Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Charging Metaphor for Metaphysics

To Lubab No More on fundamentalism and the skepticism of simple absolute truths:

The way God is often described is designedly so simple that a child can understand it. And, like most fields of knowledge, simplification is good for handing over important ideas but not for an in depth study. Oversimplification leads to blurring of the complexities which lead to apparent contradiction.

As a case in point - does water conduct electricity? You probably learned in kindergarten that yes, it does very much! and you need to be very careful when around water and a live current.

But actually that's misleading. I mean it's practically true, but if you then study some chemistry you'd question how H2O passes current - it shouldn't by itself since it's an uncharged molecule. Contradiction! What is actually passing current are the _impurities_ in the water. The salts, the minerals, etc. The charge bounces off of them.

So then you may be happy with that level of understanding, but then you learn that even pure water conducts electricity a little bit. How can that be? That contradicts the last explanation! What is actually happening in water is that the molecules don't just sit around quietly but they are somewhat unstable. Some portion of them are constantly breaking apart into H+ and OH- and then reassembling themselves. So it is those transient ions on which charge flows.

See the kindergarten-level understanding of water and electricity isn't wrong per se, it's just oversimplified. The lesson is very important to pass along without all of that other complication even though you miss a great deal of further understanding in the process.

Now that was just about water. Maybe (kal v'chomer) the same kind of process applies to the God you were taught about in kindergarten too, hmm?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Some Perspective

A favourite saying of the Rabbis of Jabneh was: I am God's creature and my fellow is God's creature. My work is in the town and his work is in the country. I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work. Just as he does not presume to do my work, so I do not presume to do his work. Will you say, I do much and he does little? We have learnt: One may do much or one may do little; it is all one, provided he directs his heart to heaven.

Brachot 17a

Seems to me like those Yavneh rabbis had a better appreciation for non-kollelites than do some segments of contemporary Judaism.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

On Ethics:

I wrote this to GH for his recent post as a musing on the nature of ethics:

The issue with ethics is always the profit motive. If I can profit by being unethical, why shouldn't I?

The answer must be that in some way the 'profit' actually comes at a steeper cost.

The other issue is where one's ethical standards come from in the first place. How do we know they are valid? Subjective ethics do not work because they can only justify how you act, but you cannot use them to criticize the acts of others.

Orthodoxy has answers to these questions, but skepticism makes those answers impotent.

My answers: I value my own ethical integrity and that integrity is worth more to me than any monetary gain or whatever. I also believe that ethics are essentially discovered by mankind as codes that lead to good or bad things for people in society and society in general. We can tell whether an ethic is valid by observing its fruit.

But such experiments, as it would be, are tough to explore in many cases and so we must practically rely on the sustained wisdom of the ages, the sentiments of gifted individuals, and ultimately our own judgement.

The final issue is why should we even care about being ethical at all? Most people care about morality intuitively - an integral part of being human is caring about other people, but I have little to say that could convince a nihilist.

A Midrash on Moshe and Metaphysics

R' Abbahu said: All the forty days that Moses was on high, he kept on forgetting the Torah he learnt. He then said: 'Lord of the Universe, I have spent forty days, yet I know nothing.' What did God do? At the end of the forty days, He gave him the Torah as a gift, for it says, AND HE GAVE UNTO MOSES. Could then Moses have learnt the whole Torah? Of the Torah it says: The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea (Job 11:9); could then Moses have learnt it all in forty days? No; but it was only the principles thereof which God taught Moses.

-Exodus Rabbah 41:6

This is an interesting midrash. The most striking point is that it says that God only taught Moshe the principles of the Torah - which runs contrary to the typical Orthodox perspective that God revealed all of the Torah and all of the Oral Law to him. But secondly, there's the point that "Torah" is defined here not as the Pentateuch, but through the reference in Job which uses "The measure..." to describe the mysteries and (non)limits of God - "Torah" is then defined essentially as all metaphysical truth of God's ways.

Job 11:
7 "Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
8 They are higher than the heavens—what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave—what can you know?
9 Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea.

So what is the midrash saying that Moshe received at Sinai? He received the principles of metaphysical truth.

For those of a skeptical bent who yet still recognize wisdom in the scriptures, this may be a helpful perspective in one's approach to Judaism.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

It's Rosh Hashanah...isn't it?

Here's an interesting little tidbit I stumbled upon recently. Rosh Hashanah this year begins Wednesday night, but the molad - the timing of the new moon - is early Wednesday morning. See, on an otherwise unmolested calendric system the molad would determine the day of Rosh Hashanah as beginning Tuesday night (as then the molad would actually occur on the first day of Rosh Hashanah) but the traditional calendric system has several different reasons for why the date for Rosh Hashanah can be pushed off for a day or two.

