Monday, July 28, 2014

Addiction as Faulty Metaphor

So, a few weeks ago I participated in a discussion over on the Media Ecology Association discussion list on the topic of media addiction. I normally don't get involved in exchanges on this subject, but another participant on the MEA list, Kent Walker, questioned the validity of referring to habitual media use as a form of addiction, so I decided to weigh in with my 2¢ on what might be considered a pet peeve of mine.

I do want to be clear that I understand that some folks are very involved and committed to the idea of media addiction, and if they want to use that sort of language, they are free to do so. I am not condemning it. But I am questioning it. I think some people may have felt threatened by me doing so, but that is the whole point of critical inquiry, isn't it?

Anyway, I think my comments on the discussion list were substantive enough to share here on Blog Time Passing, and I hope you agree, or at least will hear me out on why I think the current broadening of the term addiction is problematic.

Here are my first set of comments:


I think it may have been in a junior high school class in what was called "Hygiene" back circa 1970 that I first learned the medical meaning of "addiction" as referring to a substance that causes a physiological dependency in the user. Drugs that were categorized as addictive included alcohol, tobacco, opium/heroin, and barbiturates, while drugs like marijuana, LSD, mescaline, and amphetamines were categorized as non-addictive, but habit-forming. This came as part of a new effort at drug education, in response to the counterculture's embrace of illicit drugs, and the same distinctions were made when I was an undergraduate later on in the 70s, when I was taking a class in therapy and counseling and did some volunteer work for a drug counseling center.

As a former addict myself, in my case to tobacco, although cigarette smokers only occasionally referred to themselves as nicotine addicts, I can attest to the fact that there is a world of difference between substance addiction and habitual use of non-addictive drugs, or media, or any other sort of activity for that matter. I've known a few alcoholics as well, and that form of physical addiction seems even more intense, and it is well known that heroin addicts who go cold turkey rather than easing off of the drug can endanger their health, and even risk their lives.

This is why I personally do not support the current usage of addiction to apply to anything that is habit-forming. I know there are neurological explanations involving the brain releasing endorphins, but I just don't see that as comparable, and I do think the broader use of the term confuses an important distinction, and condition.

I suppose it could be argued that "media addiction" is a metaphor, like "media ecology" which of course I embrace. But not all metaphors are equally appropriate. Ecology can be understood as being about how organisms relate to their environments, and as such need not be confined to biology. Many of us in media ecology object to the use of literacy as a metaphor in "media literacy" because it ignores the distinction between the written word and other forms of communication. On the other hand, while I would prefer "media education", I can accept the usage of "media literacy" because the metaphor generally does not lead people to confuse television with books. And I don't go around objecting to folks who use the metaphor of "media addiction" because there is value in looking at our media use as habit-forming, creating media dependency, and generating withdrawal symptoms at times when people try to or are forced to go without.

But I don't use the metaphor myself, and I do think there is a problem in placing alcohol abuse in the same category as constantly checking your Facebook and Twitter feeds or playing games on your cellphone. When it comes to physical substance addiction, I think there's a difference there that makes a world of difference.

By the way, another point I should have made is that in addition to being a nicotine addict who has not had a cigarette in two decades, I also have the caffeine habit, to the point where I get a headache if I don't have at least one cup of coffee in the morning. But based on my first hand experience, it is clear to me that there is a world of difference between the yearning for my morning cup'o'joe, however strong it may be, and what I used to experience when going too long without a cig—what we referred to as a nic-fit.


Anyway, my post was troubling to some folks, and one response came from my old friend, Marty Friedman, who noted that there has been research done in this area that let to the changing definitions of addiction among professional therapists, as reflected in the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), released by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013. So here was my response:


I know that psychologists change their views over time, and continue to do so, but that doesn't mean that the current view is correct, and there sometimes are political or social reasons that influence their "scientific" conclusions. The key distinction that they are overlooking, perhaps because they are psychologists rather than physicians, is that physical addiction is not just about psychological dependency or even neurological symptoms, but about actual change to the body, on a cellular level.

Now, people can use the term "addiction" to mean something other than physical addiction, but I am suggesting that that is best understood as a metaphor rather than a variation on the same phenomenon, and that it is an example of what Neil Postman referred to as the great symbol drain and the demeaning of meaning. And I think he would suggest that maybe we need different words for addiction that is physiological in nature, and the psychological sense of feeling as if you were addicted to some activity.

There is also the question of how far do we go in using scientistic terminology to talk about human behavior. We may not always want to frame behavior in terms of morality or ethics, but is every dysfunctional or negative behavior a syndrome or malady of some sort?

And I think there is definitely room for a media ecological critique of the tendency to frame behavioral problems as "sicknesses" in need of "treatment" or "therapy" of some sort. This comes out in some follow-up comments I made:


The value in looking at the broadening of the term "addiction" as being metaphorical is that it leads us to ask what is the purpose of the metaphor, what are the similarities, and the differences?

Referring to a habitual activity, be it gambling, sex, media use, or the use of substances that are not physically addicting as an "addiction" takes the activity outside of the individual's locus of control. This does reduce or eliminate personal responsibility for the behavior, which disallows any evaluation based on morality or ethics. This is important, given the long history of moral condemnation of behaviors that individuals have little or no control over, but leaves no room for any philosophical or spiritual views. It also undercuts the degree to which individuals can exercise control over their own behavior, and defines the problem as a medical condition, which requires the services of a professional specializing in the disorder. Of course this serves the interests of the psychotherapeutic profession, which is not to deny that there are many instances where therapy can be helpful, and at times necessary (and the same is true of pharmaceuticals). But this does fall into a kind of technical thinking, as in Neil Postman's technopoly and Jacques Ellul's la technique.

We know that some individuals exhibit Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and that many have this syndrome to a greater or lesser degree. And yet we don't use the metaphor of addiction for behaviors associated with OCD. We don't say, for example, that someone is addicted to washing his or her hands over and over again. OCD is the other extreme where we see the problem lying in the mind or as a neurological disorder, and not in the habitual activity. Does the metaphor of addiction simply point to the tendency that exists in human beings (and other species) to a greater or lesser degree to engage in repetitive behaviors? (Aside from OCD, repetitive behavior is also a characteristic associated with autism.) What is the difference between ritualistic behavior and addiction?

Considering addiction as a metaphor, it can be instructive to consider what habits are not labeled addictions. Are we addicted to showers if we take one every day? To brushing our teeth if we do so after every meal? Is there such a thing as being addicted to reading? If reading is not an addiction, can you look at anything with writing on it, a sign, a newspaper, book, flyer, poster, etc., look right at it, and not read what it says?

