Fanfare for the Common Man (Shavuot 2014)

This is (more or less) the drasha (sermon) I delivered at Kesher Israel on the first day of Shavuot (Pentecost) this year. It seems to have been well received.


Hag Sameah (happy festival)

Everyone who knows me personally will understand what I mean when I say that I am deeply honored and gratified to be able to address you from here on Yom HaBikkurim (the holiday of the first-fruits).

Two young fish are swimming along, and an old fish swims up and says to them, “enjoy the water today, fellas.” After he leaves, one young fish turns to the other and asks “what’s water?”

It’s an old joke – but it sets the stage for something that caught my attention when I thought about what to say today. You see, there’s something deeply countercultural which is evident in the book of Ruth, and it’s something which I believe we overlook in precisely the same way that the young fish overlook the water.

What do I mean? Well, let’s consider the setting of Ruth – this is the period of the shofetim, the Judges, back before there were Jewish kings. This is the same time which was famously described – negatively – as “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did as he pleased.” Perhaps this is where we get our reputation as a disorganized religion.

In the surrounding world, at about the same time- dating gets a little fuzzy back then – the Trojan war is occurring. While the Philistines and other Canaanites were direct competitors for resources and land, and the cult of Ba’al and some of the other local pagan deities were religious competitors, the ideas which actually lasted from that time period tended to come out of Hellenic culture.

Specifically, there is this idea of kleos, which can be translated variously as “fame” “glory”, or as Rebecca Goldstein has it – “Acoustic Renown”. Kleos basically was the sense that by engaging in mighty deeds – in extraordinary deeds – one would achieve fame, and this would be the key to living forever. The zenith of this is the subtitle of the Iliad, which is “the Kleos of Achilles”. Kleos was at the core of living the exceptional life, and in the Hellenic mindset, the non-exceptional, ordinary life was not worth living.

In fact, Achilles, the strongest of the Acheans, considers whether he would rather live a long and happy life, without kleos, or a short life, with it, and concludes that the short life with it is the only acceptable way to live.

So this was an important concept in Hellenic culture.

But more than that, I would argue that it’s an important element in our culture as well. We live in a time where it’s easy to get Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, and yet people clamor for the 16th minute. There seems to be no type of TV program sufficiently embarrassing that people won’t do it in search of becoming famous. Or, more darkly, consider that we can far more easily bring to mind the names of those who perpetrate heinous crimes than we can their victims. Kleos, indeed.

So what does this have to do with Ruth?

Well, Ruth seems to offer several character studies in behavior – as Rabbi Freundel has mentioned, she is one of the few figures in the Tana”kh whose commentary is entirely positive. Her relationship with Naomi also is a study in love and companionship. But for now, I’d like to focus on Boaz.

When we meet Boaz, whose name is quite literally “strength”, he acts in a thoroughly different manner. He’s just living his life – he’s a landowner, but he’s someone who makes sure to observe pe’ah– leaving the corners of his fields fallow for the poor to glean in them. When thrust into the actual story by meeting Ruth, he behaves honorably and politely toward her, inviting her to come glean.

Up until now, what we have is Boaz behaving honorably and justly, and if he had stopped there – dayeinu – it would have been enough. But the remarkable bit, to me, is what happens next: he instructs his workers to specifically leave a bit more out for her: effectively, what he’s doing is figuring a way to give her an additional bit of charity without her realizing it.

Now, this is remarkable. This is both the example of how to go lifnei mishurat ha-din – beyond the letter of the law, but just as importantly to do so privately. This is the most striking case, but if you look at each example of how Boaz behaves – sending Ruth out early to prevent her from getting slandered, representing himself before the elders, etc, the absence of a concern for kleos or its like is the dog that did not bark.

We see this developed further into places like the anonymity which figures into Rambam’s hierarchy of charitable giving. That is, the most preferable way to give charity (other than giving someone a job), is for neither the giver nor the recipient to know the identity of the other.

So why is the actual difference important? Why would it matter that they’ve got kleos and we don’t?

Let me propose a rationale: in Pirkei Avot (2:1), Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi describes the right path for a person, and says “Reflect on three things and you will not fall into transgression: know what is above you – a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and a book in which all your deeds are written.” So the deeds of people are recorded in the mind of God. Rabbi Yehudah is describing this in the context of judgement, but it also goes to the context of remembrance – God remembers small deeds, and will see even the hidden ones.

This is no less than a model of a way to live which rejects kleos as an ideal – rather than expecting that mighty deeds should live on in human memory, we should behave as Boaz and Ruth did, and as Micah says, “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before the LORD your God.”

