Repetition and Refrain

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On Monday we celebrated music at school, thanks to the music teacher and other colleagues. I had various thoughts on what to do but settled on a particular idea: I would teach “Frère Jacques,” which students knew in Hungarian but perhaps not in French and English. We would sing it in all three languages; then we would listen to the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. We listened to a recording of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur.

The singing of “Frère Jacques” was lovely. I realized afterward that bells sound different in different languages; if I were to do it again, I would perfect the vowel sounds. But for the occasion, it went well. Listening to the Mahler was a little more difficult, since the speakers weren’t powerful enough for the hushed instruments; all the same, we could hear the “Frère Jacques” theme at its quietest. (You can listen to the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado, here; the third movement begins at 24:56.)

The music didn’t end there or that day; today one of my ninth-grade classes (class 9C, group 2) returned to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which last week led to a lively discussion of the relation between liberty and property (both public and private). Here is the recording of today’s singing.

I find with these songs (and with many other things) that the repetition opens up understanding. Repetition is inherent in music and theatre, not only within the pieces themselves, but in rehearsals and other preparations. As for literature, my favorite works are those that I want to read many times; the first reading makes way for more. Repetition works well with teaching, too; it allows teachers and students to see the subject in more than one way.

Speaking of that, I am excited to be participating in a seminar on rereading in November, at the ALSCW Conference in Nashville; I will present a paper on rereading Chekhov’s “Duel.” In the Poetic Verse seminar, I will present a paper on music and ellipsis in Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac” (two of my favorite songs for years and years).

I suppose that’s part of what I enjoy about living in Szolnok: bicycling down the same streets, in rain and sun and wind, and sometimes different ones too.

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I took both photos today in Szolnok.

Update: For “This Land Is Your Land,” the first upload attempts didn’t work; it seems that the file was too large. I shortened it; now the link works. Another time (not tonight) I will try again to upload the whole song.

Against the Overwhelming Vagueness

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After writing the last post (on Appiah’s essay on condescension), I started thinking about a peculiarity of (U.S.) American economic and social life: many decisions and judgments get made behind the scenes, with no public disclosure of the discussion and reasoning behind them. People get rejected from colleges, turned down for jobs or publication, or even excluded from parties without ever learning why. The rejection letter (or equivalent) epitomizes the vague: “Thank you for your interest in the position. We received an unforeseen number of exceptional applications and ultimately chose finalists whose qualifications most closely matched our criteria. We have therefore decided not to consider your application further. We wish you the best in your job search,” etc.

In such situations (which abound), the only way a person learns of the specific reasons is through a personal connection. That is part of the reason for the American emphasis on “networking”; without it, you may be consigned to the realm of the perplexed.

In some countries (not all), the situation is more clear-cut, though not better. Either you are not considered at all (because of your class, educational background, demographic group, or some other known factor), or you fail to meet explicit criteria (such as a test score). The drawback in such cultures is that some people never get considered in the first place. The advantage is that they often know the reasons.

Vague rejections are such a part of American life that people don’t question them outright. They might suspect and contest a particular rationale for a rejection (for instance, in the case of Asian-American applicants to Harvard and other colleges) but take for granted that they will receive a vague letter, if any at all.

Even peer groups and individuals exclude others without telling them why. People are bombarded with advice to cut “toxic” people from their lives or distance themselves from “negative” people, but sometimes these individuals never learn that anyone considered them toxic in the first place. Instead, they just see their peers drifting away, evading invitations, having parties and conversations without them. They are left to guess what’s going on. Even if they aren’t deemed toxic, they may be ostracized without explanation. It could be because of their habits, the company they keep, their background, something they said, or or something that has been said about them.

Carina Chocano’s terrific piece on the word “inappropriate” appears in The New York Times Magazine’s First Words column (like Appiah’s). “The word’s vagueness has always been a handy way to remind people of their relatively low status,” she writes; If they can’t already tell what’s wrong about their behavior, perhaps they are beyond help.” By calling others “inappropriate,” people excuse themselves from dealing with them. The vagueness is an exit ticket for the elite.

But there is a benevolent, humble side to this American tendency. People genuinely don’t want others to feel bad or to take their judgments as the final word. If they stick to vague verbiage, perhaps the rejected one will stay hopeful. Timothy might not be a “good fit” for Harvard, but who knows about Swarthmore or Vanderbilt? The New Yorker rejected my poem “despite its evident merit”; maybe it will get snatched up by the next witting editor. Karla doesn’t want to go out with Jamal, but he can still believe that he’s a wonderful person and that someone will appreciate him for what he has to offer.

