Thursday, May 29, 2008

The 'Big Game': Baseball, Milton and Choices

So the Mets won last night. After shul and before learning and work, I heard the results on internet radio, the Mets station, WFAN. It was a big win, the second straight and only their sixth of the last nine, and it happened in dramatic fashion. The Mets were down twice, and came back each time. In the second instance, the Mets tied the game in the ninth witus a pinch hit homerun by Endy Chavez, and though they threatened to lose by giving up a run in the top of the twelfth (extra innings for non-American readers), Fernando Tatis, a new name on the Mets roster, singled in the tieing and winning runs. I heard all of this during an update which segued into a call-in program for fans (people up at 1:30 AM in the morning wanting to discuss the latest exploits of the Amazin's. I was tempted to call in myself, but was embarrassed by the prospect of having to introduce myself as "Bill from Jerusalem." In any event, after the win, there were several jubilant callers; one enthused, "The Mets are back! It's great to be on top again."

I was struck by the fan's comments--'back on top again!' Baseball is a very long season. As the political commentator George Will once offered, "you can't grit your teeth through the baseball season." It's simply too long for the investment of emotions in a single moment. Teeth gritting is for other sports, football perhaps, but certainly not baseball. With 162 games, extending over six months, it's a very long season. Just like it's not a game for teeth-gritting, it's also not one for undue expressions of euphoria. There's a rhythm to baseball, and one game, however exciting and seemingly momentous, does not a beat make.

Recently a very wise friend of mine, who happens to be an Atlanta Braves fan (Mets' arch rivals for the uninitiated), just happened to mention in the end of an email message (he was actually needling me) that the Braves had taken the first two of four games against the Mets (in the end, the Mets were swept in the series). Though he was clearly enjoying the moment, he was not one to gloat excessively, and his enthusiasm for the recent Braves triumphs was qualified by his thoughts for what he called 'the long summer ahead.' This I felt was the attitude of the mature baseball fan: at once immersed in the moment, but at the same time conscious of the big picture.

We can have the typical baseball fan's attitude about life, or we can cultivate the perspective of my wise friend. To the mentality of the typical fan, individual moments are invested with momentous importance of great personal triumph or catastrophic defeat. A good job interview, a promotion, a compliment received becomes a positive referendum on the self; the opposite a disastrous affirmation of our failure. The former may not seem so bad, except of course when the referendum goes bad: the job interview didn't go as well as you had thought; your co-worker was promoted to an even better job; the compliment was followed by a verbal twist of the knife (or conversely, the latter defeatist perspective prevents one from seeing present and future good). This does not mean that we are not nourished by the moment: we certainly can gain strength from our successes (even if they are only apparent), and learn lessons from our failures. But as soon as they become more than that--definitive snap-shots of ourselves which we put up on our psychic mantles for all time--we know we are in trouble.

To view a momentary success as a defining moment ('it's great to be on top again'), or the converse ('it's all over now!') represents a failure to see the big picture, not just the whole season, but our lives and how our own stories are not always subject to our control. To put it more strongly, investing a particular moment or choice with ultimate significance is a contemporary form of idol worship--an unqualified belief in the power of the self or money or your boss (or whatever you believe is the determining factor of your life). Acknowledging that there are other variables (in fact, an infinite number!) is the first step to recognizing the divine...and providence. Milton got it right when, in his Paradise Lost, he calls Adam and Eve "authors to themselves," but refers to G-d as the "Author of all Things." We live in the moment, and narrate the story (or various strands of the different stories) that make up our lives. But that narrative is dependent upon another narrative, that composed by the 'Author of All Things.' To acknowledge our place in that narrative is to move past the sensibility which is expressed in the contemporary mantra, "people make choices." To be sure, we do make choices, but those choices do not always result in the consequences which we expect. Indeed, the image of control that the 'people make choices' mind-set affords is just an illusion.

So as baseball fans, we may relish the moment ('the Mets win!'), but also understand that it's a moment in time, part of a whole season. As Jews we realize that we make choices and live in the moment with all of the intensity which it demands, while never losing sight of the larger frame--how our own stories fit into the larger and precedent stories of which there is only one sole Author. So the 'big game' may offer the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, but we have to remember that in the end, it's a long season.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Wigs, Torah and Einstein

I'd like to turn away for a moment from the controversial topic of the relative virtues of special education and mainstreaming. A letter by Albert Einstein, written in 1954, has, as reported in many places, fetched $404,000 at auction. In the letter Einstein weighs in on theological issues: "The word of God is," the founder of modern physics writes, "nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish." So the architect of the theory of general relativity offers his perspective upon questions of metaphysics and theology. Jews are not "chosen"; indeed, Judaism "like all other religions" is merely "an incarnation of the most childish superstitions."

