Nyílik a szem (The eye opens)

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This morning, on the way to the Dallas Institute, I was listening to 1LIFE’s song “Kopog a szív” and getting caught up in the phrase “nyílik a szem” (“the eye opens”). The song lands on it, by surprise, and repeats it, and returns to it, and stays there; the song is about a lot of things, but part of it is about suddenly seeing what is going on. To me, its montage of images tells a story, or two; different listeners will hear different stories in it.

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It fit well (though unintentionally) with today’s discussions of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and yesterday’s of Aeschylus’s Eumenides, both having to do with the opening of the eyes (as tragedy generally does). When things (like a song and a play) come together without planning, they set off many thoughts. I was thinking all day about having the eyes opened and what this can mean in different forms and places: in the plays we are reading, in this song, and beyond. When your eyes are opened to yourself, whether in tragedy or in song, there are two sides to it: you realize what you have done, and you realize who you are. Also, this opening of the eyes can’t be taken back. It can be terrible or joyful, but it’s there for good.

It isn’t just an intellectual consideration; I think of vivid moments in my life when my eyes were opened in some way, through a meeting with another person, through accident, through loss, through poetry, through learning, through mistakes.

The song opened up to me slowly over the past months; I enjoyed its melody and rhythm from the start but needed some time to grasp the lyrics, since I am still far from fluent in Hungarian. I remember hearing it in concert (at Európa-nap, I think) and suddenly understanding “nyílik a szem.” The rest came from there. It is now one of my favorite 1LIFE songs. (I have previously commented here on “Maradok ember” and “Kapcsolj ki!“)

Here is a video of the song, which contains the lyrics; and below it, my tentative translation. I took a few liberties and may have made some outright mistakes. It is a start; I will make corrections and improvements over time. “Szem” can be taken in a singular or plural sense. I first translated it as “eyes” (“the eyes open”) but later my eye opened and I changed my mind. “Eye” in English can also have a general or plural meaning, and all the other images in the chorus are singular (or archetypal).  “Nyílik a szem” could also be translated as “the eye is opened,” but that suggests that it has already happened, whereas here it seems to be happening right in the moment. “The eye opens” does not fit the rhythm of the song, even in translation–but it is more vivid and direct than the alternatives I considered. So I will leave it as is.

over the housetops, the sky
in the lonely streets, the wind
see our brain does not converse
gut and feeling, what goes with them?

infinity is in our cells
fear resides in our bones
suddenly a stroke of luck
makes our fingers interlock

winter comes, summer goes
it would come but can’t find its way
on goes the light, click of machine
the ice melts, but the heart knocks,
the heart knocks, the heart knocks

this is all that our eyes see
from the sky a cloud cries onto us
the truth has no clothes
our empty room is overcrowded

winter comes, summer goes
it would come but can’t find its way
on goes the light, click of machine
the ice melts, but the heart knocks,
the heart knocks, it stands in the door,
it waits for the key, the lock gives way,
quiet in the room, order on the shelf,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens

winter comes, summer goes
it would come but can’t find its way
on goes the light, click of machine
the ice melts, but the heart knocks,
the heart knocks, it stands in the door,
it waits for the key, the lock gives way,
quiet in the room, order on the shelf,
the eyes opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens

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I took all three photos today. The first and third are of the Dallas Institute; the second, of the dashboard of my rental car. The video was made by Zsombor Papp; the song “Kopog a szív” is by 1LIFE, and its lyrics are by Marcell Bajnai.

I made a few additions and an important correction to this piece after posting it: “kopog a szív” means “the heart knocks,” not “the heart beats.”This correction is important because first of all, it’s accurate; second, it’s a fresher image than “the heart beats”; and third, it goes with the door, lock, and everything else. It affects everything. Also, I commented a little more on “nyílik a szem” (which I first translated as “the eyes open” but then changed to “the eye opens”).

