Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Midrash Doctor Who on Marvelous Midos Machine

One of the delights of parenthood has been the excuse to use the gargantuan music collections of iTunes and Amazon to track down and acquire childhood favorites to play for my son. Holding a place of prominence on my son's playlist is the Marvelous Midos Machine series. This series of tapes (three when I was growing up with a fourth added several years ago), tells the story of Dr. Midos, who invents a machine that can tell when Jewish kids are about to do something wrong and attempts to correct their behavior by projecting songs from nearby objects. In this endeavor, Dr. Midos is helped by three kids, Dizzy, Shnooky, and Shloompy. The series' many terrific songs and its ability to introduce children to basic concepts of ethical behavior are more than enough to make up for a ridiculous hole filled plot that often veers ironically into morally questionable territory. For example, where did Dr. Midos acquire the resources to put a satellite in orbit? How could he be so reckless as to endanger the residents of Brooklyn by sending up a rocket from a street corner? How was he planning on feeding Dizzy? What purpose did Dizzy serve in outer space, besides for being captured by Dr. Doomstein, considering that he is able to come home in episode two, after being rescued? Is not the depiction of the cannibal villagers of Mumbo Jumbo quite racist? Finally, are we really comfortable with a machine that allows for "1984" levels of surveillance? To answer such questions, I sought to turn to one of my favorite television shows, Doctor Who. This show features an alien with a police box-shaped time machine/spaceship, who goes around with a team of human allies saving the universe from all sorts of evildoers (including those shaped like pepper shakers). I find Who to be particularly useful as a means of explaining MMM, because the show often takes popular myths, such as Robin Hood and Santa Claus this season, and offers a science fiction twist so that the stories make an odd sort of sense (at least within the madcap universe of Who).

Dr. Midos is actually a Time Lord operating within the New York Jewish community during the late twentieth century. He is a "doctor," but what is he a doctor of? Clearly, like the Doctor, he is a doctor of everything. Dr. Midos owns a Kwisatz Haderach machine, which allows one to go anywhere in the universe and a time machine (contrary to what he tells Shnooky in episode three, it really is a time machine and not a sleeping machine, but more on this later). Put these two machines together and you have a fully functional TARDIS. Dr. Midos follows a Maimonidean brand of Judaism, which he interprets in a manner consistent with Time Lord values. As a Maimonidean, Dr. Midos values halakha and is scrupulous in his personal observance, not because he expects any reward from some deity, but because Dr. Midos believes that Judaism is useful in creating the sort of society in which specific true ideas about the ultimate nature of reality can be nurtured. This does not mean that most Jews have been enlightened with these ideas. On the contrary, most Jews are mired in superstition. It is, therefore, necessary to hide one's true beliefs from the masses by making it seem that you value ritual for its own sake and possess no loyalties that transcend Judaism. As a Time Lord, Dr. Midos sees two stages to enlightenment. The first stage is a universalized set of ethics that values all intelligent life. This moral enlightenment allows for a technological enlightenment in which one masters all of space and eventually all time. This must be done merely for its own sake. A Time Lord does not use his TARDIS for personal material gain, but merely seeks to help others and gain knowledge. As such, Dr. Midos hopes to train his Jewish students and even the wider Jewish world in universal ethics so that they would eventually be worthy of Time Lord technology to master space and time. Dr. Midos' attempt to make midos the center of Judaism presents a major challenge as Judaism is built on a particular ethic that values loyalty to the Jewish community over other humans. If "midos are the way we act and how we think and feel," then we cannot accept the premise that the "Torah shows us just what we should do." The later must be read as a question to be answered by "if you want to do what's right and really be a mensch, you have to have good midos through and through." Dr. Midos handles this problem simply by staying silent and relying on the fact that it is only the enlightened, who understand universal ethics. Thus, Dr. Midos can simply train people in midos and they will not realize that a consistent allegiance to midos will require a rejection of Judaism as understood by most people until they are ready for this knowledge.

Episode one has Dr. Midos sending his student Dizzy into space, officially to operate the Midos Satellite, but really to further his midos education. It is Dr. Midos' hope that getting a small taste of space will cause Dizzy to intuit the fact that he needs to think big. Not only are Jews a small part of the human race, but humanity is a small part of the entire cosmos. Back on Earth, Dr. Midos employs his new student Shnooky to help him. Dr. Midos hopes that eventually, once Shnooky has learned about midos, he too will be ready to go into space. Obviously, the rocket is not a conventional one, but one designed with Time Lord technology in Dr. Midos' possession; there was no risk of endangering Brooklyn with the lift-off. Dr. Midos' larger plan for Judaism relies on the MMM. On the surface, this machine serves to observe Jewish children and play songs. These songs, though, serve as cover for the machine's real purpose, which is to alter people's brains to make them more open to the song's message. This explains why the kids prove so willing to change their behavior. As can be demonstrated by the limited ability of the songs to actually change the behavior of listeners in real life over the past several decades, people are highly unlikely to change their behavior simply because they hear a sermon, even one framed in a catchy song.

This brings us to Dr. Doomstein. Clearly, Dr. Midos had previous encounters with Doomstein. This is because Doomstein was Dr. Midos' first student. Doomstein's break with Dr. Midos came about not because Doomstein rejected Judaism. On the contrary, Doomstein came to realize the threat posed to Judaism by the existence of midos. Midos require a completely different method of thinking and value system. Midos cannot be taught as specific commands of thou shall or shall not. It is impossible to ever demonstrate perfect midos. Midos apply to everyone and do not allow you to distinguish between Jew and gentile. On the contrary, midos force you to acknowledge the reality of Jews with bad midos and gentiles with good midos. According to Doomstein, he became "bad" because, when he was a little boy people told him he was no good and so he decided to become the nastiest person in the world. By this, he meant that Dr. Midos told him that he was bad because he could not accept the authority of midos over halakha. This caused Doomstein to respond by developing a Sith Lord brand of Judaism. (Dr. Midos had previously shown him Star Wars in order to get him interested in space.)