Nowadays, it would be easy to miss the kleos in the cultural water, just as it would be easy to miss the Jewish “anti-kleos” that we have – we are concerned about all people, not just the extraordinary ones. This comes out in “All Israel has a share in the world to come…”, “Whoever saves a life saves a world” and lots of other places – so to us, the ordinary life is absolutely worth living.

Fee, Φ, Foe, Fum.

Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the SoulPhi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul by Giulio Tononi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Phi attempts much, and achieves most, but not all, of what it attempts. It is a masterful work. The first thing I noticed about it was that it was extraordinarily heavy – the paper is very thick, and there are a tremendous number of beautiful images and illustrations in every chapter.

Tononi’s approach here could be viewed as derived from a combination of Dante’s Divine Comedy or from Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. For the first, our protagonist (Galileo) is led by a guide (in our case a great thinker rather than Virgil) to meet various people through history and on a quest to identify the je ne sais quoi that is consciousness. For the second, after each of the encounters, the author includes his own notes (à la the GEB dialogues) describing the relative success or failure of the chapter in a metatextual context, as well as identifying the accompanying illustrations.

Tononi’s prose is lyric – far more than any writing about neuroscience has any call to be – and bears re-reading. His central thesis is that phi (Φ) is a measure of irreducible organized consciousness, and that a substrate such as a brain is required for consciousness (of high Φ at least) to exist. He begins by examining many possible ways brains can fail, some more tortured and hellish than others, and showing their effects on the consciousness of the individual (and perhaps unwittingly on the people around them).
He does a masterful job unravelling the challenge posed by the question “can a camera be conscious?” and shows that while only a single neural complex may be necessary to fire to recognize that it is “dark”, “darkness” can only be understood in relation to being not-anything else: not hot, not round, not pointy, not red, not salty – and that this unstated exclusion is the difference between the person in a dark room and a photodiode.

There are missteps: there is a chapter where Tononi admits his inspiration was Kafka’s The Penal Colony, and that chapter is as disturbing as the Kafka, although mercifully shorter. I think that Tononi could have gotten to the same points regarding the nature of pleasure and pain without resorting to horror and evil, but perhaps he tried and failed. I am not sure whether the book would have been better without that chapter, but it certainly would have been prettier.

The great fault to my mind is that for a book which includes the word “soul” in the title, they are inadequately treated – they seem little more than little more than more personable versions of the consciousness in Tononi’s view. He sees them as evanescent, brilliantly illuminating during life, and then winking out in a breath with the destruction of their host. This is disappointing to me: I would have hoped that there would be a greater distinction – perhaps that the soul is the part which would live on after the substrate has been vanquished. Or, to put it in Tononi’s terms, if there is a God, because by definition He does not cease to exist, then all of those Φ would continue in His sight. Tononi does not make that argument, but it would not have been out of place coming from one of several characters (not in the least Galileo).

The fault and the misstep do not make this book anything less than a masterpiece. I first got it from the library, and will buy a copy so that I can re-read it at leisure. I could not recommend this more highly.

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Recovery from surgery is a drag. I’m not a good patient by any means- I’m more of an “impatient”- but the 80/20 rule applies to healing as well, and the long tail of debilitation feels to me like it is longer than it should be.

So one thing I tend to say to myself when I’m troubled by whatever-it-is, is “it’s not forever; it’s only for now”. (cue Avenue Q, “For Now”).

But I started thinking about this, and had the realization that “forever” is merely “now” repeated. Given our perception of time, that every day is today, and every time is now, what would it mean to differentiate between them?

Obviously, forever is a plural concept, but is it qualitatively different than “recently” or “soon” (likewise plural concepts, where they represent specific relational subsets of forever)?

Likewise, the proverbial formulation gam zu ya’avor (this too shall pass) implies a sameness between all of the various nows, the sum of which are forever.

I’m not sure where that leaves the “only for now” mantra: it’s certainly true, but is it trivial? Is there actually a perceptual difference between forever and now, or can that only be understood in retrospect? In any case, it is less of a salve than I would have expected.

Perhaps that expectation may be part of the trouble? Expectations in general cause more trouble than gain, and the whole difficulty here is unmet expectation of a complete healing, right now. So maybe this is a reminder that I am neither the first man created, nor was I there when God created the earth. My expectation of understanding causes difficulty, and this could be telling me that I should focus instead on my actions, and on acceptance of the realities which confront me rather than dwell on “how long?”