The problem is that the vagueness can leave a person in worse doubt than clarity would–because the words themselves lose meaning. Does “inappropriate” mean “really bad” or just “mildly out of place”? Why did Harvard turn Timothy down? Did Jamal do anything that put Karla off? Does my poem pass muster?

I recognize the bureaucratic mess that specific, reason-filled acceptances and rejections could cause. They would be inordinately time-consuming, error-prone, subject to lawsuits, sometimes misleading, maybe algorithm-driven, open to interpretation, and possibly more trouble than they are worth. But at the other extreme, the vagueness has become a way of life, a way of making judgments while pretending not to judge.

There are ways to break through some of the vagueness, individually or together.  We* can strive for clarity (without cruelty) in thought, action, and word. We can work to lift taboos surrounding criticism. We can protect an institution’s decisions (provided they are lawful) while laying bare the reasons. But first and foremost, we can recognize that the vagueness does not have to be accepted as is; even if we cannot change it entirely, we can question it, look at what it does, and seek out other ways.

*”We” in this context is as far-reaching as it wants to be. It can involve a few individuals or more.

I took the photo yesterday afternoon outside my school here in Szolnok (after a day of faculty meetings). That’s my bike parked on the right.

I made some edits to this piece after posting it. Also, I am considering “American vagueness” as the topic for my next book. There is much more to say on this subject.

Condescension, Contempt, and Beyond

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Kwame Anthony Appiah’s recent essay “Thank You For ‘Condescending‘” (published in The New York Times Magazine’s excellent First Words column) stirred up some thoughts about the American concern with status. Appiah argues that we have forgotten the old meaning of “condescension” (which Samuel Johnson defined as ““Voluntary submission to equality with inferiors”). Over time, “condescension” has taken on negative connotations; today we resist the notion that there are superiors and inferiors in the first place. Yet hierarchies persist, says Appiah, whether we like them or not–and so condescension, once honorable, has degenerated into “its curdled opposite,” contempt, which now fills the political sphere. I support this argument and the reveille it brings; I would offer just a few complications.

When thinking of the benevolent kind of condescension, I remembered the Swinburne poem “To a Cat,” which begins:

Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
      Condescend
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, love’s lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read.

The poem expands in thought over its eleven ;stanzas it contemplates distant past and far future; near the end of the first part, it asks the cat, “What within you wakes with day / Who can say?” It is worth reading in full, many times. I think I first read it–or maybe just the first few lines–in a cat book, as a child. I remember being struck by the word “condescend”; I knew I had not  heard it in that way before. The poem stayed with me because of it.

Appiah says that condescension (in its old, kindly meaning) “denies distance; contempt asserts it.” I would add that condescension of this kind recognizes the unknown in others, whereas contempt denies it. To have contempt for another is to believe that you have summed the person up, that nothing exists beyond your own assessment (or that if anything does exist, it isn’t worth your time).

Moroeover, he suggests that contempt–and its counterpart, resentment–may arise from our insistence on erasing or ignoring the visible markers of status. In pretending to be equal (in fact as well as in principle, in specifics as well as in general), we put ourselves on edge, suspecting a hidden hierarchy behind the ways of the world.

I find this resoundingly true but would add a few caveats. Yes, hierarchies persist and make themselves known, often surreptitiously–through subtle cues, gossip, and such. Many Americans seem intensely interested in knowing who is who. If you go to a wedding, for instance, and someone even mildly famous or wealthy is there, you will hear about it (maybe in a whisper). When I was a student at Yale, someone would often point out someone and say, “You see her? She’s always going around in jeans, but she’s a multi-millionaire.” Or “He’s the son of so-and-so.” I continued to see this tendency later on, in New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

In addition to pointing out hierarchies (in undertones), people would also try to act as though they didn’t exist. When the boss drank with the employees–on the job or at a bar, sometimes late into the night–it could seem that there was no hierarchy at all. But part of the point of such drinking is to get employees to work longer and better. While seeming “cool” for hanging out with the lowly programmers–and perhaps being genuinely affable and appreciative–the boss has a specific agenda. Drinking on the job can also foster an “in-group” by excluding those who for cultural, religious, medical, or personal reasons do not drink (or prefer to spend their time in other ways).

Unspoken hierarchies exist in schools, too. I have heard–but have not verified–that when parents pay steep prices (through real estate or tuition) to send their child to a school, they may come to view the teachers as their own employees. In addition, with the rise of “helicopter parenting,” parents are more likely to supervise and judge the daily classes and activities in their children’s schools. The reverse, though, can happen as well: teachers may view parents as their assistants–not as well versed as they are in the subject matter but capable of, say, reading to the child before bed or making sure the homework gets done. While parents and teachers would like to view each other as their equals, they do not always accomplish this.