According to Sith Judaism, the only thing that matters is power. Jews can gain power by scrupulously following halakha and not getting caught up in valuing other things like midos or philosophy. Doomstein takes strength in this belief from the fact he was able to build a starship with technology he stole from Dr. Midos. The fact that Hashem would use a kofer like Dr. Midos to reward a true believer like Doomstein with such cargo, proves that Hashem wants Jews to reject midos and only follow the Torah. The fact that Doomstein was able to use his Torah knowledge to argue that it was muter to steal the intellectual property of an apikores demonstrates that the power of Torah encompasses all knowledge and therefore everything else is kefira.

Furthermore, according to Sith Judaism, Jews can best be protected from modern ideas like midos through hierarchical authority. There should be one supreme Sith Gadol Hador to wield the power of Judaism and one apprentice Sith Gadol Hador to crave that power. The Gadol Hador's power frees him from having to submit to consistent logical principles, which is the path to good midos (a terrible thing). Instead, he wields the power of absolute arbitrary decrees. Sith Gedolim wield light sabers that allow them to cut through all kashas. Regular people can connect to this power and protect themselves from midos by submitting themselves and their puny intellects completely to the will of the Sith Gedolim.

Doomstein needs to save Jewish children from being brainwashed by the MMM. He, therefore, uses his spaceship to hijack the Midos Satellite and kidnap Dizzy. He wants to turn Dizzy away from Dr. Midos by allowing to come to the realization that he and not Dr. Midos is the one truly loyal to Judaism. Dizzy will then destroy the MMM himself. For this to happen, it is of critical importance that Doomstein not simply come out and explain the situation to Dizzy. Since Dr. Midos operates with subconscious suggestions, any intellectual argument based on facts will fail. Dizzy will only be able to believe that Doomstein is the Sith Gadol Hador if Doomstein makes every effort to pretend not to be. He, therefore, leaves Dizzy in a cell and tells him that he is going to tack a nap, while he was really going to learn in order to harness his full Torah powers to be able to counteract the brainwashing of Dr. Midos and save Dizzy's neshamah. Note that Doomstein is a Litvak. He relies on the power of Torah instead of davaning.  

Dr. Midos' response is to contact a French Time Lord known as Professor Double Talk in order to get some invisibility spray. Double Talk is clearly a Time Lord as his name is obviously a cover and he has designed a hyperspace rocket engine and an anti-gravity umbrella. Dr. Midos then tricks Shnooky into spraying himself and agreeing to go on the mission to save Dizzy. He wants to force Doomstein into an intellectual trap, either harm a Jewish kid like Shnooky or allow Jewish children everywhere to be exposed to the kefirah of midos. The fact that Shnooky finds Doomstein sleeping instead of learning simply demonstrates that Doomstein was aware of his presence and therefore needed to pretend to be sleeping in order to maintain the fiction that he was not the Sith Gadol Hador. Dr. Midos' plan, though, succeeds as Doomstein finds himself with no choice but to pretend that his laser gun uses bullets, which can be replaced with bubble gum. He is left bemoaning the fact that he lacked the courage to harm Shnooky even to save Judaism and he would be the only "nasty" one around, the only one still willing to place halakha over midos. At this point, with Doomstein shaken in his emunas hachamim (mainly in himself), that Shnooky starts to play the tshuva tape, reformatting Doomstein's mind to transform him into a practitioner of midos. Doomstein starts to give in, but resists by telling himself "I am going to become a new man," meaning that to give in to Dr. Midos would be no different than committing shmad, becoming a Christian "new man." He continues by saying that is "going to do lots of mitzvoth," which is more important than midos. Doomstein turns to the Torah, whose laws encompass everything and render midos irrelevant. Finally, he offers to "try to have good midos." By this, Doomstein defeats the song by seeming to submit himself to midos. In reality though, Doomstein only vowed to "try," leaving midos as a handmaiden to halakah that one can choose to practice when convenient. You can study midos from a didactic legalistic text for a half hour a day, which defeats the point of midos anyway, while leaving the bulk of the day honing one's pilpul powers. Doomstein is then able to trick Dr. Midos into letting him escape to Yeshiva Aish Sameach in Jerusalem, where he plans to reach out to the kids that Dr. Midos has brainwashed and bring them back to the true path of Sith Judaism.   

Meanwhile, Shloompy wastes the only bottle of anti-invisible spray due to his inability to balance the midos directive toward cleanliness and the directive to not mess with other people's things. This means that Dr. Midos has to turn once again to Double Talk, who tells him that he must acquire some wooky jukie from the village of Mumbo Jumbo in 'Africa. Dizzy notes that going to 'Africa is "just as exciting as going into outer space" as they are not going to the continent of Africa but the planet of 'Africa, which houses the twenty-third century Neo-Victorian theme park village of Mumbjo Jumbo, designed to replicate a prejudiced nineteenth-century vision of an African village. The problem with this theme park is that robot villagers hewed to their programming of being Victorian era stereotypical pulp fiction Africans too well. They developed cannibalism and killed all the tourists. Abandoned, the planet fell through a time rift into the twentieth century. It was during the journey through the rift, that the planet was seeded with wookie jukie. Dr. Midos manages to avoid the fate of the tourists by playing on the robot's superstition that he could unleash the Mighty Shnooky against them. Dizzy then completes the task by introducing the robots to cholent, which creates a logical paradox in their circuitry trying to explain why anyone would eat such food and causes them to explode.