What I am trying to point out here is that we need different terms for different phenomena, and that the reification of metaphors can be the cause of confusion.

Addiction, even in the broad sense in which it is defined by the American Psychological Association, is an individual condition, psychology being about the individual mind, rather than the collective culture and society. But my friend, Eric McLuhan, got into the discussion to point out that we can also refer to an entire society as being addicted, say to television, or the internet, cell phones, or other technologies such as the automobile. Here is my response:


We mainly speak of addiction on the individual level, whether it's addiction to physical substances or addiction to certain activities. We might speak of addiction in a collective sense to talk about how large numbers of people were forced or encouraged to become physically addicted, for example that the British got China hooked on opium. But we still are talking about individual addiction, just that it's happening on a large scale.

But now, is it apt to say that, as a society, the United States, for example, is addicted to television, computers, cell phones, etc.? I certainly would argue that as complex systems, contemporary societies are dependent on various technologies for their existence, and would not be able to function without them. But to use the term addiction in this regard strikes me as even more of a metaphor than to use it to refer to individuals engaged in habitual or obsessive behaviors.

To give one example, it's been said that we are addicted to petroleum, and that is a powerful way to describe our dependency on that source of energy. But if we suddenly ran out of oil, and gasoline, and had no immediate substitute for it, the result would be more than just withdrawal symptoms, as the loss of trucking would mean that all of us living in major cities would run out of food very quickly. If roads are our arteries, and trucks are the cells carrying nutrients, then aren't they intrinsic to the social system (as a kind of organism), rather than acting as a foreign substance altering us collectively? If language is inherent in our species, then are the new languages that evolve to be considered a foreign substance or a natural development?

If we employ the metaphor, then we might make a distinction between dependencies due to addiction, and dependencies due to necessity, the distinction between say alcoholism and needing water to survive. This is the territory Innis was scouting out.

Anyway, what troubles me is not the use of the metaphor, but the loss of distinction between addictive substances on the one hand, and other forms of dependency, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and ritual and habitual behavior.


Following some further discussion the list on the subject, I decided to post some further thoughts:


a few more comments on the subject...

There has been a good amount of criticism about the possibility that children are being over-diagnosed as having ADD and ADHD. While there are cases where there is a genuine neurological problem that can be alleviated through appropriate medication, the concern is that anytime students exhibit any kind of behavioral or learning problems in school, they are given a medical diagnosis and prescribed drugs as treatment. In other words, the problem is that a medical framework is being extended inappropriately to areas where it doesn't belong.

I think it's reasonable to ask whether the same is occurring with addiction, which was earlier understood to be a physiological, and therefore medical problem. This sort of questioning is in the tradition of Neil Postman and especially Ivan Illich, not to mention Thomas Szasz. And again, the big problem has to do with clinical diagnosis, rather than the use of metaphor.

Also, in teaching about new media, I tell students about the famous early case involving a virtual community dealing with unethical behavior, as written up by Julian Dibbell under the title of A Rape in Cyberspace. And one question I ask is whether the term "rape" is appropriate for the kind of virtual act that occurred, or whether this usage discounts the seriousness of the actual, real word crime. I think the same question can be asked about virtual addiction, given the seriousness of actual physical addiction. Even when used as a metaphor, words have power to shape our understanding and our responses, and overuse and misuse can result in the demeaning of meaning, to use Postman's phrase.

And I will say in all seriousness that I was a heavy smoker for two decades, averaging 2-4 packs a day, and in that time I know I did some damage to my body that was irreversible. I'll also point out that, as cigarette smokers, Neil Postman and Christine Nystrom both died of lung cancer, and James Carey of emphysema. And I myself found it very difficult to quit, impossible to just go cold turkey, and only was able to stop smoking by being weaned off of nicotine via the patch. I have gotten hooked on all kinds of other activities, playing computer games all night, compulsively checking Twitter messages on my phone, etc., but nothing compares to what I went through trying to quit smoking. So from my personal experience, addiction represents a special and distinct category.

I also find it significant that recovered alcoholics continue to say that they are alcoholics, and always will be, and can never go back to having an occasional drink now and then. That need for absolute abstinence is not comparable to what may be termed sex addiction, or gambling addiction, or media addiction.

Now for something on the lighter side:

I am addicted to the English language. I can't help myself, I can't stop myself from using it. I think about it night and day, I can't get it out of my head. It's there even when I sleep. It affects my thinking, my emotions, my behavior, altering my very view of reality. And the addiction has harmful effects, in leading me to expect the world to be relatively static rather than dynamic, filled with things rather than events and processes, filled with isolated phenomena rather than a dense network of relationships, etc. There have been efforts to help people like me break this addiction, from Alfred Korzybski's general semantics to various forms of meditation and mysticism, but time and time again addicts like me find ourselves getting another fix, often without even realizing what we're doing. I know some use a methadone-like treatment, turning to immersion in a different language to break free of the hold that English has on them, but then they just find themselves addicted to that other language. As far as I know, the only known cure for language addiction requires direct action to remove or disable sections of the brain.

I'll stop now, lest someone accuse me of being addicted to this topic...


Now, in response to some criticism arguing for the extended use of addiction, here is the first part of what I had to say:


I don't think that the treatment for sex addiction requires lifelong celibacy, does it? I think there is a distinction to be made between addictions where the only cure or form of recovery involves complete abstinence, and other behavioral problems where moderation is sufficient. Is the solution to "internet addiction" to never go online and never use email? Does a recovering "news junkie" need to avoid newspapers and news broadcasts altogether? Is the answer to media addiction to completely cut media out of the individual's life, whatever that might mean?

I thought I was pretty clear on the fact that I am not denying that problems exist regarding habitual activity, compulsive behavior, and dependencies. These are very real and very serious problems, individually and collectively. I'm just questioning the use of the specific term "addiction" and asking if it's appropriate. I know that some people are especially invested in that metaphor, and I do agree that the metaphor refers to actual psychological and social problems. My concern is over precision in language, and the question of whether to frame the problems in medical terms, which would suggest they require clinical treatment, as opposed to alternate framings that allow the problems to be approached through education, for example.

Before continuing on, let me note that a couple of folks of the list pointed to the etymology of the word addiction, which is interesting in that it is based on the root term, diction, implying that it has something to do with language and communication. So, continuing on, here is my response to that:


I'm all for using etymology to understand concepts in instances where we are dealing with commonly used words, words that have vague or fuzzy definitions, etc. But in this case, the issue is not the root meaning of the word, but rather its operational definition. The term "addiction" has very specific clinical and medical definitions, and it is fair to ask whether the definitions being used are appropriate or useful, just as we may ask the same for the clinical definition of "deviance", for example, or "insanity". The etymology of the term "malaria" may be of some interest to historians of science, but it does not help us in understanding what the term refers to in current medical usage, and it would be absurd to argue that, given its root meaning of bad air, it should also be applied to diseases brought on by air pollution, or mustard gas.