To Have a Home

Last night, at the B’nai Jeshurun Annual Meeting, our rabbis announced their decision regarding interfaith marriage, a decision that emerged from long deliberation and contemplation, including a full year of discussions, lectures, and other events, as well as prayer, thought, and conversation. I quote from their written announcement, which appears on the BJ website:

Beginning in 2018, we plan to celebrate and officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples who are committed to creating Jewish homes and raising any children as Jews. Drawing from traditional Jewish sources, rituals and symbols, we will create a new Jewish wedding ceremony for these couples.

We will continue to hold to the traditional matrilineal definition of Jewishness. We are not prepared to depart from k’lal Yisrael (the total Jewish community) by independently adopting a different approach in defining Jewish identity. In other words, we are not changing the halahic definition of who is a Jew. As rabbis, we have the space to decide whom we officiate for, and there is no concern about the validity of such marriages in the larger Jewish world. However, we don’t want to put BJ members in the situation of having their Jewish identity questioned or contested beyond the BJ community.

We take these steps with deep loyalty to the Jewish past and with unwavering commitment to the Jewish future. We will embrace a renewed sense of inclusiveness toward those who seek to be part of our community.

103 kosice synagogueI listened in wonder. This was not an easy decision; people at BJ and beyond have a range of views on the issue. The decision affects the rabbis’ relationship with the congregation, with other congregations, with Jewish organizations, with Israel, and with Judaism overall. It is not only about marriage ceremonies but about spiritual and practical focus: where to place the emphases and efforts.

What about those who wish to marry but do not wish to build Jewish homes? They have other possibilities, outside BJ. What matters here is that an interfaith couple committed to Jewish life will not be turned away, nor will the non-Jewish partner be required to convert to Judaism for the union to be recognized. Yet traditional definitions of Jewish identity will remain intact. The implications are great but also subtle; they will reveal themselves over time.

Readers of this blog have probably noticed that I am Jewish. I come from an interfaith (or rather, non-religious) parentage and many backgrounds: Eastern European Jewish on my mother’s side (with ancestors from Ukraine, Hungary/Slovakia, and Lithuania) and French, Norwegian (probably Sami), Irish, German, and more on my father’s. All of this is part of who I am. I just visited the town of one of my great-grandfathers (my maternal grandmother’s father); one day I hope to visit other ancestral places, including the northern reaches of Norway. Nor is ancestry the whole point for me, or even close; I know myself through the things I do and think, the music and literature I love, the friends I make, the things I learn, the changes I undergo, the things I lose, and the truths that stay with me over time.

I have been preparing for teaching at the Dallas Institute’s Summer Institute in July; my first lecture will be on Aeschylus’s Eumenides, in which Athena initiates the first Athenian murder trial by jury, bringing an end to a cycle of bloodshed and revenge. Her genius lies not only in the innovation, but in its respect for the hidden layers of society and life. The Furies, who seemed threatening and repulsive to Apollo, become a revered and essential part of the new order–far below the surface, in the depths of the home. In this way, the civic imagination makes room for the seen and unseen, the public and private, the new and the ancient; moreover, it finds beauty in what some would have dismissed as hideous. This is perhaps the foundation of what Edmund Burke and others (including David Bromwich in his magnificent book by the title) would call “moral imagination,” which has to do with seeing things in their depth, beyond their surface appearance or immediate utility. (There is more to it than that.)

I was in the presence of moral imagination last night. How great it is to have such a home.

Image credit: I took this photo on May 29 in the gallery of the Košice synagogue. It appears in my slideshow as well.

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

Free Will and Education Reform

George Henry Hall: The PomegranateThe question of free will bursts into question upon question. What does it mean to have free will? To what degree do we exercise it? How can we know? For all the swarms of ideas on the subject, there seems to be agreement—among philosophers, theologians, poets, psychologists, and others—that whatever freedom we might have, we do not control other people or the outcomes of our actions (and if we could, it would be unwise). What a refreshing thought—and what a far cry from today’s education reform, which insists on our ability to control others’ results!

Literature from ancient Greek drama to contemporary psychology warns about illusions of control. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (in Robert Fagles’ translation), the Chorus sings, “And neither by singeing flesh / nor tipping cups of wine / nor shedding burning tears can you / enchant away the rigid Fury.” Rabbi Hanina states in the Gemara of Berachot (33b) of the Talmud, “Everything is in the power of heaven except the fear of heaven.” (There are numerous interpretations  of this statement.) In recent centuries, literary, philosophical, psychological, religious, and sociological writings have emphasized the futility (or danger) of trying to control others.

Yet much of education reform assumes we can and should control others–in particular, their measurable achievement. This assumption is profoundly wrong. To rate teachers on their students’ test performance is to distort the educational endeavor. Teachers influence students (and their influence is great); they do not cause students to do well or poorly. (It’s one thing to analyze the results; it’s another to convert them by formula into a rating.)

“Very well,” someone might respond, “so you’ve admitted that teachers influence students. Are you saying this influence doesn’t matter?” Of course it matters; it gives meaning to the work and helps teachers heed the alarm clock in the mornings. Still, whenever the student steps out to do something—take a test, give a presentation, or read further on the subject—this is the student’s action, not the teacher’s. The student has the credit and the dignity (or should).

“In that case, teachers might as well throw up their hands,” another might say. “If they aren’t held accountable for results, why should they bother trying?”

When you think you might influence (but not control) your students, there is all the more reason to try. You get to share in something that is not your own, something that goes beyond you. When a student does well, you have the honor of contributing to it in some way; when a student does poorly or runs into difficulties, you have sorrow and the self-questioning. Honor and sorrow and self-questioning and responsibility inspire me a great deal more than the publication of teachers’ “value-added ratings” in the newspaper.

It is not just that they inspire me more; it’s that they serve as better guides. I don’t know, and have no way of knowing, how great my influence will be or what form it will take (beyond concrete and immediate learning). That is all the more reason to put thought and effort into my lessons: I am participating in something partly knowable, partly mysterious, but in any case larger than myself. If I had wanted a predictable effect on things, I would have become a chocolatier, a producer of delight and cavities. Even then, my results would not have been uniform.

Yes, of course I want concrete learning to come out of my lessons; of course I want to see evidence of it. Even so, I do not make it happen, nor do I set its limits. Even less do I control what comes out of that learning.

Many economists would disagree. A 2011 study (by Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, and Jonah E. Rockoff) concludes that teachers affect not only students’ performance on tests, but also their college attendance and future earnings.  Granted, they say “affect,” not “cause,” but then they extrapolate: “Replacing a teacher whose VA is in the bottom 5% with an average teacher would increase the present value of students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 for the average classroom in our sample.”

I think of D. H. Lawrence’s  “Pomegranate”: “Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure?”

I respect these scholars and acknowledge the care that went into the study. Still, its projections assume minimal variation among students, little that could interfere with their earnings, and little room for them to choose their directions in life. Presumably, if teachers could “increase” students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 (a projection based on limited data), then we could boost the economy just by replacing the low-ranking teachers. We could replace our way to a better world.

But what if the students’ lifetime income didn’t increase as expected? What if these students faced layoffs, job changes, and life difficulties, or chose professions that didn’t pay especially well? What could one replace then, for better outcomes? Perhaps one could give each of their choices a value-added rating (in terms of how much income it produced) and demand that they make lucrative life choices. Someone would have to chase after them and make sure they did so.

What if illness and war and death got in the way? Well, one would have to replace those students who got sick or died, or who grieved the death of others. No room for mortality (or aging) in the picture, especially if it interferes with earnings.

We are left, then, with those select few who don’t age, fall ill, or die—and who, without fail, take actions that bring them more money.

We are down to no one—but there, in that world of none, we have attained prosperity!

Happy are those who do not inhabit that world.