But let us distinguish between two kinds of equality: basic human equality and provisional, specific equality (say, in athletic competence or language proficiency). It is possible to believe in basic human equality–the idea that all of us have dignity and deserve basic consideration and respect–without believing that we all have the same abilities, attainments, virtues, or even, in some spheres, rights. In our zealousness for affirming basic equality, we have often confused it with the specific kinds; we fear to admit that some people have more musical ability than others, that some are more mathematically inclined than others, that some write better than others (at a given time or over a lifetime), or even that some exceed others in courage. Everyone is supposed to be equally special and capable, ever growing. Everyone’s voice is important.

Only we know that’s not so. Not only differences in ability, attainment, and circumstance, but differences between the “somebodies” and “nobodies” keep resurfacing. Media like Twitter reveal, on the one hand, the principle of equal participation (anyone can join the conversation!) and the blatant divide between those with thousands of followers and those with fewer than thirty. There are those whose every word gets attention and those who write for friends and occasional passers-by.

If you are perceived as one of the “nobodies,” especially online, you can be sure that someone will remind you of this–regardless of the quality of what you do and what you have to say. (“Why pay attention to you? Your comment has only two likes.”)

But there is yet another complication. A person can have higher status in one area and lower status in another. Also, people can be simultaneously each other’s superiors and inferiors. Consider an editor (of a well-regarded publication) and a writer. In some ways, the editor has higher status (through acting as gatekeeper, for instance); in others, the writer does (through creating a work that an editor might covet). The relationship may change over time. So status is more complex than it looks on the surface.

I have often felt uneasy among people obsessed with status–but I recognize that status is there, whether we like it or not, and that it takes myriad forms. I see Appiah’s argument that disavowed status leads to anxiety, contempt, and resentment.  So how does one acknowledge status without letting it dominate one’s life?

Perhaps that is precisely it: by acknowledging it, one does not have to worry about it. One does not have to put so much effort into detecting and interpreting social cues. Criticism can be more frank and at the same time less loaded; the recipient, knowing what it contains, can then choose what to do with it. This will allow not only for clarity and learning, not only for condescension (in the generous sense of the word), but for better sleep and waking.

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I took the top photo in Szolnok (near my apartment building) and the bottom one in Baja by the Danube.

Is one ever too busy to think?

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It happened with the first book too: after everything is off to press, I find some delightful sources that, had I read them earlier, I would have quoted and discussed. That’s the inevitable result of working on a book: it opens up subjects that don’t close up along with your deadlines.

First, in his scathing article “The Naked and the TED,” Evgeny Morozov describes the “takeaway” as “the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.” That’s great. My only qualm is that I don’t think people are really too busy to think; rather, they don’t want to think and use the busyness to excuse this. (We all do this with things we don’t want to do.) I’ll get to that in a moment.

Also, Dave Stein’s terrific blog Lex maniac–which examines “expressions that have entered and established themselves in everyday language in the last thirty years”–observes that the takeaway “refers to the main point you want to drive home but shifts the focus to the receiver of the message from that of the sender. The important thing is not what you say, but what your listeners remember.” In other words, a takeaway produces results, or rather, it is the result. It is the mental product that people carry away from a speech, book, advertisement, or other way of conveying something. (I have no excuse for not reading Lex maniac earlier–I was told about it more than once–but now I visit it often.)

Many people, especially in Hungary, have asked me, “What does ‘Take Away the Takeaway’ mean?” (That’s the title of this blog and of the first chapter of Mind over Memes.) I explain that I am not arguing to get rid of takeaways but rather to remove them temporarily to see what lies below them: what uncertainties, questions, subtleties, and extensions. In other words, don’t let the takeaway replace the larger subject. Like the birds in the photo below, look it up and down; examine it from different parts of the crate. (The birds–maybe flycatchers of some kind?–are a little hard to see, but they’re at the edge of the wooden crate in the foreground. One is looking up, the other down.)

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But back to the question of being too busy to think. No one can do everything, but people find ways to make time for the things they really want to do. No matter how busy you are, there are ways to fit things in and cut other things out. Those who say, “I really want to write; I just don’t have time” have chosen to do other things besides write. The same applies to playing an instrument, reading, or any other voluntary, ongoing activity or action. This is true even for people raising children; even in the most hectic years, many parents make (or find, borrow, conjure, steal, or glean) time for writing, music, and other things.

Now, finding the time for something can involve some big choices and even sacrifices. For any serious writing, I need stretches of time. I don’t work well in small snatches here and there, even though those can supplement the larger work. When writing a book, I have needed to take time off from teaching (which meant leaving my job at the time, since there were no sabbaticals or other leaves that accommodated what I wanted to do.) In contrast, I have not been in the routine of practicing cello lately. I do not like “sort of” playing; if I am going to play, I want to practice two hours a day–and that is a big commitment among others. I already have substantial commitments, including musical commitments, in my time outside of work, so I have chosen not to add more. I do want to return to cello–but at a time when I am willing to set other things aside for it. (“You sure seem to have time for your blog,” someone might say. Yes, that’s part of the point; I choose to have time for it.)

