Tuesday, July 17, 2007

And The Answer Is...

Lately I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon. When people give divrei Torah, they usually begin with a question. (No, that’s not the strange part.) Many will then continue, “And the answer is…” Whenever I hear this, it jars me. So I began to think: what about this simple phrase bothers me so much?

On the most basic level, the phrase implies that the answer given is the only answer to the question (by saying “the answer is…” instead of “Rashi’s answer is…” or “Rav Willig answers that…”). Saying “the answer” is a sort of conceit—and also, to me, comes off as uneducated.

When teaching a child Torah, it is common (and understandable) to pose a simple question, and then to give one answer as the answer. I remember learning this way in fourth grade, and being so proud to show off my knowledge to my parents. I had a question, and I knew the answer. Period. Children see things only in black and white—they cannot grasp the idea that there could be more than one correct answer.

Adults, however, understand the existence of multiple answers to Torah questions. The concept of shivim panim l’Torah is a fundamental component of our system. It is only those with some degree of intellectual sophistication who can understand that life is comprised mainly of shades of gray—and that Torah reflects this in the multiplicity of its perspectives. This idea is manifested throughout the entire system of Orthodoxy. It allows one to understand that there are many different valid derachim within halachic Judaism, and prevents belief in one’s own way to the exclusion of every other.

Religious fanaticism is the easy way out. It’s much easier to believe that there is only one right way, and that everyone else is wrong. It makes life simpler. It is also a childish and dangerous way of seeing the world. The basis for so much of what we believe rests in the idea that there can be more than one right answer.

Though “And the answer is…” seems but a harmless phrase, its philosophical ramifications are more complex and far-reaching than one might originally surmise. Though I don’t assume that anyone who uses that phrase has serious philosophical issues (since I understand that yes, it is only a phrase, and I shouldn’t read into it too much), the idea that it implies is deeply problematic.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A Teacher, A Friend

This post is dedicated to Dr. Lana Schwebel, A"H
(For background, see this, and this extremely moving post by Erachet)

I am an English major. English has always been my subject, and I have always excelled in it. I used to walk into an English class confident that I would do well, that the teacher would see my work and immediately approve. And this was always the case—until Dr. Schwebel’s class. She was the first English professor who truly challenged me without making me resentful. While other teachers would occasionally find fault with something I wrote, I usually felt the criticism to be subjective and nitpicky. Dr. Schwebel asked more of me than anyone else ever had---and the most difficult part was that I knew her criticism was justified. She could simultaneously laud my writing style and point out inexcusable errors in my analysis. Though I was sometimes frustrated, I knew she was right, and she got me to push myself in a way that no other teacher had.

I didn’t know her well—I was only her student for a single semester. Yet, in a way I knew her intimately. Twice a week for over four months I listened to her, watched her, noted her funky wardrobe. In every day of her class her unique personality shone through. She made Beowulf relevant. She compared Shakespeare and Donne to modern day love ballads. She was the only person I ever met who could use the word “oogy” and still sound intelligent. She was one of the most brilliant teachers I have ever had, yet she never condescended or talked over our heads. Her passion for what she taught was unmatched. Her passion for life was astounding. She was one of the most vibrant, zany people I have ever had the privilege of knowing.

And she was so nice. She was always up for a chat, if only to exchange a few words after class. I would hang back when class ended, even if I had nothing to say, just to hear her speak to my friend (who also worshipped her). When I had a question about how to improve my essay, I knew I could write her an email and expect a lengthy response within a day. At her Survey of English Lit I final, when I couldn't think of an answer, one I knew I knew, I asked her about it, and she was so sympathetic to my memory block, yet utterly refused to give me any hint. I couldn’t come up with the answer, but I did well on the final anyway. A few weeks after school ended, after I had seen my grade in her class (and been pleasantly shocked), I wrote her to ask about my final essay. I wanted to know what she thought of it, since I had written more drafts for it than any other essay I had ever composed—and because I had done so in a fervent attempt to meet her incredibly high standards. She responded with an amazingly detailed breakdown of everything that was done well, as well as what could be improved in my paper. Her suggestions were typically insightful, and her praise generous. Her appreciation for what I had written meant that much more to me because of the hard work I had put in to deserve it.

