Wednesday, December 31, 2008
This isn't democracy in action, this is a sketch of a sketch of something far sketchier. Sketchy indeed.
We should thank God every day that this is happening in Minnesota, where Garrison Keillor lives, and not in a charged state or on the federal level. But I nominate Robin Williams to play Franken in the movie (a sequel to "Recount" if HBO knows what's good for it), and Norm MacDonald to play Coleman. I hope Lorne Michaels produces, and I expect it to be called "The System is Not Good Enough, Not Smart Enough, and Nobody Likes It."
almost no one pauses for a moment to ask whether all this is necessary, or unavoidable, or whether it contributes to Israel's security and moral image. Is it really the case that [the] pilots return safely to base, or are they in fact returning to them as callous, cruel and blind people?What's the context? How much does the context matter?
How do editorials like this fit into a vision of Israel education (one that I have been thinking and talking about within the camp context a lot these past few days - with some very good people)?
I know the answer is "they have to fit in" - that's my instinct. But how ...
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
We know that technology plays a new role in warfare in the modern world, and that people theoretically think and behave differently, but I challenged, in that paper (the full version of which is attached here, should you care to enjoy - and my apologies for the html formatting on Google docs), the notion that the experiences of those wars were any different. I.e., bows and arrows killing from hundreds of yards might provide the same removed killing experience as dropping bombs from airplanes, though to a different degree. Similarly, though technology created a more efficient approach to annihilation, it is difficult to imagine that the practice of killing/enslaving entire cities (or nations) felt essentially different to the pre-modern humans who were experiencing it.
I put these thoughts out there as a way of pushing back to the now almost cliched notion that there is a war happening a short way from me and I am able to act (at least until Hamas brings the war back to us) as if nothing is going on. This notion got a lot of press during the 2nd Lebanon War (of '06) and in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts of the last 5 and 7 years, respectively. My question is if this is really any different than how things have always worked, with two notable exceptions: the first is the all-encompassing war, the great economic effort exerted by the likes of World War II and, I imagine, some pre-modern conflicts. The second actually favors our modern existence - the relative lack of fluidity in the boundaries of war in the contemporary period, as opposed to attacking/marauding and then counterattacking armies in the past. For example, it seems to push the bounds of the possible to imagine, in the current setting, the Gaza situation to migrate anywhere from where it is, with the exception of isolated terrorist attacks in Israel.
Which is all to say, basically, that I'm pretty sure most people living in France and England did not feel a constant sense of warfare during the 100 Years' War, and that, with the exception of economic and social consequences of drawn out, hugely manpower-intensive conflicts, many people throughout history have been as close or closer to war zones as I am to Gaza and gone about their lives in an essentially unaffected way.
One other scary-as-hell note:
The reactions of the organized Arab world have been relatively neutral or anti-Hamas. Many of these nations seem to understand the degree to which, to paraphrase a World War II image, the rocket attacks on the Negev were like mosquito bites that have awoken a slumbering giant.
Scarily - and, paging Marx - the citizens of the Arab world seem to have a different approach to the situation, one that might have long-term very bad consequences for elected leadership and political stability in the Arab world, and one that does not bode well for the West's political war of attrition with violent extremism in all its forms.
Monday, December 29, 2008
For the second time in a few years, Ramah Wisconsin's visionary תקווה co-director, Rose Sharon, worked with Birthright Israel to create an opportunity for our תקווה campers - mostly kids with Aspberger's, though some with other so-called high-functioning autism or autistism-like diagnoses - to take part in their birthright as well - a trip to Israel.
I'm not sure of the finances behind the whole thing, though I assume it's a free trip, but last week there were something like 18 Jewish kids in Israel who, without Rose and Birthright, never would have been here on an organized group trip, designed specifically for them. About half of the group were Wisconsin alumnae - current campers and עצמאים.
There were some communication problems with my visit, during their hour-ish stint downtown, shopping and experiencing the Jerusalem they had always been told about by their counselors and the משלחת, so I had the profound pleasure of running into them randomly and trying to track them down.
Sam was walking up בן יהודה, wondering what I was doing here in Israel, and if I had really come to see him or it was just a coincidence. He was having too much fun on the whole trip to be able to identify what he liked best about the trip.
I hunted down Omer - for many years now a dear friend, in התו השמיני, where he was head-bopping away as he listened to music on the store's sound system with headphones. He was, to say the least, pretty shocked to see me when I tapped him on the back, and almost broke my ribs with his hug. (Omer is a great hugger.) We had a nice talk - he's not sure if he's coming back to camp or not, but he's on vacation and didn't want to talk business - and, when asked if he was ready to go home (they were leaving for the airport later in the afternoon), Omer responded, "Are you kidding me? I want to stay here forever, I don't want to leave - just like camp." A man of my own heart (well, about camp at least).
