Monday, July 30, 2012

Dune Deal

One of my favorite books, and series, in the science fiction genre is Frank Herbert's Dune, the original published in 1965, along with the sequels, and I've also enjoyed the recent posthumous additions to the canon co-authored by his son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin Anderson.  Herbert had a wonderful sense of ecology, in the biological sense of understanding the interdependence of species and physical environments.  The Dune series was very much about planetary ecosystems, the interactions within cycles of life, and evolutionary adaptation to environments.

And he also had a handle on historical ecology, the long view of world history, which is rooted in the philosophy of Giambattista Vico and G.W.F. Hegel, among others.  But notably it was the pioneering science fiction writer H.G. Wells who published The Outline of History in 1918, 23 years after the publication of his novel, The Time Machine.  Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West, published in 2 volumes in 1919 and 1922 was also quite influential.  The pioneering media ecology work of Lewis Mumford also deserves some mention, notably the seminal Technics and Human Civilization published in 1934, which divided history into different eras based on types of materials, energy, and tools and machines that were used. 

But it was Arnold Toynbee, more than anyone, who demonstrated that it was possible to grasp the history of the world in its entirety, and make sense of its patterns.  Toynbee's A Study of History was published in 10 volumes, the first 3 in 1934, the second 3 in 1939, and the final 4 in 1954.  Toynbee's influence can be seen in Isaac Asimov's outstanding Foundation series, which began publication as a series of short stories in 1942 (and I'd include the Foundation books on my list of science fiction favorites as well, just a notch below Dune). 

And Toynbee's influence is readily apparent in the Dune series, the first Dune novel being published in 1965, at a time when the ecology or environmentalist movement was just getting off the ground.  Much like the media ecology of Harold Innis, Dune's historical ecology is grounded in a solid matrix of political economy.  The only conceit of the book is that someday, in the far, far future, humanity spread out over many planets would fall back into a feudal-like social organization on a galactic scale, with an Emperor, Dukes, Barons, and other noble houses and aristocracies, as well as guilds. The sense of a return to the medieval is itself very much in keeping with McLuhan's observation in The Gutenberg Galaxy that "the new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village." And there is certainly some similarity between the decentralized electronic network, as exemplified by the internet, and the decentralized political structure of feudal society.

Another aspect of Dune altogether is the generally held bias and outright prohibition in that future scenario against "thinking machines," aka computers and artificial intelligence, part of the back story of a much earlier epoch in history when a large portion of humanity was enslaved by an AI, and the rest at war with it.  So, instead of intelligent machines, humanity or certain segments of it had learned to maximize their potential through mental training.  Often, that training was enhanced and supplemented by artificial substances, mind-altering drugs (no doubt a Huxleyan influence here as well), but the emphasis was on the powers of the mind.  One example was "The Voice" through which a properly trained individual (mostly members of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood) could influence and command others. In this and other aspects of the Jedi knights, not to mention the dessert planet of Tatooine, George Lucas clearly drew upon Dune in the creation of his own Star Wars narrative and universe.

Especially memorable, for me, from the Dune novel, was the Bene Gesserit litany against fear, used to maintain self-control in situations where others might panic:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
There is also the test given by the Bene Gesserit via the gom jabbar, a poison needle that causes instant death.  The person being tested puts her hand in a device that produces pain but no actual harm.  It is a test of self-discipline, to endure the pain, because if you pull your hand out before the test is over, you will be stung by the needle and die.  The test is framed as a test of one's humanity, as only a human being is capable of withstanding the agony and controlling the reflex reaction to withdraw from pain, whereas an animal knows no such self-control. The distinction is in some ways reminiscent of that made by Gideon in the Book of Judges, but also very much in line with Alfred Korzybski's views of human beings as the time-binding class of life.

So, some time ago, I was rather fascinated to learn, through an article published in ETC written by Ronny Parkerson, that Frank Herbert drew upon the discipline of general semantics in his vision of a future where enhanced human potential, achieved via mental discipline, was common.  As a San Francisco-based writer, Herbert had actually worked for a time for S. I. Hayakawa, one of the leading proponents of general semantics.

Frank Herbert's novel was the basis of a major motion picture by David Lynch released in 1984.  His Dune deviated from the novel's ending in an unfortunate way, but was quite interesting visually, and extended versions of the film have since been released.  A second version that was more detailed and more faithful to the original, albeit less spectacular, was produced for the SyFy Channel in the year 2000 as a television minseries entitled Frank Herbert's Dune.  And a sequel based on the next two novels in the series was aired under the title of Children of Dune in 2003.  But in the wake of 9/11, the elements Herbert had adapted from Islamic culture, especially numerous references to jihad, were too problematic to allow for further adaptations (a pity since the fourth novel in the series, God Emperor of Dune, was the only sequel to rival the original novel in its brilliance).

So, anyway, I was interested to come across this video the other day, about an aborted earlier attempt to create a film adaptation of Dune:

So Dune begat Prometheus by way of Alien! What is fascinating about this connection is that Alien, which was released in 1979 as the first horror film to follow up on the new Star Wars-based approach to science fiction film, was based on a 1950 novel entitled Voyage of the Space Beagle.  The author of this futuristic take on Darwin's survival of the fittest was A. E. van Vogt.  And van Vogt was strongly influenced by general semantics, via the discipline's founder, and Hayakawa's one time mentor, Alfred Korzybski.  The novels that best reflect Korzybski's influence are van Vogt's Null-A series, null-A standing for non-Aristotelian, the term Korzybski used to characterize his general semantics approach.  And the protagonist in his novels had been trained in this approach so as to become superhuman, much like the protagonist in Dune.  General semantics is less pronounced in his other work, including Voyage of the Space Beagle, but neither is it altogether absent.