I do hope, in raising these questions, I am not coming across as addictatorial...


And that is pretty much the sum of the points I made in the discussion, which I hope have been of some interest and utility to you, dear reader. But as a bit of an epilogue, let me note that there was one more email I sent to the list on the topic, which began with a brief  personal response to another list member that isn't relevant here, after which I added the following (true story!):


Now, I just opened a fortune cookie, and the fortune reads: "We first make our habits, and then our habits make us."

Coincidence? I think not...

As it turns out, that fortune is an aphorism that comes to us from a western source, the 17th century English poet, John Dryden, although some mistakenly attribute it to Charles C. Noble. This brings to mind my 2011 post about Neil Postman's quote, Children are the Living Messages We Send to a Time We Will Not See.



Anyway, maybe some folks are addicted to using the term addiction, but as to how the word will be used in the future, far be it from me to venture any prediction.





Sunday, July 27, 2014

Journeys (A Sermon)

Continuing once again on July 25th as lay leader for Friday evening Sabbath services at my Reform Jewish temple, Congregation Adas Emuno of Leonia, New Jersey, my sermon or D'var Torah was based on the weekly Torah portion or parsha, Massei (Numbers 33:1-36:13), which means Journeys. It followed up, in part, on my D'var from last week, posted here under the title, My Sermon on Torah, Tribes, and Tribalism. And once again, I posted this week's sermon on the Adas Emuno congregational blog, under the title of Journeys, but also want to share it here on my own blog:


Parsha Massei



This weeks Torah portion is called Massei, which means Journeys. It's the final parsha in the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah, whose Hebrew name is Bamidbar, meaning, In the Dessert. And the parsha begins by saying, "These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt in their legions, under the charge of Moses and Aaron" (Numbers 33:1). And much of the portion is devoted to a summary of their journey, from the liberation from slavery and exodus from Egypt, through the long years of traveling through the Sinai dessert, to the east bank of the Jordan River, on the border of the Promised Land. This is where the journey ends for Moses, and this is where the journey ends in the Torah. The next and last book, the Book of Deuteronomy, relates the final words of Moses to the Israelites, and end with the passing of the greatest of our prophets, which occurs before the Israelites cross over into the Promised Land. It is not until the sixth book of our Holy Scriptures, the Book of Joshua, that the Israelites actually enter and take possession of the land, which is where we find the famous story of how the blowing of the shofars brought down the walls of the city of Jericho.

But this week's parsha looks ahead to the return of the Israelites to Canaan, and speaks of how the Promised Land should be divided up, detailing the different areas that will be given to each of the twelve tribes, and what their boundaries will be. And it lists the names of the chieftains of each of the twelve tribes, along with Joshua as the successor to Moses, and Eleazar the priest as the successor to Aaron. In last week's D'var Torah, I talked about the tribal roots of the Jewish people, and how the Torah and Tanach tell the story of the difficult transition from tribalism to civilization. And I talked about how the Semitic aleph-bet and literacy was central to this transition, in establishing the Torah as a sacred text, in providing the first written history to take the place of myth and legend, and in providing the first true system of codified law, ethics, and human rights.

Parsha Massei concludes with two examples of this transition, in both cases providing progressive responses to tribal realities. One of them follows up on an earlier passage in the Book of Numbers (27: 1-11) that tells the story of how Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, died leaving behind five daughters, but no sons. His daughters argued that, in the absence of a male heir, they should have the right to inherit their father's property. They made their case before Moses, the high priest Eleazar, the twelve chieftains, and the entire assembly gathered in the Tent of Meeting. And God tells Moses that their plea is just, and establishes a new ruling that daughters can inherit property when there are no sons. It was a small step for women's rights, but it was progress, without a doubt. And it also demonstrated a willingness to break from established tribal traditions, to replace adherence to longstanding customs with a legal system where cases can be decided on rational grounds, and traditions can be reviewed objectively, criticized, and modified, or even abandoned.

In this week's Torah portion, the decision in favor of the daughters of Zelophehad is appealed by the chieftain of the tribe of Manasseh, who argues that if the daughters marry men who are members of other Israelite tribes, then their lands would go the other tribes, and no longer be a part of the region allotted to the Manasseh tribe. Here we see the continued force of tribalism, and the lack of complete unity among the Israelite tribes. Again, Moses consults with God, and what is especially significant here is that the verdict that was made was not to reverse the ruling regarding inheritance, not to revert to the old ways, but to find a new compromise within the realities of tribal life. And that compromise was that the daughters of Zelophehad could marry whomever they please, itself a progressive notion, but they can only marry members of their father's tribe. And Moses goes on to say,


Thus, the inheritance of the children of Israel will not be transferred from tribe to tribe, for each person from the children of Israel will remain attached to the inheritance of his father's tribe. Every daughter from the tribes of the children of Israel who inherits property, shall marry a member of her father's tribe, so each one of the children of Israel shall inherit the property of his forefathers. And no inheritance will be transferred from one tribe to another tribe, for each person of the tribes of the children of Israel shall remain attached to his own inheritance. (Numbers 36: 7-9)


In this way, Moses establishes a new, general rule, based on this one specific case, moving from the concrete to the abstract. As for the daughters of Zelophehad, they found this to be a perfectly acceptable resolution. In all likelihood, they would have married members of their own tribe anyway.

The other example of the transition from tribalism to civilization in Parsha Massei is God's directive that the children of Israel establish six cities of refuge in the Promised Land. And it is important to recall that at this time, there are no police officers, no criminal justice system, no courts as we understand them. It was accepted as common sense that, if one person kills another, then relatives of the victim are justified in seeking vengeance. Therefore, the killer may be pursued by what the Torah refers to as a blood avenger. This is what the Italians refer to as a vendetta, a word that was adopted in the English language in the 19th century. A vendetta can refer to the single act of vengeance, but also to the blood feud that ensues when one act of vengeance is followed by another act of retaliation in a series of exchanges that can go on indefinitely, and may escalate in intensity. In the United States, the most famous example of this is the 19th century feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys in West Virginia and Kentucky, following the Civil War.

In an attempt to avoid this kind of destructive behavior, the Torah establishes a clear distinction between killing someone intentionally and killing someone by accident, the distinction that today we refer to as the difference between murder and manslaughter. If the victim was killed intentionally, or otherwise out of malice, the Torah says that the blood avenger is permitted to kill the murderer. If the avenger is not a firsthand witness to the murder, he can still exact his vengeance based on the testimony of witnesses, and the use of the plural here is significant, because the Torah also insists that, "a single witness may not testify against a person so that he should die" (Numbers 35:30). This does not meet contemporary standards, of course, but for its time, it is progressive in establishing that there is a burden of proof that must be met before someone is condemned as a murderer. But the same portion also insists that a murderer's life cannot be ransomed, that the murderer cannot buy his way out of the death penalty, a harsh rule, but one that insures equality before the law, for rich and poor alike.

A blood avenger does not necessarily distinguish between murder and manslaughter, and it is understood that acts of vengeance are driven by emotion. And following the old traditions of tribal life, a blood avenger may still pursue someone who has killed someone unintentionally, perhaps not believing it was an accident, or maybe not caring about the killer's motivation. We recognize today that manslaughter is in fact a crime, that someone who is guilty of manslaughter may be innocent of murder, but is not entirely innocent altogether. Likewise, in our tribal tradition, the blood avenger is still permitted to seek vengeance. But the killer can flee to one of the six cities of refuge, and ask for asylum. It is then up to the community to judge between the blood avenger and the killer, and if they decide that the death was accidental, then the culprit can be granted sanctuary within the city of refuge. If he steps outside of the city limits, the blood avenger is permitted to exact his vengeance, but as long as he stays inside of the city, he is safe. This amounts to a form of exile and imprisonment, although it is not necessarily a life sentence, as the Torah stipulates that after the High Priest dies,
killers guilty of manslaughter are free to leave and return home, and acts of revenge are against them are no longer permitted.

We therefore have a new set of laws that break with tradition, and are therefore progressive. They are a new set of laws that establish a clear concept of justice, tempered by mercy. And they are laws that are conveyed as general rules, based on abstract principles, the product of a new kind of mindset based on literacy, as opposed to nonliterate traditions where judgment is based on aphorisms, parables and other types of storytelling. By way of contrast, rather than using abstract codes of law, traditional, tribal cultures would refer to a story like the account in Genesis of Cain and Abel, and ask, whether or not the killer in question is guilty of the same kind of act as Cain was. This is akin to arguing a case based on precedent, a type of legal argument that is used here in the United States, and in other nations that use a common law legal system. Legal systems based on civil law are more prevalent worldwide however,
and in such systems only the written law, the abstract rule, is considered, and not the concrete examples of previous cases and judgements. Civil law is also known as Continental European Law, while our system of common law is based on the British system. And while it allows for the use of precedent, the legal cases are still tried based on an established written code consisting of general rules, that is, codified law.

I think we can find in Parsha Massei an echo of the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis, when God says, to Cain, "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood cries to me from the ground!" (4:10). And we can see how this is stated in a highly abstract form within the Ten Commandments, the Sixth Commandment stating, "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). The more common translation, "Thou shalt not kill," not only omits the distinction between murder and manslaughter that this week's Torah portion clarifies, but also would be impossible to obey unless we starved to death. Moreover, in the Book of Leviticus, in what is known as the Holiness Code, we have the commandment, "you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor" (19:16), and it also say, "you shall not hate your brother in your heart" (19:17) and "you shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18). And so it is in this week's parsha that God says:


And you shall not corrupt the land in which you live, for the blood corrupts the land, and the blood which is shed in the land cannot be atoned for except through the blood of the one who shed it. And you shall not defile the land where you reside, in which I dwell, for I am the Lord Who dwells among the children of Israel. (Numbers 35: 33-34)


What is striking about this is the way that the Torah breaks away from tribalism, in refusing to glorify violence. Tribal societies often view violence as a routine part of life, as natural and necessary, if not cause for celebration. It is not uncommon to find tribal societies glorifying warfare, physical combat, and hunting. Puberty rites for young males typically involved some form of physical violence, and taking part in fighting and killing had a strong association with masculinity. But the written law delivered to the Israelite tribes commanded them that the spilling of blood was abhorrent, especially in the ritual of human sacrifice practiced by many other tribes in the region. The practice of child sacrifice in particular, and human sacrifice in general, is condemned in the strongest possible terms in our Torah and Holy Scriptures.

There is a difference, of course, between not glorifying violence, and practicing nonviolence. The Torah does not tell us to be pacifists, and recognizes that there are times when violence is necessary, to stand up for our rights, and to protect each other. In the say way, the Torah tells us that vengeance is wrong, but this does not mean that the heinous crimes can be or ought to be forgiven. Rather, the call is for justice, tempered with mercy, but justice as a rational evaluation based on rule by law, rather than emotional acts of vendetta. And the justice of the ancient world may seem quite harsh to our contemporary sensibilities, but it was a concept of justice that could be modified over time, changing to meet changing circumstances.

Over time, we would adopt a new kind of rite of passage for young males coming age, one that replaced violent activity with a literacy test. I'm referring of course to the b'nai mitzvah. With the story of the binding of Isaac, the practice of human sacrifice was replaced by animal sacrifice, and with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we replaced animal sacrifice with prayer. And in possession of the sacred text of the Torah, we embraced study as a way of life. And especially in exile, living as strangers in strange lands, nonviolence was often the only option. This is not to say that we never fought back in the face of the many forms of tribalism we encountered, but it certainly was not easy being an oppressed and persecuted minority.

I recently read a book by the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein about how the invention of printing was viewed in Europe and America, and I found what she had to say about the Nazis in Germany rather striking:


Antisemitic stereotypes attributed a soft, flabby, and sedentary lifestyle to the bookish Jew in contrast to the masculine, muscular Aryan. Observers in 1933 witnessed the book-burnings of works by Jews and other "decadent" authors, along with the elimination of the same works from libraries and bookshops. The elimination of Jewish books served as a prelude to measures in the next decade aimed at eliminating the Jews themselves.


The bookish stereotype has been dispelled, to large degree, through the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, and the fact that the Jewish state was able to defend itself, to resist the combined armed forces of several Arab nations, and to organize the Israeli Defense Forces as one of the most effective military units in the world. But in taking on the task of building our own modern nation-state, and defending it, we find ourselves once again wrestling with tribalism, both externally and internally. How are we to seek justice, and not give in to the desire for vengeance? How are we to temper the desire for justice with a sense of mercy? How are we to stand up for ourselves without glorifying violence? And how are we to defend ourselves without causing harm to others who are innocent of any wrongdoing? The answers do not come easy, but they will never come at all if we do not begin by posing the questions.

In Parsha Massei, after the summary of the journey through the wilderness, there comes a passage that resonates uncomfortably with current events:


The Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their temples, destroy their molten idols, and demolish their high places. You shall clear out the Land and settle in it, for I have given you the Land to occupy it. (Numbers 33: 50-53).
And we have to remember that this was common practice throughout the ancient world, and the middle ages, and continued into modern times. This is the way that the European settlers handled Native Americans, and this is the way that conquest and border changes were handled in Europe and Asia throughout the 20th century. The State of Israel was unique in not driving out the Arabs out of the land for the most part, not during the War of Independence, and not after occupying Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip and Jordan's West Bank and East Jerusalem following the Six Day War in 1967. If they had done what just about every other nation has done, and what the Torah says the Israelite tribes did in the ancient world, things would be entirely different today. With that in mind, the passage that comes next in this week's parsha is even more disturbing, as it has God continuing to say to Moses the following:


But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land from before you, then those whom you leave over will be as spikes in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they will harass you in the land in which you settle. And it will be that what I had intended to do to them, I will do to you. (Numbers 33: 55-56).


Jews all over the world are taking note of these verses in light of the violence and bloodshed in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank today. And I think we have to understand that in the long journey we have taken from tribalism to civilization, we could no longer follow such a course of action. Over the course of that journey, we have come to be guided by the great sage Hillel, whose most memorable saying can be translated as, do not do to others what you would not have them do to you, or as that which is hateful to you, do not do to others. And no one is claiming that the Jewish people or the State of Israel is perfect, but civilization is not about achieving some form of utopia, it's about establishing a way of life that is not built on violence or vengeance, but on justice and mercy.

Tribes cling to a way of life, and refuse to change. Anthropologists tell the story of the People of the Deer, a small Inuit tribe in the Arctic region of Canada. As their name implies, the People of the Deer survived by hunting caribou. Every year, the herds would migrate through
the tribe's territory, and the tribe would hunt them, and obtain enough meat to survive through the winter. This was their way of life from time immemorial. But one year the unthinkable happened. The herds were small, and the tribe did not get enough meat to last through the winter. This story is often told to introductory anthropology classes, and the question is then put to students: What do you think the tribe did at this point? The typical answers that were given included moving to another location, trying to follow the herd after they left the territory, rationing out the supplies, sending the old people off to die or killing or exiling some members of the tribe through some other means of selection, and even trying to signal or search for some form of outside help. The one thing that almost no one ever thinks of is the one thing that the tribe did do. Which is nothing. They did nothing, because they could not conceive of doing things in any way differently from the way that they have always done things. And so, they died.

The lesson can be taken in different ways. For anthropology students, it brings home the fact of our cultural bias
as westerners, that whenever a problem appears, we believe that some sort of action has to be taken. Indeed, we demand that someone do something about it. But sometimes there are no solutions, and all we can do is wait. And in regard to the situation in the Middle East, demands that Israel act unilaterally to resolve the situation may indeed be unrealistic.

But we also know, as people who have made the journey from tribalism to civilization, that things can change, that progress is possible. Just as we have made progress from slavery in Egypt to revelation at Sinai to the return to the Promised Land, just as we have made progress from agriculture to industry to electricity and digital technologies, just as we have made progress from archaic custom to rule by law, freedom, equality, and increasing understanding of human rights, so can we make progress from violence to thoughtfulness, from war to peace, from hostility to friendship. The story of the Jewish people, and the story of the Arab people, begins in the Book of Genesis, when God says to Abraham, "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). And so, our history begins with a journey, a journey made out of faith, without knowing the final destination, and without knowing the way. Jews and Arabs, both the children of Abraham will have to follow the example of our patriarch, if we are ever going to make progress, if we are ever going to leave behind the tribalism of our father's house, if we are ever going to arrive at the Promised Land of a permanent and pervasive civilization where, in the words of the prophet Micah, "each one will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid" (4:4). May it be so, in our time, and soon.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Medium is the Muse

So, I have another new book in print now, this time a co-edited anthology of creative work entitled The Medium is the Muse [Channeling Marshall McLuhan]. It's a collection of poetry, poetics, creative writing, and cartoons, co-edited by the celebrated poet, and scholar of media poetics, communication theory, and media ecology, Adeena Karasick. Here's the cover, which is very, very cool:








And in case you're wondering whose picture that is, yes indeed, it is a very young, college age Marshall McLuhan. It's from a photograph that has not previously been seen publicly, and is used here by permission of the McLuhan Estate, with all rights reserved and all that jazz.

And just for good measure, here are a couple more versions of it:










And yeah, those are the links for buying either a soft or hardcover version of the book. So c'mon, what are you waiting for? Maybe a little more information? Well, here's the write-up from NeoPoiesis Press:


Oracle of the electronic age, Marshall McLuhan believed artists could wake us and offer new windows into the world. This diverse collection brings together twenty-nine poets, writers, and artists who channel McLuhan as both medium and muse. Like McLuhan's work, this volume will delight, divert, provoke, incite and inspire readers to channel McLuhan in their own imagination and creative endeavors.


So you can see that aside from the whatever value you might place on the editors, we have contributions from none other than Tom Wolfe, not to mention Elizabeth McLuhan (one of Marshall's daughter's), rock musician John Watts, and many others. And it's tempting to list everyone again, but how about I give you the Table of Contents instead? Here you go:

Contents 

Introduction 

The medium is 
Lance Strate 

brush up on yr mcluhan / start dewing it now th medium 
bill bissett 

Ping-Pong 
Tom Wolfe 

Man Made Whole Again 
Tom Wolfe 

All the Information in the Sun 
Robert Priest 

Short Sound Play 
Robert Priest 

Micro-Poems 
Robert Priest 

It Came One Day 
 Elizabeth McLuhan 

Self Reflection 
Elizabeth McLuhan 

To Sit 
Elizabeth McLuhan 

Chop Gently 
Elizabeth McLuhan 

The Purple Rose of Brooklyn Or, Meeting Marshall McLuhan
(With a Little Help From Mayan Apocalypse Planet X/Nibiru) 
Marleen Barr 

McLuhan Kaleidoscope 
Mary Ann Allison 

Flash in the Pan 
John McDaid 

Start 
Tony Burgess 

dear marshall i know you 
Stephen Roxborough 

Marshalling McLuhan 
Lillian Allen 

 Life 
Peter Montgomery 

Messy Necessity 
Adeena Karasick 

In My Blogal Village, Print is Hot 
Adeena Karasick 

Your Leaky Day 
Adeena Karasick 

Reader 
BW Powe 

Technogenie 
BW Powe 

(lang-gwij)? 
William Marshe 

Constitution of Silence 
Steve Szewczok 

we, the real mad poets 
Jill McGinn 

Late Summer Twilight 
Jerry Harp 

Pegged to Invisible Consequences 
John Oughton 

McLuhan’s Bride 
David Bateman 

The Mechanical Bride’s Consolation 
Michelle Anderson 

Curriculum Vitae 
Alexandra Oliver 

M.F.M.: Media Friend Marshall 
Toshio Ushiroguchi-Pigott 

I Wouldn't Have Seen It If I Hadn't Believed It: A Probe Poem 
Andrea Thompson 

Dear Mr. Mössbauer, are you online? 
Dale Winslow 

Silent Resonance 
Dale Winslow 

It Was Never a Flower to Begin With 
Dale Winslow 

facebook 
Si Philbrook 

mY parts 
John Watts 

Prose 
Lance Strate 

Centenary 
Lance Strate 

Biographies 
Acknowledgments


The volume also includes a series of illustrations by acclaimed comics creator Dean Motter, and a couple by popular culture maven Arthur Asa Berger.

Now here is the basic information, including list prices:

paperback:
ISBN 978-0-9855577-5-1
144 pages
$16.95
5.5”x8.5” perfect bound, paper

hardcover:
ISBN 978-0-9892018-5-8
144 pages
$24.95
5.5”x8.5” hardcover


So really, this wouldn't be a bad volume to use in a class devoted to creative explorations in communication, media, poetry, etc.

For more information, you can contact  info at neopoiesispress.com (and tell  them I sent you!).

Monday, July 21, 2014

Missing the Point About (Mis)Information

So, last week my friend and fellow media ecologist Corey Anton contacted me, and asked me to take a look at a YouTube video that had got him all riled up. The title of the video is What is NOT Random? and it was posted by "Veritasium" which is described as "a science video blog featuring experiments, expert interviews, cool demos, and discussions with the public about everything science."

And it is very clear that there are a significant amount of resources and effort that went into this video. It has great production values, which requires skill, and funding. And it shows in the end product being a rather amusing ten minutes, but we all know what Neil Postman had to say about video as a medium and amusing ourselves to death.

But I will say that they do a good job, for the most part, in talking about the Laws of Thermodynamics, and the basic binary opposition within the physical universe between order and organization on the one hand, and chaos, entropy, and randomness on the other.

But they go off the deep end, and make a serious error, when they bring in the subject of information. You might say that, as scientists, the concept of information is outside of their comfort zone, indeed, outside of their territory, but after all, Claude Shannon was a mathematician and engineer, and his information theory was nothing if not a scientific understanding of the process of communication framed as the transmission of information.

So, I really don't see any excuse for making the kind of fundamental error regarding the relationship between information and randomness that Veritasium makes in the following video. If you care to, go ahead and watch it and see if you can recognize the obvious mistake in their thinking (you should be able to spot it if you know your information theory):


   



 So, depending on your background, you may or may not have recognized the misinformation about information  that Veritasium is expressing in this video. And even if you do, you may still want to see if your diagnosis of their problem matches up to ours, or you might be interested in hearing exactly how we identify and discuss Veritasium's error, or maybe you might just enjoy hearing our voices and the way that Corey and I interact via Skype. So I'll share the exchange that Corey recorded for uploading to YouTube, with the caveat that our video is not a slick, polished, professional production like Veritasium's. Indeed, it's pretty basic and low tech (by digital video standards). But here it is:





And you can see it over on YouTube, posted on Corey's channel, under the title, What does Veritasium mean by "information"? A Not Random Question.  I'll add that we both tried to post the link in the comments section for the Veritasium video, and either through some manual rejection or automatic setting, something prevented it from showing up. And I thought science was supposed to be a public activity in which theories and findings are open to critical assessment, refutation and falsification. Maybe Veritasium needs to brush up on more than just information theory?

A great place to start learning more about the subject is with the field of media ecology, and as we mention at the end of the video, the Media Ecology Association.  And for a media ecological approach to information, which is somewhat divergent from that of information theory, you can take a look at my 2012 open access article, Counting Electric Sheep: Understanding Information in the Context of Media Ecology, which you can download for free, along with Corey Anton's Terms for Talking about Information and Communication.

And let's hope that in the future, we can have more informed discussions about the concept of information than those that can be found in the Veritasium video.

 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

My Sermon on Torah, Tribes, and Tribalism

Every so often over the past several years, I've served as lay leader for Friday evening Sabbath services at my Reform Jewish temple, Congregation Adas Emuno of Leonia, New Jersey. And this past Friday night, July 18th, was one of those times, and I prepared a special sermon for the occasion, or as they are more traditionally referred to, a D'var Torah, which means, Word of Torah (which I jokingly refer to as a word from our sponsor). 

And as the phrase implies, the D'var Torah is often based on the weekly Torah reading, and this past week's Torah portion or parsha is called Matot, the names generally being taken from the first or one of the first significant words in the portion (the same is true for the Hebrew names for the books of the bible, as opposed to the names used in the Christian tradition). And Matot is part of the Book of Numbers, beginning with chapter 30, verse 2, and ending with chapter 32, verse 42 (and chapter and verse are also Christian inventions, which is why the Hebrew portions do not line up with those divisions).

The content of this week's parsha ranges across a few different topics, but what I picked out as a theme for my D'Var Torah is the subject of Tribes and Tribalism. I posted my sermon over on the congregational blog of Adas Emuno a little earlier, under the heading of On Tribes and Tribalism, but want to record it here as well:


Parsha Matot

This week's Torah portion or parsha is called Matot, a Hebrew word that we translate as tribes. The parsha begins with, "And Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel" (Numbers 30:2).

And we understand that some 3,000 years ago, there were a group of tribes that collectively were known as the Hebrews and the Israelites, and later became known as the Jewish people. And some three millennia later, here in America, we sometimes refer to ourselves, to the Jewish people as the tribe, and to ourselves as members of the tribe.

And there's a touch of Jewish humor, and more than a little irony, in calling ourselves the tribe. After all, we are citizens in a democracy; we make our homes in cities and suburbs; we go to school and get high school, undergraduate, and graduate degrees; we work in businesses and professions; and we are surrounded by gadgets and gizmos and all sorts of advanced technology. And we are comfortable and more or less happy to be living in the modern world. Sure, civilization has its discontents, as Sigmund Freud put it, but we generally don't wax nostalgic about being nomads. We don't long for a return to living in tents out in the wilderness, hunting and gathering just to survive. We don't romanticize the tribal way of life of our ancestors, certainly not along the same lines that the 17th century English playwright John Dryden introduced the concept of the noble savage, a stereotype famously invoked by the 18th century French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 


 Moreover, for us as Americans, the word tribe is most closely associated with the people encountered by Christopher Columbus and the Europeans who followed him in exploring and inhabiting the western hemisphere. For those of us of a certain age, the indigenous peoples of the New World were known collectively as Indians, and we also learned that they could be broken down into separate Indian tribes, the Navajo, the Apache, the Cherokee, the Comanche, the Hopi, and the list goes on to include some 566 tribes recognized by the United States government, which still officially uses the name Indian, as in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Although the noble savage stereotype was established early in the history of European colonization of the New World, and invoked in our stories about Pocahontas, and how the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock celebrated the first Thanksgiving, Europeans also have a long history of oppression and persecution of these indigenous peoples, beginning with the abusive treatment by Christopher Columbus as governor of the island of Hispaniola, continuing with the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, with the French, Dutch, and English settlers in North America, and with the western expansion of the American republic. I think we all know about the broken treaties and the confinement of native populations to Indian reservations. And we also know about how the old, traditional western genre in literature, film, and broadcasting worked, where the cowboys were always the good guys, and the Indians the bad guys. And as the bad guys, the Indians would always lose. And I think we are all aware of the racism they were subjected to as well, and the fact that somehow, despite all the progress we made in regard to Civil Rights, we still have a football team named the Washington Redskins.

But our attitudes have changed dramatically over the past half century, and this is reflected in the fact that, outside of our government and the National Football League, we prefer the phrase Native Americans today, and associate it with more progressive attitudes towards a minority group that constitutes about 2% of the total US population, about 5.2 million people according to the latest census. This is pretty close to the percentage of the US population that is Jewish, a little less than the total number who identify themselves as ethnically Jewish, a little more than those of us who identify ourselves as Jewish by religion. But our sense of connection is about more than numbers, or the use of the word tribe, or even the fact that the first Europeans to encounter Native American peoples thought they might be lost tribes of Israelites, which was an idea that figured prominently in the Mormon religion. Our sense of connection also has much to do with our long tradition of social justice, and our great sympathy, and empathy, for oppressed peoples wherever we encounter them. That is why the Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement in America extended to the fight for justice for Native Americans.

Congress passed the Indian Civil Rights Act in 1968, but civil rights for Native Americans is a more complicated issue than it has been for other minority groups. From the very founding of the American republic, our government has negotiated treaties with Native American tribes, and therefore has recognized those tribes, as sovereign entities. Tribal sovereignty is limited, but it does mean that Native Americans can be dual citizens of the United States and of what our government refers to as domestic dependent nations. It is not all that common to refer to the tribes as nations here in the United States, but across the border in Canada, Native Americans are now commonly called First Nations. And more generally elsewhere, the word nation has been used in place of tribe more and more often in recent decades. That's because the word tribe has some negative connotations, associated with the savage, the primitive, the archaic, while nation confers a much greater degree of respect and legitimacy on a group of people.

But what, then, is a tribe? In one sense, a tribe is an extension of a family, and the term is synonymous with clan, although sometimes tribes are seen as composed of several different clans. But we see the idea of kinship clearly in our tradition, in the line of descent from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob, and from Jacob, who is also given the name Israel, to his twelve sons who become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. The complicated kinship structure also includes Abraham's first born, Ishmael, who also has twelve sons, who in turn become the ancestors of twelve Arabian tribes. And Isaac's first born, Esau, has five sons, and through them becomes the ancestor of other tribes, including the Edomites, and the Amalekites. You may recall that the Book of Esther includes a very prominent Amalekite by the name of Haman. So tribal identity is associated with the traditional idea of blood as a metaphor for kinship, but there is the connection formed through marriage, which is highlighted in the Book of Ruth, and the broader idea of a household. But the main point is that tribe is an extension of the idea of kinship, so if we are members of the tribe, we all related, all members of the same extended family.

So what, then, is a nation? The root meaning from the Latin has to do with birth, the same root as native, and nativity, and it is synonymous with breed, stock, kind, species, race of people, and… tribe. The traditional notion of a nation, then, is a group of people with shared ancestry, with a common ancestor, people related to one another through an extended form of kinship, sharing the same blood, part of the same family. So the word nation can refer to a tribe. Or it can refer to a collection of tribes, such as the twelve tribes of Israel, or the Achaeans of Greece who fought the Trojan War, or the Iroquois confederacy that formed in this region during the 17th and 18th centuries, not to mention the Mayans, Incans, and Aztecs of Mesoamerica. The point is that a nation is not defined by its government, but by its people. The same nation can change governments many times; for example, France has been a kingdom, a constitutional monarchy, a republic, an empire, and a dictatorship. The great scholar of Judaism, Jacob Neusner, has stated that, from the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 of the common era, and the final defeat of the Jewish rebellion in the year 135, we became a nation in exile, and remained so until the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

The words tribe and nation have different connotations, but quite a bit of common ground, along with the traditional use of the word race, used to refer to a race of people, or what we otherwise would refer to as an ethnic group. This is the sense in which Nazi ideology was based on racial theories that claimed superiority for what they termed the Aryan race, viewing Jews and Gypsies as inferior races and therefore the target of ethnic cleansing, and the Slavic race as lower than the Aryans but good enough to be their servants. But whether we speak of race in this sense of the word, or ethnic group, or nation or nationality, or tribe, what we are essentially referring to is a people. That's what we do when we say, am yisrael chai, the people of Israel live. And when we speak of a people, we mean something more than a population, more than numbers. This week's Torah portion comes from what is commonly known as the Book of Numbers, and last week's portion included a census of the 12 tribes, but the Hebrew name for the book is Bamidbar, which means, In the Desert, and it is in the desert that the Jewish nation is born. Because when we speak of a people, we mean a population that shares a sense of group identity, that feels a sense of connection, of kinship, that shares a common culture, a distinctive way of life, and a distinctive way of looking at the world.

But there are times when a people split up, divide into different groups, start to go their separate ways, and lose their shared identity. This is the problem that Moses faces towards the end of this week's Torah portion, as the Israelites prepare to take possession of the land of Canaan, with each tribe occupying its own designated region. The leaders of two of the tribes, Reuben and Gad, tell Moses that they want to settle on the east bank of the Jordan River, and not occupy the Promised Land. And Moses responds, "Shall your brothers go to war while you stay here?" It's a question some have raised in regards to the State of Israel today. And Moses goes on to say, "Why do you discourage the children of Israel from crossing over to the land which Adonai has given them?" The tribes of Reuben and Gad respond that they will send their men across the Jordan to support the other tribes, and will only return and settle down in the east bank after all the other tribes have taken possession of their lands. And this becomes an acceptable compromise.

Moses uses the fear of God to keep Reuben and Gad from splitting off from the other tribes, but I think it is worth asking, what was it that held the Israelite tribes together? After all, the tribes descended from the sons of Abraham, from Isaac and Ishmael, became estranged from one another, and became, on many occasions, enemies. The same is true of the tribes descended from the sons of Isaac, from Jacob and Esau. So why didn't the same thing happen to the tribes descended from the sons of Jacob?

We can point to the shared experience of being slaves in Egypt, of their subsequent liberation, and revelation at Sinai. That certainly ought to go a long way towards insuring a sense of solidarity. But what also was essential in binding the tribes of Israel together was the Torah itself, a sacred text that was given to all of them as a shared inheritance. It was understood as a message from Adonai that was addressed to every Israelite tribe. It gave them a set of laws, the first true system of codified law, that applied to every tribe, and unified them all under a single constitution. And it gave them the first true written history, a shared history of the Hebrew tribes, a relatively fixed history in the place of a set of myths and legends passed on by word of mouth, and constantly changing from generation to generation. And it was based on a system of writing, the aleph-bet, that made it possible for the tribes to communicate with one another more effectively than before, which kept them from drifting apart. The aleph-bet also made it possible for the tribes to keep records, and to organize themselves in increasingly more complex ways. And the aleph-bet was the basis of formal education, of schooling, of study, and of the ability to employ more abstract forms of thought than peoples who lacking in literacy.

The result was not by any means a perfect union. The Torah, and the Tanach tell the story of a struggle to maintain a collective identity. In the Book of Judges the tribes are a loose confederation, and some but not all of them come together every so often under the leadership of a particular chieftain. Saul, the first king of Israel, is not all that different from the judges who preceded him, and when he assembles an army, the tribes of Reuben and Gad do not participate. It is King David who is finally able to unite the Israelite tribes into a unified kingdom. And to establish a capital that is independent of any one tribe, he conquers the city of Jerusalem, a city that was outside of any tribal region. The founders of the American republic followed this example in creating the District of Columbia where the city of Washington could be situated, so that our capital would not be located in any one of the states. David's son, King Solomon, built the Temple in Jerusalem to strengthen the union of tribes, but after he died, the kingdom split in two, with the southern kingdom of Judah, composed of that largest of the tribes, together with the small tribe of
 Benjamin, along with members of the tribes of Levi, the priestly tribe that had no land assigned to them. The rest of the tribes formed the northern kingdom of Israel, which was eventually destroyed by the Assyrians, with the members of those tribes either assimilating, or joining the southern kingdom, or joining with newer settlers in the north to become the Samaritans. The tribe of Benjamin was eventually absorbed into the tribe of Judah, leading to the notion of the ten lost tribes of Israel, the subject of centuries of searching on the part of Christians as well as Jews. And not long after the discovery of the New World, some thought that the ten lost tribes had been found, thinking that they were the Native Americans.

Recently, there as been some evidence that remnants of some of the ten lost tribes did survive into the Roman era, but today we really are the tribe, that is, the tribe of Judah, which is why we call our religion Judaism, and call ourselves Jews, even those of us whose name indicates membership in the tribe of the Levites. But we are divided in others ways, between Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews, between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, between Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox Jews, and so on. We commonly use the metaphor of branches in talking about Judaism, that our own Reform Judaism is one of the branches of Judaism, and this metaphor resonates with the Tree of Life, which was said to have existed in the Garden of Eden, and which also serves as a metaphor for the Torah, for the sacred text that binds us together as one people.

In one rabbi's discussion of Parsha Matot, he notes that there is another word that is used in the Torah that like matot also means tribes: shevatim, which means branches. Matot, on the other hand, means sticks, and its appearance in this week's Torah portion suggests that the Israelite tribes have become less connected to one another than they previously had been. The Lubavitcher rebbe expresses a beautifully spiritual sentiment in suggesting, "Every stick yearns to return to its tree, yearns for the day that it will once again be a fresh, vital branch, united with its siblings and nourished by its progenitor." But, of course, we know that unless we go to great effort to preserve the severed limb, sticks that are cut off will tend to scatter, and grow further and further apart. And that is what happens to families, to tribes, to peoples as they separate. Unless they have something to hold them together. Something like our long tradition of literacy and learning.

Parsha Matot also includes an account of the Israelites taking revenge against the Midianites, in response to an earlier attempt by the Midianites to destroy the Israelites. The Midianites were also said to be the descendents of Abraham, and often at odds with the Israelite tribes, although Zipporah, the wife of Moses was a Midianite, and her father Jethro was a priest of Midian. The passage serves as a reminder of the realities of tribal life, of the conflicts, the violence, and the brutality. There is nothing noble about tribal savagery, and the Israelite tribes were not immune to it. And what this Torah portion relates are the realities of tribal warfare. But what the Torah also conveys is the fact that, just as the long journey of return from slavery in Egypt to settlement in the Promised Land was about to come to end, the Israelite tribes were just beginning a much longer and more difficult journey, from tribalism to civilization. The tribes of the children of Israel, our ancestors, were pioneers in that uncharted territory, as they forged a new way of life based on the rule of law, human rights, and ethical principles, and on education and learning based on alphabetic literacy. 


Our Holy Scriptures tells the story of our difficult struggle to banish tribalism, and not by having some other, deeply flawed form of civilization imposed on us by others, not by the Egyptians, or Babylonians, or the Greeks or the Romans. When it's imposed from the outside, it is all to easy to revert to tribalism once that outside force is gone. Freud called it the return of the repressed, and we can see it happening all over the world today. No, what the Israelite tribes did was to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, find their own way to a civilized way of life. And in doing so, they insured the survival of the Jewish people as a nation in exile. 

No one knows how many tribes have vanished over the course of human history, how many tribal languages and cultures have disappeared with out a trace, and continue to do so to this day. But as the people of the book, we have survived against all odds. Over the past two millennia, we have survived new forms of tribalism that came in the name of religious zealotry, and we survived the modern form of tribalism born of Nazi and fascist ideologies in the 20th century. And we continue to find ourselves struggling against the force of tribalism today. It is an external struggle, as current events make all too clear, but it is also an internal struggle, to maintain our collective identity, to continue to survive as the tribe, and as a civilization committed to higher ideals.

I can think of no better way to conclude than with the words of the prophet Isaiah (49:6): 
"It is too light a thing that you should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the offspring of Israel; I will also give you to be a light unto the nations, that My salvation may be unto the ends of the earth."