Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

Visual vs. Auditory Learners? Humbug!

In Uncategorized on April 30, 2009 at 4:15 pm

It turns out that the neuro science doesn’t corroborate the notion that there are different types of learners. In fact, a new book Why don’t Students Like School by Daniel T. Willingham argues that students need a knowledge base before they can think critically because this is not something that the brain naturally does. In Christopher Chabris review in The Wall Street Journal, he rejects the theory of different learning styles.

It turns out that while education gurus were promoting the uplifting vision of all students being equal in ability but unique in “style,” researchers were testing the theory behind it. In one experiment, they presented vocabulary words to students classified as “auditory learners” and “visual learners.” Half the words came in sound form, half in print. According to the learning-styles theory, the auditory learners should remember the words presented in sound better than the words presented in print, and vice-versa for the visual learners.

But this is not what happened: Each type of learner did just as well with each type of presentation. Why? Because what is being taught in most of the curriculum — at all levels of schooling — is information about meaning, and meaning is independent of form. “Specious,” for instance, means “seemingly logical, but actually fallacious” whether you hear it, see it or feel it out in Braille. Mr. Willingham makes a convincing case that the distinction between visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners (who supposedly learn best when body movement is involved) is a specious one. At some point, no amount of dancing will help you learn more algebra.

We want to believe that students will be challenged more by being given skills, but in order for them to organize information and analyze it, they have to know what it means first. My teacher, Rabbi Chaim Brovender once said, “There are only two questions. One is: How can he say that? And the other is: What does it mean? The first question is irrelevant until the second question has been addressed fully. ”

More importantly, just because something seems to make sense, does not make it true.

It may be that appealing to different student temperaments is confused with how they learn. The reseach may indicate that teachers are responding to regulating classroom behavior, and assuming that because students are more manageable, they are actually learning more. Indirectly, that may be true, but it has nothing to do with ones “style” of learning.

I think I need to read this book.

Lawful Sleazebags

In Uncategorized on April 30, 2009 at 1:54 am

Nachmanides understands the limitations of law, and legal reasoning. In one of his more popular comments, he gives the following insight:

Being holy means how one approaches that which is permitted to him. The Torah permitted one to eat meat and drink wine as well as to have sexual relations with a husband or wife, but one could fulfill this requirement and still behave in an unseemly way with one’s spouse — which would technically be permitted–or one could be a glutton with kosher meat and kosher wine. He would boast that everything he does, the Torah allows, thus being a “sleazebag” with the Torah’s permission.

Because intent can’t be legislated, all permissible acts have the potential to be distorted. The Parsha begins: Kedoshim Tihiyu You shall be Holy. Nachmanides says this statement is necessary because one’s intent is critical to one’s behavior, just because you’re allowed, doesn’t make it right. Ultimately, the Torah makes good people better, but has the potential to make bad people worse.

The Hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Parshischa taught the following lesson:

When a student is learning and hears that his teacher has been preparing the same lesson, this brings the student joy because he knows his teacher will add to the lesson. The verse in this Parsha enjoins us to be Holy, so that God can add His Holiness to ours thereby making us ascend in Kedusha.

We prepare ourselves to be as good as we can and the Holy One will make us better. Ill intentioned behavior also gets reinforced, even if it is covered with a halachic fig leaf. The lesson from this portion is the most important of all, and also the most challenging.

Swine Flu In the Talmud…or a pig flu by any other name is not a Mexican flu.

In epidemics, fasting, swine flu, Talmud on April 28, 2009 at 3:49 am

Timing is too strange for comfort. While innocently perusing a page of Gemara, I just happened upon the following quotation:

Once Rav Yehudah was informed that pestilence was raging among the swine and he ordained a fast. Can it then be concluded from this that Rav Yehudah is of the opinion that a plague scourging one species of animals is likely to attack also other species?

No, the case of the swine is exceptional, because their intestines are like those of human beings.
(Ta’anit 21b)

Unlike their Israeli counterparts, the sages had no problem calling a pig pestilence, a pig pestilence. No Mexican flu for them! The only question for them was “When does this flu become a fast flu”?

If I am Not For Myself…

In Uncategorized on April 26, 2009 at 8:15 pm

Hillel’s famous statement “If I am not for Myself who will be for me, and when I am for myself what am I” instead of “When I am for myself alone what am I” is the translation of choice for all medieval commentators as well as late medieval commentators.

