Monday, September 26, 2016

Halakhic Man

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s (the Rav) seminal work is Halakhic Man; and it both echoes a work it mocks, The Organization Man.  Both books reflect the ethos of post-war America: the rise of collective bureaucracies in both the corporate world and government, the presence of massive totalitarian states in the Communist east, and the rising tide of discontent at the loss of personal identity and meaning.

The Rav, of course, believes that Halakhic Man, the individual who follows Jewish religious dictates, is most situated for a meaningful life in the world.  The other types of people he creates and explores, Religious Man and Cognitive Man, stand in distinction from Halakhic Man.  

Interestingly, Religious Man is farther from the human ideal that Cognitive Man.  The Rav has little good to say about emotive forms of religion.  Following in the Litvak tradition he hails from, he finds Religious Man far too prone to extremes of behavior to follow the straight line of Judaism.  The Rav takes aim at Kabbalah, mysticism of all sorts, Chasidism, and even reading of psalms.  These subjects and pursuits take a person out of the world.  “Halakhic man will not dance on the streets on the Passover night, nor will he shout out his prayers on the Days of Awe…”

Cognitive Man, the person of science and empiricism, is much like Halakhic Man in that she obeys certain immutable laws of nature, and puts them into practice in living reality. Halakhic Man experiences religious enthusiasm, but this “experience is modest, retiring, very delicate, but strong as flint.”

Halakhic Man is an existentialist: “The Halakhah does not aspire to a heavenly transcendence… it fixes its gaze upon empirical reality and does not allow its attention to be diverted from it.”  He does not broker in spiritual dualities: “The true sanctuary is the sphere of our daily, mundane activities, for it is there that the realizations of Halakhah takes place.”

The Rav believes that intellect should guide Jewish practice.  I think his characterization of Religious Man is often misguided.  He sets up a straw man  in order to raise the stock of  Halakhah Man   Despite this, and certain opaque prose near the center and end of the book (particular in part two) this is an important work which sheds vital life and light on the Jewish experience. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Fortune Smiles, by Adam Johnson

Fortune Smiles is a National Book Award winning collection of short stories by Adam Johnson.  The quality of these stories suggest Johnson deserves the prize.  He has a firm command of a very pliable yet believable short story “voice,” and has a considerable range within the voice.  The stories are compelling and interesting.

A personal favorite for me, as I have often done this myself, is that he writes stories in English while depicting characters speaking other languages.  So "Fortune Smiles", the last story, features Korean characters.  Johnson knows enough about Korea to make the difference between the northern and southern Korean accent integral to the tale.  He does this without submersing us in a story which feels overly exotic or ethnic.  He is just telling a compelling story about people!  There is a sense that we are them and they are us.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Lost Girls: an unsolved American Mystery

Despite the now overused, somewhat salacious title, Robert Kolker has written a very humane, non-exploitative treatment of the sex workers whose remains were dumped along Long Island’s south shore barrier beaches. 

In Lost Girls: an unsolved American Mystery Kolker mainly tells the story of the women (they are all over 18, and hence not girls!)  He gets deeply involved in their worlds, interviewing their parents, relatives and friends.  We find an all too common thread.  These woman, for the most part, were not full-time sex workers, but advertised on Craig’s List because they could make more money in a single night than most can make in a week or two weeks. This new incarnation of sex workers are lower middle class woman who just can’t make ends meet. 

Kolker shows us, however, that they are prey to uncertainly and violence like all sex workers.  In this case, that of a serial killer who used Ocean Parkway, east of Jones Beach and west of the Robert Moses Causeway (and, likely, a remote location in the Pine Barrens for earlier crimes) to hide his deeds.  And as the title informs us, he has yet to be caught.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy

The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy is a non-technical book that deals with the Baysian Statistics.  

Thomas Bayes (1701–1761) was a Scottish clergyman who developed the technique.  Basically, Bayesian statistics is a set of mathematical formulas  where “one's inferences about parameters or hypotheses are updated as evidence accumulates.”  Simply put, Bayes allows for our subjective inferences as the starting point of inquiry.  Then, with accumulated evidence through  testing, those initial assumptions are refined.

This sounds a great deal like our common sense approach to life, and it is.  We all make hunches about probable outcomes of future events based on incomplete current information, and then change and alter our assumptions based on the results.  A somewhat technical explanation of how Bayes’ rule can be found here.

This book walks a fine line between a technical exposition of Bayesian statistics and a popular one.  It does this to the point where I think many readers will feel like they are missing something --- as if the surface is only being skimmed.  But the author had no choice; otherwise, the book would have gotten bogged down in technical details most readers can’t understand.

So, this book has a fair balance between the two… if not somewhat thin in math while being thick in history!

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Lonely Man of Faith

Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), called the Rav, taught at Yeshiva University, and was one of the founders of modern orthodoxy, with its emphasis on Torah Umadda, or Torah and Knowledge; that is, the study and practice of Torah from an orthodox perspective, along with that of secular knowledge. Soloveitchik was trained in science and philosophy as well as a diverse slice of Jewish topics.

This can be seen clearly in his book The Lonely Man of Faith. Published in 1965, it bears the stamp of existentialism, stressing the split between organizational, scientific, objective life, and that of faith --- here seen as opposing elements.  

The jumping off point is Torah, with its two stories of the creation of man.  For the Rav Adam One is the man of science, while Adam Two is the lonely man of faith.  Adam One is created along with the female Adam to subdue nature.  Adam Two is placed in the garden not to rule it, but to till it.  One objectifies nature while the other confronts reality on a subjective level, finding meaning in everyday tasks.

The Rav explores these kinds of themes more fully in the more fleshed out Halakhic Man, another venture wedding Judaism with existential thought. Both enriching works bear the imprint of a man wrestling for find meaning for Judaism in our age.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The 'Normal West': My Antonia

Willa Cather’s  My Antonia is a book you would read in junior high or high school twenty years ago given its value as a document about the American experience, and Cather’s obvious skill as a writer.  This novel is a ‘perfect’ example of storytelling prose.  It is a kind of novel’s novel of a certain kind: plot, character, location, time, all fit together to form a seamless whole without challenging the reader to confront new forms.

Cather is often hopelessly sentimental.  She certainly shows the rough side of pioneer life, but it is often wrapped in a sugar coating.  That said, she has a dark edge as well. Antonia, her heroine of this story, is often painted with ideal colors, but she is also a narrow person, limited in her goals and aspirations.  There is the distinct sense at the end of the novel that the men in her life,  her husband in particular, are trapped by her domestic aspirations. Antonia is both the ideal of womanhood and a trap.  

An unsettling conclusion to this novel which illustrates that Cather has far more power and weight as a writer than she is credited.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Kid and the Judge in Blood Meridian

On reading, once again, Blood Meridian, the Judge figures prominently - as he shouldThe character is so multilayered, elusive, evil and alluring, that a simple explanation of what the Judge is… what kind of character or entity he represents... proves difficult.  This writer explores the Judge as a philosophical Romantic, a pre-cursor of a game theory operator, an extreme moral relativist, and a symbol of American expansionism.

These are all true.  But provocatively, this writer views the Judge as a kind of moral mirror held up against the actions of his comrades.  The Judge does just what his title proclaims, he judges the sins of men.  

And the group of men he is with have sins aplenty.  The Kid is an appealing character, who is largely immune from scenes of drastic violence.  The outhouse ending between the Judge and the Kid is interpreted in this blog as the Judge's final moral reckoning with the Kid, who may be no saint; who is fact, is as morally reprehensible as the Judge.