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The Quagmire of Manipulation

America Donald Trump Election Donald Politician

Love him or hate him, you have to admire Donald Trump’s genius for manipulating the media.  What’s even more impressive is the way he’s been beating them at their own game.

In his recent book, Win Bigly, Scott Adams deconstructs the president’s odyssey of extremist declarations, puerile outbursts, and over-the-top promises.  The renowned cartoonist of Dilbert fame convincingly reframes the Trump campaign and presidency, not as the random escapades of a cartoonish narcissist but as the calculated strategy of a smooth and savvy operator.

According to this thesis, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric calling for building a wall, mass deportations of immigrants, and banning Muslims – together with his warning of ISIS in the Vatican and his torrent of adolescent tweets – have all been pieces of a prearranged puzzle.  One can argue the extent to which he advocated these positions or intended to implement them.  What seems clear is that Mr. Trump anticipated exactly how incendiary they would sound, how violently his detractors would react to them, and how staking out extreme starting positions would give him room to negotiate later on.

How could he not have sucked all the air out of the country by sparking dual conflagrations of nationalist celebration and liberal outrage?

So why exactly did this help Donald Trump?  Because the constant repetition of his ideas gradually drained them of their shock value while systematically embedding them in the country’s collective consciousness.

The more we hear something – anything – the more familiar it becomes and, proportionately, the less frightening.  At the same time, the very outrageousness of his early proposals allowed him to walk them back and thereby appear more reasonable by moderating his positions.

He even colored his hair more blond and tinted his skin less orange.

In short, Mr. Trump played the media like a virtuoso, conscripting their irreflective aid as they blasted his name and image across the country.  With their cooperation, the electorate gradually got used to the idea of an otherwise unthinkable candidate and voted him into office.

But the media should have known better.  Because they have been doing the same thing themselves for decades.

Since the 1970s, the news media and the entertainment industry have been allies in the transformation of American culture.  The family-based values of the post-World War II generation did not suit the progressives who envisioned a country free from traditional conventions and unfettered by social stigma.

And so filmmakers brought us movies like Brokeback Mountain, the gay-cowboy saga that, predictably, garnered a slew of Oscar nominations.  The television studios showed us clever children running circles around their clueless parents in The Simpsons, and brought a gay couple front and center in American homes with Will and Grace.

During those years, Americans grew increasingly accustomed to the withering of traditional roles, as young people were indoctrinated into the new normal and their conservative elders were worn down by the relentless force of cultural inertia.

None of this was accidental.  And whether you think it has been good or bad for the country, it succeeded with ruthless effectiveness.

But what took the media decades to achieve, Donald Trump accomplished in 18 months.

But here’s the real problem.  As power players become more sophisticated at manipulating the public, we slip further and further into an Orwellian future where truth becomes expendable, morality becomes relative, and civility becomes an anachronism.

As a culture, we have never believed in victory at any cost.  That’s why there’s a Geneva Convention for warfare, compliance standards for business, and sportsmanship recognition on the athletic field.  But nowhere is moral conduct more critical than among our leaders.

Be a tail among lions rather than a head among foxes, teaches the Talmud.  Good leaders benefit all who follow them by raising the standard of personal conduct.  But one who attracts followers with fox-like craftiness by appealing to the darker side of human nature will inevitably leave chaos in his wake.

Every community rests on a foundation of civility and ethics, a foundation that needs constant reinforcement to remain steadfast.  But when a society is overtaken by the politics of personal ideology and personal power, the most solid foundation can be eroded in no time at all.

The art of dealing is a given in the jungle of the boardroom.  In the halls of government and the chambers of civic discourse, the diplomacy of character, discipline, and nobility is the only formula for lasting success.

Published in Jewish World Review

Photo Credit:  Max Pixel

The Light and the Dark

Chanukah — Open Your Eyes

There’s nothing like becoming a grandfather.  Normally pulled in all directions by the endless jobs on my to-do list, I forget all about them every time I hold my three-month-old granddaughter and stare into her eyes.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? I ask her silently.