Walking up the מדרחוב hoping to find the other kids, I came across a beautiful sight in Burger King: Becker, Phoebe, and Gili finishing up their lunch. Well, Phoebe and Gili were finishing up; Becker, having ordered three whoppers, wasn't sure if he was going to eat the last one or not - maybe he'd save it for later. We had a rousing time there, with the kids eager and excited to talk about coming back to camp, and I also got to catch up with Marci Hammer, most famous now for being Mia's aunt. As I was leaving, the security guard, clearly flummoxed, said to me in broken English, "your friends are giving me a headache - please tell them that." As I tried not to crack up, and tempted to enter into a diatribe about those kids laughter being worth far more than his pain, I just said, twice, "אני מצטער" - once for his headache and once for not telling them to be quiet.
On my way up the מדרחוב to get to some camp interviews for which I was late, I came across Kenny, again incredulous that I was where I was to visit him. We took a picture together and chatted.
Say what you will about the state of the world - murderous Santas, car accidents in חנוכה parties, corrupt governments in Illinois and Israel, a war action in ancient Philistia, and much more - I could think of nothing that captured the Christmas spirit more than my thirty minutes on Thursday afternoon: עוד לא אבדה תקוותנו.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
As someone interested, at least a tad, in the maximizing of efficiency in existing organizations to see what they're really capable of (i.e., bending others to their will) - I find that too often we want to throw at the baby with the bathwater - and, at the same time, interested in introducing new, paradigm-shifting ideas (i.e., rearranging reality), I am intrigued by Meacham's thoughts and his magazine's list.
What most struck me was the juxtaposition of two quotations, one reintroduced to me by Meacham (and a reminder that it's time to go back and reread Machiavelli) and the other the frame of my three speeches that both caused and resulted from my involvement with SCUE while at Penn.
Meacham quotes Machiavelli, most likely in The Prince:
It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, not more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.Margaret Mead:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.Such, perhaps, are man and woman on the same topic; philosopher of power and anthropologist of community. I'm thinking about that today.
Anyway, perhaps the best ever was an old great, part of the late-90's Tikvah trough (with male enrollment down to 3 great men by '96 and '97, I think), performing the Billy Joel hit that also makes a kick-ass tune for אז ישיר משה (seriously - I'll sing it for you; props to Tikvat Shalom's Junior Congregation in the late '80s).
This mental floss quiz is not what I thought it was going to be - that would be more of a sporcle invention. But enjoy it. I got an 80%. Somewhere, David Wolf is shaking his finger at me.
Friday, December 26, 2008
Friday, December 19, 2008
Anyway, the ceremony was, according to my friend, a wonderful success. The final version she used is here. My original (similar to but somewhat different from the one she used) is here.
Yesterday, some gems as we looked at Freud (Moses and Monotheism) and Cohen brought in Buber on the same text as a contrast. (Caveat: I've never read either interpretation in the original, so parsing between Cohen's read and the texts themselves will not be so simple.)
In short, foreshadowing some of my own crazy theories about who precisely was in מצריים and Knohl's new work מאין באנו, Freud argues that Moses was an Egyptian prince, that the folk etymology of Exodus 2 (כי מן המים משיתיהו - for she drew him out of the water) is actually a faux-etymology. Noting that Moses means "boy" in Egyptian (often including a name of God - like Ra-Mses, Son of Ra) (and possibly creating a pun of the Biblical phrase איש האלוהים), Freud goes on to suggest that the mythic narrative beneath the text (which, itself, is a reflection of psychology) has Moses as a foreign prince taking over the Israelite nation to resurrect the cult of Amun (Egypt's henotheistic deity that had a short-lived sojourn in the Pharoah's throne), ultimately to be deposed by the nation and murdered (even if you don't hold by the murder motif, the clear narrative of pre-Davidic Israel [if not post-Davidic Israel] is a struggle to remain loyal to the one true dude throughout Exodus [Golden Calf]; Numbers [copper serpents; scaredy-cat spies; revolting Levites; sexually promiscuous folk in general]; Deuteronomy [a recap of all the fun of Exodus and Numbers]; Joshua; and Judges). This plays right into Freud's read of the primordial narrative of ancient civilization itself, whereby "the masses" (sounds somewhat Marxist, no?) depose the ruler (who's got the cash, the ladies, and the power) only to feel horrifically guilty about it afterwards.
