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 http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2008/05/23/baby-einstein/), 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.