The same holds true for thinking. Yes, a day can leave little room for extended thought, but it’s up to an individual whether or not to find the openings. This choice depends on many things. There are temperamental differences: some people feel uncomfortable when sitting with their own thoughts, whereas others feel something missing if they don’t take time for contemplation, analysis, rumination, play. There are also practices, habits, rituals of thinking, which can be built over time; someone unused to wrestling with a geometry problem may find it frustrating at the outset, whereas someone who does it every day may relish it and seek out trickier problems.

For me, different kinds of thinking need different forms and settings; I enjoy thinking during bike rides but do a different kind of thinking when sitting at the computer, and still other kinds when reading a book, listening to music, or writing a poem.

So then, given the voluntary nature of thought, given the possibility of finding time for thought even in a busy schedule, why does there seem to be a growing cultural impatience with thinking? Why is a “thinker” even viewed as a social nuisance, the one who ruins the fun?

I would attribute at least some of this to the rise of “thinking-lite,” a stand-in for independent thought. It’s a way of having your cake and being told you just had broccoli, or quasi-broccoli. Institutions like TED and media such as Twitter give their audience the sensation of learning something new or participating in something smart. They offer some kind of takeaway. That is all very satisfying, until you realize that these nutritional nuggets were often nothing other than candy.

There are exceptions. Here and there, you will find a TED talk that takes the audience into the subtleties of a subject. Stephen Burt’s talk “Why People Need Poetry” does that, a little–though if he had stayed with one poem, he could have done more. It’s a talk about poetry in general; to its great credit, it ends with something other than a takeaway. It invites the audience to look and listen beyond the usual.

So to make more “time” for thought, a society must raise it up as an honorable thing: it must show, through classes, programs, books, and speeches, what it means to work toward greater understanding, to question assumptions, to find clear language, to return to old works and ideas, to gaze into art, to separate the known from the unknown in science, and to bear with not knowing for sure what you will get out of it all.

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I took these photos in Szolnok. On rainy days it almost looks like fall. But here’s a sunny day, below (also in Szolnok, by the Tisza river). Fall is not the takeaway, nor is rain.

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I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

These Swift, Full Days

IMG_6518When I came back to Hungary, I knew sour cherries would be out of season, or at least hard to find—and so they are, sadly—but plums and grapes spill over. Yesterday I saw a blue-fruited plum tree by the side of a bike path on the outskirts of Szolnok. There were signs saying “do not eat,” but of course I ate. It was the best roadside plum I have ever tasted. (I have never tasted a roadside plum before.)

The plums remind me that there’s little left of summer. For me this means not the end of vacation but rather the approach of deadlines and events. I am preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; I will be leading the musical parts of these services at Szim Salom, my synagogue in Budapest. Beyond that, I am preparing for my book release and turning my thoughts toward the school year. The main vacation-like thing here is the flexibility of days; for the next week, I can plan each day as I wish. We teachers return to school on August 24; from then onward, I will have a fixed schedule (probably on the looser side until the students return, then full and busy every day). I look forward to this year with its four aspects: teaching, writing, religious life, and personal life (which will include biking and learning Hungarian). It looks overfull, but I would not give up any of it. It isn’t frantic, just abundant and demanding in the best of ways.

So it is great to get on the bike and go in any direction the whim suggests. I only have to step outside to see the heather along the Zagyva river; to come to unexpected places, I need only ride along the river, but there are many other options and directions.

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The other day I followed a dirt road, along the Zagyva, that I had taken twice before but had found too muddy both times. This time, it was completely dry, so I could go on and on. The photo of the horses and the video of the water are both from that ride. (I also saw cows, storks, and a deer.)

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But given the swiftness of days, some planning is in order too. So I intend to take the train to Baja (with bicycle) on Sunday, bike southward along the Danube, possibly into Croatia, and return to Szolnok on Monday. I loved Baja on my first visit (eleven months ago) and was able to reserve a room just now at the same beautiful bed-and-breakfast place where I stayed before.

The day itself is going by too fast, so I will end here.

“God keep me from ever completing anything”

IMG_6426Today we celebrated and lamented the conclusion of the Epic course–and the Political Philosophy course–at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers. The laments are short-lived, since this work can never be finished. I have more to learn as I reread these texts, teach them again, hear others speak about them, turn them in my mind, and carry them into my life.