I did find a Sefat Emet which said that advocating for yourself meant getting yourself integrated, and once that was achieved one should use it to connect with knesset yisrael (the community of Israel) which is close to the way we understand it today.

Nearly everyone else sees it as talking about an individual’s spiritual purpose which is to serve God. With the modern era, and probably with the growth of Prophetic Judaism, a Judaism that emphasized social justice, this became the interpretation of choice.

So far I have checked about fifteen sources and except for the Sefat Emet a late 19th early 20th century Hasidic master, I haven’t come up with any other who favors the popular translation. The reason for this is simple. The words don’t seem to mean this, many of us just wanted them to. Even the Sefat Emet understands Hillel as saying the purpose of integrating ones self is to connect with something greater. For him, something greater is the community of Israel.

I think both meanings have much to offer. The question of what it means to advocate for ones self is a profound one, but it remains an open question. The problem with the popular reading is the final sentence: If not now, when? It makes much more sense to read this as enjoining one to get his act together now, so that he can rise to his greater and ultimate purpose. In the popular reading it’s just hanging out there like a non sequitor that begs a creative connection. The simpler reading is usually the more correct one, even if it isn’t the most compelling for most people.

In Uncategorized on April 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

This was too funny, so I just had to share. I understand the situation was resolved, but here is one individual who stood up and spoke out.

Hatikva in a faux Talmud Page

In Hatikva, Israel, Yehuda Amichai on April 24, 2009 at 6:55 pm

Hatikva is an anthem of yearning that like the Haggada is more concerned with the journey than the destination. Israel is a young country. This faux Talmud page tries to capture the old new land that inspires so much affection and provokes so much anger. Choni HaMa’agel, the rainmaker looks over to Yehuda Amichai as he drives through the Arava desert and notes:

Ein Yahav
A night drive to Ein
Yahav in the Arava
a drive in the rain. Yes, in
the rain
There I met people who
grow date palms,
there I saw tamarisk
trees and risk trees,
there I saw hope barbed
as barbed wire.
And I said to myself:
That’s true, hope needs
to be like barbed wire to
keep out despair,
hope must be a mine

For the whole Talmud Page click here

A.D. Gordon and Rav Kook Muse on the Importance of a Place

In Uncategorized on April 24, 2009 at 4:12 pm

And the place is Eretz Yisrael. Two mystics, one religious and one avowedly secular have more in common than one might think:

A. D. Gordon:
We are told that it is national sentiment that prevents the Jews from assimilating. But what is this national sentiment? What strange kind of nationality is ours, which is not alive but yet will not die? Wherein lies its strength? We have no country of our own, we have no living national language, but instead a number of vernaculars borrowed from others… What, then, is that elusive, unique, and persistent force that will not die and will not let us die?

It seems that every one of us can answer this question if he is really himself free of all foreign influences and if he is not ashamed to face the matter squarely and be honest with himself. That answer is that there is a primal force within every one of us, which is fighting for its own life, which seeks its own realization. This is our ethnic self, the cosmic element, which combined with the historic element, forms one of the basic ingredients of the personality of each and every one of us. The ethnic self may be described as a peculiar national pattern of mental and physical forces, which affects the personality of every individual member of the ethnic group. It is like the musical scale, which every composer uses in his own way.

Rav Kook:
DEEP IN THE HEART of every Jew, in its purest and holiest recesses, there blazes the fire of Israel. There can be no mistaking its demands for an organic and indivisible bond between life and all of God’s commandments; for the pouring of the spirit of the Lord, the spirit of Israel which completely permeates the soul of the Jew, into all the vessels which were created for this particular purpose; and for expressing the word of Israel fully and precisely in the realms of action and ideas.

Both in their own words and contexts express the unified notion that collective creativity is most vital when rooted in the Land of Israel. For a fuller exposition of these two thinkers, click here.

The Most Mistranslated of Mishnahs!