I should note that another science fiction author who was directly affected by Korzybski was Robert Heinlein, and he too featured superhuman protagonists who represented the height of human potential in some of his fiction, notably in his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, and you can also see some evidence of it in the 1997 film adaptation of his 1959 young adult novel, Starship Troopers.  It might make for an interesting study to compare the three writers, Herbert, van Vogt, and Heinlein, in case anyone out there is interested.  Of course, further comparisons might be made with the science fiction of L. Ron Hubbard, whose own rather notorious entry into the human potential movement drew on Korzybski's ideas, not to mention Korzybski followers William S. Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson.

Anyway, I can only imagine that Hollywood will eventually grow tired of making science fiction films out of Phillip K. Dick's stories, which I have no objection to, mind you (although why we need a remake of Total Recall is beyond me), and I hope they will return to Herbert, and also to van Vogt and Heinlein, for some new source material.  I'd like to see a McLuhanesque take on Herbert in particular, so we could said, Marshall McLu'un, where are you, Dune?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

What to Blame for the Colorado Shooting?

So, this past Friday at least 12 people were killed, with 58 others wounded, 70 victims in total, in a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.  The fact that it was a midnight premiere showing of the new Batman movie, The Dark Night Rises, meant that the theater was filled to capacity.  The result was the largest mass shooting in American history.

I know we all share in our sympathy for the victims and their families, and our sense of horror and outrage over this tragedy.  The natural response, then, is to ask why?  Why did this happen?  We look for reasons, explanations.  Senseless killing creates what Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance, and we look to relieve that dissonance, to create psychological balance, by search for a rational explanation.  Here are some thoughts on the matter:

1.  Blame Batman.  A film full of violence, depicting vigilante justice outside of the law as entirely legitimate, seems like too strong of a connection to ignore.  Of course, it is not so much this film that is to blame, as the killer's actions were clearly premeditated, involving a great deal of planning and preparation, and this film was just opening.  But The Dark Night Rises can be seen as typical of the blockbuster motion picture that features scenes of massive destruction, explosions, acts of extreme brutality, and of course gun fire—the Shakespearean quote, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, comes to mind.   In a more general sense, there is the much studied phenomenon of the relationship between depictions of violence on the media, and acts of violence in real life.  The results of extensive research are fairly ambiguous, that for some individuals, under certain circumstances, in some situations, after being exposed to some types of violent media content, there can be an increase in aggressive and violent behavior.  It's ambiguous, but not entirely insignificant, so let's not entirely dismiss the glorified portrayal of justified and celebrated violent behavior as a factor.  But any attempt to blame the caped crusader ought to be qualified by noting that the dark knight, at least in the way that he came to be depicted in comics since the 60s, never used guns himself, and had an extreme personal abhorrence of firearms.  The story of Batman's origin, as you may recall, goes back to his childhood, when his parents are gunned down and killed by a mugger, an act of gun violence he witnessed and was helpless to prevent.  This colors Bruce Wayne for his entire life, and gives him focus for his mission, to the point of obsession, leading him to adopt the identity of Batman.  Still, this is a detail about the character that, while well known to comic book fans, can easily be lost on the mass audience of casual movie goers, and it certainly is not emphasized in the current Batman film trilogy.  I wonder if the filmmakers are rethinking that error of omission right about now?  Here is the director's statement on the shooting. taken from the official movie website:

"Speaking on behalf of the cast and crew of The Dark Knight Rises, I would like to express our profound sorrow at the senseless tragedy that has befallen the entire Aurora community. I would not presume to know anything about the victims of the shooting but that they were there last night to watch a movie. I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me. Nothing any of us can say could ever adequately express our feelings for the innocent victims of this appalling crime, but our thoughts are with them and their families."
-Christopher Nolan

If I may make a suggestion to Christopher, and Warner Bros., without suggesting that either is to blame for the tragedy, given what has happened, how about making a new film that clearly and unequivocally depicts Batman as refusing to carry a gun, despising the use of firearms to threaten and bully, commit crimes and cause harm, and indeed, as being disgusted by their very existence?  Hollywood has a reputation for embracing liberal causes, so how about it?  Or is the great media conglomerate, TimeWarner, too timid to risk angering the NRA and its supporters?

2.  Blame Theaters.  Does this sound at all absurd to you?  If it does, let me remind you, if you are of a certain age, and if not let me inform you, that movie theaters used to employ ushers who would show people to seats, help people to find the exit, assist people in other ways, and warn or remove anyone who was unruly. 

The irony today is that while we have more theaters (in the sense that the motion picture palace has been replaced by the multiplex), we have less people working in them.  Movie projection is automated, ticket sales are done by machine or online more and more, concession stands are fast food operations that appear to be more or less independent of the actual theater, and you're lucky if anyone comes in to clean up after each showing (patrons being encouraged to clean up after themselves).

 While ushers would not have been able to prevent the massacre, if there had been more personnel present in the theater, there would have been a better chance of one of them spotting that something was amiss with this particular patron.  It's not just the number of people working in the theater, it's where they're deployed, it's how they're trained (or whether they have any training to speak of), and it's how motivated they are.

 So in the aftermath of the shooting, not just in Aurora, but locally here in New Jersey and New York, and I imagine all over the country, there is police presence at or outside of movie theaters.  There is just cause for this, as copycat crimes are not unknown, but I suspect the main reason is psychological reassurance.  After all, if there had been police presence outside of the theater in Aurora, could they have responded in time to prevent much or any of the shooting?  Should movie theaters provide a marshal for each showing, or randomly distributed, like our Federal Air Marshals?

The bottom line being the bottom line, the question is, will the shooting has a significant effect on ticket sales?  Movie attendance reached its peak in the 50s, and then went into decline due to television.  Home video and cable further eroded the attraction of going to the movies, forcing cinemas to rely on the blockbuster experience created by larger screens, dynamic sound systems, and more recently 3D visuals.  But the home theater set-up duplicates many of these features, and convenience often trumps quality.  There is the immediate gratification of seeing the film now, rather than wait for its release onto video on demand and DVD formats, but the gap between the two is shrinking, in some instances disappearing.

