Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Abstract Thought

Today my students were very upset about having assigned seats during lunchtime. After lunch they came to my class and were expressing their frustrations. I told them that we could discuss their feelings but we would have to conduct ourselves intelligently. I went around to each student and gave each one equal time to express his complaints. With a little bit of guidance each student got to speak a few times. The next step was to do some constructive criticism – I told them that I wanted to help them learn how to formulate arguments that the administration would listen to and not view as childish complaints. They agreed that this was a good idea. I then asked them if we could take a step back and take a moment to think about the topic of teshuva in eating for two or three minutes and I gave a few examples of where the halakha helps one improve the habits of eating. They found it close to impossible to break out of their emotional rut and think about that topic – every time they tried they would quickly go back to their complaints about their lunch experience. I stressed to them how important it was to be able to think clearly about the topic to be able to “enter council” but they couldn't do it – I obviously did not push the matter. They were, in the end, happy that I gave them time to air their complaints but my attempt to get them to think abstractly failed. Perhaps they are too young for this, or perhaps the feelings were too intense at that moment.

I am telling this story to illustrate the dual meaning of “abstract thought”. Abstract thought is, of course, thought about “abstract objects”, as opposed to sensible particulars - for example, geometry, mathematics, physics, etc. “Abstract thought” also refers to the ability to “abstract” oneself from one's feeling about a topic and think about it objectively. This is the kind of thought that is crucial for a judge who must “abstract” himself from the passionate pleas of the defendant and charges of the accuser in order to render a just verdict.

הִלְכּוֹת יְסוֹדֵי הַתּוֹרָה פֵּרֶק ד
נֶפֶשׁ כָּל בָּשָׂר, הִיא צוּרָתוֹ שֶׁנָּתַן לוֹ הָאֵל. וְהַדַּעַת הַיְּתֵרָה הַמְּצוּיָה בְּנַפְשׁוֹ שֶׁלָּאָדָם, הִיא צוּרַת הָאָדָם הַשָּׁלֵם בְּדַעְתּוֹ; וְעַל צוּרָה זוֹ נֶאֱמָר בַּתּוֹרָה "נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ" (בראשית א,כו), כְּלוֹמַר שֶׁתִּהְיֶה לוֹ צוּרָה הַיּוֹדַעַת וּמַשֶּׂגֶת הַדֵּעוֹת שְׁאֵין לָהֶם גֹּלֶם, עַד שֶׁיִּדָּמֶה לָהֶן. וְאֵינוּ אוֹמֵר עַל צוּרָה זוֹ הַנִּכֶּרֶת לָעֵינַיִם, שְׁהִיא הַפֶּה וְהַחֹטֶם וְהַלְּסָתוֹת וּשְׁאָר רֹשֶׁם הַגּוּף, שֶׁזּוֹ תֹּאַר שְׁמָהּ

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