Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What's wrong with being ridiculous?

I recently posted a short item about some twisted Rabbinic logic. Ben Bucholtz (a congregant) posted a comment which I think deserves an response (well, a couple of responses, actually – one on why not to waste a prayer, and one on why not to worry about being ridiculous), and since it’s longish, and potentially interesting to others, I thought I’d put it up as a new entry. First, his comment:

In my humble opinion, the entire discussion is ridiculous. I followed the link and read the referenced article and I'm even more amazed that this question seems to have been debated for centuries. To me, this is a tremendous waste of intellectual energy. Should we say this prayer or not? Oh no, we may waste a prayer. Come on. How can the answer to this make us better Jews or better human beings? Why not spend this time and energy on thinking about how we can improve ourselves, how we can help our community, or how we can make some small contribution to making the world a better place? How does puzzling over this question get us any closer to the "Truth" as you eloquently described in your Rosh Hashanah sermon? On the other hand, after the Yom Kippur morning sermon, I am trying to see merit in the other side of this discussion.

Wasting a prayer

So, first let me address the issue of “wasting a prayer.” I was aware, in the original posting, that I was glossing over a larger idea, and I’m glad that Ben picked up on it (and, so, gave me an excuse to respond). Traditionally, it is very important to not waste a blessing – for example, we’d never say haMotzi (the blessing over bread) and then not eat bread. Similarly, we never say a blessing which has already been said – it’s also improper to repeat haMotzi in the middle of a meal. Why?

As always, there are lots of reasons, but I think that most of them come down to paying attention to our words, and treating some words as special, or even sacred. Blessings inherently invoke God, and we don’t want to abuse God - not because God cares, but because how we act towards God affects how we view God. So, saying a blessing that isn’t needed is, in its own way, acting dismissively towards God. Rabbis, Philosophers and Cognitive Scientists all agree* – how we use our words very much affects how we see our world. Being very careful with our use of blessings, and with our use of God, can have a profound affect on our own outlook.

* now there’s a phrase you don’t see every day

By the way, when I was studying this in Rabbinical School, I made a practice of not saying “God Bless You” when someone sneezes. I usually use “Gezundheit” or “LaBriyut,” as a way to avoid using “bless” in a silly situation. Not that I think it’s sinful to say “God Bless You,” it’s just become one of my little, ongoing reminders to think carefully about how we use words like “God” and “bless.” I continue this practice to this day, and I have to say, it’s one of those little practices which means a lot to me. It’s amazing to me how often I actually think about this issue, albeit usually quickly and in a cursory way, when someone sneezes!

So, I’d say that worrying about “wasting a blessing” is potentially very useful, theologically speaking.

Go ahead…be ridiculous

But, that brings me to what may be a very different point. The “useless” argument. We shouldn’t bother with this or that topic, because they are “useless.” They are, in Ben’s words, a waste of intellectual energy. To that, I humbly reply, so what?

One of my favorite ways to take a mental break at work is to read a few baseball blogs. I especially love the ones from an analytical, statistics-based perspective. Why? Well, partially, it’s just because I do. Call it a quirk. Why do some people like Jazz and some don’t? Romance novels? Gardening? It’s just a matter of taste. Reading about baseball is a hobby. I enjoy it. Following the twisted logic of halachic reasoning is a hobby. I enjoy it. It often isn’t useful to my life (although, I frequently get good teaching/preaching material from it), but the thing itself is, to me, fun.

And, this may somewhat contradict what I just said, but it occurs to me that both of these pastimes (baseball analysis and halacha) are, to some degree, analysis for its own sake. Thinking for its own sake. Kind of like mental calisthenics. I do these things for some of the same reasons people do Sudoku, I guess – just a way to stretch the brain a bit, with nothing serious at stake to raise the tension. So, even if the content isn’t meaningful, that doesn’t mean that the activity is useless, or ridiculous.

I’ve noticed that, particularly in religion, people often use the “don’t waste your time on that; there are more valuable things to be doing” argument. I think it’s a false dichotomy. Of course, making the world a better place is more valuable than thinking about the importance of wasting a blessing. But, who says we have to choose? I can use one to relax, so I’m ready to do the other. I read silly mystery novels when my brain is tired, so I can read Heschel when it’s not. And so on.

By the way, if you’re interested, Rob Neyer is kind of the Dean of analytical bloggers, and Joe Posnanski is just brilliant. Good places to start.


Stephen Bucholtz said...

Actually, that was my response, not my son Benjamin's response. Benjamin would have probably used a little more tact and a more respectful tone in his response than I did. (I'm not sure he completely agrees with me anyway.) I apologize for my crass choice of words.

Thanks for the response. I can certainly see the value of considering the original problem as a stimulating intellectual exercise. I don't find such diversions ridiculous at all. Also, I can appreciate that some may find deeper value and meaning in the issue. So I don't mean to denigrate those who do. But for me personally, this goes a little too far.

In the spirit of having an interesting discussion, it seems to me that the fruit solution is kind of a cop out, a cover your a-- situation. Either you're breaking the law or your're not. Or is it one of those "These and These" situations?

By the way, the fact that I own this book "Baseball Hacks: Tips & Tools for Analyzing and Winning with Statistics" (which contains a variety of programming activities for the baseball/computer geek), shows that I too enjoy the occasional "ridiculous" mental exercise.

Stephen said...

And now that I've gone back and read your original post, I see that your opening thought was "I can't decide if it's brilliant, or ridiculous". So I don't feel so bad for calling it ridiculous.