Unbeknownst to Dr. Midos, wookie jukie, as the product of a dimension existing between the spaces of time, gives the user temporary Time Lord powers. After coming home, Shnooky goes to sleep in Dr. Midos' time machine chair and accidentally sets it in motion. On this trip, Shnooky manages to convince George Washington to tell his father that he chopped down the cherry tree, before crashing in 1968 where he meets an earlier version of Dr. Midos. The reason for this crash was not a leak in the gas tank as time machines do not run on gas, but because of a time clamp placed on the machine by the Time Lords when they exiled Dr. Midos (as they did with the third Doctor) to Earth. Their reason for doing so can easily be surmised when you consider the host of questionable decisions made by Dr. Midos in this series. The present-day Dr. Midos uses the bein hazmanim radio in his attic to talk to Christopher Columbus before finding the 1968 version of himself. The fact that his house would not appear to have an attic demonstrates that Dr. Midos' house possesses Tardis technology and is much bigger on the inside.  Back in 1968, Dr. Midos realizes that the time machine only worked in the first place because of Shnooky and, because Shnooky was not trained as a Time Lord, it would only work if Shnooky subconsciously willed it to do so. Dr. Midos, therefore, tells Shnooky that he does not have any unleaded gas. In a panic that he would not get home for his bar-mitzvah, Shnooky falls into a trance and successfully wills himself home. When he wakes up, Dr. Midos tricks Shnooky by only telling him part of the truth. Obviously, Double Talk had previously spoken to him about the effects of wookie jookie, but Dr. Midos decided to only mention the part about dreams. He then dodges the issue about the attic. While Dizzy and Shloompy know something about the truth, which is in keeping with Dr. Midos' plan to interest them in time travel, he forces them to not tell Shnooky. The reason for this is that Dr. Midos wants to hone Shnooky's time-traveling abilities, which for now require his ignorance of their true nature, in order to escape from the exile he has been placed in.    

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Saving Water with Etta Israel's Public Service Video

Since I have moved to Los Angeles, I have been privileged to be occasionally involved with Etta Israel, a support organization for people with special needs in the Jewish community. I would particularly like to thank Josh Taff, who reached out to my wife and I. Etta offers a wide range of programs for both children and adults with the goal of integrating people with special needs into the Jewish community instead of simply shuffling them of to a corner where they can be ignored. One of Etta's projects is an initiative to design environmental education programs for people with special needs. Unfortunately, this is being paid for by a government grant. We can hope for the day when the Los Angeles water department will be privatized. Until that day, people should be looking to save money to make up for all the money that government wastes and to demonstrate that human beings are actually quite rational and can be relied upon to be environmentally conscious without a government gun pointed at their heads. In that spirit, my wife took part in the making of a public service video this past summer.  

Kalman wants everyone to know that he is really the star of the entire video and was directing everything from the side all while engaging in epic shloofy.

Monday, November 24, 2014

My D'var Torah for the Parshah is Up on the Modern Torah Leadership Blog

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is one of my favorite people in the entire Jewish world. He combines a subversive sense of humor with scholarship and a deep commitment to the halakhic process. While Rabbi Klapper lives in Boston, I think he really needs to form an alliance with Rabbi Yonah Bookstein here in Los Angeles to either reform Orthodoxy or to blow it apart trying. About a decade ago, I spent the summer studying with Rabbi Klapper in his Beis Midrash Program. As an alumnus of the program, I was asked a few months ago to write a d'var Torah for its blog. Having a few months to write something meant that I was scratching my head what to say with the clock ticking down on me. Here is my post. For better or worse it had to be cut down for length and snark. Did God develop a temporary hankering for "crispy human flesh?" The piece plays on one of the central themes of my original dissertation project on Jewish messianism, being on the wrong side of history. My challenge to readers is whether Jacob managed to be the one really successful patriarch precisely by seeming to fail at everything?  

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Am I an Islamic Extremist?

Ben Shapiro uses a collection of polled responses to questions by Muslims to offer hard numbers on the percentage of Muslims, who are extremists. While I do see radical Islam as a major threat and, for example, am willing to support the Dresden-style bombing of Gaza and the invasion of Saudi Arabia to remove the house of Saud, Shapiro harms his case by using a standard for extremism that is ridiculously elastic.

Consider some of the questions posed: Can terrorism, honor killings or attacks on civilians ever be justified? Do you wish Sharia be the law of your country? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you are an extremist. By this standard, I am an extremist. Ben Shapiro and most of you are also likely extremists. Notice the key word "ever." Any person with minimal training in philosophy should easily be able to construct a hypothetical scenario in which just about anything would be justified. For example, as a matter of general policy, I would consider myself an opponent of slavery. That being said, I can easily imagine scenarios involving rescuing people from concentration camps in which slavery could be justified. For that matter, I am willing to defend the right of consenting adults to enter into slave contracts. Obviously, these cases do not apply to the vast majority of real slaves, who have lived throughout history. Thus, I certainly do not support any actual slave systems. Actual slaves are the victims of injustice. That being said, I have been accused of being an advocate of slavery when I have tried to point out these important nuances. Do I support honor killings? Praised be the husband and father, who hacks his wife and daughter to pieces upon finding out that they are traitors to liberty, plotting to bring Communist or Nazi governments to power. Do I support terrorist attacks on civilians? Communism and Nazism are ideologies that reject the social contract distinction between military and civilian. Thus, an intellectually honest opponent must be willing to subject even civilian supporters of these ideologies to total Hobbesian warfare. Do I support Sharia? I perfectly understand how decent Muslims would wish to live under their religion and dream about a day when all of their countrymen freely agree to the same. Note that the question said nothing about the use of violence to impose that law upon others. I wish to live under halakha and hope that one day the United States will allow me to secede and form my own "Jewish State."