So, it is not at all inconceivable for movie theaters to install metal detectors, and even engage in airport like security measures.  As an added bonus for them, a pat down might reveal that the patron is bringing in food not purchased at the theater, which they then might confiscate.  This may seem extreme, but security in entertainment venues is not at all unheard of in other parts of the world.  Or at sports stadiums, for that matter.  Look for it in a theater near you, coming sooner or later.

3.  Blame guns.  This is the obvious point of contention for our culture, between advocates and opponents of gun control.  As a native New Yorker, American gun culture is foreign to me.  Growing up in Queens, the only guns I ever saw were with police and security guards. When I was an undergraduate at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (home of Ithaca Gun Company), a few of my fraternity brothers had shotguns in the house, and went hunting on occasion.  As you might imagine, I was a bit uneasy about that.  One time, one of them made a mistake and a shotgun accidentally went off in the house.  No one was seriously injured, the shot hit the floor, but a few pellets that ricocheted off of the tile found their way into the foot of another fellow, who had to go to the emergency room. 

When I got married and moved to New Jersey, I knew that firearms were being sold, and that there are people around who go hunting, but I have never seen or heard about any gun use in our area of northern New Jersey. We lived in an apartment building for several years, and there was a young unmarried couple living next door, and I did hear that the woman had previously been engaged, and her fiance was accidentally killed in a hunting accident, by his own father.

So, when I heard about the shooting, my immediate response was, another shooting in Colorado.  After all, Aurora is not that far from Littleton, the site of the Columbine High School shooting, with which this incident seems to have something in common.  And of course there's the whole wild west thing they have going there, but I'm not going to add "Blame Colorado" to the list because I happen to like that state a great deal (and not only because of South Park), there are many very progressive people over there, and anyway, this kind of shooting is not limited to the American southwest.  The Virginia Tech shootings also come to mind, and that's over on the eastern side of the country.  Now, it is absolutely clear that New York is unique, but I believe that the entire northeast has a different, less extreme relationship with firearms than the west and the south.

I recently was defending Neil Postman's criticism of online eduction, and new media in general, and one of the arguments raised against him was that he didn't use personal computers, for example didn't care for email, and therefore was not qualified to speak on the topic.  Of course, I disagreed, as you can learn a great deal by observing others using the technology, you can talk to other people about their experiences, you can evaluate their remarks and arguments concerning the medium, and you can generalize from other, similar types of media.  Similar arguments were made, I should add, regarding television, that you can't really criticize it unless you've actually produced a television program, a much weaker argument clearly, in that the critic still can observe what's been produced. 

But the point I'm getting at is, I admit that I do not own a gun, have never fired a gun, have never even held one.  I don't pretend to understand them, find them foreign and frightening, and am in favor of gun control legislation.  So, you can say that I am not qualified to weigh in on the subject, and maybe you're right.  I also have opinions about nuclear weapons, by the way, although I have never experienced one going off, set one off, or been near one.

So, for me, this one comes down to a simple, basic, media ecology principle.  A medium or technology has a bias, and the bias of firearms is violence.  When you have a gun in hand, everything else looks like a target. That should be obvious enough. Pick up a gun (and I have played with toy guns of course), and you inevitably aim at something, and quite often that something is another human being, even if it's just in jest or practice.  Any given medium or technology, once adopted, tends to be used. It is made to be used.  So when you have guns, they will be used.  And it is impossible to separate the positive from the negative, so they will be used in good ways and bad ways, legal and illegal, appropriate and inappropriate.

I will say that I have enough respect for the United States (admittedly being biased as an American) and the Constitution of the United States that I am willing to grant that the Second Amendment has a rationale, and there are solid arguments for respecting it. In contrast to the First Amendment, I think the Second Amendment hasn't been studied enough.  Sure, there has been a lot of discussion and debate over its interpretation and its legal ramifications, it is an amazingly ambiguous verbal construction, and of course there's much that's been said about its relation to American gun culture.  But there is even broader significance, as it relates to the dominant values of individual freedom in American culture, our traditional suspicion of government, our celebration of the vigilante hero, and our love of technology.

Are automobiles a type of arms?  Internal combustion engines do fire, after all.  So, perhaps we need to treat guns like automobiles, meaning that you need a license to own and operate them, and that they all need to be registered.  This might not prevent another tragedy, but it could trigger red flags when someone is suddenly stocking up on guns and ammunition, and that might not be a bad thing.

Blame mental illness.  That someone who commits such horrific acts is not normal goes without saying. The Batman comics are noteworthy in their evolution towards depicting villains that are criminally insane, giving the series an intense psychological emphasis.  This shift reflected the changing view on criminal behavior in American culture that can be traced back to the sixties, from the moral concept of evil to the medical notion of sick, or simply put, from bad to mad.

In our desire to reduce cognitive dissonance, we may say, he's crazy, and that explains it all away. Some might say, he's evil, and that could work too, if you are willing and able to work within a moral framework.  And we yet might find more specific reasons for why this happened, so that blame for the tragedy could also be ascribed to a need for revenge, or jealousy, or poverty, or perhaps even some highly rational motive, if it were discovered that he was paid to shoot-up the audience (highly unlikely, I know, I'm just noting that this would constitute an explanation).

What probably wouldn't work is to say, he's a criminal.  That might work if it were a matter of stealing, burglary, mugging, etc.  But of course, he is a criminal, it's doubtful that he'll be able to plea insanity, at least not successfully, given the degree of premeditation involved in the massacre, and he will quite probably be sentenced to capital punishment.  So you could certainly say that he's a criminal, but that does not reduce dissonance at all, given the lack of personal gain in the shooting.  What this ought to do, though, is call into question our use of criminality as an explanation for illegal behavior under any circumstances.  Being categorized as a criminal only tells us that the individual in question has been put on trial and found guilty. It's the judgment of the legal system, not a rationale or motivation.