Buber (again, according to Cohen) has a different take, with a little more textual umph. He also notes the weird folk etymology but twists it in a different way (as he should based on my understanding of other folk etymologies throughout תנ"ך) to refer to the future drawing forth and not the past (see, for example, Abraham's name change; Judah's future role vis-a-vis his name change; and Joshua's name change for supports of the "don't read past, read future" approach). Buber notes that Moses' name (even if it does just mean "boy" in Egyptian) is the only name found in that narrative - after a bunch of "Pharoah's daughter," "Son of Levi," "His sister," et c. By being the only proper name in the narrative, Moses' name takes on deeper meaning, and Buber notes its possible prophetic nature - yes, it means "boy" in Egyptian, and that's what makes sense in context, but it also foretells of Moses' leading the people through water at the Sea of Reeds and the general narrative of deliverance that will mark his life. Buber also cites a stunning verse that serves as a prooftext here - Isaiah 63:11 - וַיִּזְכֹּר יְמֵי-עוֹלָם, מֹשֶׁה עַמּוֹ; אַיֵּה הַמַּעֲלֵם מִיָּם, אֵת רֹעֵי צֹאנוֹ--אַיֵּה הַשָּׂם בְּקִרְבּוֹ, אֶת-רוּחַ קָדְשׁוֹ - Then God remembered the eternal past, the drawing forth of his nation (or, Moses and God's nation); Where is he who lifted them up from the water, God's shepherded flock - where is the one whose name was in their midst, God's holy spirit?
Some people in our class noted that some classical commentators (i.e., מפרשים או חז"ל) had asked similar questions of the text, and these students hoped to use that point as some sort of evidence that Buber and Freud were not doing crucially important work. I think that Cohen mishandled this part of the class, in his omission of the following crucial point:
A hermeneutical approach is not always obvious in the questions that a reader asks. They are, however, constantly on the surface of the answers that the reader provides.
Buber and Freud may very well have asked the same questions as ספרונו, רשב"ם, and the גמרא, but that is not proof that their approach was ancient. Problems in the text can be seen (and created and exploited) by all - it is the way that the problem is answered in which lies the key to understanding its author.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Amidst the left-wing uproar of Obama's choice to have Warren deliver the convocation (or some similarly-phrased religious speech-act) at the Inauguration, I have to say to my dear colleagues: you're being idiots.
538 reported the other day about the Republican party's (at least momentary) risk of fading as a national party (with its current ideologies), a compelling and rosy-colored-glasses argument that I hope is true, it says a lot about what "center-right" people actually look like in today's America and helps to confirm the (hopeful) prediction that, having left the anti-government environment of the post-1968 era, we are now entering a government-embracing era (not only due to the deepening depression and Chrysler shutting down for a month) similar to the 1932-1968 situation.
At this moment in time - and not only because all good liberals should be inspired by Aaron Sorkin's extreme liberalism (accepting even disagreement as acceptable), efficient pragmatism, and (dare I say) utopian vision for finding a meeting of the minds - it is crucial (crucial!) to embrace people like Rick Warren underneath Obama's tent.
We must respect the opinions of reasoned people, even those individuals who are convinced of absolute (i.e., often religious) notions of morality that may not change as whimsically as those of us who are the moral relativists the Catholic Church can't stand. But there is a massive difference between Rick Warren and the evangelicals that have been the fiery fuel of the Nixon-Reagan-Bush generation of American politics (under which only Carter and Clinton, Southern democrats, could get elected). For Warren agrees with us on the basic tenet of a moral life: help your fellow man. Unlike others whose platforms may end with anti-homosexual and anti-abortion rhetoric, Warren allows his beliefs about homosexuality and abortion to coexist with his major agenda, an agenda of responding to poverty, to AIDS, to the common task of man.
I imagine that, in the world of Abraham Lincoln, there were two types of preachers in the South. Some of them were fueled by their social conservatism to defend slavery at all costs. Others were convinced that there was a broader message of Jesus: love your neighbor, and they were able to acknowledge that slavery was an inherently anti-divine expression.
I suggest that Rick Warren (on everything?) is an evangelical Joel Roth (on homosexuality, not on the rights of women) - an individual who gets the broader picture while feeling bound to maintain his allegiance to a text - to the cards he was dealt, even when Roth is much more compelling in his argument than those who would bend the law to their own needs. Ideally, we live in a world of Gordon Tuckers, thinkers and acters committed to breaking a broken system so as to fully embrace humanity's collective identity. But the world is slow to change, and Warrens, who refuse to be bogged down in the culturally-divise politics and hate-mongering of the previous generation of evangelical leaders while still clinging to some of the beliefs that became the emblems emblazoned on the flags of those flag-bearers, are the best partners we have.
Obama's self-assuredness in his mandate - and in his safety within the classic American tradition of expanding rights, not contracting them - has allowed him to reach across the aisle that Karl Rove worked so hard to broaden. Obama's reach is Rove's failure; and it is not unimaginable that evangelical voting patterns will begin to change, somewhat, with Rick Warren and his ideological colleagues at their helm, especially if Obama moves to secure the pragmatic centrism of his speech in Denver (on abortion and more). The best outcome would be for this trend to push the Republican party back into the reality of our world, back towards effective governance, secure foreign policy, and legitimate social conservatism. Maybe, then, the Republicans would retain a firm control of the evangelical population, but that both the Republican party and the evangelicals themselves would have moved away from the scary (and damaging) language of this post-Gingrich revolutionary period.