There are much better questions that could have been asked to see if someone is an Islamic extremist. In this day and age, do you support carrying out attacks against civilians on American soil? Would you agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish State and make peace with it, if it allowed Palestinians to form their own state and offered compensation to refugees? Do you support the death penalty, as practical and not just symbolic law, to be used against converts from Islam? I assume that the number of Muslims, who would answer yes to these questions will be frightening. Furthermore, I recognize that there are specific Islamic groups that should be placed in the same category as Communists and Nazis with the same bloody implications. That being said, this is a threat that is simply too important to exaggerate.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Not Advocating for Vaccination - And Will Still Not Love Rav Shmuel

My good friend Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein has written a piece "Why I Love Rav Shmuel - And Will Advocate Vaccination Nonetheless" in which he attempts to distinguish between his personal respect for Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky and his opposition to his recent comments opposing vaccinations. According to Rabbi Kamenetsky: “There is a doctor in Chicago who doesn’t vaccinate any of his patients and they have no problem at all. ... I see vaccinations as the problem. It’s a hoax. Even the Salk vaccine [against polio] is a hoax. It is just big business.” While I accept Rabbi Adlerstein's general premise of distinguishing between opposing specific ideas advocated by a person and rejecting the person as a whole, the serious problems raised by Rabbi Kamenetsky's position force the thoughtful person to take a harsher line and view his "sin" as not merely venial, but mortal.

An essential part of living in a society (particularly a liberal one that values diversity) is the ability to create two circles of opposition. One implies a narrow rejection of a particular belief or action while valuing the person's many other worthwhile attributes; the other places the person completely beyond the pale. For example, I recognize that many intelligent people of good support the expansion of government health care. I may oppose such a position, but my opposition, in no way, takes anything away from the positive opinion I hold of them in other fields. Thus, I would defend them to my fellow libertarians by saying: "you should ignore what they believe in regards to health care and just focus on the worthwhile things they have to say." Similarly, members of Hamas engage in social support programs within their community in addition to being terrorists. That being said, a critical part in recognizing Hamas as a terrorist organization is precisely that willingness to not draw a line between Hamas the social welfare organization and Hamas the terrorist organization. This would even apply to members of Hamas, who are solely involved with the social side. All must be condemned as terrorists without any account for any positive aspects. Hamas' "good" work does not lessen its evil. On the contrary, its evil is such that it makes it as if the good never happened. It is even possible that, under such circumstances, the good itself is transformed into evil as it serves to render the entire enterprise all the more perverse.

I must confess that I have yet to come up with an intellectually rigorous method for deciding who belongs in which circle. A step in the right direction would be to ask whether the problematic position directly affects other areas. For example, support for government does not directly connect to a person's personal charity. By contrast, Hamas' social welfare programs are all part of an ideology that seeks to destroy Israel. Furthermore, one should take into account the possibility of the positive being used as cover for their more problematic agenda. I am not worried that supporters of health care will use their personal charity as moral cover for their government agenda. By contrast, I do worry about Hamas using their social programs as moral cover.

Even if we lack clear lines, it is important that we recognize the existence of both people who must be tolerated despite their errors and those who must be rejected for them. There is not another person in the world that I agree with about everything. As my opinions on many issues have changed over the years, I do not even agree with my past selves. Thus, if I am going to live with other people and even with myself, I must be willing to tolerate the existence of at least certain types of errors. That being said, we live in a world in which there are truly dangerous people who mean us very real harm. Others possess radically different values and seek to build a society in their own image on the ruin of our society. Clearly, tolerance as a blank check that does not insist on something in return will quickly turn into a suicide pact that benefits only the least tolerant in our midst.     

In what circle should we classify Rabbi Kamenetsky? Let me admit that I take his comments personally on two accounts. As an Asperger, I have no wish for autism to be used in any campaign against the medical establishment. Why did Rav Shmuel have to walk shomer negiah arm in arm with Jenny McCarthy? Also, a number of years ago, I challenged Rabbi Kamenetsky on his willingness to offer approbations for works on Jewish history considering that he has no professional training in the field. I asked him if he would be willing to write an approbation to a medical book. He responded that he would not as he had no expertise in medicine. I tried to press him on why he did not hold himself to a similar standard regarding history. He did not give me a clear answer; I assume that, unlike medicine, he did not see history as a field operating based on clear rules to be mastered before wading into any discussions on the topic. The fact that Rabbi Kamenetsky has now placed himself in middle of a medical debate means that he lied to me regarding his belief as to his lack of qualification.

All that aside, there are good reasons to reject Rabbi Kamenetsky across the board simply for his comments as they directly relate to larger issues of scientific methodology and ultimately raise questions regarding his commitment to a halachic process. If you read Rabbi Kamenetsky carefully, you will see that he does not merely reject vaccinations, but the scientific method as well. I recognize that more knowledgeable people than me worry about the health risks of vaccines and that, in theory at least, one might be able to make a scientifically rigorous case against them. Like most people in the anti-vaccination movement, though, Rabbi Kamenetsky foregoes this debate in favor of claiming that the scientific establishment is not only wrong but that they are engaged in a hoax; in essence that they are conspiring against the public. To claim a conspiracy implies a rejection of the scientific method as anyone who accepts this method must also accept that it borders on the impossible for there ever to be a sustained conspiracy in science. Instead of science, Rabbi Kamenetsky, turns to the anecdotal evidence of an unnamed doctor in Chicago. Anecdotal evidence is among the most worthless kinds of evidence in existence. Scientific medicine requires double-blind trials. Rabbi Kamenetsky clearly does not believe this and, if placed in charge of a scientific establishment, would operate it in a very different fashion.

For the sake of clarity, let me say that I take no scientific position regarding vaccines. I am not a scientist and, therefore, am not qualified to have an opinion. As a non-scientist, who accepts the scientific method, though, I am forced to operate with the current scientific consensus on the assumption that it is the product of the scientific method. This is the case even though, as a historian, I am aware that any scientific consensus is subject to change. Even if I thought that vaccines were a bad idea, I would still be willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of children for the sake of defending the scientific method by upholding scientific consensus even when it is wrong.

If we accept my argument so far then we should reject Rabbi Kamenetsky's authority on all scientific issues. This would mean, not only evolution but also anything regarding medicine. No religious believer in the scientific method can accept him as an impartial arbitrator as he operates under a clearly very different set of premises.