Now, some have commented on what has not been said about the shooter:  that he's a terrorist.  And the fact that he was not branded as a terrorist has been connected to the fact that the shooter is white, Christian, and American.  And this is an entirely valid criticism.  Simply put, there is no clear dividing line between terrorism and criminality, and saying, he's a terrorist, is no explanation for anyone's behavior, just as saying, he's a Muslim or he's an Arab would not be an explanation.  Have some individuals who have been identified as terrorists also been found to be psychologically troubled and unstable?  Absolutely.

What we need to understand is, terrorism is not a motive.  It is a form of behavior.  Whether the motivation is political, religious, economic, or pure insanity or evil, hardly matters to the victims.  So what we need to do is to find ways to prevent this sort of behavior, as much as possible.  To keep citizens safe.  Security is the bottom line for any society.

Acts of violence can be categorized as military action, terrorism, or crime, but let's take a lesson from general semantics and not be mislead by these labels, and not become confused about the underlying reality that it is violence that is the problem, and maybe violence can never be fully eliminated, but minimizing violence is the goal.

Blame technology.  It's guns, but it's not just guns.  As we saw on 9/11, it's airplanes.  As we've seen over and over again, cars and trucks can be turned into bombs easily enough.  However much violence has always been with us, contemporary technology has increased the potential enormously.  Technology is inherently violent, as I've discussed in a philosophical vein, drawing on both Hannah Arendt and Marshall McLuhan (see my previous posts Violence and Technology, Violence and Power, Violence and Identity, and Violence and Unity), and this goes far beyond the capacity for destruction of specific technologies, and far beyond the violent effects of content and medium alike, although both are contributing factors.  But more fundamentally, this is about the generally disruptive consequences that accompany the adoption of innovations.  Moreover, technological progress has made society increasingly more complex, and therefore in certain ways more fragile, so that the effects of violent acts are greater than ever before.  

In sum, technology results in vulnerability.  

There may not be much we can do about technology, as individuals.  Certainly, there's nowhere we can run away to, as the whole earth is subject to the violence of technology, whether it's in the form of climate change, or radiation leakage.  Violence itself is a solution, in the sense that enough of it could knock us back into the stone age, but that's certainly not something a sane person would hope for. Jacques Ellul has noted that we typically seek technological solutions to technological problems, thereby exacerbating the problem, but in this case I am going to suggest a technological solution, however flawed that may be.  

It's a matter of design, and policy, together.  It's not enough to prescribe appropriate use of technology, or outlaw inappropriate use.  We need to design our technologies so as to minimize their use for violence, regardless of the motivation, and we need to design our technologies so as to minimize our vulnerability to violence.  We need to design safeguards for our guns, and vehicles, and buildings, and our media of communication too.  We need to design safeguards for our technologies, because there is no way to design safeguards for our fellow human beings.


Monday, July 16, 2012


I served as lay leader at Congregration Adas Emuno of Leonia (Bergen County) New Jersey for the 2nd week in a row (see my previous post, The God Particle and God's Word) this past Friday, July 13, and again I thought I'd share the sermon or D'Var Torah I gave (the Torah portion for last week was Parsha Pinchas).

For the past 8 weeks, the weekly Torah portion has come from the 4th book of the Torah, whose Hebrew name is Bamidbar, meaning in the dessert.  It was given that name because the book begins with God speaking to Moses in the Sinai dessert, and all of the events that occur in this book take place in the Sinai.  Of course, the fourth book is better known by its Christian name, which is Numbers.  Actually the original name given to it by the church was the Greek word arithmoi, from which we get our English word arithmetic, but the meaning was not so much numbers as it was magnitudes.  That is to say, it was not about abstract mathematical concepts, but about the practical act of measurement, and counting.  And the fourth book was given this name because it includes the taking of a census, not once, but twice.  

For any society, counting up the number of people that we have helps us to organize ourselves, which is why modern governments do it, for example in the United States every ten years.  In the Book of Numbers, the first census indicates that there are 603,550 Israelite men age 20 or older.  But this population experienced a loss of faith when 12 scouts are sent out to Canaan, and 10 of the 12 report back that giants dwell in that land.  Because the Israelites didn't trust in God and were afraid to enter the promised land, they were then made to dwell in the dessert as nomads for 40 years.  

Why 40 years?  Because that is the period of time that traditionally constitutes one generation.  So after 40 years, a second census is taken, and this time there are 601,730 men counted, and this is the population that will at last enter the holy land.  This week's Torah portion includes the results of the second census, and also a passage where Moses name Joshua as his successor, Joshua having been 1 of the 2 scouts, along with Caleb, who came back from Canaan painting an inviting picture of a land flowing with milk and honey.

Counting is a part of our history, and it is a part of our religion.  The 4th Commandment tell us "to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  For 6 days you shall labor and do all your work. But the 7th day is a Sabbath to Adonai, your God."  And this serves as a celebration, and in a sense a re-enactment of God's act of Creation, as the commandment goes on to say, "For in 6 days Adonai made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but on the 7th day he rested."  To keep the Sabbath, we have to keep count.  

The same is not true for keeping track of day and night, as those transitions are signaled by dawn and dusk, and even though the days may be longer or shorter depending on the time of year, high noon is always the same.  So the day is based on earth's rotation, which the month is based on the cycles of the moon, and the year on earth's orbit around the sound, which can followed by observation of the changing position of the stars.  Only the 7-day week is completely arbitrary, and requires us to learn to count. and to keep an accounting.

In English, the days of the week are named after pagan deities and the sun and the moon, but in Hebrew they are simply identified by their number.  So Sunday is Yom Rishon, which means the 1st day, and Monday is Yom Sheni, which means the 2nd day, Tuesday is Yom Shlishi, which means the 3rd day, Wednesday is Yom Revi'i, the 4th day, Thursday is Yom Chamishi, the 5th day, and Friday is Yom Shishi, the 6th day.  

Each new day, in our tradition, begins at sunset, and the 7th day is called Yom Shabbat, or simply Shabbat, identifying it not by number but as a form of sacred time.  The numerical names for days has its origin in the Book of Genesis, in the story of Creation, where each episode of God's creative labors ends with the line, "And there was evening, and there was morning, the 1st day," "And there was evening, and there was morning, the 2nd day," and so on.

The ancient symbol of our people and our faith is the Menorah, which is described in the Book of Exodus as having 6 branches, 3 on either side, and 7 lamps.  In one interpretation, the 6 branches represent the 6 days of the week, and the 7th middle shaft represents Shabbat.  The Hanukkah menorah, more properly called the Hanukkiah, is a variation on the regular Menorah, in adding 2 extra branches so as to symbolize the 8 days of the holiday.

The Torah also commands us to keep track of every 7th year, which is a Sabbatical year at which time the land is given a rest and must remain fallow, debts are forgiven, slaves freed, and so on.  And the Jubilee year follows 7 Sabbaticals.  The Torah also commands us to engage in the counting of the Omer, counting 7 weeks, 7 times 7 days, the 49 days between the festival of Passover, celebrating our escape from Egyptian bondage, and that of Shavuot, celebrating our receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

We all know that 7 is considered a lucky number, and all of the 7s that come up in the Bible are no doubt one of the reasons why.  And we all know about the superstition about 13 being an unlucky number, so much so that there is a word for the psychological condition marked by an irrational and overpowering fear of the number 13, triskaidekaphobia.  Architects apparently suffer from this condition as an occupational hazard, because most buildings do not have a 13th floor, or more specifically, skip from 12 to 14 in their numbering.  And today is Friday the 13th, a day that is considered especially unlucky, unless you are a producer of horror films.  

No one is really sure how the number 13 gained this negative image, but one theory is that it is on account of anti-Semitism, because 13 is considered a lucky number in Jewish tradition, not the least because it is the age of maturity.  Traditionally, 13 is the age when a boy becomes Bar Mitzvah, and in the traditional Bar Mitzvah speech typically says, today I am a man, and in traditional Jewish practice is considered a full member of society, and able to join a minyan, and lead prayer services. 

For the past 90 years, we have also included the Bat Mitzvah ceremony for girls, which also is sometimes associated with age 13, and sometimes a year earlier, because girls mature faster than boys.  But 13 is the first of the 7 numbers that end in teen, and maybe its negative image came from its association with teenagers?  I'm joking of course, but I should add that in our tradition, 13 has other positive associations connected to Rabbinic commentaries and Kabbalistic teachings, and for us, Friday the 13th is good luck, it's mazel tov!

Odd numbers like 7 and 13 stand out, and especially when they are prime numbers, that is numbers that cannot be divided evenly by any other number.  

Even numbers, on the other hand, give us a sense of balance and wholeness.  The symbol often used to represent the Jewish people and Judaism as a faith is the six-pointed star.  The symbol of the House of King David, we commonly refer to it as the Star of David, although the Hebrew phrase, Magen David, means Shield of David.  The six-pointed star is sometimes known as the Seal of Solomon, King Solomon being the son of King David.  The Jewish Star, as it is also called, has been used as a symbol of good luck since the Middle Ages.  The hexagram formed by the union of two equilateral triangles serves as symbol of unity, and community.

Given that symbolism, it takes sense that if you multiply 6 times 2, you get 12, and that is the number of the sons of Jacob, the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.   And if you multiply 6 time 3, you get the number 18, which means chai, life, and that is why we often give gifts and donations in multiples of 18 for B'nai Mitzvahs and weddings, and donations to the synagogue (hint, hint).

Why is the Hebrew word for life given the numerical value of 18?  The letters of the Hebrew alphabet serve double duty as numerals, so that aleph represents 1, bet is 2, gimel is 3, and so on up to yud, which is 10.  Following yud, kaf is 20, lamed is 30, mem is 40, and so on up to kuf, which is 100.  The remainder of the letters, including the final forms of chaf, mem, nun, pei, and tsadi, bring us up to 900.  To represent values of 1,000 or more, letters are reused.  

But the important point is that, because the Hebrew letters are also used as numerals, every written word also has a numerical value, and this is the basis of numerology.  Jewish numerology is known as Gematria, and is associated with the tradition of Jewish mysticism of the Kabbalah.  Kabbalistic scholars believe that there are hidden messages encoded within the Torah, and some draw on the Gematria in an attempt to uncover hidden numerical meanings in the Five Books of Moses. 

Of course, numbers typically are used for practical concerns in the Torah, for example in the results of the census found in this week's portion.  In Exodus, in the same parsha that tells us how to make a menorah, we find instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant, specifying that it should be 2½ cubits long, 1½ cubits wide, and 1½ cubits high, and that there should also be a table 2 cubits long, 1 cubit wide, and 1½ cubits high.  And this section contains many more specific measurements for the cloth and planks of wood needed to make the Tabernacle and its enclosure.  For that matter, long before Moses or Abraham, the Book of Genesis tells us that Noah was commanded to build an Ark 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits wide.

What we can infer from all of these numbers is that our tradition encourages a certain facility with numbers.  Numbers don't come 1st, of course.  Genesis does not begin with a countdown to Creation, it begins with God's word, and it is the word that we venerate above all.  We are the People of the Book, the most sacred object in our sanctuary is the Torah scroll, and our b'nai mitzvah ceremonies are not math exams, they are literacy tests.  But literacy is closely connected to numeracy, together forming what we sometimes call the 3 Rs, reading, writing, and arithmetic.  

These skills gave many of our people a way to survive in times when most occupations were closed to us, and we played an important role in helping to bring Europe out of its feudal economy and into the modern world of free enterprise.  I think we can also understand how people who don't know how to read, write or do arithmetic, and therefore don't know how to reason in abstract terms, would not be able to understand the concept of paying interest on loans.  And how it would be all too easy to blame the messenger when tax collectors came around on the orders of the king or government.  These factors do not account for the origins of anti-Semitism, but they certainly added to that practice of prejudice and scapegoating. 

But what I want to stress is not money, but mathematics.  Being raised in our tradition does not guarantee that you will be good with numbers, some of us hate math, and have no feel for equations, and that's no sin.  But as a population, we are statistically well represented in occupations that involve counting and calculations, and that's because our culture encourages and aids the acquisition of arithmetic skills and abilities.  You might say that it helps to open a door, or many different doors in fact, doors that each individual may or may not step though.  And some doors may lead to business, or banking, or finance, or to being an accountant.  Other doors may lead to physics and chemistry, to medicine, to engineering, or to computer programming.  Still others may lead to pure mathematics, or economics, or to being a sports statistician, or a chess player, or to being a rabbi studying Kabbalah and Gematria. 

Whether we're mathematically inclined or not, as a people we count the days of the week, and the months, and we also count the years.  The Hebrew calendar tells us that this is year 5,772, and in a couple of months it will be 5,773.  So if we were to count backwards, where would that leave us?  Tradition has it, the calendar goes back to the origin of the world, but of course modern science tells us that cannot be correct.  The obvious answer might be, it goes back to the time when we started counting.  And there is some truth to it.  

In ancient Mesopotamia, the Sumerians had been using various systems of notation for approximately 10,000 years, and those systems evolved into the first form of writing, cuneiform, about 5,500 years ago.  And who invented cuneiform?  It was the ancient accountants, who used it as a method of keeping track of property in the palace and trade in the marketplace.  And the first written characters to be introduced were numerals.  So it was numeracy that gave birth to literacy, and the Hebrew calendar roughly coincides with this development, with the introduction of numerals for counting.

Traditional Jewish history begins with the patriarch Abraham, who was not Sumerian, but one of a number of Semitic peoples who lived in Mesopotamia and had come to dominate that region about 4,000 years ago.  Among them, the Babylonians were especially advanced in regard to mathematics for that time.  Hebrew numerals were born in the Sinai dessert, however, around 3,500 years ago, and the origin of the Semitic alphabet at that time roughly coincides with the events represented by the story of the exodus from Egypt.  Numeracy, along with literacy, was spread throughout the ancient world by the Semitics peoples, by the Israelites, the Babylonians, and the Phoenecians.  When it reached ancient Greece, about 2,700 years ago, the result was geometry.  

When numeracy was brought east to India, about 2,300 years ago, the result was the invention of the number zero, and with it positional notation.  Neither our ancestors, nor the Greeks or Romans, had conceived of zero, of nothingness, and none of the earlier numeral systems used the concept of positions that is now in common use today, where the 1st position on the right refers to the units 0-9, the 2nd position represents multiples of 10, the third represents multiples of 100, and so on.  This gift from India opened the door to all forms of mathematics beyond adding and subtracting, and was delivered to the west through another Semitic people, the Arabs, which is why our numerals are commonly referred to as Arabic numerals.  During the Middle Ages, the Jewish people lived in peace and prospered within Islamic lands, and shared in the benefits of this new form of numeracy long before it was adopted in Europe.

But beyond all of the practical advantages of numeracy, there is something about the world of numbers that excites the imagination of individuals of all sorts of different religions, faiths, and belief systems.  There is something about the simplicity of numbers that brings to mind the spiritual.  There is something about their purity that brings to mind the sacred and the sanctified.  There is something about their abstract quality, so removed from the compromises and approximations of the material world, that brings to mind the transcendent.  There is something of their perfection that brings to mind the divine.  

This sense of the mystical aspect of numbers extends to the concept of infinity, which fits in so well with the monotheistic conception of God.  In Kabbalistic tradition, God is described in terms of infinity as ein sof, without end.  According to the 16th century Kabbalist, Isaac Luria, God was ein sof before Creation, and being infinite, was all that existed.  In order to make space for something other than God, Adonai had to engage in Tzimtzum, which means withdrawal, contracting into himself in order to free up space for a finite Creation.

The thing about infinity is that it is not a number.  Infinity cannot be numbered, cannot be counted.  When you consider the concept of infinity in numbers, if you add one to infinity, you still have infinity.  But the same is also true if you subtract one from infinity:  you still have infinity!  And there are greater and lesser infinities.  A one-dimensional line stretching endlessly in both directions is infinite in length, but a two-dimensional plane, stretching endlessly in all directions is infinite in area, and therefore a greater infinity than the one-dimensional line.  And a three-dimensional-space that is without end would be greater still.  So in the case of Tzimtzum, God could withdraw into himself in order for there to be something other than God, becoming less than God was before and yet, still be infinite.

The lesson for us should be plain enough.  We too can engage in Tzimtzum, self-withdrawal.  That is what Shabbat affords us, a time to withdraw from the world, from the constant activity and demands of the world.  We can withdraw to make room for something other than ourselves, and yet not lose anything in the process, for there is something of the ein sof, a spark of the infinite inside all of us.  We can withdraw, and in doing so, find that we have gained something that we would not otherwise have had.

Albert Einstein once said, "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted."  On this Shabbat, may we be guided by the humbling realization that all of our days are numbered, so that we may resolve to make each and every day count, and so that we may be determined to be individuals that others can count upon.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

More on Pictures and Propaganda

As a follow-up to my previous post, Pictures and Propaganda, you may recall that an Israeli radio newscaster mentioned a "picture is in circulation of what looks like the boot of an IDF soldier stamping a young Arab girl, who's lying on the ground. An officer from the special unit in the IDF spokesman's office, who looks at the provenience of these pictures, told Channel 2 TV News, the picture comes from Bahrain and has nothing to do with the Mid East crisis in this region."

Today, I came across this image on Facebook:

Not only does this serve as a critique of the propaganda effort, but it also illustrates how words are at war with images, and rational analysis is pitted against emotional response.  

In an image culture such as ours, the Second Commandment is more relevant that ever before.  It's not that graven images are the only means by which people can be mislead and manipulated, but that our best hope lies in the power of words, and the mindset encouraged by reading and writing that an absence of graven images is meant to open up room for, and encourage:  critical, analytical, reflective.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The God Particle and God's Word

Having served as lay leader for Sabbath evening services at Congregation Adas Emuno of Leonia (Bergen County) New Jersey, this past Friday, July 6th, I thought I would share with you my sermon, or D'Var Torah (literally, word of Torah), as I have in the past.  My talk was divided into four parts.

Part One:  This past Wednesday, physicists working at the European Centre for Nuclear Research in Switzerland announced that they believe they have discovered the subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson.  This particle is also known by its nickname, the God particle.  You may recall that atoms are composed of particles such as protons, neutrons, and electrons, and you my also know that there are a number of other subatomic particles apart from those three.  Most of these particles have mass, and mass is what distinguishes matter from energy.  Protons and neutrons have mass, for example, electrons have very little mass, but photons have no mass whatsoever.  Photons, as you may know, are the particles that form the basis of light, along with every other form of electromagnetic radiation.  They are pure energy. 

So, some particles have mass, and some do not, and the question is, how do particles such as protons and neutrons gain their mass?  Which is to say, how is it that matter comes into existence?  The theoretical answer, put forth by the British physicist Peter Higgs in 1964, is "that particles gain mass by interacting with a medium, or Higgs field, that exists everywhere in space and is made up of unseen particles called bosons."  The Higgs boson is called the "God particle" "because it is believed to have originated during the Big Bang and helped shape the subatomic particles that make up all matter in the universe." (quotes taken from 'God particle' likely discovered).

And what does this mean for us, as we join together to observe Shabbat?  The Fourth Commandment tells us to remember and keep the Sabbath because God labored for six days to create the world, and on the seventh day God rested, and blessed and hallowed the Sabbath day.  Shabbat is a celebration of Creation.  As Reform Jews, we are not asked to be creationists, and accept the story of Genesis literally.  But Shabbat gives us the opportunity to stop for a moment, and reflect on the grandeur and enormity of our universe, to regard with awe the marvelous and miraculous nature of existence, and to be grateful for our beautiful blue planet earth, the precious and sacred quality of our lives, however fleeting they may be, and the great gift that, just as the universe has been expanding ever since the Big Bang, so too has our knowledge and understanding been expanding over the course of human history.

Part Two:  The discovery of the God particle was announced on the Fourth of July, our American Independence Day.  The founders of the United States were products of what we sometimes call the Age of Reason, or the Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that began in the mid-17th century, and originated with the writings of philosophers such as John Locke, and Baruch Spinoza. 

The physicist Isaac Newton was also an important influence on the Enlightenment early on, and later, one of the founders of the American republic, Benjamin Franklin, was himself a scientist, and made major discoveries concerning electricity.  He didn't know that electricity was created by a flow of subatomic particles when he flew his kite in a thunderstorm and caught lightning in a bottle.  But that glowing key in a bottle was an important step on the way to understanding the relationship between electrons and photons.

The founders of our nation believed in the power of reason, and the United States of America was the first country ever to be argued into existence.  The basis of the rational argument that underlies our separation from England is made abundantly clear in the Declaration of Independence:  "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

In the story of Genesis, the Creator begins the labor of Creation by saying, Let there be light!  God calls the world into being, and the world is created by God's word.  On July 4th, 1776, our founders created a new nation through words, through a Declaration of Independence.  They declared that we all have the freedom to choose our own government, and the freedom to pursue our own dreams.  They declared that all people have a right to be free from oppression and persecution, and also to be free to engage in our own acts of creation.  In the same way, on the Sabbath, we are given the freedom from labor, but also the freedom to reflect, meditate, contemplate, to pray, commune, and communicate.

The founders of the United States took inspiration from a variety of ancient sources, including our own Holy Scriptures.  The story of Exodus is the story of how a diverse population of former slaves, divided among 12 tribes, became one nation, under God.  If Moses telling Pharaoh to let my people go was our declaration of independence, receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai was our constitution, the laws and commandments that bound us together as one.  The rule of Law, of Torah, would apply to everyone, even prophets, priests, and kings, establishing the principles of equality and justice, as unalienable rights.  The Haftarah reading for this week, from the prophet Micah, concludes with one of the most memorable statements in the Bible, one that inspired the founders of this nation, and serves as the foundation of our faith:  "What does the LORD require of you, only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?"

Part Three:  This week's Torah portion includes the story of Balaam, who is a prophet of God, but not Jewish, not one of the children of Israel. He's not even a friend to our people.  And this is important because in our religion, we do not believe that ours is the only pathway to God.  Each individual can relate to God in his or her own way, but mostly God deals with groups of peoples, with families, with communities, with peoples.  In this way, we take responsibility for each other, for creating a just and merciful way of life.

The story relates how the king of Moab does not want to give the Israelites safe passage through his kingdom as they make their way to the promised land, and summons the prophet Balaam to come and put a curse upon the Israelites.  This leads to a comic episode in the Book of Numbers where God causes a donkey to talk.  

Balaam was riding on his donkey to Moab, responding to the king's summons, even though God told him not to, so God sends an angel to block their way.  The angel is invisible to the Balaam, but visible to the donkey, so the donkey keeps stopping, and Balaam beats the donkey repeatedly in an effort to make her continue on their way.  Finally, the donkey says to Balaam,  "What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?" And Balaam responds, "For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now."
 And the donkey then says, "Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?" Balaam concedes her point, and at this point the angel is made visible to him, and Balaam begs God's forgiveness and offers to turn back. The angel tells him to continue on to Moab, "but the word I will speak to you, that you shall speak."

Certainly, there is an important message here about cruelty to animals, and the Torah does include some significant passages that serve as a foundation for animal rights.