I look forward to hearing what Rick Warren will say on January 20 in Washington, D.C. I find him to be a charismatic and compelling clergy member. And though, in an ideal world, clergy members would all agree with me, I respect their abilities to respect the sacredness of their texts and the irrefutability of their traditions in ways that I cannot. That respect need be but a small matter of dispute between the two sides of what could be a warm peace in the culture wars - for if our understanding of the responsibilty we have to our fellow humans is the same, then our differences are substantively irrelevant.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Cue Dylan ... and let's hope this lasts.
Monday, December 15, 2008
Reminiscences of Cabbage Patch Kids and other holiday gifts that drove shoppers crazy.
A brilliant quiz about caloric content. (I should have gotten an A+, but did not. It is, however, within reach.)
An article recommended by b-i-l K'tantan that looks pretty sick.
Great take, as usual (though the title is a bit of a tease) by 538 about why 60 is the big number in the Senate when, as I've been thinking to myself all these past months, it's been a long, long while since we've had a real filibuster.
The staggering, preposterous story (and story and story and story) of Madoff and $50 billion.
Brilliant (as usual) recollection of Susan Sontag ז"ל from Al. (I wasn't at the museum, but was at the rest of her events - unbelievable.) And - alas - a review of her newly published journals.
Um ... something worth checking out.
Distinguishing Between so-called “Formal” and so-called “Informal” Education
I have a number of posts in the queue that are to be about my favorite professor here in Israel, Zvi Bekerman. I’ll leave the background to another post, but last week in our Ethnography class, Zvi said something so obvious that I had never thought of before (and had never heard anyone say before) which I think has profound implications for my dissertation and the conversation about so-called “formal” and so-called “informal” education.
Zvi pointed out that the essence of a “formal” education is its abstraction.
One is removed from the “real” world into a structured, formalistic setting that is governed by its own rules where “learning” happens. In that setting, for some reason, 2 + 2 = 4 has real meaning, and that B- on your English essay somehow becomes more important (at least temporarily) then whether or not your ability to write (and to get help with your writing) can convince someone of something (like letting you into college, or giving you a grant).
Zvi’s point helped contextualize for me an article I read last year that helped me see one of the fatal flaws in the Jewish community’s usage of the term “informal education.” In this article, the origins of the formal-informal distinction are traced back to their anthropological context, where so-called “civilized” systems had formal education (i.e., schooling as we know it) whereby “less civilized” systems had a non-school system that usually involved embedded or contextualized learning (or, to call it what it is: immediately useful learning, not needing to be re-mediated [i.e., recontextualized] because the learning itself lacked mediation [i.e., it was unmediated]).
One reason why the phrase “informal education” is so terrible is that it doesn’t mean what we think it means (props to Rob Reiner, Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, and William Goldman). To go a step further: what we call informal education is not informal education (I’ll clarify this in a moment) – even in its most absolute and extreme forms.
Another point that Zvi likes to make – and rivaling his abstraction one in brilliance and duh-ness – is that the best thing children do is learn; learning is automatic, it happens constantly. Therefore, there is a need for Scheffler and other philosophers of education to define “education” as something other than learning, for without the כוונה to educate, anything and everything would be educative settings (including, in a Seussian way, leaving the kids at home with a communist cat to wreak havoc). But intention itself cannot be enough, for then we would have to consider what good parents do at most moments during which they are involved in their children’s lives “education” as well, and that leaves us on a slippery slope back to “everything and anything” and with terribly low expectations for what we call education. So we build other things into the definition (you’ll excuse me, I’m not holding on to any definition of education this second, so I cannot parse an existing one, though that’s what I should be doing) that help direct us towards what happens in classrooms in schools with abstract, mediated knowledge because, well, we know what that is – it’s education. Such definitions, however, most often remove all the other things we learn in school, things that are unmediated, like sharing, functioning in a political climate, and making appropriate wisecracks. And I’m not exactly sure what these philosophers do with things that began as mediated uselessness in the classroom but that end up as unmediated usefulness: writing (as we transition from drawing a “c” to being able to sign our name or write a letter); reading (similarly); making an argument (from 9th grade writing and learning about the scientific method to seamlessly presenting hypotheses, rationales, evidence, implications, and conclusions as we speak, write, and think); et c.
So, then, to repeat, formal education is abstract education, is memorizing the planets in the solar system and the multiplication tables (but only up to 12 x 12) and the capitals of the states and Linnaeus’s system of binomial nomenclature. Eventually, abstract education goes beyond simple memorization, to abstract usages that might somehow be relevant (word problems in math, for example; learning from history, though much less likely), though they return again, inevitably (if you’re successful) to wholly abstract concepts (calculus; quantum mechanics; historiography).
Informal education is that education by which pre-literate (or just pre-educational) societies somehow readied their children to be good citizens, civically (redundant, I know), economically, morally, and more, without schools – through apprenticeships of one sort or another, always embedded in the real world or in rituals meant to create meaning out of that real world.