Let me take this a step further to argue that even those Jews with no particular allegiance to the scientific method should reject Rabbi Kamenetsky as a halachic authority as there is good reason to be suspicious of his allegiance to any consistent halachic methodology. We already know that Rabbi Kamenetsky has, at the very least, been passively tolerant of a trend within the Haredi world toward charismatic authority that certain specific individuals are subject to direct personal divine inspiration and should, therefore, be listened to. For one thing, this position makes a mockery of Rabbi Adlerstein's claim of the non-absolute nature of religious authority within the non-Hasid Haredi world. Charismatic authority is as absolute as that of the Almighty. Furthermore, charismatic authority is ultimately contrary to halachic authority (even if believers in charismatic authority might by observant in their day to day lives). The moment you grant the merest hint of legitimacy to charismatic authority then you open a Pandora's Box in which any illiterate child can trump the most learned rabbis and every line in the Talmud merely by claiming to have received divine inspiration.

Rabbi Kamenetsky's comments regarding vaccines are relevant here because they strongly suggest that, at least when it comes to science, he does not believe in following any clear principled method, but relies on charismatic authority. Where else does he get the idea to take it upon his shoulders to contradict mainstream science relying simply upon his own authority? (This would be consistent with the common Haredi acceptance of charismatic authority when applied to medicine. For example, the Chazon Ish is widely claimed to have been a great expert in medicine without ever having studied medicine.) Normally, the further one goes from one's field of professional expertise, the more important it is to consciously rely on clear methodology. The reason for this is that, without professional training, the field's methods will not have sunk to an unconscious level to allow a person to operate on their instincts. If Rabbi Kamenetsky is so contemptuous of any methodology as a matter of principle that he would forego them when it came to a field outside of his professional expertise then we should assume that he has written himself a large blank check to do whatever he wants and ignores methodology when it comes to halacha.

Consistency demands that Rabbi Adlerstein make a choice between defending not only the scientific method but also the halachic process and sacrificing Rabbi Kamenetsky. Even though I believe that Rabbi Adlerstein is mistaken in not rejecting Rabbi Kamenetsky, I still respect him. For one thing, the food and conversation at his house are simply too good. He is a wise man and worth listening to. One can even gain some valuable insights from analyzing his apologetics on behalf of Haredi religious authority figures.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Hierarchy and Force in Teaching: Raising the White Flag

This post is an attempt to express my conflict over the hierarchal nature of teaching within the context of my own experience and to offer some theoretical context for it. I do not pretend to have a solution. It is likely that the principle of hierarchy is built into the relationship between teachers and students and we are left having to pay the price for that fact.

Human interactions can be divided into coercive and non-coercive ones. When we get our way with other people, it can be because we put a gun to someone’s head, broke their legs or otherwise threatened them with something truly unpleasant. Alternatively, people might choose to do what we want out of their own free will, because they like us or, perhaps, because we paid them. It is easy to understand the evil of coercion when on the receiving end of it. We have all sorts of words for other people wielding power over us, tyranny, injustice and oppression. Things are a little trickier when we are the ones a position of power. Our actions are always for the “benefit” of those in our charge or even for “humanity” at large. That our charges may not appreciate our “humanitarianism” simply demonstrates that they are “ungrateful” and “deserve” to be in a subordinated to our will. Even otherwise decent people are tempted to use force for no other reason than its mere simplicity. Picture any narrow problem involving other people and I challenge you to think of a more direct solution than to be in a position of power to threaten those who get in the way with physical harm for their continued defiance. The problem with such a view can only be perceived when taking a larger view that asks not how we can solve specific problems, but how to avoid oppositional relationships and create situations in which people have a reason to cooperate. Coercion will eliminate human obstacles, but it fails to turn those same obstacles into ladders that will allow us to rise.
This argument against hierarchical systems of power is most obviously relevant to politics. I am here interested in the question of teaching. If defenders of authoritarianism have, in the past, argued that a specific group was “like children” and, needed to be ruled over, teaching involves literal children, who presumably need to be kept in the care of adults. What I am attempting to grapple with here is not even the issue of corporal punishment. Modern education has eliminated corporal punishment, and I think that is a good thing. Regardless of whether there are cases where students truly deserve what is coming to them, such punishment corrupts the relationship between teachers and students by turning it into an oppositional one. This inhibits the larger project of transmitting values and methods of thinking that should be at the heart of education and are necessary for progress. That being said, even if teachers lost their paddles and yardsticks, teaching remains a fundamentally authoritarian process built around coercion. We still hold over students the threat of failing grades and by extension the long term likelihood of being denied a job and a ticket to prosperity. This power is strengthened by a presumed moral authority. Students know that they cannot touch us, but the school administration and even their own parents will support us if we act against them. Not only do we have the right to punish, but we will be affirmed as right in doing so. This authoritarian structure even manifests itself in the act of teaching in the form of the lecture. Such a system presumes the existence of a teacher in possession of the “right” answers and the masses of students in need of enlightenment. The teacher then stands in front and “transmits” knowledge from his mind to those of the students through speech or possibly visual aids. The logical corollary is that the teacher is in a position to stand in judgment, presumably through exams, as to how successful students have “absorbed” this knowledge and, therefore, has a moral right to reward or punish students with grades.      

A few years ago, I spent a year teaching high school history. I was fortunate in having a talented class. I remain in contact with several students, who continue to seek me out for whatever life or academic wisdom I can offer them. That being said, as with all human endeavors, there were regular conflicts of interest. At its most basic level, there was a conflict in the sense that students often wished to do other things than sit in class and listen to me. I am not a tyrannical person, greedy for power. On the contrary, I am an idealist, who believes in the cause of teaching. Furthermore, I felt pressure to justify the paycheck I received as a teacher by making sure I spent every moment doing things that an outside observer would recognize as productive teaching. Ironically, if I had cared less, I might have performed better. For example, I saw it as my responsibility to keep students in the classroom and refused to let more than one student out at a time to use the restroom. I even refused to let students leave, who I came to believe were abusing their privilege. I also objected to students doing work from other classes during my class. As I am sure readers would agree, when narrowly considered, everything that I did was in my rights. My mistake was that I perpetuated a mindset for myself and my students of confrontation in which it was me versus them. Perhaps the biggest sign of this was that it frustrated me when students did not do as I wished, which manifested in my doing a fair amount of yelling. Again, it is not a matter of whether I was in the right in specific cases. The very fact that I could get frustrated should have been a sign that I was not receiving something that I believed I had a right to and should have begged the question of whether these students owed me anything. For this reason, I owe all my students, particularly the “problematic” ones, an apology. That I was the true student, learning how to teach, may perhaps serve as a reason to treat my very real failings as a teacher with some charity.

