Archive for the 'three weeks' Category

18
Jul
10

Survival of the nicest? – The strange case of George R. Price.


As we abjure from physical pleasures for 25 hours this Tisha B’Av, fasting, mourning, deep in contemplative prayer, reading the Kinot and the Book of Lamentations (Eicha), commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples and other calamities that befell the Jews, I give you the strange case of George R. Price.

Several weeks ago, I caught the tail end of an NPR (820 am on the radio dial) segment. The piece described George R. Price- physical chemist, population geneticist, science journalist, mathematical and theoretical biologist, a quirky eccentric genius.  He worked on the Manhattan Project, acted as consultant on graphic data processing for IBM, and even worked as a cancer research assistant.

George R. Price

George Price was also a man obsessed with the apparent altruism found in nature (a term coined by August Comte) and its negation drawn from the Darwinian Theory of natural selection and the survival of the fittest. (Don’t leave just yet, there is a point drawn from the reference.) Unlike reciprocal symbiotic relationships typified by the primate behavior of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’, biological altruism refers to cases in nature where life forms as divergent as bacteria and dolphins exhibit behaviors analogous to kindness and sacrifice for the greater good. The honey bee, for example, may perform 100 times or more a ‘waggle dance’ -a pin-pointing signal for beehive members to spot food and new nesting sites. Essential for the colony’s survival, it does not directly benefit the waggle dancer worker bee. There are cooperative behaviors found in social insects like bees, wasps and ants; for example, sterile females in the colonies assist reproducing females with their offspring.  The loud squawk of the ‘watchman’ bird alerts other birds to the approach of predators like hawks, giving the flock time to fly off, while drawing the attention of the prey to itself. Wolves, lions and other animals risk their lives hunting prey, bringing back food for other members of their pack. The pelican will provide fish for blind pelicans within their flock. “The Arabian babblers (small birds) dance and take baths together, offer themselves gifts, clean themselves, and sometimes enter into conflict with each other for the privilege of helping another babbler. They may also feed their counterparts” (wiki) Dogs and other ‘sympathetic’ creatures often adopt strays or orphaned animals outside their species. Dolphins support sick or injured animals, swimming under them for hours at a time, pushing them to the surface so they can breathe. Darwin knew of these altruistic behaviors and it is said to have vexed him. Others came up with game theories (see John von Neumann, Oskar Morgenstern, John Maynard Smith) that mathematically tried to quantify, rationalize and find equilibrium (see Nash equilibrium) to behaviors in humans and in animals in which one individual benefits at another’s expense.

George Price, expanded on game theory, and spent years trying to come up with a mathematical equation to express altruistic behavior in nature and how such traits are genetically passed on. Eventually he did, and it became known as the Price Equation. The ability to quantify such an equation actually depressed George Price, for it meant that altruism was now a quantifiable, pre-determined, not chance or willed action, but rather inevitable. He abandoned his deep-seated atheism, coming to believe that it was beyond coincidence, but rather an act of Divine intervention, that led him to such a highly improbable equation.  He obsessively spent his remaining days trying to prove that the human spirit was greater than any random probability or equation; helping the poor, giving all his possessions to street beggars and drunks.  The depletion of his funds to aid the needy, the cruel actions of others, along with his physical/emotional deterioration, resulted in the tragic taking of his own life in 1975.

What struck me so strongly in all of this, was how a heretofore atheist came to see the ‘spirit’ of man to have the powers to dominate above all scientific reason or postulate. That in spite of the pre-programmed altruism in nature, such a brilliant mind could come to cherish the notion of a human spirit capable of willful good and selfless kindness toward others as such a strong driver that man can free himself from his animalistic, limited, determined nature and spirit the cause of something higher than himself.

The Jewish concept of sympathetic altruism whether reciprocal in nature or not is one of the cornerstones of the Jewish people.  The reward system and reciprocal benefits of the world to come is secondary to the obligation of each Jew to act for the well-being of his fellow Jew.  “Kol Yisroel arevim ze laze”.  We are intertwined, arms and legs of the same tree trunk rooted to His will and divine Torah. What affects one affects us all. We are responsible for one another and are obligated in demonstrating kindness and sympathy toward our fellow man, even at the expense of ourselves or possessions.  If altruism is evident in animal behaviors, what can the collective conscious collaboration of man accomplish if his actions and goals are acclimatized for the greater good?

Absorbed in the minutia of our lives and practices, we may become misdirected; missing emotional, physical, spiritual cues of others in our midst or beyond our normal perimeters. The jig of quantifiable causes, ‘meaningful’ actions, or pursuit of golden idols and placards often distracts us. Our ‘on loan’ possessions, tools and talents are by our choosing capable of manifesting sweet harmonics of creation of the highest human endeavors. May we never lose sight of our altruistic capabilities and may we collectively rebuild a binyan adei ad bimhera biyamenu.

SYR

08
Jul
10

Jew-ish


As we are in the midst of the Three Weeks, it is a perfect time to open our hearts and minds to reflect upon what we are commemorating and the lessons to be learned. One of the main reasons the Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed was the unwarranted enmity among the Jews of the times. The uncalled for dissension, the fights, the hatred among them, utterly weakened a people which as long as they were one – as long as they were of one mind, one heart – remained invincible.

Not everyone identifying as a Jew is observant, often one might think that the reasons these non-observant ones may give for being Jewish are not strong enough, just not good enough, too tenuous perhaps. Should one think that way, he or she would be boorishly elitist and has learned little in spite of all the years spent in yeshiva, or in Beis Yaakov. Such a person absorbed almost nothing regardless of all the Tosefos, all the Rashi he can repeat, all the brilliant pilpullim he can come up with, or all the tremendous, selfless chassodim she performs… for her own kind.

Knowledge is far more than just a bookish thing. What made our Sages so great, above all, was their understanding of human nature; only when that understanding was coupled with their devotion to Hakodosh Boruch Hu AND His commandments, when it was coupled with their teaching – the loving spreading of their message – did they rise to a level where we can look back at them and their writings while standing in awe with humbled hearts.

To many the message and teachings of the Sages are mostly unknown and will remain woefully unexplored, a great number regard religion as an outmoded superstitious, too strict discipline that would interfere with their lifestyle… Ah, yes, the reasons for division, distrust and enmity among us Jews are seemingly many and no doubt you, gentle reader, can come up with quite a few more I never thought of.

But are we right? Religious Jew, secular Jew… we are really one and the same. You don’t believe me? Ask any antisemite!!!! Why would one who sees no need to adhere to the tenets of our faith, insist on identifying as a Jew? It’s got to be more than just his/her Jewish nose or the obvious Jewish looks, or love of chopped liver. What is it then? It’s that tiny pintele yid that is still lit in every Jewish heart, in spite of all the tragedies that befell us – as a people – in the last two thousand years. No amount of might could crush it, no amount of killing could extinguish it. I am a devoutly religious Jew, but I recognize not everyone else is, yet I am humbled by the Jew-ishness, by the pintele yid within each of my brothers and sisters no matter how far they may have removed themselves from our most basic beliefs.

Judaism is more than gefilte fish and matzoh balls, it is more than davening three times a day and eating strictly kosher. For anyone whose pintele yid is still burning, being Jewish is life itself! But… how do different people show their Jew-ishness? There are many ways and, ultimately, whether the journey is long or short, whether there are many treacherous curves, or the road is straight, eventually they all lead us to the same destination. Not everyone can tell why he or she is a Jew, often it is merely an unexplained feeling, something stemming from within. Does that mean there are fundamental differences between one kind of Jew and another? The rituals may be different, the food habits may be different, the daily routine may be different, the mode of dress may be different, the interaction with others may be different… yet… we are Jews, ALL! The world at large sees little difference between us. Whether we like to be lumped together, or not, the fact is… we are!

The Jewish Federations of North America (JNFA) is currently running a campaign called “What’s Your #ish?” their #ish is to build a strong community. Isn’t the lesson of the Three Weeks precisely that, that we have to build a strong community that allows every Jew to reach his or her full JEWISH potential?

At the beginning of Pirkey Avot – Ehtics of the Fathers, right before the First Chapter begins, we are told: “Kol Israel yesh lahem chelek le’olam haba – All Jews have a portion in the world to come.” The first Gerer Rebbe, the Sfas Emes, emphasized KOL ISRAEL – ALL JEWS” Does that mean that the meticulous follower of every commandment may actually get the same reward as the Jew who doesn’t care?!?!? I will posit here that… yes… and even less!!!! How is that possible? How could I even think, let alone say, something so heretical, if not plainly illogical?!?!? Our Sages teach us that we are, every single one of us, responsible for one another; the world at large certainly thinks that… even if not all of us feel it. Unless we reach out, unless we talk, unless we help out, unless we teach and learn, our portions in the world to come may not be as full…

CS

29
Jun
10

The Three Weeks


Today is the 17th day of the month of Tammuz, in the Hebrew calendar. Today marks the start of the three weeks, which commemorate a slew of calamities in the history of the Jewish people starting with the Romans breaching the walls surrounding Jerusalem. These three weeks end on the 9th day of Av - Tisha b’Av – with the last nine days representing the final assault on the Kingdom of Judea’s capital and the burning down of the Temple. On the 9th, both the First and the Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. Many other calamities throughout the lands of Europe befell the Jews during these the weeks, as well… Today, when the Jewish people are once again living in their own independent, sovereign country the lessons of Tisha b’Av still need to be learned, perhaps more so than ever before!

As long as the Jews were one – one people of one heart (am echad, belev echad) – they were invincible! When divisions, polemics and unwarranted hatred arose, when they splintered into factions, when the nation’s common goal suddenly stopped being common or even a goal… the Jews faltered. They no longer were invincible, the mightiest empires easily took them over and eventually dispersed them throughout the world. Even so, once those empires sunk in the quicksands of history, the Jews – against all odds, against all logic, against all historic precedent – did not disappear. Yes, the world repeatedly made sure their numbers were violently kept down. Many, unwilling to fight on, many tempted by the offers of the non-Jewish world, converted and became part and parcel of those who could potentially destroy or at least harass them… But…  these no-longer-Jews were  destroyed spiritually, if not yet physically.

Excavated steps on the South side of the Temple Mount

Yet a core of Jews refused to give up their values, their national aspirations, their dreams, their history. Twice the stones (of the Temples) paid the price, when there were no stones left to destroy, when there was no kingdom of Jews to capture, the world just came up with reason after reason to kill them anyway… and yet… yet… they are still here.

In this the 21st century, the challenges are still many; the battle is still an uphill one… the odds, however, are slowly turning the Jews favor… if only… if only they manage to remember, their heritage, their history, their past and future glory…

CS




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