4 Stages of Education at Camp
So, before getting to the question I’m currently trying to wrap my head around – what happens when the world is
run on abstractions and the means of the formal and informal seem to merge (their ends, of course, having always merged to a great extent) – I’d like to briefly analyze what I will call the four (fluid) categories of education in what the Jewish community unfortunately calls “informal education” (full disclosure: I’m going to be talking about camps here, and the extent to which this stuff is transferable to schools, youth groups, and other immersive programs [i.e., AJWS, מסע, et c.] will have to be worked out later). Before delving into the categories themselves, one note about skills, content, and orientation: for the purposes of this schematic, I insist (we’ll see if this holds up) that each category possesses learning of skills (things we do); content (things we ‘know’ – damned epistemology requiring me to put that in single quotation marks); orientations (ways we think and do). I’ve tried to separate them from each other, but I don’t think it works.
And, for the sake of fairness, I’ll exclude non-purposive learning from the discussion of informal education as most do for formal education, though this is a distinction that is not tenable in my mind. The real world is set up to teach us things accidentally; and good educators help people see these things more readily. Good educators set up environments over which they have some control to teach maximally while minimizing effort (there is no other way – too much to teach). (And what, exactly, do we do with a situation whereby someone learns something purposively and then repeats that learning, more profoundly, at a later moment without any purposefulness on behalf of the original educator?)
Stage 1 (the closest to informal): so-called “teachable moments”
These are those moments which take advantage of being to provide for learning that is pretty close to unmediated.
- that conversation you have walking from the חדר אוכל to your צריף with your counselor about the girl you like, why you’re upset, or that thing you learned in archery earlier in the day
- someone pointing out the ברכה you say over a rainbow, impending thunderstorm, or sweet-smelling flower upon one’s organic encounter (because you’re at camp) with said natural phenomenon
It is essential to note, however, that this category, though it is irrefutably the most informal of the four (relying on no formal structure other than life) cannot be what the social sciences mean by “informal education” because this type of education happens in every setting and the comparison of schooled civilizations to un-schooled civilizations does not mean to imply (quite the contrary, I think) that the un-schooled civilizations are at a deficit for not having schools. In fact, I might suggest that the usage of “informal education” is meant to show to the so-called civilized world how absurd it is that we spent millennia calling non-Western societies “uncivilized” when, even without schooling, they managed to transfer information from one generation to the next with, seemingly, as much efficiency as we did. In other words, the equation is not: informal education + formal education = Western (schooled) civilization and informal education + 0 = non-Western (un-schooled) civilization. In fact, even conceding the emphasis on the liberal arts in schooled societies, the equation must be something more like: informal education + Stage 1-ish activities = formal education + Stage 1-ish activities. Or, to put it more blatantly, formal education and informal education must essentially accomplish the same things.
Stage 2: embedded activities
These are most of the things we think of when we talk about what we “do” at camp.
- organized sport activities (remember: purposive)
- studio arts classes
- performing arts classes
- שירה/ריקוד בציבור
Note that these embedded activities are, by definition (duh), embedded in the acquisition of unmediated knowledge and skills. The purpose of the sports practice is to improve one’s individual or the team’s collective abilities to play that sport; participation in the woodworking or arts & crafts activity is the creation of something. Similarly, singing in a group is just that, singing, as is the act of communal prayer. Which is not to say that part of these activities cannot be abstract to a certain degree (i.e., the recounting of a certain play that Duke used in their run to the 1992 national title in men’s basketball, or the historical context of a folk song, or a discussion about what a certain prayer means) but the essence of the activity is embedded (this is part of the problem when the world we live in today operates on abstractions). For if any abstraction disqualified something as embedded, then going to a concert is not an embedded activity, nor would be reading a book or watching a performance – for all of them serve to provide some abstraction, part of our thirst for knowledge.
Stage 3 – abstract activity (i.e., “educational programming”)
A constructed activity that is not, essentially embedded. However, the abstraction’s educational purpose makes the actual knowledge content of the abstract learning the figurative gravy on the meat that is the broader educational goal.
- Shabbat afternoon שיחות (even if they’re not שיחות)
- תכנון ליום מיוחד
- פעולות צריף (with rich educational content; most פעולות צריף would fall into what I would call Stage 0: organized play)
This is the category that is my first love in education and also the category that seems to get the least amount of attention in any educational literature. It is the category that is most often utilized in schools in what is called “experiential” or “informal” settings (though experiential should really refer to more embedded experiences).
At the same time, the distinctions between Stage 3 and Stage 4 (below) are not particularly clear to me at the moment, and they may end up being conflated into each other, with or without another conflation of Stage 4 into the category that would include schooled classroom settings. I believe, however, that the notion that imparting the knowledge content of such programs is, at the end of the day, perhaps the least important goal of the program itself, whereas that does not hold in Stage 4 and classroom settings (where the abstract learning is, at the end of the day, the most important thing, if only for the sake of the integrity of the abstract setting in which that learning takes place).