This past year, I started tutoring a group of kids from a large family, ranging in age from toddler to teen, on a weekly basis. Needless to say, I do not work with all of these kids at the same time or on the same things. Theoretically, the first hour should consist of working with the younger set on their reading. The littlest ones should be able to pick out words in the story as I read to them. The bigger ones should be able to do some of the reading. The second hour should consist of me hosting a discussion about history and politics with the older set. Lessons rarely work out so neatly. Not all of the kids are interested in doing anything with me at a given time, and they are not always interested in the same things as another kid. In practice, I find myself jumping from kid to kid and vastly different topics with a fair amount of horseplay mixed in. My goal is not to control the situation, but to engage a few kids at a time for a brief period before moving on to something else.  

Being a tutor, as opposed to a teacher, means no yearly contract. Thus, the parents can get rid of me anytime they choose. This reality increases the pressure to perform “teaching” actions. I have this dread that the parents will walk in and see one kid playing a game on my kindle, another reading a book while I have a light saber duel with a third and decide that it would be cheaper to simply hire a babysitter, disregarding the fact that I was explaining the importance of conflict in narrative. Oddly enough, what makes tutoring workable for me is that, unlike teaching, there is no temptation to believe that I have any authority. Recognizing and accepting this fact means I am less likely to attempt to exercise this non-existent authority. Lack of job security is scary and certainly makes me anxious to hear that the family likes what I am doing, but it is not something I can control. So I have no choice but to focus on what I can control, and that is being the best resource for the kids that I can in whatever form they choose to take it. Hopefully, they have learned at least half as much as I have learned from them.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Tribute to Walter Dean Myers From My Seven Year Old Self


Last week, novelist Walter Dean Myers passed away. He has rightly been hailed as a literary icon for his ability to capture the experience of African-American males in books such as Monster and Fallen Angels. My purpose here is not to discuss Myers’ great virtues, but his humble ones. I will leave it those who are actually African-American to speak about how Myers influenced them as African-American readers. As I am male, though, I will address myself to how Myers has influenced me as a male reader. His young-adult book The Legend of Tarik was one of the first novels I ever read and certainly the first that I felt really strongly about. That the book drew my seven-year-old self across the then intimidating length of nearly 200 pages and brought me back to read it again repeatedly should be sufficient praise. In third grade, we were able to earn the privilege of reading to the class. I used the opportunity to subject the class to my reading from Tarik. I confess that I owe an apology to my classmates, not for my choice in books, but for my zeal in pressing it upon them.

I have no intention of praising Tarik as great literature let alone to claim it as grounds for declaring Myers a great author. The fact that Myers has become a part of the canon of American literature, with his books commonly used in school curricula, was not something I was aware of until I was an adult. No teacher made me read Tarik; it was something I bought for myself at a school book fair. What are Tarik’s virtues? The ultimate standard to judge fantasy is that used by the grandfather in Princess Bride: “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love [and] miracles.”

To be fair, Tarik does not have much in the true love department beyond Tarik being assaulted by a she-demon, who attempts to tempt Tarik to kiss her. Tarik does gain a female friend later in the book, but that is quite platonic. That being said; my younger self had yet to see such an absence of romance as a flaw. What Tarik has in spades are revenge and fighting. Tarik’s family is massacred at the beginning by an evil warlord, El Meurte. A pair of wise men save Tarik, train him to fight and send him on a series of quests for objects of power to aid him in seeking revenge. The second half of the book consists of Tarik pursuing his enemy, hacking his way through plenty of bad guys, even as he suffers loses along the way, while building up to the final confrontation.

Does any of this make Tarik great literature? Part of my present self is inclined to say no. There is no subtlety to the characters nor is there much rhyme and reason to why things happen. Tarik is given his motive in the beginning and then a series of set pieces that serve as obstacles to pass through before battling the big boss. In essence, this is a video game plot. As we are dealing with fantasy, it is hardly a criticism that Myers uses the tropes of questing and the arch-villain. His sin, though, is that there is nothing particularly creative in how he uses them.

On behalf of my younger self, let me respond that Myers wrote the book that I needed to read at the time I read it. If there is nothing sophisticated with the characters and plot, it is because I was being given the chance to experience hating someone and going on a thrilling ride leading to his defeat without any needless clutter. I have no problem defending action movies simply as action movies because they provide great fight sequences and the fighting in Tarik is certainly entertaining. If Myers shamelessly uses fantasy tropes, I needed to learn those troupes in their clearest possible form so I could appreciate other works of fantasy. Tarik was a good toy for me. It was fun to play with and, even if I did not realize it at the time, I absorbed something valuable regarding the mechanisms of good storytelling. As with all great toys, adults mock them at the risk of revealing that they flunked childhood and need to be held back a grade.

Maybe the most important feature weighing in favor of Tarik is simply that I remain emotionally invested in that book. A large part of that is precisely that this is a book that I discovered for myself and was never popular enough to be widely read by others. Thus, Tarik remains mine as if Myers personally read me this story. I almost selfishly wish that Myers never became famous, certainly not for other books. I want him to remain the author of Tarik, the book that made me a fantasy reader. Those fans of Myers who wish to take him from me for a higher purpose are free to try.   

Tarik is not the only book I have read that is special to me precisely because of its lack of popularity. Another example that comes to my mind is Grace Chetwin’s Gom series, a discussion for perhaps another time. So I ask readers, not what are your favorite books, but which books hold a special place in your heart precisely because few people have heard of them?              

Monday, May 5, 2014

A May the Fourth Proclamation

Now you see how terrifyingly cute I can be. I have left out the sound of my voice as I address my followers this May the Fourth as it would likely drive the feebleminded among you into gibbering madness or at least to drink. (As I know from personal experience, sleeping and pooping are also important parts of a balanced lifestyle.) For now, as I mentioned previously,  you may imagine that I sound like James Earl Jones. My former teacher and false friend Malach, whom I no longer believe in, refused to show me any movies in Mommy's tummy so I am trying to rectify that. After being subjected to the Star Wars prequels, I have come to the fair unbiased rational conclusion that the Dark Side is much better. If you were tortured by George Lucas with Jar Jar Binks, as Anakin was, you would also agree that turning to evil was the only way to fight back. Anyway, show me in Shulhan Arukh where it says that there is anything wrong with the Dark Side. In fact, judging from Sefer Protocols, it is incumbent upon Jews to rule the galaxy.

I have now started taking lessons with the fearsome Feline Sith Lord, Darth Oberon. He has shown me the true nature of the Force. Cats are far superior to humans and are destined to rule. The essence of their distinction is that humans have evolved to be nice to other people by picking lice from the backs of their fellows. This has led to generations in which six people study under a single cloth, with everyone trying to make sure that the other person is covered. Do you think that such people could ever conquer anything beyond themselves? Contrast this weakness, with the power of cats, who can lick themselves all over. Human brains and opposable thumbs are no match for a cat's Dark Side glare and meow.

Darth Oberon's overconfidence is amusing. Having never seen Star Wars, he has missed what Sith apprentices do to their masters. I shall then rule all the humans of the house. If you plead nicely, perhaps I might find time to come over and conquer your house. For now, Abba, Mommy, grandparents and a Sith Lord cat are a bit much for even my great intellect to keep in charge of.

Friday, May 2, 2014

An Introduction From My Son

Greetings! I am Darth Kitty. Do not be confused by the picture. I am really very terrifying. I also speak in a very deep voice. I sound something like James Earl Jones. Let me tell you about my adventures. If you can believe it, I have lived in your world for over a week and in Mommy’s tummy for more than nine months. I am sure that sounds like an incredibly long time to you. It certainly does to me. What can I say, I am very old.
Living in Mommy’s tummy, I was not only the oldest person but also the smartest and best looking. My one companion was Malach. He was my teacher, which means that he was not nearly as smart as me. In fact, I would constantly refute all of his arguments. He postulated the existence of another world in which lived Abba and Mommy as well as many other people. Because of this, he urged me to develop a theory of mind. To this, I responded: “I think therefore I am everything.” Because of this, Malach decided to hit me on my upper lip so that I would forget all my unbelievable brilliance. He failed as I still know everything. The proof of this is that I cannot think of anything that I do not know. Nevertheless, I felt betrayed by Malach and have decided that, since he wanted me to forget him, I will take revenge by not believing in him ever again. Instead, I will accept the existence of Maimonidean ontological constructs.
With Malach no longer putting up with my meshugaas, I decided to introduce my own particular brand of antinomian messianic Judaism to your world. It was the last day of Passover, a holiday that is only meaningful to those who listen to the rabbis and lack the good sense to move to Israel, which allows you to more effectively anger God and be an obstacle to world peace. I caused Mommy’s water to break. Mommy’s friend had to drag Abba out of shul, where he had no business being in the first place, so that he should drive me around. I was displeased with Abba’s lack of zeal to violate Yom Tov so I caused his car to break down. Thus, Abba was forced to sit in the back seat while Mommy’s friend received the great mitzvah of driving on Yom Tov.
I would have hoped that the adults would have used this opportunity I granted them to violate halakha for something useful like taking me to a rated R movie, but, instead, they decided to drive to the hospital. This was totally pointless as I was in complete control of the situation and was only going to cut my way out of Mommy when I felt like it. The doctors did not realize that by choosing to make Mommy undergo a Caesarian, they were really playing into my genius plot. The fact that I was brought into the world not by my choosing, but through an act of initiated aggression means that I can reserve the right to go back inside Mommy’s tummy whenever your world begins to bore me. I also now have the right to initiate aggression against anyone I choose as a matter of self-defense; I did not start this fight but am merely reacting to it. It is befitting that I came into the world just like Julius Caesar considering how much I intend on having in common with him. Finally, this process put me beyond the reach of pidyon ha-ben. This means that Abba will not be able to simply sell me off to some cohen. Abba, though, will still have to fast for me on Erev Pesach, because I am the oldest. With the aid of my medical expertise, I came into the world at 3:45 P.M. This meant that Lubavitchers throughout the time zone were able to hold a Moshiach Seuda in my honor.     
It was so amusing when Mommy tried to breastfeed me. Unlike King David, I used the opportunity to contemplate the genius of evolution that allows me to feed off Mommy in a manner suited to my great intelligence. I asked Mommy many probing questions about her milk. What kind of heksher does it carry and is it Cholev Yisroel? Was ma’aser taken from it? Having refuted her claim of trying to offer me kosher food, I said a “mater isurim” with great kavaanah.
I remembered from Malach that on the eighth day I was to be the guest of honor at a party with alcohol and a surprise. The lack of any blanks in my memory proves that I did not forget anything and still know everything.  At this bris, I went to shul and sat down on zaidy’s lap in front of the ark. I then dropped my diaper, displaying my antinomian weapon, and opened fire on the simpleminded congregation. Take that Jacob Frank. Not only do I know more than you about subverting halakha, my cheeks are much more pinchable. Recovering from my transformation of the shul into a truly holy place fit for kedeshas, one of the Pharisaic rabbis used violence to suppress my antinomian attack and wounded me.
I realize now that if I am going to turn your world upside down I am going to have to proceed slowly with caution, perhaps even taking months. I changed my name to Kalman Yitzchok and told Abba that from now on I no longer wanted to be Darth Kitty and take over the world as an antinomian messiah. Instead, I want to be a good little Jewish boy, study Torah and do mitzvot. I love having Asperger parents; they believe everything I tell them.   

Monday, March 3, 2014

Purim Giveaway from Oh Nuts

My friends at Oh Nuts are having their Purim gift basket giveaway and they have been kind enough to allow me to participate. There are three ways for readers to win some holiday goodness.

1. Readers should go to the Oh Nuts Purim Basket Gift page. Choose your favorite Purim Gift and leave a comment on this blog post with the name and url of the gift you love the most.

I will pick a random winner and Oh Nuts will send them a  $30 gift certificate.
(The odds of winning this way are likely to be quite good.)

2. Readers can go to the Oh Nuts Facebook page  become a fan and post on the wall the url and name of your favorite Purim Gift Basket. You should also write "I am here via "Izgad." 

3. Readers need to follow @ohnuts and should Tweet 

" Win a Purim Basket from Follow @ohnuts and RT to Enter Daily "

For option 2 and 3 Oh Nuts will pick the winner. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Teaching AP History for the Dr. Lan Academy

(Picture taken when my wife and I stopped by to meet with members of the Lan Academy team, who were participating at conference at Cal Tech a few miles from where we live in Pasadena, CA. Pictured here are Dr. Sikun Lan and Ms. Elizabeth Paich.)

I have been hired by the Dr. Lan Academy, an online school, to teach AP European and World history. The premise behind the school is to offer private education that is both cheaper and allows greater flexibility to individual students. This is accomplished by eliminating the brick and mortar building and replacing it with an internet video chat system that one can hook up to anywhere. These are going to be real live classroom lectures. Students will be able to interact with me and with other students through text message or through video. I am excited to be involved in this endeavor because it speaks to three themes dear to me and which I have often discussed on this blog, libertarianism, Asperger's syndrome and Orthodox Judaism.

As a libertarian, I am always on the lookout for ways to shrink the size of government in the hope of privatizing services which the government now claims a monopoly over. This ranges from wanting to privatize the post office to schools and for some of us even to dream of private police and courts.  Fighting this battle politically is admittedly a frustrating and generally futile task. Government will not surrender power and shrink on its own. It is therefore exciting to be able to stand in the front lines along creative business entrepreneurs like Dr. Sikun Lan, who are offering alternatives to state run schooling. (Let me add that Dr. Lan is a true gentleman as well as a pioneer.) I do not believe that institutions the Lan Academy are going to put public schools out of business any time soon, but they are a step in the right direction. If we are going to ask the public to trust the education of their children to the free market then we have to be able to offer them a plausible option.

Students with Asperger's syndrome often struggle in formal classrooms. Such social situations risk sensory overload as one does not have the option of simply stepping away without drawing attention to oneself. Furthermore, formal classrooms require one to be in constant performance mode, making the right facial expressions and obeying the rules of conversation. The online classroom provides an ideal entrance to mainstream education. One is being integrated into a regular class with neurotypical students for the purpose of earning college credit to be used for making the transition from high school to college.

The recent financial downturn has forced the Orthodox community to begin to ask some difficult questions regarding the economic feasibility of its private school system. Certainly in the city of Los Angeles, the cost of Jewish schooling is out of control. Online schooling offers a clearly superior alternative to public schools. Let yeshivas focus on traditional religious education in the morning and let students deal with secular school in the afternoon with a company like the Lan Academy, which is very respectful of people with traditional values and actively seeks to accommodate people whatever their requirements.

I do not speak for Lan Academy and nothing I say should be taken as representing the school or its values. That being said, I find working for the school and its administration to be an act that accords well with my deepest beliefs. To those of my readers, who miss more regular posts and need a certified AP history class, here is an opportunity to have me as your teacher with my verbal antics performed live. To those with high school students or that know students, who could benefit from this opportunity, feel free to recommend me. My courses each need ten students. When we get them we will get started (probably this coming summer) with the goal of being ready for the AP exams in May 2015.       

Monday, January 13, 2014

DirectTV for Your Baby

My wife is expecting a little Izgad due soon after Passover. It is my hope that this little fellow have all the appropriate number tentacles and eat mommy first. We recently attended at baby expo with her parents to look at cribs, strollers and car seats. The place was a bazaar for a wide range of organic and other alternative types of baby care products. For this reason I was surprised to see a booth for DIRECTV. Regardless of the whether I plan on raising my child with a television in the house, I consider television as much a part of a complete and balanced childhood as fruity pebbles. That being said, I went over to the people manning the booth to thank them. For one thing, they are doing their job. The market should operate with similar values as the adversarial system used in courts. Prosecutors and defense lawyers may argue against each other, but they are really on the same side of justice. For this reason victims of crimes should be just as grateful to defense lawyers with all their shenanigans as they are to the prosecutors. It is the defense lawyer, precisely to the proportion that he abuses his position, who grants legitimacy to the prosecution. Without him all you would have is a lynch mob and the moral distinction between victim and perpetrator would disappear. Similarly, the market requires many different sides to educate the public by advertising their wares. This includes television as well as drugs and prostitutes. (And if the little one tries to take advantage of any future legalization of the later two in order to experiment with them, he will wish their was a legal system to lock him away to protect him from me.)  

There is another reason why I am grateful to DIRECTV. They offered me an opportunity to correctly apply R. Avigdor Miller's  "near and far argument." His claim to deduce the value of science and history books in a library based on the fiction section is nonsense. That being said it is useful to know that their was no controlling authority as to who received booths to the extent that even DIRECTV could receive one. Thanks to DIRECTV, I know that I should just assume that the goods being sold by every other booth are equally junk. Now it is in the market interests of those other companies to make sure I receive a different signal and insist that the expo demonstrate that it has standards by not including DIRECTV.