They go into it simply here:

Once the date of the Molad Tishrei has been calculated, some additional considerations must be taken into account to determine the actual date of Rosh HaShanah. These considerations may cause the actual date of 1 Tishrei to be postponed from the date of the Molad Tishrei. There are four such postponements:

First, if the time of the Molad Tishrei is later than 18 hours from the beginning of the day, Rosh HaShanah is postponed to the next day. This probably accounts for the fact that the young moon could not have been observed until the next day.

Second, for common years only, if the Molad Tishrei falls on a Tuesday, and is later than 9 hours and 204 halakhim from the start of the day, Rosh HaShanah is postponed to the next day. This rule prevents a situation in which the postponements for the next year would require the year to be 356 days long.

Third, for years following leap years only, if the Molad Tishrei falls on a Monday, and is later than 15 hours and 589 halakhim from the start of the day, Rosh HaShanah is postponed to the next day. This rule prevents a situation that would require the previous year to be only 382 days long.

Finally, if Rosh HaShanah would fall on Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday, it is postponed to the next day. In combination with one of the above postponements, Rosh HaShanah could be postponed by as much as two days. This postponement prevents certain holidays from falling on the Sabbath.

The site also has a neat number crunching program that tells you when each of the above situations affect a given year's schedule and the rescheduled date for Rosh Hashanah.

Anyway, so the first three issues are essentially practical concerns to keep the entire system from going off kilter, but what really interests me is the last means of postponement. See, what it is referring to is the postponement rule of Lo ADU Rosh which is a mnemonic name, aleph, dalet, vuv to indicate that if the molad falls on the first, fourth or sixth day of the week then Rosh Hashanah is to be delayed. But why those days of the week? What's the significance?

So the Talmud says (Rosh Hashanah 20a) that the reason for the Wednesday and Friday rule is so that Yom Kippur doesn't fall out on either side of Shabbos and it's pushed off from Sunday because otherwise Hoshanah Rabbah can fall out on Shabbos (Sukkah 43a). So the Gemaras continue, respectively, explaining that having Shabbos and Yom Kippur after one another is bad either because then the dead may have to wait two days before burial and/or that food will go bad and that if Hoshanah Rabbah falls on Shabbos then people will be unable to perform the classic aravot beating.

Now, I find this really remarkable for a couple of reasons. The first reason is due to the fact that they seemed to think it was alright to mess around with the whole calender - and the dates of all the holidays - for what is essentially ritual convenience! In the pre-calculated system the molad would happen when the molad would happen and you couldn't just change around the dates at will. Yom Kippur no doubt _did_ fall out on Friday and Sunday on a regular basis. And even more than that, to ensure that people far from Jerusalem were observing the correct date for the holiday they kept two days yom tov - and yet here we are messing around with the holy times for convenience! It is really amazing.

Secondly, if the reason Yom Kippur was so moved was so that two days of Shabbos didn't follow one another - what would those Amoraim make of today's three days yom tov/Shabbos in a row?! But besides that, even within the calculated system, Pesach comes up against Shabbos pretty regularly - as it does this year - and Shavuous too regularly does the same. So I'm not even sure I understand their reasoning. Do the dead not have to wait the same two days? In any case, I'd much rather have it set up so that Pesach can never begin on a Saturday night rather than Yom Kippur getting that special concern.

Lastly, I'd like to say a few words about the molad itself. The molad was initially figured out by eye witnesses and was taken very seriously as the Mishnah and Gemara report in great detail. Indeed, witnesses could break the Shabbos to travel to the court to make sure that the molad was set on it's proper time. But as that system became impractical the molad was calculated into a calendric system that could operate independently of witness' sitings. So the molad was calculated to be 29 days 12 hours and 44+1/18 minutes after the previous molad (possibly taken from Ptolemy), which was actually very accurate. But the problem is that due to tidal effects between the Earth and Moon, the mean time for the Moon's orbit is now _less than_ what it was in Hillel II's day. The difference is about 0.6 seconds each month and the accumulated molad has by now gained almost 100 minutes on the actual molad that witnesses would report.

The consequence of this is that today the calculated molads are no longer somewhere between Israel and Babylon as it was during the Talmudic period. Now they are calculating a molad that happens somewhere over Afghanistan! And with a difference of over 100 minutes (out of 1440 minutes in day) that means that the molad is calculated to be on the _wrong day_ about 7% of the time! Link

Now that's some weird stuff, isn't it?

I guess I'll just leave this off with wishing all my readers a shana tovah umetukah and a pleasant Rosh Hashanah....assuming it actually is Rosh Hashanah, of course.