Category: Academia

Bar Ilan – Bar None

I’m surprised this one wasn’t caught by The Juggle Zone. TES, purveyor of fine Jewish software, is running a sale on the popular Bar Ilan CD-ROM. Why is this blogworthy, you may ask? The sale creates an unusal pricing plan:

  • Cost to purchase new: $529.00
  • Cost to upgrade from v. 5: $599.00

So if you own Bar Ilan Version 5 and you want to upgrade, don’t tell them about it. It’ll cost you $70.

The Clothes Have No Emperor

I’ve been slacking on blogging (again) because I’m working on the major project(s) of the year. I am also beginning to get frustrated. There is an obsession around here about asking “Why?” questions, whether or not one has the “What?” question answered. Of course, these “what” questions need social data you can’t really get good social data on Jewish society because there isn’t any – or at least nothing that’s accessible. (Don’t get me started on the Jewish Data Bank).
The following dialogue between me and an adviser will explain:

    Him: You should be asking, “Why is X the case”
    Me: But I don’t know that X is actually the case
    Him: Find out
    Me: That would require data which either doesn’t exist or is restricted

We did this a few times with the adviser substituting different things for X. Most real data involving the Jewish community, like conversions and what not, is in the hands of rabbinical bodies who are bound by religious or ethical confidentiality. One professor suggested I research why Rabbis wouldn’t release the information, basically studying the lack of data, the argument of silence.
So, I have a tight deadline to invent a “Why?” problem regardless if I have supporting facts as to the reality or if I would even be able to get the data I would need.
At least I have my answer to, “Why are there so few good sociologists of Judaism?”
Update: I’ve decided to go back to what I was interested in when I first came here. Much more much later.

Structuralism and Brisk

Although the MAPPS program offers unparalleled academic freedom, the directors of my program require one particular survey class, “Perspectives in Social Science Analysis.” Over the 10 week quarter, Dr. John MacAloon and various other professors present 9 different perspectives with Dr. MacAloon presenting an overview and another scholar discussing contemporary applications of that perspective.

In week 8, we covered “Structuralism,”1 and I was surprised to see the similarities between this perspective and ” lomdus” – specifically the Brisker Derekh. There are several decent summaries of Structuralism on the web and some more on one of its main advocates Claude Levi-Strauss.2

For those too lazy to click the links or God forbid do your own research, I’ll give you the short attention span summary.4 Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist, utilized aspects of linguistic theory to interpret social phenomenon beyond language.3 Linguists, like Saussure, distinguished between the words used in language and the effect, the symbol and the meaning, the langue and the parol’. How did they do this? After analyzing how speech works throughout all cultures, they realized that some phenomenon repeated themselves and they explained the different phenomenon through polar binary opposites.

Levi-Strauss applied this methodology to social phenomenon like myths. In his work The Structural Study of Myth, Levi-Strauss demonstrates that the Oedipus myth contains elements found in myths from other cultures. He identifies the patterns by breaking down the myth into atomic elements, and “re-structures” these elements into classifications. Once Levi-Strauss classifies these elements into categories, he then uses his categorization to compare the Oedipus myth with similar myths. Although the categories are arbitrary, Structuralists like to formulate categories in binary opposites. E.g. symbol and meaning, personal and communal, etc.

How is this like the Brisker Derekh? Unfortunately, there isn’t much directly written on the methodology of how to do “Brisk.”5 However, I picked up a few things from my numerous years in yeshiva, and I can say that the analytical methodology is similar – though perhaps not identical.

Like structuralists, Briskers tend to explain several sources and rulings though binary comparisons. Some popular ones are heftza (object) and gavra (person), shem (name) and halos (legal status), mitzvah hiyuvi (obligatory commandment) and mitzvah kiyyumi (fulfilling a commandment), or simply “qualitative” and “quantitative” differences. Although this might apply to other areas of “lomdus” I’ve noticed that Briskers tend toward the binary opposites more than others. Just about every shiur I can remember from Gush involved a two-way mahloket and tannaim, amoraim, rishonim, and achronim neatly fitting into one of two arbitrary abstract categories.

