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

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Love Work

This is my first post in a long time. I hope to make more posts more often in the future. Most of these posts will be meant to encourage discussion and will not be carefully edited - as is the case with most of our thoughts.

Clearly one's profession can not be thought of as purely a means. This is the surest path to depression. We spend the majority of our time working and we should want to find satisfaction in our chosen profession. The Rabbis go even further. They say that one should actually “love work.”

שמעיה אומר, אהוב את המלאכה, ושנוא את הרבנות; ואל תתוודע לרשות. (אבות א, י)

Shemayah said: Love work; hate dominion; and seek not undue intimacy with the government. (Avot 1, 10)

Why should one love work? Certainly one should find satisfaction in their work and take pride in it but why love? Additionally, why should one hate positions of authority?

Work is humbling. The need to toil with one's own hands to eek out a living intimately connects one to the larger systems necessary for success. The laborer knows and is humbled by the physical exertion of work – it's clear to him that it is not easy to make a living. The professional knows the intense training and knowledge needed for his area of expertise. Both should realize how many factors go into success - how many systems must be in place, from natural to human; how many people are involved; how many raw materials are needed; that there is no product necessary for society that is not part of some vastly larger system of production. However, the professional, though his work in general demands less physical exertion, is in a better position to have this realization because his success depends on the knowledge of these larger systems. And yet, this is precisely where the danger lies – seeing and understanding these larger systems can either humble one to the vast systems that are beyond one's control or be seen as an instrument to gain dominion over one's fellow man. This is what Shemaya warns us: “Love work; hate dominion...”.

Seeking dominion is a sign of vice. The one with the more powerful understanding of the systems of production will, in general, be promoted. This is only natural and is predicted by the laws of supply and demand – the greater the expertise the greater the scarcity and hence the demand. One need not seek dominion – one need only seek to make the contribution he can to society. Dominion as an end will surely lead to corruption – authority as a result of knowledge is a sign of virtue.

Additionally, seeking dominion leads to jealousy and animosity. Commanding authority due to superior understanding of the systems of production does not because his contribution to society is clear. The Rambam explains this beautifully:

ואלו שלושת הציוויים יש בהם תיקון הדת והעולם, כי בהעדר מלאכה יצר מצבו ויגזול ויעשוק; ובבקשת השררה יבואו עליו נסיונות בעולם ורעות, כי יקנאו בו ויאיבוהו, ויפסיד דתו, כמו שאמרו: "כיון שנתמנה אדם מלמטה - נעשה רשע מלמעלה"; וכן ההיוודעות לשלטון, הבטחון ממנה בעולם הזה רחוק, והיא מפסידה הדת, כי לא ישגיח אלא במה שיקרבהו אליו. ואתה יודע סיפור דואג. זאת, והמלך אשר התקרב אליו משיח ה' ובחיר ה' ונביא. (רמב"ם, פירוש המשניות)

These three commands are fundamental to the improvement of the social order and the world at large. Without work people's condition deteriorates and they steal and act corruptly. Seeking dominion causes many trials and tribulations in the world – it causes jealousy and animosity and corrupts the social order, as they say, “As a person gains rank below he becomes evil above.” Similarly, gaining intimacy with the government is unlikely to give one any real security and one who seeks it ultimately corrupts the social order because he only cares about what will endear him to it. (Rambam, Commentary on the Mishna)