Thanks to everyone who made this a soaring and diving three weeks, through the reading, discussion, listening, and more. I have much more to say, but the words are coming too slowly right now. Soon I will write about The Revolt of Job (Jób lázadása), a film I have watched in four successive Epic summers here (in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018), and which has become one of my favorite films of any time or place. I look forward to next summer and to the October 30 event.

I took the photo here in Dallas. The post’s title is a quote from Moby-Dick.

“I’ll deal with it upon my return”

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The recent days have been flying. I wandered around the Tiszavirág Fesztivál, went to Budapest for shul, began preparing my Dallas lectures (on Homer, Dante, and Melville), and sat on the panel of faculty administering the graduating seniors’ oral exams.

With my trip to the U.S. only four days away, I couldn’t help thinking of the Roches and their song “The Troubles” (“We’re going away to Ireland soon….”).

I first heard them live in the spring of 1982, at Toad’s Place in New Haven, at the insistence of a friend. He especially loved Maggie Roche, the one with the contralto voice. Maggie died in February 2017. Here’s a beautiful photo memorial of her with her song “Quitting Time” (a Roche favorite of mine):

It is strange to be on the brink of visiting my own country, which has been turning into something unrecognizable, though I suspect I’ll recognize it anyway. (Which is the return–the trip there or back? And what is going on over there?) Yet just as here, I see more than one tendency at once. Trump’s decision to separate detained immigrant parents from their children–and to place the children in detention centers around the U.S.–drew such strong rebuke that he had to backtrack. Not only that, but individuals and organizations are persisting in their protest and seeking ways to help the children and families. I have barely begun–I signed two petitions and made a small donation to the Florence Project–but have received a wealth of information on how to do more.

I have also read good critique of how Americans speak to each other (or not): not only how Democrats speak to Republicans and vice versa, but how people overall handle difference and discontent. After Maxine Waters called on people to harass and heckle Trump administration officials (telling them that “they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere”), many objected to her call (while others applauded her).

A few days before Waters’s speech, one of my friends and colleagues had already written a terrific post arguing that when we write others off, in political and other contexts, we harm them, ourselves, and the structures our lives. I won’t quote the piece here–I don’t think it is intended for public broadcast at this point–but I hope to return to it in the future.

Frank Bruni argues that public shaming, while viscerally satisfying, fails miserably as a strategy. “It’s possible that public shaming will have no effect on voters’ feelings and decisions, which are largely baked in by now,” he writes. “But it’s also possible that public shaming intensifies an ambient ugliness that sours more Trump skeptics than Trump adherents, who clearly made peace with ugliness a while back. And those adherents, nursing a ludicrous sense of persecution, could turn out in greater numbers this November as a result.”

I would go even further. If any of us cannot treat a human being decently–whoever that person might be–then all our protest comes to nothing. Treating a person decently does not mean kowtowing or conceding. You can disagree fervently with someone, make that disagreement known, and still retain respect. Take that respect away, and you may not find it again; it falls out of language, out of the general way of thinking. People feel more and more justified in putting others down, writing them off, describing them as “toxic,” and hiding in their own rarified views and groups.

But we have not disappeared down the toxic tunnel. Many people have been calling for greater respect in speech, whether for strategic, ethical, or existential reasons. Respect is not a formality or embellishment; it requires perceiving and listening to another person. It also requires speaking up; you show no respect if you hide what you think and want. When our own president does not set an example of respect–when he tears respect apart day after day–there is all the more reason to repair and uphold it.

“Respect” seems insufficient as a word–too pat, too easy, overused–until one looks at its root. It derives from the Latin respectus, “the act of looking back at someone”; thus it carries the connotation of thinking again, not jumping to conclusions, not presuming to know who another is. In that sense, it is indeed the right word, or one of many. I am encouraged by the renewed respect for respect itself.

I took the photo at the Tiszavirág Fesztivál. The title of the post is a quote from the Roches’ “The Troubles.” Suzzy Roche would often say it near the beginning of the song, in performances but not on the album.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

Bicycling on Shabbat?

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Students sometimes ask me questions about Judaism; while happy to answer, I recognize that my words will be incomplete and sometimes incorrect. Recently a student asked whether I ride my bicycle on Shabbat. I said yes and added that this was not prohibited. I later questioned the second part of my answer, looked into it, and found out that it is indeed prohibited in Orthodox Judaism and, for the most part, in Conservative Judaism as well. But the matter is complicated; there have been many disagreements over the centuries.

I continue to ride my bike on Shabbat (when I am not in Budapest), simply because it is a source of joy and because if I relegate it (along with other non-Shabbat things) to Sunday, I end up with great anxiety and pressure. At the end of my life, when I look back, I don’t think I will be sorry; there are worse ills than going out on the bike and enjoying nature.

I am nowhere near perfect in my observance, but I take the questions and traditions seriously. Also, I am still young in my Judaism; while Jewish by birth (on my mother’s side, and thus by Jewish law), I started practicing it just over five years ago. I expect that my practices and views will change over time. Maybe I will become stricter, maybe less so; in any case I hope to have more understanding.

Biking is prohibited on Shabbat (under Orthodox and Conservative Judaism) for several reasons. First of all, it is considered a form of carrying. Carrying is permitted on Shabbat only within an eruv (an enclosed private area, often an enclosed Jewish community) and then only when the particular thing being carried is not forbidden. It is permissible, for instance, to push a stroller on Shabbat within an eruv, but not outside. The bicycle, not being one of those permitted things, may not be transported even within the eruv.

Some argue, though, that if it allows a person to fulfill a mitzvah, such as leading a service or reading Torah, then it may be used for that purpose alone, even outside the eruv. Conservative Judaism permits driving to synagogue (and only synagogue) on Shabbat (see the 1950 “Responsum on the Sabbath“); some Conservative communities extend this to biking and see the latter as less problematic than the former.

There are other (more tenuous) reasons why riding a bicycle is forbidden on Shabbat. First, it is forbidden to fix things on Shabbat, and a bicycle might break on route, leaving you in a position of wanting to fix it. Second, bicycle riding is considered a weekday activity, and weekday activities are to be avoided. Third, when on a bicycle, you might find yourself leaving the eruv–whether intentionally or by mistake–or even the tehum, the 2000 cubits beyond the town’s last house. You are less likely to do this on foot. Fourth, the bike tires might make marks in the dirt, thereby violating the prohibition against plowing on Shabbat. Finally–and this comes up in many discussions–bicycle riding should be discouraged on Shabbat because many communities consider it wrong and will be upset to see it happening. Some Orthodox communities are uneasy about bikes in general.

Part of me says, “This has no bearing on you; if you want to ride your bike, ride your bike! It brings you joy and rest, and you aren’t Orthodox anyhow!” Another part admires the precision and care of these considerations, a welcome contrast to a culture of “whatever.” It is possible, I think, to combine the independence and the precision: to follow my judgment while learning more about these questions and their intricacies.

The questions are far from settled. On the website of the Judaic Seminar (a project of the Sephardic Institute in Midwood, Brooklyn), I found a fascinating argument, by Rabbi Moshe Shamah, that bicycle riding should be permitted on those holidays when it is permitted to carry–that is, when the primary objection to bicycle riding does not apply. (Riding on Shabbat is still out of the question here.)

First of all, Rabbi Shamah quotes the Ben Ish Hai, who says that we should not make additional gezerot (enactments, prohibitions) but should rely on the ones already set down in Talmud. The arguments against bicycle riding (on days when carrying is permitted) are innovations and should be avoided for this reason. Therefore it should be permissible to ride the bicycle within the eruv on Shabbat and other holidays, even for recreation.

From there, Rabbi Shamah makes the case that there are reasons to permit bicycle riding on holidays when carrying is allowed. One is that young people in Orthodox communities should not be made to feel that they are doing something wrong when they are not.

The many teenagers and young adults who inevitably will ride their bicycles on Yom Tob should not feel they are doing an issur [something prohibitedDS] when they are not. Some of them feel they cannot help but ride their bicycles on Yom Tob and, psychologically, thinking that they are doing an issur may prompt them to doing a true issur. `If I’m already doing a sin, what difference does it make if I commit another one?’. It’s a terrible way of looking at things, but unfortunately too common.

Also, by not heaping new restrictions and rules onto existing ones, rabbis in an Orthodox community can protect the people from Conservative enticement:

Our rabbis also worked long and hard to prevent the Conservative Movement from making inroads in our community. A major aspect of their success these past two generations has been their policy of not indiscriminately prohibiting what is basically permitted in areas that would make our people vulnerable to non-Orthodox enticement. Bicycle riding on Yom Tob falls into this category.

Finally, one should avoid an overly restrictive approach to Judaism, as this can turn many people away:

In our generation we have witnessed a miraculous renewal of interest in Judaism….However, we often encounter a somewhat questionable by-product of this renewed vigor, namely, halachic enthusiasm which breeds halachic competitiveness. This frequently results in an overly restrictive, inaccurate version of Judaism replete with unfounded halachic stringencies which may ironically deter others from seeking entrance into the majestic world of Torah Judaism. Often the `pleasant ways of the Torah’ seem to have become difficult to bear as a result of stringencies superimposed upon the truly pleasant ways of Torah Judaism.

These considerations apply not only to Orthodox Judaism but to other branches of Judaism and, more generally, to other religions. How do you maintain the integrity of a tradition while opening yourself to new possibilities and lessons?  Rabbi Shamah sympathizes with young people and with those who feel overwhelmed by the rules. Yes, he sees Conservatives as a threat, partly because they offer, relative to Orthodoxy, a less encumbered approach to Jewish law, an approach that he would like to emulate in part.

So, when looking into the issue of bicycling on Shabbat, I found much more than answers. I found a rabbi grappling not only with this particular question, but with the question of how to honor laws, humans, understanding–and, encompassing all of these, an essence that we only glimpse, in word, thought, and action, throughout our lives.

I took the photo in Szolnok on Friday.

Why the “Next Big Idea Club” Is a Bad Idea

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I recently learned that Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Daniel Pink, and Adam Grant have started a book club called the “Next Big Idea Club,” whose goal is to draw attention to new books that are “Groundbreaking, Science-Based, and Life-Changing (Actionable).” The book selections come with “video e-courses” that “highlight key concepts” (in case readers can’t figure them out for themselves), written course materials, exclusive author interviews, and an invite-only Facebook group.

In other words, the club leaders emphasize books that appear to have not only scientific basis, but clear takeaways–immediate applications to life–and then take the additional step of distilling those takeaways for the readers, thus affirming that the books should be put into action right away rather than thought upon, questioned, disputed.

And there lies about a third of the problem. I have no issue with the idea of a book club, no matter who leads it, when it involves selecting books that one loves (or finds especially interesting) and bringing them to the club members. But books deserve time and rumination; instead of being translated immediately into “actionable” takeaways, they should take up residence in the mind for a while. It is the dialogue (an approximate term) between author and reader that makes for memorable reading. The books that influence me the most have nothing immediately “actionable” about them; rather, they get me to think, they provoke me to return to the pages.

So that’s the first problem: the emphasis on the “actionable.” The second lies in the so-called scientific basis. Some of these books may well have strong scientific grounding. But science involves dogged and keen questioning–so the most scientific books will likely have the most uncertainties. With some exceptions, they will be the ones least conducive to takeaways. For a book to be both scientific and actionable at once, the scientific aspect may have to undergo simplification. The book club leaders, apparently, hasten the process of simplification by handing summaries and key points to the readers. This not only reduces the science itself but discourages scientific thinking.

The third problem lies in the priority given to “groundbreaking” books. We often don’t know right away whether a new book is groundbreaking; it takes time to put it in proper context and observe its influence and effects. Sometimes a seemingly new idea has many unknown antecedents; sometimes a seemingly grand solution fails to pan out. Rather than look for “groundbreaking” books, I would seek books that demonstrate intellect, probing, and wit: books that allow the reader to reconsider previous assumptions without latching on to false certainties.

The book club itself is nothing new; Gladwell appears to have been running it in some form for years. Kathryn Schulz wrote of his “Big Idea Club” in 2011 (in New York Magazine):

Big Idea books have been around for a long time; see The Communist Manifesto. But the Big Idea Book Club … is a recent phenomenon. Its accidental founder and president in apparent perpetuity is Malcolm Gladwell. Its membership, like the membership of most powerful groups, is largely male. Its combined sales are stratospheric; whatever these books are hawking, we can’t stop buying it.

And then, toward the end of the article:

There is no rule, process, peer group, leader, or best seller that can absolve us of the responsibility of thinking our way through life on our own two feet. What irks me most about this infinite parade of gigundo solutions isn’t their glibness or even the borderline theology (of some) and borderline Babbitry (of others) involved in promising audiences easy, happy, profitable ideas. Nope. What irks me is that when you rigidly apply grand theories to everybody, sooner or later everybody feels like nobody, whether you’re in Communist Belgrade or the local DMV. There is a reason we call such systems soul-crushing: They ignore or annihilate individual difference and inner life.

There you have it. Some ideas are big by nature, some medium-sized, some small. It would be folly to avoid an idea on account of its size. But it is dangerous to pursue or herald an idea because it is big. The bigness should give some pause. Do we really have room in this idea? Does it hold enough truth? Or has it been swept in, like so many others, only to drift out again later?

Some of the club’s selections may well be worth reading. Of the twenty that Adam Grant listed for 2018, I would be most likely to read Melissa Dahl’s Cringeworthy. I probably would not get to it until 2020 or later; I have many books waiting and generally like to read slowly. In any case, if I do read this book, it will be to consider the ideas and stories, not to apply them directly to my life. In books, it is the indirect applications–the use of words, the gestures of wisdom–that influence my life the most. The big idea? I take it in stride.

I have criticized the American emphasis on the Big Idea many times, in many places. (See, for instance, “The Folly of the Big Idea: How a Liberal Arts Education Puts Fads in Perspective,” American Educator, Winter 2012-2013). But I now come upon a new point: no matter what the size of an idea, I expect to be able to consider it in my own terms, on my own time–and not to accept someone else’s summaries or rush it into action.