In Uncategorized on April 24, 2009 at 11:59 am

I have added a file on the famous statement of Hillel, that gives a plausible explanation for how the Mishnah has come to be the clarion call for Jewish communal institutions throughout the country. It is interesting that phrases like Tikkun Olam, and Hillel’s famous statement of balancing self interest with the needs of others are not necessarily reflective of what these phrases actually meant. Stay tuned for another “light unto the nations” (NOT exactly)


In halacha, torture, waterboarding on April 23, 2009 at 1:17 am

If there is any doubt regarding the Halacha’s attitude toward the permissibility of the odious practice of torture and its dubious utility, read this. Dov Zackheim, an Orthodox rabbi, and the former comptroller of the Dept. of Defense under the Bush administration might disabuse you of the feeble excuses that the Bush administration has been using, up until now that is. The abstract reads:

The international outcry and the rulings of both the United States Supreme Court and Britain’s Law Lords regarding prisoner abuse have serious implications for Jews in the military, whether that of Israel, America, or elsewhere. The uncertainties relating to the actual information that might be gleaned from prisoners subjected to torture, and the likelihood that such abuses would generate both hillul ha-shem and eivah, the latter resulting in danger to Jews everywhere, militate against the use of torture in all but the most extreme circumstances. Only when it is absolutely clear that a prisoner possesses information that could result in the near-term loss of life, the so-called case of the “ticking bomb,” is it arguable (my emphasis) that prisoner abuse might be tolerated.

By the way, it is by no means clear that even in the case of a “ticking bomb” would torture yield the results necessary, so, therefore there are opinions on both sides of this issue. The article is long and worthwhile and written by a member of Bush’s defense establishment in 2006.

Bronfman’s musings on Yom HaShoah

In Uncategorized on April 22, 2009 at 8:31 pm

Edgar M. Bronfman and Taylor Krauss wrote an op ed for Jewcy describing the Jewish generation gap regarding Jewish self-interest in contrast to Jewish responsibility to others:

Jews of an older generation guard the language of the Holocaust against use by others stems from fear for Jewish survival. The older generation of Jews, those who lived through the atrocities of the Holocaust, saw the world stand aside as Jews perished in concentration camps. They responded with the resolve to fight anti-Semitism worldwide and to ensure Jewish cultural continuity. But a tragedy of our Holocaust is that humanity has not absorbed the lesson its horrors should have taught. Asserting “Never Again” for all does not mean denying the unprecedented nature of the Holocaust. It means keeping its memory alive in the service of others.

Young American Jews have been active in the fight against genocide-recording survivor testimony in Rwanda, caring for survivors in Cambodia, raising awareness for Darfur. This generation seems unwilling to be aligned with an attitude that privileges Jewish suffering. Having grown up in a country where anti-Semitism is no longer a part of daily life, they are less concerned with the struggle for Jewish survival than with a search for joy and meaning in Judaism. They resist the call for self-protection, and instead focus on the Jewish value of justice and the pursuit of tikkun olam, the repair of the world. This confidence and openness should inspire hope for a newly vibrant Jewish life. But the embrace of the second “Never Again” has also come at the cost of the first. The younger generation tends to gloss over the real dangers that Jews face today, which include the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and the threat to Israel from a nuclear Iran.

Edgar M. Bronfman used to quote his mentor Nachum Goldman, “Anti-semitism good for Judaism, bad for Jews. No anti-semitism, good for Jews and bad for Judaism.” As the first director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, my expressed goal for this diverse community was to make those who were very insular a little more open, and to make those who were open a little more insular. These same sentiments are expressed beautifully by Edgar the elder and Taylor, a young film maker in his twenties. The fact that they are writing together is a wonderful testimony to what is possible.

A side note. In their article, the famous statement of Hillel is quoted: If I’m not for myself… They understand it to mean that Jews have to be concerned both with their own community and the world. This may be a mistranslation. A more accurate translation might be:

If I’m not for myself who will be for me, and when I am for myself what am I? (Not, if I’m for myself alone which was a much more recent gloss on this 1st Century document).

The question being, what does it mean to be for yourself? One might answer that it means one should not only consider himself in order to be “truly for ones self”. The fact that Edgar and Taylor know the popular translation “if I’m for myself alone…” as “the” translation shows how we would like to understand Hillel and understand ourselves through this interpretation. For those who have Hebrew enabled browsers, here is Hillel in Hebrew:

אם אין אני לי מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי מה אני
On the other hand, the people have spoken, and this is how they’ve chosen to understand Hillel. This has a veracity independent of the pretentious nitpicking of translators such as myself.