Some Briskers also apply this perspective to areas of Jewish Thought. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, perhaps the most famous descendant of the “Brisker Rav” and his tradition. In “The Lonely Man of Faith, R. Soloveitchik contrasts the personalities and religious attitudres of “Adam One” and “Adam Two” from the creation narratives. Elsewhere, R. Soloveitchik’s rational “Halakhic Man” stands in opposition to the more emotional “Homo-Religiosus.” Again, his thought leads him to present theological and religious ideas through manufactured binary oppositions.

Methodologically, Briskers construct and categorize the concepts in ways similar to the structuralists. Specifically, they first remove the sugya from the original context of the gemara. The sugya becomes the unit of analysis as opposed to a chapter, or even a page of talmud. Consequently, Briskers will not concern themselves with literary analysis or even finding the correct version of the talmud,6 because the details are not as important as the structure or the concepts. Like structuralism, these concepts are arbitrary and subject to the whim of the scholar. Unlike structuralism, yeshivas have canonized the scholars i.e. the rabbis, and therefore artificial structures become sacred and part of the “tradition.”7

I am not surprised that the Brisker Derekh attracts so many followers, nor am I surprised at the criticisms. Structuralism can be useful, and often it may be the best method for explaining a particular data set. Critics, however, will note that as a standalone system – as an “ism” if you will – structuralism assumes and imposes too much on the data. Furthermore, in the social sciences critics will complain that structuralists remove the human participants from the analysis. Social interaction becomes a bloodless game of abstract categories with no attention to human emotions. Similarly, critics of the Brisker Derekh deride the lack of attention to detail of the sugya in its original context. Literary approaches and historical evidence may often contradict the structures imposed on the text of the talmud.

I am not going to speculate on who got what from whom. Levi-Strauss was born and raised Jewish, and it’s likely his background influenced his scholarship. I also don’t think I’m saying anything radical or new here, it’s just an interesting similarity I noticed in class. Take it as you will.

1. Unfortunately, the laptop was in limbo then, so I don’t have typed notes from the lectures.
2. Not to be confused with the guy who made jeans.
3. See Structural Analysis in Linguistics and in Anthropology
4. I.e. don’t cite this description for anything useful.
5. When I was in Gush, a small book called “The Brisker Derekh” came out and it was pretty close to a “How To Brisk.” As I recall, most of the ramim and students dismissed the book as too simplistic, which was probably as good of an endorsement as it could get. At any rate, I can’t find a link to it on the web.
6. The standard “Vilna” edition is loaded with errors. See Dikdukei Soferim or the Lieberman Project for other versions of the Talmud Bavli – and manuscript work is ongoing. If this sounds too heretical for you, consider that a passage may appear in several places throughout rabbinic literature (Bavli, Yerushalmi, Tosefta, Mishna, Midrash Halakha…), but there will be significant changes in their presentation. See for example, Dr. Elman’s Authority and Tradition and many, many, other works.
7. For some ramifications in education, see Hakirah or Mehkar: The Religious Implications of an Historical Approach to Limmudei Kodesh by Rachel Furst and Mosheh Lichtenstein, “What Hath Brisk Wrought: The Brisker Derekh Revisited” Torah U-Madda Journal, volume 9, 1-18, 2000.

Was Marx A Hassid?

We’re in the “Marxism” section of the required “Perspectives in Social Science Analysis” class. If you’ve never read Marx inside, let me warn you it’s some of the most boring dense reading out there. Anyway, in one of his rants on alienation, Marx claims “all objects become for him objectifications of himself.” (not in the linked page, but you get the idea) Basically, when man produces an object, he invests part of himself – his essense – into creating this object. Thus, part of his essense is now “alienated” from himself, which for Marx is one of the worst things imaginable.