The tragedy of her passing has hurt and confused me. How could this happen? I wasn’t done learning from her. And still, I am not done learning from her. Remembering her, I know I will push myself harder and expect more from myself than I did before. Those lucky enough to have had an instructor like her will understand how a teacher who has pushed you to improve really feels like a friend. The impact she has had on my life will reach far beyond the single semester I was privileged to know her.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

I'm Back--With My First Meme!

Hello again! Sorry for the hiatus. The reason why I’ve seemingly abandoned this blog is because I and three other students were sent by the CJF (Center for the Jewish Future) to Scotland for two weeks to run programs there on Shavuot and the following week. ‘But wait!’ you ask, ‘Shavuot was ages and ages ago!’ ‘Ah,’ I respond, ‘since I got back I’ve been putting off writing here because I feel like I must write something about my Scottish experience, but there is so much to say that I don’t know where to start, and therefore I simply haven’t started!’ Shame on me, I know. It takes being tagged by Chana for a meme (my first one!) to bring me back. So ta-da—I’m back!

[Btw, if there is interest in a Scotland post, please leave a topic suggestion or semi-specific question in the comments and perhaps I will choose the most promising and someday get around to writing it. Someone please force me to—I really need to do it already.]

And now, without further ado, the “Eight Things About Me” meme that has already tagged every single blogger I read:

1. I don’t have pierced ears, but I do have an earring fetish—I buy pierced earrings and convert them into clips. I therefore own an obscene number of colorful and funky earrings, and they make me happy.

2. Sometimes I pretend that I’m British. I love their accents--a lot. Two of my very close friends are British. I’ve been to England twice (I was there for 2.5 days in the middle of my Scotland trip). When in England I usually speak with a British accent. I have been taken for a Brit several times. Even in America, I often adopt British spelling to make myself seem more authentic.

3. I am an English Literature major and believe strongly in the ability of fiction to help us better understand and appreciate the world that we live in and the people in it. That said, my own favourite thing to write is creative non-fiction (for those of you who don’t know, that basically means stories about real life, non-fiction that reads like fiction—but it also includes descriptions of interesting people and places, no plot required, and personal essays).

4. Call me na├»ve, but I am a sucker for happy endings. Though I appreciate and value many books that are sad, I can’t bring myself to like them. I figure that real life is difficult enough—why depress myself for fun and recreation? I also won’t watch sad movies (though I rarely watch movies anyway). And I absolutely cannot stand watching violence. Even the slightest amount literally makes me ill. Give me Happily Ever After every time, please, thanks.

5. I have an unhealthy obsession with ice cream. It is my weakness. Especially ice cream that contains chocolate in some form. Vanilla just isn’t worth it. And while ice cream alone is good (as long as I’m not sad), ice cream with a friend (or many!) is seventeen times better.

6. When I am sad, I don’t eat.

7. The older I get, the more I love and appreciate my family, especially my parents.

8. My two recurring nightmares are:

  • I’m supposed to be somewhere important, but instead I’m in my room, unable to find anything suitable to wear. I comb through my closet, but nothing in it fits me nicely or looks good. As the minutes pass, and I get later and later for the event, I grow frantic, throwing clothes around in a frenzy. I wake up incredibly stressed out.
  • My house is infested with bugs of some kind, or mice, or lizards, etc. They are everywhere I turn, and no one but me seems concerned about it. I shriek a lot, and desperately search for somewhere to go that will be infestation-free. I wake up feeling covered in crawly things, and let out a huge sigh of relief when I discover it was only a dream.

Since pretty much everyone I read has been tagged, I shall simply issue a general invitation to do this meme if you'd like--consider yourself tagged by me!