Well, then, don’t join the club! someone might retort. No one is making you join. True, true, but that’s a moot point; I don’t join book clubs in general. Through my teaching, I have many opportunities to read with others; outside of work and projects, my time for reading is so scarce that I like to choose books on my own, often old books that I have read years ago or that I have been wanting to read for years. No, my own non-membership is not the point here. Rather, I argue and long for a different kind of reading: a kind that allows for liberty of thought, judges an idea by its merits, delights in verbal courage, and suspends summary and action.

I took the photo in Szeged in May.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Is There a Human Project?

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It is the season of cherries and ice cream, of ducklings and Scarce Copper butterflies (I think that’s the type in the picture above), of wrapping up the school year and saying goodbye for the summer. Also, the book is almost in press; the last corrections have been made, and I must now think about the release in the fall. While doing this, I find myself questioning certain phrases in the book. At one point I mention the human project. Is there a human project? Or is this yet another phrase that has lost meaning over time?

It exists but abounds with contradictions, oppositions, anomalies, impossibilities. Drawing partially on George Kateb’s Human Dignity, I would define the human project, in part, as our ongoing assumption (and abdication) of responsibility as stewards of nature, including our own. Humans alone have the capacity to act as stewards–or not. Acting as steward involves recognizing what one has done, or can do, to help or harm oneself and others–and who these others are, and why it matters. In this recognition, humans have advanced somewhat, in some ways, over time. Certain things that we recognize as wrong, such as slavery, were accepted not long ago.

Last week I introduced my eleventh-grade students to the song “Amazing Grace,” which a few already knew. I thought it was important for American civilization, especially since we were now touching on religion. I did not know the origins of the song (having missed the Broadway musical and the movie and forgotten a good bit of history); when I read about it, I heard it in a new way.

It was composed by the English Anglican minister John Newton (1725-1807), who, prior to his Christian conversion, had been forced into the slave trade. He had rebelled so often aboard the ships–not on behalf of the slaves, but on his own behalf–that he had undergone lashings, demotions, and finally slavery, when the crew left him in West Africa with a slave dealer. He was finally rescued and brought back to England; during the voyage, he had a spiritual conversion. Slowly, over time, this conversion brought him to abhor the slave trade. This did not happen linearly; he returned to the slave trade, fell ill, and underwent a new conversion. He continued in the trade a few more years, and then in 1754 renounced it completely.

His tract Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, written in 1788, thirty-four years after he abandoned the business, repudiates the enslavement and trafficking of humans. It begins:

The nature and effects of that unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce, which has long been maintained on the Coast of Africa, with the sole, and professed design of purchasing our fellow-creatures, in order to supply our West-India islands and the American colonies, when they were ours, with Slaves; is now generally understood. So much light has been thrown upon the subject, by many able pens; and so many respectable persons have already engaged to use their utmost influence, for the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out.

If I attempt, after what has been done, to throw my mite into the public stock of information, it is less from an apprehension that my interference is necessary, than from a conviction that silence, at such a time, and on such an occasion, would, in me, be criminal. If my testimony should not be necessary, or serviceable, yet, perhaps, I am bound, in conscience, to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent, or repair, the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessary.

I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was, once, an active instrument, in a business at which my heart now shudders.

Hearing those undertones in “Amazing Grace” (although the hymn preceded the tract by two decades or so), I understand the song not as a paean to the born-again experience but as the author’s recognition of profound error. To see that one has been terribly wrong and to change one’s life accordingly: this allows for something of a human project. For by writing what he saw and learned, Newton allowed others to see it too.

I don’t want to be glib about this. Looking at the picture below, I would say that ducks do a bit better with their projects than humans; they lead their little ones, which grow up to have little ones of their own. But ducks also kill ducklings that they do not recognize–and suffer no qualms of conscience, as far as I know. It is not that we humans do so well with our conscience–we continue to do things that we repudiate or simply fail to question–but our conscience also matures, not only through experience in the world, but through encounters with books, speeches, music, plays. In listening to something, we come to take ourselves in measure. Or at least we may. To the extent that we do, we participate in a human project.

I ask myself why I didn’t notice the Broadway musical Amazing Grace, which would have taught me something, even fleetingly, about John Newton. I think I unthinkingly ignored it because of the title. I had heard the song sung mockingly so many times that I had absorbed the mockery. That reminds me to be less sure of my mockeries, especially borrowed ones. Mockery has a place in writing–there would be little satire without it–but it must be informed. In this case mine, though never overt, was also ignorant until now.

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I made a few revisions to this piece after posting it.