I had thought to limit my thoughts on this matter to comments on a couple of other websites (see for example Avi Shafran on Cross-Currents, but while waiting for mincha (the National Library in Jerusalem boasts two afternoon prayer services; take that NY Public Library!), I browsed through the permanent exhibit devoted to Einstein (his papers are collected here). After reading the fine print on one of the displays--an excerpt from one of Einstein's letters--I decided to give the matter some further thought. As the letter details, during a visit to Jerusalem, Einstein and Sir Herbert Samuels, the then High Commissioner of Palestine, walked on a Shabbat afternoon to the Old City. Einstein records finding what he called the "pitiful sight" of a city "swarming with all kinds of holy men," "dull minded fellow Jews, with a past and no present."

So Einstein does not come without his baggage of hostility to the swarming (bug-like?) creatures he found in Jerusalem, but still, when the man who Time Magazine called the "Man of the Century" speaks, aren't we obligated to listen? To answer, I'll relate a principle offered by a former Rosh Yeshiva of mine, Rav Binyomin Moskovitz of Yeshivat Medrash Shmuel in Jerusalem:

'If you want to know about constitutional law, you should naturally ask a consitutional lawyer; if you want to know about particle physics, you should ask a particle physicist (ask Einstein!); if you want to know about mechanical engineering, you should ask, of course, a mechanical engineer. But, if you want
to know about Torah, well: you just can just ask... anyone!'

Rav Binyomin referred to this, with sarcasm, as 'S-L-O-T,' the Special Logic of Torah, that mechanism by which the normal principles of logic, argument and expertise are suspended such that in the field of Torah study, anyone's opinion is as valid as anyone else's. In terms of Torah, notwithstanding Einstein's genius in the physical sciences (and of course he doesn't need my imprematur), he was just "anyone"--even more than that, a Jew from an assimilated family with an axe to grind, writ large in his comments about Jerusalem's natives (Einstein also manifested some personal proclivities, attributed by the exhibit curator to a rebelliousness against "cultural norms"--perhaps contributing to the hostility to the ethical demands of Torah). To be sure, I'd be a good person to ask about the meaning of John Milton's elegiac poem "Lycidas," but if you had a question about the theory of special relativity, I hope I'd have the good sense and the humility to suggest you ask elsewhere. Indeed, a sure sign that someone knows what it means to be an expert is that he's able to say 'I don't know; ask elsewhere.'

Asking 'elsewhere' is not only a virtue to be pursued by those outside of the realm of Torah, but also for within. Which brings me to the next subject of controversy: wigs. Several years ago, a ban was issued against wigs imported from India, since the hair used to make them was alleged to have been employed in the idolatrous practices of the sub-continent--which rendered any benefit from them strictly forbidden. G-d fearing Jewish women, in justifiable fear of transgressing the prohibition of benefitting in any way from idolotrous worship, dispensed with their wigs (there were even stories of wig-burnings in places as far afield as Boro Park and Beit Shemesh). My wife's sheitl macher quickly put up a sign in his store that his wigs were made from only Eastern European hair.

As all of this was happening, I asked several of my trusted teachers their opinion of the ban: they were all skeptical, suggesting that the Hindu practice did not render the hair forbidden. Time passed, and it turned out, my teachers were right: they had intuited what further investigation and rulings by the rabbinical establishment would bear out--namely, that the wigs were not involved in idolotrous rites, and were thus permissible (though as it turns out, many of the wigs worn by Jewish women are from the hair shorn from young Indian women as part of a pilgrimmage ritual). But had, from the beginning, the rabbi (from England) upon whose findings the ruling was based, 'asked elsewhere,' and consulted (let's say) members of the anthropology department of Tel Aviv University, then a great monetary loss would have been avoided. True, the denizens of that department will probably not be honored members of our synagogue community, nor would we likely eat at their homes, but they have expertise that may have been useful before the issuing of a ruling. It's true that the greatest legal scholars rely upon experts to inform their rulings (most notably these days in the manifold contemporary questions of Jewish law and medicine), but in this case, the respect for disciplinary expertise somehow didn't come to the fore until after money had been lost. In any event, understanding expertise goes in both directions.

