just an amazing product — it’s the fact that you get to see how the product works. And in his article “The Pitchman,” Malcolm Gladwell introduces us to Ron Popeil, the maker of some of the most effective infomercials ever. What Popeil discovered was that infomercials really sell transparency — a sense of confidence and knowledge in our ability that leads us to say, “I can do this!”

Think about a VCR. Is there anything more frustrating than seeing that blinking “12:00″? What frustrates us isn’t the VCR itself — it’s that it feels totally and utterly impossible to penetrate. And as Gladwell says, if Popeil had been the person who had invented the VCR, and presented it like his other products, the tape wouldn’t be inserted behind a hidden door — it would be out in plain sight, so that if it was recording, you could see the spools turn. The controls wouldn’t be discreet buttons; they would make a reassuring click as they were pushed up and down, and each step of the taping process would be identified with a big, obvious numeral so that you could set it and forget it. (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw, 24)

What Popeil realized was that we want to know more than just the “what”– we’re also very focused on the “how”. We like feeling that we’ve learned some arcane knowledge (“oh, so THAT’S how that works!”), and since knowledge is often power, if we get to see how something works, we feel more equal to those who already had the knowledge — everyone now knows how this product works; not just the creators.

Are There Times We Shouldn’t Be Transparent?

But are there times when it’s better not to know how something works? Are there times when we should protect our knowledge and not share it with others?

There’s a Jewish source that explores these questions — Numbers, Chapter 18. When the Israelites were wandering through the desert, they always carried with them the “Tent of Meeting,” the place where God dwelt. For most of their wanderings, any Israelite could go into the Tent at any time. But in Numbers 18, God creates a “hierarchy of holiness,” preventing everyone except the priests and Levites from entering the Tent, and putting the vast majority of the Israelites out of the loop if they wanted to see what the priests and Levites were doing:

Let no unauthorized person [enter the Tent]…Any unauthorized person who enters the Tent shall die…[and] the [other] Israelites shall no longer come forward to the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers 18:4,7,22)

Clearly, God wanted to keep most of the Israelites out. God doesn’t seem to think that transparency is a value in and of itself. So the question becomes: when is it important to be fully transparent, and when is it important to keep our knowledge protected?

This is a huge question for us today. We love sharing what we’re doing through Twitter and Facebook, but if we share too much, we become vulnerable to problems like identity theft. We are constantly in a struggle between sharing knowledge and protecting it.

When Do We Open Up Our Knowledge Base?

Ron Popeil realized that selling transparency was more profitable than selling products. At some point, we have to decide when our secret knowledge needs to become open to all.

During the time the First Temple stood, only the priests themselves — a very small group — had access to the knowledge about how they should perform their duties. They kept their knowledge private. But a few centuries later, the specific details of the priestly duties were written down and later became the book of Leviticus — a text any of us can study today, allowing anyone at all to study in detail how the priests did their job. So what began as protected knowledge has become totally open to anyone who picks up a Bible today.

So here’s the question: what are the implications when protected knowledge — whether it’s how a particular product works or the specifics of what the priests were doing — becomes open to all? And how do we determine if certain kinds of knowledge should be easily accessible or hard to come by?

Posted on December 15, 2011

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Is “Justice” a Process or a Result?

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The Problem of Homelessness

When we think of societal problems, we often think in the abstract. Take the question of “homelessness.” Hopefully, there is some part of us that wants to fight homelessness, create affordable homes, and get people off the streets. And yet if you live in a city (I live in Manhattan), “homelessness” isn’t an abstract problem – it’s the guy lying in Central Park, or sleeping on the sidewalk, or holding a sign in the subway saying, “Please help.”

I certainly experience a variety of feelings when I see homeless people. Part of me wants to help everyone I see. Part of me doesn’t want to give because that money may be helping feed an addiction. Part of me wants to support organizations that address homelessness more effectively than a direct donation would. Part of me doesn’t want to give too much because I have limited resources, and want to support many different causes. Part of me wants to at least make eye contact with a homeless person to acknowledge that he or she is a human being. Part of me is nervous about making eye contact because I just don’t know about that person’s emotional stability.

What makes homelessness even more complicated is that no one really understands the root causes. How and why do people end up on the street? That leads to an even bigger question – do we want to understand homelessness, or do we want to solve it?

How Much Does Homelessness Cost?

In Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “Million-Dollar Murray,” we meet Murray Barr, an ex-marine who often ended up homeless in Reno, Nevada. In 2003, the Reno police department started cracking down on panhandling, because panhandling was used to get liquor, and liquor led to problems – most especially hospital visits due to intoxication. The police officers found that most of the hospital visits were from three people, who in three months, cost the state over $200,000 in hospital bills. Murray himself cost $100,000. Gladwell notes:

“If you toted up all his hospital bills for the ten years that he had been on the streets – as well as substance-abuse-treatment costs, doctors’ fees, and other expenses – Murray Barr probably ran up a medical bill as large as anyone in the state of Nevada. “It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray,” [Reno police office Patrick] O’Bryan said.” (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw, 180-181)

If Murray cost the state one million dollars – and the revolving door of the shelters wasn’t helping him – a natural question arises: is there a more effective way to address homelessness?

Being Fair by Being Unfair

Homelessness, like many other problems, obeys what’s known as a “power law,” where most of the activity is not in the middle, but at one extreme. It’s similar to the “80/20” law. Think of fund-raising, where about 80% of the money comes from about 20% of the donors. What’s the most effective way to raise money? Not by spending all your time going after everyone, but rather, by picking the few target people who are most able and most likely to make big donations, and going after them.

What would the equivalent be for homelessness? Well, from a practical point of view, it wouldn’t be “helping every homeless person.” Most homeless people are not homeless for long – “in Philadelphia, the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. And the second most common length is two days.” (Gladwell, 183) Instead, the most effective way to solve homelessness would be to identify the people who cost the state the most money, and help get them off the streets.

In fact, that was tried in Denver. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless tried to identify the homeless people who were most costly to the state and gave them a free apartment. And it’s been working – the cost of homelessness has gone down dramatically. It hasn’t gotten everyone off the streets, but it’s been a significantly smaller part of the annual budget.

Yet there’s something a bit unsettling about that. We help the worst offenders, and ignore the people who are really trying their hardest? As Gladwell says:

“Social benefits are supposed to have some kind of moral justification. We give them to widows and disabled veterans and poor mothers with small children. Giving the homeless guy passed out on the sidewalk has a different rationale. It’s simply about efficiency…

[We think that] “being fair”…means providing shelters and soup kitchens, [but] shelters and soup kitchens don’t solve the problem of homelessness…[We are faced] with an unpleasant choice. We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.” (Gladwell, 191-192, italics mine)

Jewish Views on Justice

What would Judaism say about addressing homelessness in this way? I certainly don’t feel qualified enough to make policy recommendations, so instead, let me present a few texts, and ask – how do these texts frame the question of “Million-Dollar Murray”?

1. “The world stands on three things: on truth, on justice and on peace.” (Simon the Righteous, Avot 1:18)

Justice, truth and peace are intertwined, but problems arise when feel like we have to concede one in order to fulfill another. The world stands on peace, but sometimes justice commands that we go to war. The world stands on truth, but sometimes brutal honesty can destroy peace.

If the truth ends up being that free housing for certain challenging homeless people helps address the monetary concern, does it subvert justice to ignore the homeless people who have been trying for months to find homes? If giving free housing for certain challenging homeless people helps create a more peaceful and safer neighborhood, is that subverting justice? What do we do when our values collide?

2. “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) Why is the word “justice” repeated here? A common interpretation is that “justice” isn’t just what we do, justice is also how we do it. “Justice” is not just about the ends, it’s also about the means.

Sometimes, even the different ways we view one value, like justice, may conflict. Even if it works, is giving free housing only to certain homeless people (and often the most challenging cases) a fair procedure? It may be a good result, but is it a just process?

3. “In light of God’s image embedded in each of us, we must determine the recipients of aid, the donors, the methods of collection and distribution, the programs of prevention, and all other related factors in this area by asking: What is the most practical and efficient way of caring for the poor while preserving the dignity and economic viability of all concerned?” (Rabbi Elliot Dorff, To Do the Right and the Good, 155)

That question seems to be the crux of it for me. The question in Jewish tradition isn’t whether we should help the homeless – it’s how. And that’s where the challenge lies. It’s very easy to say, “Judaism demands that we help others.” It’s a lot harder to make the tough decisions.

And since a decision comes as a result of a process, we have to examine both. Most often, we start with a process and see how it ends up. But sometimes we find a surprising result, and have to work backward to examine the process. We know that homeless shelters and soup kitchens create a fair process, but they aren’t creating the results that the program in Denver had. Sometimes, we may have to start with a result and work backwards – “this is a fair result – let’s now make sure it’s a fair process.”

But the most crucial thing we have to be sure of it that we are not sacrificing one at the expense of the other. To truly create a just society, we need to look at both the society we want to create, and the way we are creating it.

Posted on December 1, 2011

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Who Owns Our Words?

For artists and writers, their creativity is their livelihood. The ideas that sprout from their heads are what put bread on the table and rent checks and mortgage payments in the mail. But even more crucially, artists and writers bring themselves into their creation, so when someone is plagiarized, it’s not just stealing money – it’s almost like stealing a very part of who they are.