Stage 4 (closest to, or actually, formal) – abstract curriculum-centered encounters
An abstract activity where the central focus and import of the activity is the abstracted content.
- text classes
- Hebrew classes
I believe that Stage 4 and “formal” education are one in the same, in spite of the differences others might point out. The difference in setting seems to me wholly insignificant, arguing that a college course that met outside on the grass is somehow different than that same course meeting around a seminar table. The difference in assessment for the class also appears to be unessential, as long-term assessments for either cohort would, I imagine, demonstrate similar retentions in two classes that spent the same amount of time on the Joseph narrative, one with formalized assessments in school and one with no formal assessment in camp. Additionally, a project that would be quite similar to a formal assessment could be given in camp, thereby equalizing the intellectual work of the students (if not necessarily the stakes of that work).
Embedding and Abstraction in Today’s World
I’ve defined formal education as abstract and informal education as embedded. But what happens if we exist in a world where abstractions have so pervaded our existence that they are now the tools by which we navigate society? In other words, if an informal educational experience would be defined as being embedded in abstractions, whereby a formal educational experience would be similarly defined?
In other words (and perhaps I am a victim of my own circumstances, unable to look beyond my own experience to see the essence of globalized civilization in late 2008) I am no longer sure that one does not need to learn a bunch of abstractions in order to function (again: civically, economically, and morally) in contemporary society, and though I know that formal education teaches extraneous abstractions (like the extra-credit quizzes in my A.P. U.S. Government and Comparative Politics course consisting of blank continental maps on which we were to fill in the names of the countries), I’m not sure if informal education would look substantively different. Or, to put it in a different (more compelling?) way: I’m not sure if you need to learn much of what we learn in formal education today in order to do the things to function in society – that the outcomes build on each other, that the skills and orientations are as important as the content.
One more complexity: camp. Is the purpose of camp the building of Jewish identity? Learning how to live in (nonexistent) encompassing Jewish environments? Is that not an abstract purpose? Isn’t the whole endeavor abstract? Or as abstract as a school is, what where you learn certain skills in embedded ways (i.e., how to play with others, how to navigate a סידור) or rote ways (i.e., the Pledge of Allegiance, ברכת המזון)? So how does the embedded vs. abstract distinction play in today’s setting?
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Saturday, December 13, 2008
On that front, the d'var Torah I gave this morning at Kedem is copied below, as it was given (in Hebrew with difficult words, most of which I translated as I was delivering it, reproduced in English), with links to a full (literal) translation here. (And, if you want to see the 2nd-place finishers in the trivia question at the end - at least according to my read, check out this chart.)
One crucial note: E.Y., all-star student and common houseguest here in the GC, pointed out right after I finished speaking (and in characteristic sharpness) that I missed an excellent point on which to further build my ideas - the whole episode is introduced by the words ויותר יעקב לבדו - "And Jacob remained alone." Jacob, then, was ready for this encounter with the divine because, as it were, he was more divine at the moment than human.
Also: I was thinking (but decided to actually respect the congregation's time expectations) of adding here a comparison between Jacob's thigh injury and Moses' experience speaking face-to-face with God (I think they might be the only two people in the Bible described thusly) - that there is something remarkable about God putting Moses in the "cleft of the rock" (creating a space where there was not one) and Moses being so physically affected by his encounters with God (rays of light; needing the veil; leprosy; et c.).
I did not have the time in today's d'var Torah to fully explicate this emerging read of the God-humanity partnership, it is extensively spelled out in the wedding d'var Torah, which you can access here. Props again go to Amber for her brilliant חידוש in class in the fall of 2006 - it still wows people to this day when I share it (usually in response to someone's snide remark that kids need so much background before they can really engage with Biblical or Rabbinic texts - hah).
And one point of clarification: My father clarified at the wedding itself that the opening section of the d'var Torah (in which I pontificate, rather appropriately for a wedding, I believe, on the "family vs. friends" front) that my parents did want me to learn that lesson, but that they also wanted me to know that our family would always be there for me as well. I heard the latter articulated much more than the former, but have felt the former to the core of my being for a long, long time (check out this early high school poem).
לפני שנה (בערך), במוצ"ש פרשת וישב, מורתי וידידתי, רות סטינובר פייגן, דרשה אלי ואל תמר אשתי מתחת חופתנו. אפילו שביום חתונתנו כבר עברנו על פרשת וישלח – ואולי מפני השם שלי – רות החליטה לדבר על פרשתנו השבוע, המאבק בין יעקב וה"איש" עד עולות השחר. היא דיברה, בעצם, על איזהו תהליך שעליו עברתי כדי שהייתי יכול להגיע לחופה בכלל – תהליך של תגלית-עצמי (self-discovery), ושל הגשמת-עצמי (self-realization). היום, שנה וכמה ימים אחרי השנתון של חתונתנו לפי לוח-שנה של העולם וכמעט שנה אחרי כן לפי לוח-שנה של היהודים, אני רוצה לחזור לעניין של אותו המאבק, ולשלב איתו רעיון מרכזי מדבר תורה שנתתי בחתנותי.
