Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Stick Figures

Before the "words" there was the "stick-figure".

By 11th grade I was in RS's gemara class. I had heard about his "stick-figures" from some of my friends who had already attended his Talmud class the year before. When we would discuss an issue in the Talmud he would diagram out the issue on the board in the form of "stick-figures". Lengthy discussions were had on how to represent seemingly simple halakhic acts in a form akin to a choreographer's notation system. The major difference was that we also had to represent the mental states involved in each action. Much time was spent getting them just right. What I did not realize at the time was that "stick-figuring" was a method of exploring and becoming aware of our "souls".

Later in the year he introduced us to Maimonides' Eight (Introductory) Chapters to Pirkei Avot. Maimonides' main focus was the "soul". However, it read more like biology and psychology than the "philosophy" I was accustomed to. (I came to realize that "psyche" with its Greek etymology is much closer in connotation to what Maimonides was discussing - especially considering the Aristotelian philosophical tradition to which his work belongs. However, "psyche" with its modern positivist connotations does not capture Maimonides' conception of the mind as transcendent from matter.)

At the core of the Chapters is Maimonides' treatment of the "diseases" of the soul. He compares the diseases of the soul with physical diseases:
"just as when people, unacquainted with the science of medicine, realize that they are sick, and consult a physician, who tells them what they must do...so those whose souls become ill should consult the wise, the physicians of the soul..."
RS clearly took this statement to heart.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Steps to Logic

Recently, I had the opportunity to reflect on my intellectual development. Most of my readers (all 5 of you) know RS played a crucial role in that development. As many of you have had the privilege of studying with him, I thought you would find these reflections interesting. I hope they stimulate insight.

When I was in TASC, RS thought it was important that we study logic. He had a unique method of teaching it. He used a method he called the ‘steps’ or ‘words’. A verb would be chosen, either simple like ‘sit’ or ‘stand’, or more complex like ‘inspire’ or ‘think’. The first step was to give a quick definition so that we knew we were talking about the same thing. The next step was to think of an example. The trick was that it had to be a rich, meaningful example that felt powerful and right: ultimately, an exemplar. However, the exemplar could not be artificial. He would test and prod to make sure we really felt our examples and that they were coming from a real place. When we had our exemplar we would proceed to check our original quick definition. The main point was not to see if our definition was correct - it was, of course, important. The point was to give nuance and real meaning to our definitions - to move from talking-about to truly knowing and experiencing something. This, he explained, was the first logical act of the mind that the Aristotelians spoke of: simple apprehension. This was the first step to learning the art of logic.

These "steps" naturally led to a deeper understanding of many mitzvot and halakhot. For example, "sit", "stand", "inspire" and "think" obviously lead to a deeper understanding of the mitzvah of Tefillah and its halakhot.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Abraham's Tent

According to Jewish tradition, no teacher's challenge was greater than Abraham's. He belonged to a world completely steeped in idolatry. At God's command Abraham journeyed to Canaan and traveled through the land.
And the Lord appeared to Abram, and He said, "To your seed I will give this land," and there he built an altar to the Lord, Who had appeared to him.
At this point we would think Abram would settle down. Instead, he moves:

And he moved from there to the mountain, east of Beth el, and he pitched his tent; Beth el was to the west and Ai was to the east, and there he built an altar to the Lord, and he called in the name of the Lord.(Genesis 12:7-8)

The motivation for his move is unclear as well as his chosen settlement. Why does he pitch a tent? Why here? If his goal is to teach people about God why not settle in one of the cities? By this point in the narrative of Genesis the Torah's dislike for the city has become abundantly clear. These three examples should suffice:
1) Cain becomes a city-builder after being cast out from God's presence (4:17).
2) Of the three sons of Noah only the descendants of Ham (the cursed son) are described as building cities - Shem and Japheth's (the blessed sons) descendants do not.
3) one chapter back we read the ill-fated story of the builders of Babel (11:1-9).
The builders of Babel constructed a monument to man (11:4):
And they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth.'
In contrast, Abraham built an altar - a structure designed to evoke both man's subservience and his yearning to ascend - and called out in the name of the Lord.

Abraham came to Canaan to shake up the constructed order of the city. The city is all artifice (the builders of Babel even chose to make bricks - artificial to the core), it is designed to protect man from his anxieties about the natural world. He pitched a tent where he would encounter travelers who, at least for that moment, were not tied to their constructed universe. Between Beth el and Ai, Abraham pitched his tent, the most transient of shelters and in that place he called his fellow man to wonder and look beyond man's world. This is the ideal teacher.