The Torah is in many ways the supreme discipline--a linguistic science demanding the humanist's sensitivity to linguistic nuance as well as the scientist's proficiency in logic (the true Torah sage or talmud chachum, therefore, has to use both right and left sides of the brain!). The Netziv, the Rosh Yeshiva of thest of the nineteenth century Lithuanian yeshivas, went so far as to proclaim that one needs to demonstrate disciplinary expertise, to have a license, even to give a drash (or homiletic interpretaion of the Torah). So on Saturday afternoon, while the cholent is being digested, it's not just anyone who can offer inspirational words about the weekly Torah portion. To enter the world of drash, and certainly the realm of metaphysical speculations, one needs to be immersed in the languages of Jewish practice and law. If one needs a license for drash, one certainly needs a license for the kind of metaphysical speculation (don't tell Madonna!) that Einstein entertained. But Einstein, when he was offering his opinion on matters of metaphysics and theology, was, as it were, driving without a license. And for those who are not forewarned and careful, he may be a hazard on the roads.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Dentistry, Mainstreaming and the Zionist Dream

Any parent of a special needs child probably has a catalogue of "Things People Have Said but Should Not Have." It was difficult, for example, for me to hear the words of a friend on Simchas Torah who, upon seeing me at the shul celebrations, shook my hand gravely and said, "everyone has to suffer" (he apparently did not see Shmuel who was bouncing off the walls, dancing with glee). Comments like that one, one comes to understand, are almost never said out of malice. But there are some remarks to which one has to pay attention--like that of the dentist: "if you want his cavity filled, we'll have to put him under."

My wife Leslie is hesitant to give Shmuel a non-organic cup of carrot juice, so the prospect of general anaesthetic and a hospital visit was not a happy one. But asking around, we heard the same conclusions: "can't treat them like normal children; there's no other option." True, we have come to learn (from Elizabeth Mueller of Cincinnati who has thought seriously about "Dentistry for Children with Down's Syndrome" that a Down's child provides a special dental challenge, but it's one that does not have to end on the operating table. Fortunately we didn't have to go to Cincinnati to have Shmuel's cavity filled.

Enter Dr. Joshua Daniels of Jerusalem. He hadn't heard of Elizabeth Mueller, but he had heard of the Kolbrener children (all a joy in the dentist's office!), and he treated Shmuel as he treats the other siblings. That is, Dr. Daniels practices mainstreaming in dentistry: so for him, Shmuel may have required special attention, but in the dentist's office, not in the hospital. Such attention means that a visit to the dentist is more like a family visit, or a neighborhood visit, or even a chaotic block party--with various friends and families playing their appointed roles (holding Shmuel, caressing his hand, coaxing open his mouth). But yesterday, when Shmuel's sister Avital departed from her role, instead imploring the dentist to heed Shmuel's protests and refrain from pulling his infected tooth, Dr. Daniels responded not by silencing her empathic (and emphatic) cries, but by caressing and kissing Shmuel, and praising Avital's middos (character traits). Because Dr. Daniels is a tzaddik, as well as a great dentist, the visit ended in dental improvisation and musings on rachmonos (or mercy): "if a girl is crying for her brother as if she were crying for herself, how could I, as his dentist, ignore such cries?"

There are undoubtedly great dentists in other places, but the way in which the decayed tooth of a little boy became the focus of not only the dentist, and the boy's siblings, and the siblings' friends, and my wife, and her friend, not to mention the patients in the waiting room (who were inevitably drawn into the drama) was one of those Israeli events which resonates as much as any Independence Day celebration. Because the appointment transformed from a mere 'visit' into something like a community event, it also revealed another of the benefits of mainstreaming: like every other child, a special needs child reveals, through his difference, a particular aspect of tzelem elokim, the image of G-d. And in the process of engaging with that difference, we also come to encounter unexpected aspects of ourselves.

I do have to add that, unknown to Dr. Daniels, Avital had the upper hand all along. Sensing that the appointment might end in the pulling of Shmuel's tooth, Avital had, already that morning, davened for divine intercession, promising to donate one hundred shekels of her babysitting money if the extraction would be averted. That night, an old Yerushalmi came to our door asking for money to marry off his seventh child. The money was waiting.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


I've written about Shmuel, my five year old son with Down's Syndrome, in an article that appeared in the Jewish Journal . In that article, my wife and daughters are the heroes of the story--who in their various and different ways are able to acknowledge and embrace Shmuel for his difference in ways that I was unable. I did have an insight at the time which I shared with my wife: 'if you think that individual prejudice against difference is bad, just wait until the institutional prejudice kicks in.'

In Jerusalem, such prejudice shows its face in educational institutions. True, up until now we have been blessed. In choosing between the options of shiluv (or mainstreaming) and special education, we chose the former option. Gan Tali in our Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem has proven to be a place of warmth and support. It's true that at one of the first parent meetings some parents raised objections to the presence of our Shmuel, but Tali (who incidentally has no training in special education) silenced them sharply: "you're lucky to have a child like Shmuel in your child's gan." End of story.