רוב המפרשים המסורתיים של התורה רוצים לזהות את ה"איש" שמתאמץ עם יעקוב כאיש מסוים, מפני החושים המערביים שלהם (בעקבות הפילוסופים היווניים, הנוצריים והחילוניים שהם דוחים בדרך כלל באופן מובהק). זה עדיין קשה לנו להבין בזמננו שיעקב נאבק עם משהו אחר מאיש, אז זה נוח לנו להניח שהוא התאמץ עם עשו, עם איזהו מלאך,
או עם עצמו כל הלילה ההוה. אבל אנחנו יודעים היום שהמסגרת של התנ"ך לא המסורת של היוונים האלו שמפחדים מanthropomorphism – אף על פי שחז"ל ורוב המפרשים של היהדות הרבנית (rabbinic Judaism) צמחו מאת רקע שהושפעה (was influenced)
על ידי הרעיונות האלו לחלוטין.
אז אני שואל את השאלה הפשוטה ביותר: למה התנ"ך מספר, אם האיש באמת היה רק איש, שהאלהים שינה את השם של יעקב לישראל אחר כך – אשר שרית עם אלוהים ועם אנשים ותוכל?
יעקב כבר שרה עם בני אדם, עם עשו אחיו ולבן חתנו. עכשו, הטקסט מגיד לנו שהוא גם שרה עם אלוהים. אבל על מה?
אני רוצה להציע שיש משהו מהותי (essential) לדמות האלוהים במסגרת של התנ"ך
שחשוב מדי להבנת הפרק הזה בחיי ישראל – שהוא לא רק אחד מהאבות אלא מי שתורם לנו את השם הלאומי שלנו. אין לי הזמן עכשו להתעמק בכל העניין הזה, אז אני רק אעלה על דעתכם חלק מרכזי. למלה "עולם" בתנ"ך יש שתי הקשרים (contexts) – של זמן ושל מקום – אבל יש רק משמעות אחת – משהו אינסופי. אז (ובזה אני כן מסכים עם מחשבת היוונית והמערבית) במהות שלו האלוהים הוא אינסופי בקשר לזמן ובקשר למקום – ואז הוא לא מרשה לנו להיות באיזהו מקום בעולמו. זאת אומרת, ההגדרה של ה' היחיד והאוניברסלי
היא הגדרה שאומרת לנו שאין לנו מקום על ידו, וזה אחד התוצאות שלומדים מהסיפור של אדם וחווה, שאפילו שה' רצה להיות שותף ובן-זוג לאדם, הוא לא היה יכול, ואז אדם נשאר "לבדו" – בדיוק אותה המלה שבה המקרא משתמש לתאר את האלוהים, כדוגמא: לעושה נפלאות לדבו (מתהילים), וכי ה' הוא האלוהים, אין עוד מלבדו (מדברים).
במסגרת הזאת, אני מזמין את כולנו לקרוא את סיפור של מאבק יעקוב עם העדשה (lens) הזאת. שיעקב התאמץ עם ה' מפני שהוא רצה למצוא מקום לשותפות אמיתית, ולזה קוראים לו ישראל. ועוד, בסוף המאבק יעקב נפגע בכף-ירחו, ואני חושב גם כן שהפגע הזה
הוא סימן שיעקב הצליח עם מטרתו. לכל חייו היה לו סימן אמיתי – סימן שקיים בעולם המציאותי שלנו – שבאמת היה לו מפגש רציני (מפגש שעליו יכולים לאמר שרק בני אדם יכולים לקיים מפגש כזה אחד עם השני) עם האלוהים האינסופי. יעקב מצה מקום להתיחס עם האלוהים אפילו שלא היה כלום מקום ליחס הזה. (ויש בזה עניין של הבחנה בין הדת הישראלית ודת האסלם – שהאסלם מבוסס על העניין של שלמות עם ה' – לsurrender –
אבל ליהדות יש עניין אחר לגמרי, אנחנו שרים עם ה'.)
עוד דבר נוסף בדרך סיכום. יש שאלה טריוויאלית מדהימה: יש שני שורשים שנותנים את משמעותם לשלוש פרשיות בתורה – מה הם? שני השורשים הם ר.א.ה – לראות – וש.ל.ח – לשלוח. אנחנו מוצאים שבשלוש הפרשיות שקשורות לראיה – וירא, וארא, וראה – יש ראיה ישרה, בלי תיווך (un-mediated). אבל, בפרשיות של שילוח – וישלח, בשלח, ושלח לך – אין שילוח ישר בכלל. אחרי שיוצאים ממצרים, בני ישראל הולכים מסביב, ולא בדרך ישרה. כדומה, בשלח לך הטיול של המרגלים גורם לטיול של ארבעים שנה במדבר ותם כל הדור שהשתתף בו. אז פה, בפרשת וישלח מלאכים, יש לנו שוב נסיעה שאינה ישרה – נסיעה אינסופית, שבתוכה מנסים להגשים את חלום יעקב בלילה ההוא, חלום של מפגש אמיתי בין בני אדם לבין ה', של מאבק לשם שמיים, חלום של יצירת יחס משתף-פעולה, יחס שבעולם שלנו – אפילו בגן עדן – לא היו זוכים לו.