After he arrives in Moab, there are three episodes where Balaam is ordered to curse the Israelites, but instead is directed by God to bless them instead.  The first time around, he says, "How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered? For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations." Israel has a unique destiny, and it stands alone, independent, but also isolated.

The second time when Balaam blesses the Israelites, he says, "God has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness. For there is no divination in Jacob and no soothsaying in Israel. In time it will be said to Jacob and Israel, 'What hath God wrought?'"  Balaam himself was said to be a sorcerer in addition to being a prophet, which goes along with his unique power to curse and to bless, but what he is saying here is that the Exodus was brought about not by magic or sorcery on the part of Moses and his people, but by the power of God; by the will of God, not that human beings.  

The question, What hath God wrought? became an important part of American history in 1844, when the quotation was used as the first message sent from Washington DC to Baltimore by Samuel Morse, officially inaugurating the first commercial telegraph line.  The telegraph used electricity to send signals from one point to another instantaneously, allowing us to transcend time and space for the first time.  This invention represents an important stepping stone between Benjamin Franklin's kite line, and the particle accelerator that led to the discovery of the God particle.

The third time Balaam is called upon to curse the Israelites and blesses them instead, he begins with a declaration that became a part of Jewish Sabbath morning liturgy:  "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!"

Part Four:  The story of Balaam serves as reminder of the power of words, and especially of the power of voice.  Balaam has the power to bless and the curse, but both are speech acts, both blessings and curses only have power when they are spoken out loud; they are also standard elements of oral tradition, and later rhetoric, to praise and to blame, part of what Walter Ong refers to as orality's agonistic quality.  The same point about the spoken word holds  true for the concept of prayer.  The prayers printed in our prayer books are not actually prayers until we say them out loud (or in some instances, say them silently to ourselves), just as in stories of magic, the magic spell does not take effect until someone actually utters the words.  Along the same lines, our worship service officially begins with the call to worship, a vocal summoning to praise God.  And when we say the watchword of our faith, the Shema, we say, Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one.  We have to hear it, not see it, so much so that many follow the tradition of covering their eyes when saying this prayer.

Sound is the source of the sacred, while sight reveals the profane world.  Sound gives us depth, we can hear the interior of things. And sound emanates from within, as the prayer says, out of the depths I call to you, from deep inside us sound is uttered, and outered.   Sight only gives us surfaces.  In the story of Genesis, Creation begins with sound, with God saying the words, Let there be light.  God's voice is heard before anything can be made visible, before the creation of light, the first particles being without mass.

Hellen Keller, who as you know lost both sight and hearing, was once asked which of the two senses she would rather have, if she could only have one.  And she answered that she would rather be blind.  The reason she gave is that hearing is so much more important for communicating and relating to other people.  Sight gives us a world of objects, it leads us to objectify the world, to engage in what Martin Buber referred to as I-It relationships.  Sound gives us a world of relationships, of voice and conversation and communication, and makes it easier to form what Buber called I-Thou or I-You relationships.

Albert Einstein's theory of relativity replaced Newton's physics by saying that space does not exist apart from the relationship between objects.  The universe does not sit inside a box, or what Newton called absolute space; the particles, the matter of the universe is all that there is, and there is nothing outside of that.  Space is the field that exists between the particles of the universe.  As the matter in the universe expands, so does space.  

In the same way, our Congregation Adas Emuno does not exist outside of the relationships among us, it is created by our relationships with each other, and with those who came before us.  Judaism does not exist, except for the relationships among us as they extend among our people everywhere, and the same is true of any religion, and any nation.  

The relationships created by Higgs bosons, by God particles, is what grants mass to matter.  Our relationships with each other, joining together as we do on Shabbat, is what grants meaning to life.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Presiding for the Congregation

So, on July 1st I officially became President of Congregation Adas Emuno of Leonia, New Jersey. For those of you unfamiliar with the geography, the synagogue is located in northern New Jersey, just over the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan.  And our temple is affiliated with the Reform branch of Judaism, which is to say it is liberal and progressive in its orientation toward religion, and life.

Adas Emuno was found in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1871, by German Jewish immigrants, making it one of the oldest congregations in our state.  And the temple building in Hoboken, built in 1883, is the oldest surviving synagogue building in New Jersey, and considered a historical landmark:

The congregation moved to Leonia in 1974, into a church building purchased from the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (the Hoboken building was purchased by a Christian congregation, and has since been turned into residential housing).  The present building is rather unusual in that the exterior retains the church steeple, but with a Star of David on top, rather than a cross.

Adas Emuno, alternately written as Adath Emuno (in the very early days of the congregation) is Hebrew in the Ashkenazi dialect of Yiddish-speaking, European Jews, and it can be translated as Assembly of the Faithful. Of course, if you've been reading this blog for a while, you've seen me post about Adas Emuno before, on a number of occasions. Actually, my labels gadget over on the side lists 47 posts tagged with Adas Emuno (and this makes 48). 

So, how did I become president? Well, I was asked to serve on the Board of Trustees back in 2006, and to serve as Vice-President in 2010. There is no automatic succession to the presidency in our by-laws, so when I was asked if I would take over for the next two years, I had the opportunity to turn the offer down, and I did have to think about it before the annual meeting when officers were elected (to two-year terms), which was on June 20th. 

Back in May, I first met with the Westchester social media professional Robin Colner, to talk about Fordham's new Professional Studies in New Media program, and at the close of our conversation, I noted that she had formerly worked for the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York, asked if I could get her thoughts on my possibly serving as president. And I mentioned the fact that I didn't think of myself as being the right kind of person to be president of a congregation, that what a synagogue would need would be someone who knows about business and finance, has the resources to be a big donor, or at least is a lawyer, or maybe an accountant. And Robin said that, in her experience, the thing that mattered most is that the person really cares about the synagogue. 

Well, the bottom line is that Adas Emuno is a small congregation, they needed me, and I do care. So that's how I came to be president. Wish me luck, and prayers are, naturally enough, welcome!