The answer is: yes.

According to a study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, making eye contact with an infant causes the brain patterns of both you and the baby to fall into sync with one another.

A similar phenomenon has been observed among high school students working collaboratively in the classroom and among adults who reach agreement in discussion.  Of course, it’s fairly predictable that by thinking alike people cause their brain waves become synchronized.  What the new research shows is that the same thing happens independent of any exchange of ideas or information.

This kind of sympathetic connection can be wonderful when it brings people together by forming a common bond.  But it can also be enormously dangerous.

And it provides a profound insight into the historical backdrop behind the Festival of Chanukah.

The battle against Greek domination was only one of many struggles against oppression in Jewish history.  The Babylonians tried to cut off the Jews from their spiritual identity by destroying the Temple in Jerusalem and exiling the nation from its land.  Under Persian rule, the wicked Haman hatched his plot to exterminate every Jewish man, woman, and child.  The Romans combined the tactics of all the oppressors who came before them in a relentless campaign that lasted for centuries.

But it was the Syrian-Greeks who employed the most insidious stratagem:  cultural assimilation.  In the language of the sages, their objective was to darken the eyes of the Jewish people.

The culture of Greece dazzled the world with its entrancing beauty and magnetic sophistication.  But it was essentially a culture of form over substance.  The Olympic games celebrated physical prowess over inner character.  The art of sophistry revered oratorical elegance over soundness of argument.  Greek society idealized both the human form and the human mind, elevating humanity to the level of deification.

In contrast, Jewish thought asserts that Man is a perpetual work in progress, always incomplete by design, always striving toward self-improvement, always with a mission defined by an Authority greater than himself.  As such, every tenet of the Jews and their philosophy was anathema to the thinking of their Greek overlords.

But the glittery aestheticism of Greek culture was irresistible to some.  The Jewish Hellenists looked into the eyes of their masters and imagined a meeting of minds, a new syncretism whereby the most attractive aspects of Judaism and Grecianism might be blended into harmonious unification.

This was their undoing.  A culture that values inner truth and substance can never merge with a culture that places the highest premium on external form.  And a society that worships itself will never suffer a people who affirm loyalty to a Higher Power.

It was inevitable, therefore, that some Jews would give themselves over entirely to the ways of Greece and abandon their heritage, and that others would open their eyes and recognize that they could only survive by turning away from the seductive sparkle of Greek secularism.

Herein lies the compelling symbolism of the Chanukah candles.  There is nothing more blinding than brightly flashing lights before our eyes that overwhelm our senses and bewitch us with their intensity.  Ultimately, we descend into the most dangerous kind of darkness, the kind in which we lose all awareness that we cannot see.

The antidote is to turn away from the enticing light, to look into the darkness, to search for the source of faithful illumination that can guide us along the path of spiritual integrity.  Like the canopy of heaven whose glory only reveals itself far from the city lights, the flames of the Chanukah menorah shine bright out of the deepest darkness, when the days are shortest and the cold of winter has descended.

In a world ablaze with the deceptive light of moral anarchy and empty icons, the Chanukah candles remind us that the light of enduring truth can still be found by turning away from the glitter and by gazing into the hidden sources of timeless wisdom.

Published in Jewish World Review

Divine Harmony

Why do some songs merely entertain, where others penetrate to the depths of our souls?  Why does one song leave us unmoved, where another evokes passion or joy or sorrow?

We might find an answer by framing the question differently:

What is harmony?

Any thoughtful combination of notes can produce a pleasing sound.  But not all composition is inspired, not all orchestration sublime.  And even then, only once in a long while does the coalescence of notes and instrumental arrangement produce a true symphonic masterpiece, one that carries us to new heights of exultation.

Add to that the poetry of artful lyrics seasoned with shrewd insight into the human condition, and you will experience the fusion of heart and mind in a glorious oneness of divine synchronicity.

There is a single word to describe this.

Read the rest here, from this month’s issue of The Wagon Magazine.

Are you telling the truth?

As fake news becomes the new normal, I’m revisiting these thoughts from 2010.

12d8aa967e8ef907e5f1f4932db629feAfter circling the globe one and a half times, living for nine years in Israel and one year in Hungary, and teaching adolescents for over two decades, it’s only natural that I have more than a few stories to tell. So it never fails to discomfit me when friends or neighbors respond to my essays by asking:

“Did that really happen?”

Are my anecdotes so truly unbelievable? After all, I never claimed to have flown to the moon on gossamer wings, to have crossed the Alps with Hannibal by elephant, or to have led the attack against Custer’s army at Little Big Horn. No, I’ve merely plucked useful insights from slightly quirky encounters in an attempt to uncover the wisdom that resides within myriad aspects of the human condition.

And so I’ve penned essays about my white fedora, which fellow travelers reported noticing as our paths crisscrossed throughout Europe; about the Israeli gentlemen who rebuked me in an elevator for wearing an earring while sporting tzitzis, the fringed tassels worn over the belt line according to Jewish custom; and about the ragged man who stopped in his tracks on the streets of Budapest, apparently overwhelmed and overjoyed to discover a religious Jew having survived the travails of the Holocaust and assimilation; these, together with assorted episodes from my high school class room.

“I loved your article,” an acquaintance will say. And then, with alarming frequency: “Did that really happen?”

I even get it from my mother.

To be honest, I can’t say that I’m surprised. After all, narrative accuracy has seen its market value tumble over the years. As candidate for president, John Kerry described how Christmas in Cambodia was “seared in his memory.” A stirring narrative, aside from the fact that he wasn’t actually there. In the Democratic primary four years later, Hillary Clinton reported that her parents had named her in honor of Sir Edmund Hillary — an impressive feat of prescience, since Sir Edmund had not conquered Mount Everest until five years after Ms. Clinton was born and named. Even Ronald Reagan, although never caught embellishing his own history, nevertheless brought tears to the eyes of his audiences with poignant war stories that turned out to be scenes from old movies.

Popular motion pictures that are “based on” or “inspired by” true stories often undergo such embellishment that they emerge bearing little resemblance to the events they claim to portray. Tonight Show host Jay Leno, in his autobiography, reportedly included anecdotes that actually happened to other people.  Mr. Leno explained that he had permission to use one story, and that he had paid for the right to use the other.

As in so many cases, the biblical injunction against speaking untruths extends far beyond the simple meaning of the words. The verse MiDavar sheker tirchak translates, simultaneously, as “Distance yourself from a false word” and as “Distance yourself from a false thing.”  Jewish philosophy teaches that words are not mere symbols or labels; they possess a substance and a reality all their own. Consider how a cruel word can inflict more pain than a sharp blow between the eyes, or how a well-placed compliment can produce more pleasure than the sweetest dessert.

When does a word or a thing become false? In principle, the slightest embellishment or exaggeration constitutes a violation of Jewish values, if not Jewish law. If one is uncertain about the details of a story, it is easy enough to add “I think” or “something like” to the narrative. That small concession to veracity helps us preserve our respect for the lines between truth and falsehood — lines that grow increasingly blurred in a society descending ever deeper into moral confusion.

the-truth-shall-set-you-freeThe Hebrew word emes, commonly translated as truth, is formed by the three letters that come, in sequence, at the very beginning, the precise middle, and the very end of the Hebrew alphabet. Before we can be certain that anything is true, we must have a sufficiently broad perspective; we must have all the information, accurately and in context; and we must have a clear understanding of the propriety of revealing that information and the consequences of doing so. Only then is it emes.

Consequently, sometimes even absolute truth may be considered false. In the case of malicious gossip, the accuracy of the information may result in harm even worse than slander by damaging relationships that would have been secure against rumor or innuendo. Similarly, details taken out of context, although factual, often imply conclusions that have no bearing on reality. They may be true, but they are not emes.

The distinction between words that are true and words that are emes easily leads us onto thin moral ice. What about “white lies” intended to spare the feelings of others, or “harmless” untruths meant to warm another person’s heart?

At first glance, Jewish tradition seems to endorse such ideas. The sages teach that Aaron, the High Priest, upon discovering that two friends had come to quarrel, ran back and forth reporting to each how sorry the other was and how desperately he longed for reconciliation, until the two parties resolved their dispute and became friends once again. The same sages tell us to always call a bride beautiful, no matter what she actually looks like.

But is it not true that true friends, divided by conflict, miss the relationship they once had and mourn their lost friendship? Is it not similarly true that every bride glows with an inner beauty projected at the moment of her greatest joy, and that she is truly beautiful in the eyes of her bridegroom? If so, is it not also true that the sages were offering us a profound lesson in how to interpret human nature?

Indeed, even if there may be cases that require us to speak some literal untruth to protect another person’s physical, mental, or spiritual welfare, such cases are few and far between. If we are honest with ourselves, we will concede that most of us will have rare occasion to bend or break the truth.

Perhaps, if we all exert more effort to ensure that all our words are words of emes, we will not find ourselves suspicious of those stories of little miracles and inspirational irony that can make our eyes sparkle and our hearts swell. And if a more profound commitment to honesty helps us become less cynical and more easily inspired, then what do we really have to lose?

The Real Rainbow Coalition

The story of a Great Flood can be found in virtually every human culture.  However, the biblical record stands alone in its dramatic conclusion: as Noah emerges from the ark, the Almighty sets His rainbow in the heavens as a sign that never again will He visit the waters of devastation upon the earth.

Much has been made of the shape of the rainbow – an inverted bow to direct the arrows of divine wrath away from mankind.  But is this a hopeful sign?  Does it not imply that we are in fact deserving of destruction?  Does it not contain a warning, that only because of God’s promise to Noah are we spared the natural consequences of our own moral corruption?

And what do the colors and beauty of the rainbow signify?  Is it not incongruous to invoke something so beautiful as a reminder that a 4000 year-old covenant is all that stands between us and annihilation?

WANTING IT BOTH WAYS AND NO WAYS

In the old Peanuts comic strip, Linus once declared that, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.”

It’s no longer a joke.  As human society grows ever more fractured, we see everyone else as either too traditional or too progressive, too dovish or too hawkish, too far left or too far right.  Unity remains a dream we no longer believe in as we divide ourselves up into increasingly tribal enclaves.

Paradoxically, it is the strength of conviction that separates people from one another.  Too many of us believe that our way is more “beautiful” than anyone else’s way, that only we are the chosen standard-bearers, and that we alone speak Truth while all others are heretics or infidels.

Why do we find it so difficult to celebrate our — dare I use the word — diversity?  We give lip service to the value of multiculturalism, recognizing that our differences can make us greater than the sum of our parts.  But then we use distinctiveness as a wedge to set ourselves apart from others.

In modern society, diversity often becomes a club to bludgeon into submission all whose sense of traditional values or personal integrity compels them to reject the moral anarchy that defines our times.  Intolerance masquerades as forbearance, proclaiming an open-mindedness that is reserved only for those who conform to ideologically acceptable standards of cultural elites.

THE CHALLENGE OF MORAL EQUILIBRIUM

It was the same kind of violent division that brought the devastation of the Flood upon mankind.  In that benighted generation, the law of the jungle drove human beings to an unthinkable level of bestial corruption.  Had the Almighty not brought the waters of destruction upon the earth, human beings would surely have destroyed themselves.

Back then, it was selfishness and greed that tore society apart.  Today, it is ego and ideology.

True, it’s not easy to achieve the delicate balance between acceptance on the one hand and conviction on the other.  Tilting too far to one side catapults us toward moral dogmatism; tilting too far to the other sets our moral compass spinning in all directions.

So what is the solution?

The answer lies is seeing the rainbow as both beautiful and terrifying.  It is a symbol of diversity and how much we can achieve by celebrating our differences; but simultaneously it is a reminder of how much destruction we can bring upon our world when differences become justification for divisiveness.

To truly love our fellow human beings we cannot retreat into ideological isolation.  If we do, we will succeed only in marginalizing others in our own minds.  Ultimately, we must take great care to chart a course between the extremes of ideology and accommodation.

So reach out to connect with someone outside your own close, closed, comfortable group.  Engage people who think differently, not to debate but to exchange ideas and seek understanding.  Remember as well that the most exquisite flowers, the most dramatic seascapes, and the most inspiring mountain peaks are those that reflect all the colors of the rainbow.

Published in Jewish World Review

Dance with Joy

Moshe was 11 years old in July 1941, when the Nazis marched into Lvov and tore him from his home and the Chassidic court of the Grand Rabbi of Bobov. The warm comfort of Torah study and Sabbath melodies vanished amidst the cold misery of the Mauthausen concentration camp.

But Moshe never lost hope. Whenever he felt ready to crumple under the bitter anguish of hunger and disease, his favorite tune from his rabbi’s Sabbath table would echo in his memory, giving him the strength to go on.

One frigid afternoon in December 1944 the inmates were herded into the showers for “delousing,” then chased back into the camp square for a headcount, dripping and naked in the subzero weather. Claiming a discrepancy in the prisoner count, the Kapos left the Jews to stand shivering on the frozen ground.

An hour ticked by, minute by painful minute. The water on their skin turned to frost. Then, one by one, bodies began to fall.

14-year-old Moshe felt himself freezing to death, and the snow beneath his feet seemed to offer welcome relief from his torment. But in the next moment he heard the Bobover Rebbe’s voice in his ears: “Don’t fall, my young friend. You must survive! A chassid sings; a chassid dances. It is the secret of our survival!”

Moshe began humming his favorite tune. Slowly, his frozen limbs began to move and he began to dance, leaving bloody footprints in the snow, until the Bobover melody warmed his heart and revived his spirit.

THE MUSIC OF EMPTY SPACES

What is the mysterious power of music? And how do we quantify the difference between the melodies that make us smile with tranquil joy, those that make us clap our hands, and those that make us leap to our feet and start to dance?

According to a study published in April by neuroscientists at Denmark’s Aarhus University, our dance reflex may have more to do with the beat that isn’t than with the beat that is.

“[It’s] not the ones that have very little complexity and not the ones that had very, very high complexity,” Maria Witek, the study’s lead author, told NPR, “but the patterns that had a sort of a balance between predictability and complexity.”

In other words, songs that have layered rhythm — a repetitive underlying beat that merges with a syncopated pattern interrupted by rhythmic gaps — entice our minds to fill in those empty spaces with our own creative expressions. Too much regularity and the brain can find nothing to add; too little regularity and the brain can’t figure out how to engage.

This study may have a basis in Torah. The 18th Century Torah giant Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch defines the grammatical root rokad which we translate as “dance,” as having the connotation of skipping or frolicking. There is an experimental playfulness that manifests itself in the natural human desire to fill in empty spaces, dark corners, and awkward silences. When we feel something is missing, our creative juices start flowing in ways that often have to be stemmed by our more cautious impulses and our better judgment. But we dare not stifle those inclinations, lest the fear of taking chances causes us to miss out on priceless opportunities. Always, we strive for balance.

Traditionally, rokad means to dance in a circle, symbolizing the coming together of beginnings and endings, the totality of the human condition as bounded by the circumference of the material world, and our interdependence upon one another in fulfillment of a shared destiny. There is a sense of completion in a circle, of restored unity and achieved purpose. We dance with joy upon attaining the feeling of security that comes from filling in the gaps, tying off loose ends, and imposing order on chaos; we revel in the blended satisfaction of finishing one task in preparation for the new mission that lies ahead.

THE CIRCLE OF THE RIGHTEOUS

A famous Talmudic passage seems to bear this out. Ulla, in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, foretells that with the arrival of the messianic era, the righteous will dance together in a circle and, while the Almighty sits at the center in the Garden of Eden, each will point and proclaim, “Behold, this is our G-d.”

According to Chassidic teachings, every tzaddik — every truly righteous person — fears that his own service of G-d is imperfect or incomplete; nevertheless, he finds solace in the certainty that others more righteous than he have perfected their own service in absolute fulfillment of the Divine will. But at the end of days, teaches Ulla, G-d will show every tzaddik that his divine service was accepted and acceptable; each tzaddik will see that, irrespective of his trepidations, his own personal path was proper and correct.

Ironically, it is the very self-doubt of these tzaddikim that pushes them to new levels of spiritual refinement and self-knowledge. It is the conflict and the tension between the perceived and the hidden that drives them on in pursuit of ultimate truth and self-perfection. They know that they will never reach absolute enlightenment — the “center of the circle” — but they never stop trying to bring illumination to the dark and empty places of this world.

The Festival of Sukkos culminates in the holiday of Shemini Atzeres, when synagogues transform from houses of quiet reverence to halls of joyous song and dance. The Chassidic tradition explains further why we celebrate this on this day by dancing in circles: this is our celebration of the “marriage” of the Jewish people and the Torah and, as we join together circling a common point of focus, we experience for a brief moment the light of absolute unity and absolute truth.

Rabbi Zev Leff expands on this idea, observing that as the righteous change positions and look toward the center, they “see” G-d from the perspective of those around them.

Simultaneously, they will be able to appreciate that the different styles and approaches of others were not only correct but filled the gaps in their own service. As we dance, we look forward with joy the End of Days when the Divine will is completely revealed and every man, woman, and child witnesses the fulfillment of the prophecy, “They will no longer have to teach — each man his fellow, each man his brother… for all of them will know Me” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).

THE MELODY OF CREATION

But those words of Jeremiah are for days yet to come, and attaining that future depends upon navigating an ever-shifting course between the familiar and the unknown, the expected and the mysterious. The rhythm of our lives can lull us into a sense of complacency and false comfort if its beats are too regular, or can confound us into paralysis if its cadence defies logic and predictability.

As a template for the challenge that defines our existence, G-d created three types of creatures: malachim, animals, and human beings.

malach is a being of pure spirituality (translated imprecisely as angel), residing in such proximity to the unfiltered divine radiance of the Almighty that there is no room for individual ego or individual desire.

The spiritual “music” that a malach hears is so structured, so complete, so insistently harmonious that a malach has no free will; it can do nothing other than conform to the will of its Creator.

On the other extreme are animals, which are so distant from G-d that they can do nothing other than follow the physical urgings of instinct and nature. The “music” they hear is completely unstructured, rendering them effectively deaf to any higher calling.

In the middle there is Man, a creature uniquely suspended between the heavens and the earth, possessing a spiritual soul encased in a physical body, pulled heavenward by the promptings of his divine nature and weighed down by the animalistic impulses of his material environment, locked in an eternal struggle wherein each of his inclinations vies for supremacy over the other.

We perceive just enough to know the truth, and just enough is hidden from us so that we can deny the truth. The music we hear has an inescapable rhythm, but with gaps and spaces that require our participation if we want to fully appreciate its harmonies.

If we disengage, our animal nature takes over, shutting us off from the Divine. If we rise to the occasion, we reach a level higher than any malach, for we have reached it on our own through the self-determination of free will.

As the Jewish people were bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem for the first time, King David danced with such abandon that his wife Michal chastised him for an unseemly display of joy. But David was not rebuffed.

After a lifetime checkered by dark episodes and painful uncertainty, David was on the threshold of fulfilling his purpose as King of Israel. His whole life had been a “dance” in response to trials and tribulations. After all those challenges had led him to this consummation, what else could he do but dance for joy?

King David’s message should guide us through the Festival season and onward with each and every day. In moments of cacophony and seeming chaos, listen for the rhythm of Creation, hold fast onto the order that defines a life of Torah study and observance, and take joy in the opportunity to rise above the noise and confusion using the unique talents and opportunities that the Creator has given you.

Dance with joy, and joy will make you dance.

Originally published by Jewish World Review