At least for awhile. The blissful years of nursery school almost behind us, it was time to turn our attention toward primary school. There is a particular school in our neighborhood which we thought would be a promising place for Shmuel, but when my wife spoke to the school's administrator, she was told, “having a child with Down’s Syndrome will give the school a bad name.” A bad name! Besides, he continued, there are plenty of special education options; your son would be much better off in one of those.” This school principal claimed to know better, as he confided that he has a neice with Down’s Syndrome: “Placing a child in a normal context,” he went on, “will only burden the child with false expectations.” He might "come to think that he’s normal! and even entertain the dream that he might one day get married."

Well, yeah: false expectations. It's hard to get married: in fact, G-d, the midrash says, spends his time bringing couples together. So it is hard. But is it really so unreasonable to hope for Shmuel to get married? We try not to fast forward into the future (a good piece of advice for all parents), but there are assisted living facilities, and who knows? For me, it's certainly one of my greatest aspirations for Shmuel--that he get married, not so that he fulfills some idea of normalcy, but that he can connect with himself and find another with whom to connect, to build and grow together.

But we're not, for now, trying to get him married, we're trying to get him into first grade. And the school administrator's response raises issues beyond the obvious ones of derech eretz (good manners) and sensitivity, but about choosing educational approaches for special needs children. (It was satifsying to me that in a discussion of the issue at the shabbos table, my sixteen year old daughter and her friend asked: why would you want to send him to a school like that anyway?) Though in America and Europe, mainstreaming and special education are both recognized as reasonable options, in Israel, and most notably in the religious world, special education seems to be the only option (only two out of twenty-five special needs children in Israel, I'm told, are mainstreamed). It's most notable in the religious world, because it's that segment of the population that gives birth to the most children with Down's Syndrome. In a world of genetic testing, religious people are committed to the perspective opposite to the one that produces the 'designer baby.' Yet for all of these advances, the ability to fully accept and accommodate difference--on both a personal and communal level--remains limited. While years ago, special needs children were hidden away (and there are still cases where such children are given away at birth), now they are placed in special needs environments for day programs--out of the house, and sometimes off the map. Of course, I well understand that for some children and families, special education remains the pragmatic option, or even the best option. But the availablity of mainstreaming as an option entails a sensibility, a consciousness, that regrettably has yet to emerge fully in religious communities. The contrast to less observant communities is extraordinary and paradoxical. When I've given talks about Shmuel to such non-observant audiences in America, I've been struck by their sensitivities and their willingness to acknowledge and embrace difference--a far cry from the prejudice of the school administrator whom we encountered. But these are the very communities in which genetic testing is prevalent! It's an example of a principle articulated by Rav Tzaddok Ha Cohen: a person always has a weakness in the place of his greatest strength. And so a community. Which means that communities--however apparently far apart in sensibilities--have much to learn from each other.

Of course, Shmuel's current teacher--his ganenet--got it right. "Your child is blessed to be in the same gan with Shmuel." Tali was not playing lipservice to some abstract metaphysical notion, but she sees the benefits of integration in action--not only for Shmuel, but for the rest of the children in the gan. In fact, without mitigating our gratitude, it's probably they who benefit most. So I see it, every day, in our building. For Bayit Vegan, like many Jerusalem neighborhoods, is a conglomerate of cultures and neighborhoods: each building represents it's own community and specific culture. To suggest that my kids play with children from two buildings down the block would be like to suggest that they visit second cousins in Vermont. In such a world, there is no such thing as the 'playdate,' but rather children negotiating their own relationships and time. Our community--our building--is distinguished not only by the presence of Shmuel, but by his siblings and their friends--who have learned how to integrate Shmuel into their play. In this sense, even where special education is the chosen educational route, mainstreaming can still be a goal. Mainstreaming begins at home as an attitude, and can be an ideal even those who choose the educational stream of special ed.

Every morning in our house, the great debate ensues. The players are Shmuel and his younger brother Pinchos. The question is: who will accompany who to gan. The debate has predictable rhythms: Eema is usually the favorite first choice, but at some point Abba is also included in the argument. So: "Abba will take Shmuel, and Eema will take Pinchos." Or: "Eema will take Shmuel, and Abba will take Pinchos." But the result is almost always the same: the negotiation reaches its climax (sometimes heated), and then there's the agreement in unison: "Together!"

It's another one of those great insights that only our kids give us. Mainstreaming is not just an educational ideal, or at worst some forced ritual of inclusion. It's a practice, if given the opportunity, our children will live. And we adults, we just have to follow their lead.