הטקסט מדבר אלינו בקול רם ובצעקה גדולה – הנסיעה הזו לא רק של יעקב,
אלא היא הנסיעה של כל עם ישראל, הנסיעה של המחשבה של אברהם יהושע השל, של אדם שרודף אחרי האלוהים, שמחפש אותו, ומחיפוש הזה נמצא עולם אחר לגמרי – עולם שיש בו מקום לשנינו.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
At the end of the run, however, The Practice was dying, its storylines played out. And like other Kelley vehicles that seemed to fly off the rail into the theater of the absurd (see: Picket Fences, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, and Chicago Hope - I was too young to remember if the same thing happened to L.A. Law and Doogie Howser, M.D. [which I just discovered he also created!!]). But then things changed - he premised the spin-off, Boston Legal (this guy loves Boston, no?) on absurdity, and let it ride its own insanity into the future. What ensued was one of the greatest TV shows of the post-West Wing era, a show who cast brilliant actors (Spader, Shatner, Larroquette, Julie Bowen, Betty White, Candace Bergen, Rene Auberjonois) in brilliant roles and let them have fun with each other.
Last night, Boston Legal came to an end, and David Bianculli has both a blogpost about it and a longer column/interview with David E. Kelley (Mr. Michelle Pfeiffer to those keeping score at home) in Broadcasting and Cable Magazine.
יהי זכריהם ברוכים.
This intellectual curiosity demonstrates the following characteristics: passion, playfulness, eclecticism, generative pairing of conceptual ideas, and the addition of knowledge (the theory being, perhaps, that the first three, in the right mind, produce the latter two).
Terry Gross, interviewing Jenna Fischer from the office (and having me laugh-out-loud on a crowded Jerusalem bus) and then commemorating the life of Anne d'Harnoncourt, the visionary director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The latter interview is a discussion of the brilliant avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp, famous for "found art" (see above) was one of the few dadaists to break through into mainstream culture as both influential and successful.
The former interview is hilarious. Highlights include:
- the first acting job Fischer ever had (a sex education video for recently released mental patients from UCLA Medical Center)
- Fischer describing her personal fashion style as "mother of three kids without the kids"
- the funniest double entendre song from Walk Hard
- Fischer being cast in an "international version of the Spice Girls" which turns out to be a high-priced call-girl ring
Each interview is great, but their combination achieves something greater than the sum of its parts. Part of this, of course, is that The Office is an artistic descendant of Duchamp, but there's more than that. For Fischer, responding to Terry's questions, sounds as worldly (as "cultured") as d'Harnoncourt, and the listener gets to hear Terry's passion for the world, both in the heights of high culture (complicated by Duchamp's penchant for rejecting aestheticism and embracing the artist and, um, putting urinals on display) and the "depths" of low culture (complicated by the literary brilliance of Walk Hard and the sublime British-inheritance of The Office itself).
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Rising at a leisurely 8 or 9, she puts on her dressing gown and pads into the kitchen. Sets to brew her little 2 cup Krups and gets a grapefruit out of the fridge. Puts half a muffin in the oven to warm and goes and gets the paper from the driveway. Sets up the paper on the wooden paper racks made by her now deceased husband and brings her half a grapefruit with her half a banana to the table with her always black coffee. Begins perusing the headlines and at some point remembers the half a muffin or scone or cinnamon roll in the oven. Half a grapefruit, half a banana, half a muffin, half a pot of coffee. One-side of a conversation. Evidence of over 50 years of shared life with someone.
It's part of an article on Slate about morning routines.
Reminds me in part of an interview Kevin Smith once did with a weekly newsmagazine (Time? Newsweek? Can't find the link) where he said something like thinking about having sex with anyone but his wife made him feel physically ill.
The roller-coaster gestures and appreciations of our adolescence shift, if all goes well, into the gentle emotions of our babyhood and old age - the routines that keep babies ecstatic, the rhythms that are the mundane pleasures of the divine.
Saturday, December 6, 2008
In the meantime, as some of you may know I think the Twin Cities is the best place in the world to live - mostly because I love the Jewish community there: great Rabbis, great synagogues, and great kids (there's something different and special about the products of those communities from my experiences in USY and Ramah).
In addition to other quite legitimate reasons, T's not such a fan of the cold. And, though the following story comes from well south of the Twin Cities (and - gasp - only somewhat north of Chicago), it certainly does not help my (futile) case.