And yet once someone’s words are now out in the world, how much do those words become public domain for anyone to use? In a world where we are not only consumers, but producers, where does borrowing end and plagiarism begin?

That’s a question that Malcolm Gladwell raises in an essay called “Something Borrowed.” The 2004 Broadway play “Frozen” is, in large part, about a psychiatrist who studies serial killers. And nearly 675 words were taken almost directly from a 1997 New Yorker article entitled “Damaged” that Gladwell himself had written. And he asks – is plagiarism the same thing as stealing?

As he says:

“Words belong to the person who wrote them. There are few simpler ethical notions than this one…[and] plagiarism has gone from being bad literary manners to something much closer to a crime. When, two years ago, Doris Kearns Goodwin was found to have lifted passages from other historians, she was asked to resign from the board of the Pulitzer Prize Committee. And why not? If she had robbed a bank, she would have been fired the next day.” (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw, 225-226)

But that idea–that plagiarism is simply stealing–assumes that we own the words we speak. Yet once we have written something down, or created a piece of music, or painted a picture, it now becomes open for anyone to enjoy, to learn from, and to be inspired by. Ideas are not like physical objects–they naturally get expanded upon, interpreted, and used in other forms. So how much do we “own” the words we speak?

The Importance of Proper Attribution

If we do “own” the words we speak, then we need to make sure that the right people get the credit they deserve. And the Rabbis of the Talmud were close to obsessed with giving proper attribution to ideas and quotes. That’s why so many Jewish texts start by saying, “Rabbi So-and-So said in the name of Rabbi Such-and-Such…” But why are the Rabbis so concerned with giving proper attribution?

There are a few reasons. Pirkei Avot (6:6) tells us that “if you say something in the name of the person who originally said it, you are bringing redemption to the world.” The Mishnah and the Talmud were originally transmitted orally (that’s why it’s sometimes called the “Oral Torah”), and so there was no physical written record of who had said what. By ensuring a level of respect to those who came before, the Rabbis were also making sure that quotes, ideas and laws were handed down faithfully, and that some renegade Rabbi wasn’t making things up as he went along.

But I think there is another reasons, as well. The way God created the world was through speech – “‘Let there be light’, and there was light.” Our words are physical objects, because words create worlds. So if it was important not to steal people’s property, it was equally important not to steal their ideas, either.

Into the Public Domain

And yet the Rabbis also realized that there is a public domain, where our ideas might take on a life of their own. There is a classic story in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b), where the Rabbis were arguing over whether a certain type of oven was kosher.One of them, Rabbi Eliezer, tried to prove that he was right by having God perform miracles: “If I’m right, let this carob tree prove it!”, he said, and the carob tree uprooted its branches and moved. “If I’m right, let this river prove it!”, and the river started to flow backwards. But none of the other Rabbis were convinced by the miracles.Eventually, Rabbi Eliezer said, “If I’m right, let God Himself prove it!” At that moment, a heavenly voice cried out, “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is always right!”

You would think this would have ended the matter. You would think that within the Rabbinic mindset, they would have said, “God gave the Torah, so God must know who has the right interpretation of it. And clearly, Rabbi Eliezer does. End of story.”

Instead, Rabbi Joshua stood up and said, “‘The Torah is not in heaven’ (Deuteronomy 30:12). We pay no attention to a divine voice.”

“We don’t listen to God any more, since the Torah is now ours,” Rabbi Joshua is saying. Notice that here the Rabbis weren’t arguing over whether Rabbi Eliezer was right or not. What they seem to be saying was that once God gave the Torah, it was now in the Rabbis’ hands to interpret it. Once the Torah was given to the people of Israel, it became theirs to own, and no longer simply God’s.

Who Owns Our Words?

So we face a tension about how ideas live in the world. On the one hand, people deserve credit if they come up with new thoughts. On the other hand, once the ideas are out there, no one truly “owns” them any more – anyone can access or use them.

As Gladwell reminds us, words do not “have a virgin birth and an eternal life” – there is a “chain of influence.” (243) So we have two-fold responsibility when it comes to attribution. First, as much as we can, we need to give credit where credit is due. Since there is nothing physical in the words we speak, it is that much more important to honor those who have created their works. On the other hand, we also have to remember that our own words quickly become public and owned by all.

The Rabbis are a perfect example of how to live out both sides of this obligation. Rabbi Joshua’s statement that “The Torah is not in heaven” implies that the greatest honor we can give the Torah is to help it become a living document. We build on what has come before, and we hope that others will build on afterwards.

So for our own ideas, we need first to remember that we build on the past. But if we think about our ideas as alive, then what greater honor can there be than having our words inspire someone else to expand on what we have created?

Posted on November 17, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy