Sunday, November 30, 2008

the non-Copenhagen interpretation

I'm in middle of reading this intriguing book by (Rabbi) Akiva Tatz titled Letters to a Buddhist Jew, (website) which is a compilation of an exchange of letters between himself and a [now formerly] Buddhist Jew by the name of David Gottleib. Tatz artfully blends the Jewish tradition with a fresh mix of philosophy, kabbalism, and a fascinating exploration into the etymology of the Hebrew language to demonstrate to Mr. Gottleib, a seeker of spiritual fulfillment, a small taste of the richness that Judaism has to offer.

So without further ado, a favorite passage of mine.
As always, the words say it all: the Hebrew word for doubt is safek, and for certainty, vadai. Now these commonly used words are not to be found in Scripture. Nowhere does the Torah mention them; both are of Rabbinic origin. If the essence of an idea is contained in the Torah word for that idea, and we find that there is no word for a particular idea we encounter, it surely means that at the deepest level, that concept does not exist... If no word exists in the Torah corresponding to a thing we perceive in the world, that constitutes a strong suggestion that the thing we are perceiving is illusory. Someone has painted it up on the screen of reality, but it is not being projected from the source. And of course - the world as formed by its root in Torah contains no doubt: things either exist or they do not. There is nothing in the world that exists "doubtfully," tentatively; doubt is a problem of our perception, not an objective reality. (And if there is no doubt, there is no certainty either - certainty exists only where doubt is a possibility; if there can be no doubt there can be no certainty, a thing simply "is.")

The primal, pristine world is clear and open. We opacify and confuse it. The word for "doubt" is of human origin; it is a description of the damage we do to our own perception.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

unorthodox commentary

This [Jewish] calendar year, I began reading the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to accompany the weekly Torah portion. While I have not able to finish even a quarter of the weekly commentary, I've learned some very fascinating insights, some of which I feel are apropos to this little blog of mine (I'm gonna let it shine!)

A few weeks ago we read Parashat Bereshit, otherwise known as Genesis. We read of the two brother Kayin (pronounced "Cain" in English) and Hevel (A.K.A. "Able"). In explaining the etymology of the name 'Kayin' which means to acquire (and so named by Eve), R' Hirsch notes that the concept of ownership derives from that of production. Thus we find from here a biblical support to the Lockean theory of original acquisition, the 'mixing of one's labor' with unowned matter to create "property".

In the following weeks reading of Noah, the Torah states that what sealed the fate of the antediluvians was that they engaged in "Cha'mas" (read that with a gutteral "kh" sound, just like 'Chumas' the famous chickpea spread). Cha'mas is etymologically related to two other words, "Cha'metz", leavened products which are forbidden on Passover, and "Cho'metz" which is vinegar. The common meaning of these three words is that they denote a gradual ruination of a substance until it is unrecoverable, as opposed to a quick-paced ruination.

In this particular case, the wicked people in those times did not steal or rob from one another in a grand fashion. Instead, they each stole in very trivial amounts that were unrecoverable via the legal process. However this trivial amount was multiplied by the actions of many people until the victim was robbed to the point of destitution.

To me, this sounds a lot like the effects of monetary inflation, in that it transfers a couple of percentage points in buying power to the first-recipients of the new money at the expense of those last receivers of money, usually those people on living on pensions or fixed incomes. As far as I know, there is no legal remedy to help the victims of monetary inflation, and so this would probably qualify as Cha'mas, as opposed to Gezel, what we call theft, which if the perpetrator were to be apprehended, we would have the opportunity of legal recourse and some chance of restitution.

This last bit is from Perashat Lech-Lecha, in which R' Hirsch notes that, and I quote verbatim (from the English translation of his original German)--
"Honesty, humanity, and love are duties incumbent upon the individual, but are regarded as folly in relations between nations and are viewed as unimportant by statesmen and politicians. Individuals are imprisoned and hanged for the crimes of fraud and murder, but countries murder and defraud on a grand scale, and those who murder and defraud "in the interest of the state" are decorated and rewarded."

Monday, November 03, 2008

meaningless noises

For those interested in Argumentation Ethics, you can find an echo of it in Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought in his analysis of the claims of linguisitical relativists- those who hold that there is no truth, "only competing metaphors, which are more or less apt for the purposes of the people who live by them."
"As such, Lakoff's version of relativism is vulnerable to the two standard rebuttals of relativism in general... The other rebuttal is that by their very effort to convince others of the truth of relativism, relativists are committed to the notion of objective truth. They attract supporters by persuasion — the marshaling of facts and logic — not by bribes or threats. They confront their critics using debate and reason, not by dueling with pistols or throwing chairs like the guests on a daytime talk show. And if asked whether their brand of relativism is a pack of lies, they would deny that it is, not waffle and say that the question is meaningless."