As I recall, the Keddushat Levi has a similar approach in explaining mishloah manot but with a positive spin. (Surprise – I do learn hassidut on occasion). Like Marx, he views the mishloach manot as the fruits of one’s labor, and consequently giving someone mishloach manot implies giving someone else a part of yourself. However, whereas Marx emphasizes the alienation factor of man losing himself, Keddushat Levi stresses the community building process of receiving the other.

This got me thinking that for all Marx talks about alienation and what the worker loses, I haven’t seen him discuss where the worker gets anything back. If a worker produces something in which he invests himself, and someone else acquires said object then following the Marxian analogy that person has also acquired the essense of someone else. Thus it’s not simply man losing his essence, but he is necesarilly gaining others in his role as a consumer.

I guess now would be the time to write a warm fuzzy derasha on the individual and his larger role in the community for Marxian and Hassidic thought. I have too much reading to do tonight, so I leave this as an excersize for the reader.

Richard M. Joel’s Investiture

YU posts on their website the text of Richard Joel’s inaugural address. It seems like a great speach – eloquent and more important, grounded in reality. This is where I find he differs from his predecesor. R. Lamm’s speaches and visions were abstract. While we would talk about the “ideas” of Torah U’Madda, he lost sight of what was actually happening in his own university. Joel appears to be more pragmatic. Not only does his have a vision, but his vision relates to what YU actually is at this point. Whereas R. Lamm rarely spoke to the students, Joel’s own children are recent students in the YU system.

I admire Joel’s commitment to excellence. YU certainly has the capacity to be at the forefront of numerous fields. There is no reason why Azrieli shouldn’t produce the leaders of Jewish education. Revel, with it’s impressive faculty should produce top-notch Jewish academics (and in fairness, they are improving). The major problem facing Joel is that he must change the culture of mediocrity prevelant throughout YU. Far too many people just want to “go through” YU without letting YU go through them. For most students, the plan is to get out as quickly as possible while doing the minimal amount of work. To establish a culture of excellence at YU, Joel must either change the attitude (not likely), or he must develop a critical mass of students with which he can gradually reshape the institution.

I don’t know if Joel has specific plans for how to change the culture of YU. If he does, he wisely didn’t annouce them. Part of the culture at YU is the automatic resistance to any forms of change. If anyone wants to make an imporvement, someone will resist. Thus, any attempts at progress will almost always be undermined. (Sort of like Newton’s third law of motion). Right now, I’m optomistic that Joel has a good sense of what needs to be done at YU. I can only hope he will be successful.

YU Rank Out

Some of us “old timers” remember the Yeshiva University PR machine working overtime when YU was ranked in US News’ top tier of US colleges.

Side note: Of the Top 50 schools, YU was the only one to publicize its ranking (normally in the 40’s) on its website. This provided us with endless amusement as we were able to navigate the internet kiosks in Furst and Belfer through US News’ site to get to the other colleges. Few things looked as funny as YU’s internet kiosks displaying the home pages for Harvard or even Holy Cross University. YUPR has removed this front page link, probably because US News has restricted its rankings to paying customers.

Anyway, MSNBC has an article about Princeton Review’s own ranking system which is far more detailed than US News’.

YU isn’t mentioned under any category.

Understandably, YU isn’t a Jock, Party, “Reefer”, or Hippie school.

But one would probably expect YU to be in the top 5 Stone Cold Sober schools, or even Future Rotarians and Daughters of The American Revolution.

Is there something going on at YU that we don’t know about? Maybe they just visited us on Purim? If so how are we so low on either list?

It seems that the new president will have to choose the direction of YU in more ways than one.

Update: I just noticed Princeton Review’s entry for YU. Of particular note is the part at the bottom: “Students Who Apply to Yeshiva Also Apply To Brandeis University, Touro College, City University of New York.” (The link to Cuny doesn’t work). Interestingly, no one reciprocates.