The Devastating Power of Leitznus

President Ford a”h‘s passing brought something into sharp focus for me.

Here is how the OU remembers Mr. Gerald R. Ford:

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish Umbrella organization mourns the death of former President Gerald R. Ford. Mr. Ford, our country’s 38th president, took office amid tremendous internal divisions domestically and complex, dangerous challenges internationally.
With grace of personality, humility of character and nobility of spirit, Gerald Ford led our nation through those turbulent times, making difficult, and sometimes, intensely unpopular decisions that history would prove correct.
For the Jewish people, he remained a stalwart friend, demonstrated by his successful efforts to bring a cease fire between Egypt and Israel and committing the Soviet Union to the Helsinki human rights accords, a pact that helped Jewish prisoners of conscience. Gerald Ford’s leadership through the Middle East crises of the period remained guided by his principled support of Israel:

America must and will pursue friendship with all nations. But, this will never be done at the expense of America’s commitment to Israel. A strong Israel is essential to a stable peace in the Middle East…My commitment to the security and future of Israel is based upon basic morality as well as enlightened self-interest. Our role in supporting Israel honors our own heritage.

We join with all in offering our prayers and sympathies to former First Lady Betty Ford and President Ford’s family.

Here’s what I remember of his presidency:

The President of the United States
President Gerald R. Ford…..Chevy Chase


My fellow Americans.. ladies and gentlemen.. members of the press.. and my immediate family. First, may I thank you all for being here. And I am in my immediate family. [repeats his script] First, may I thank you all for being here. And I am in my immediate family. Thank you all for being here, and I am truly honored to be asked by you to open the “Saturday Night” show with Harvey Cosell.
[Ford chuckles, as he pours water into one of the glasses then proceeds to sip from the empty glass]
I do have — [confused by the empty glass, he puts it down] I do have two major announcements. [awkward pause] To make. Whoop! [suddenly falls to the fall behind the podium ] Uh-oh! [stands back on his feet] No problem. No problem, no problem. Okay.
My first announcement is one I think you’ve all been waiting for. [lowers his head and accidentally bangs it on the podium] Whoop! No problem! Nope! Okay! No problem! Sorry, no problem.
[Ford again reaches over to pour water into one of the glasses, then picks up the empty pitcher and sips from it instead. He is again confused by this action, and thus returns the pitcher to the table.]
[yelling] I know a fellow who is going to enter the New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Florida, and every other primary! And I know he is going to win! And if he has any other competition, right up to the end of 1976 – thank you! Hey. [he again falls behind the podium] Uh-oh! [picks himself up again] No problem! No problem! [continues his speech] And if I don’t win, I will continue to run in the primaries, even if there are none!

A couple of minutes of well placed barbs can undo memories of untold hours and months of presidency.

That’s the power of leitzanus. Leitzanus is more dangerous than kefirah (heresy). Exposing oneself to opposing viewpoints can hone one’s opinions. After all, as long as it’s on the level of the mind, one can choose to reject an opinion, to shelve open questions for later, etc… Ridicule and sarcasm go beneath that, changing one’s attitude on the emotional level. There is little defense.

This is the flipside of one of the points I made in the “Faith and Proof” entries on this blog. There I argued that while there is an obligation to develop one’s philosophical understanding of how G-d runs the universe and our role in it, proof doesn’t work well as a basis of religion. People need to experience a religion, to found it on the strength of relying on only a single postulate, that what I felt that Shabbos was real. Only then can that stance be deepened and filled in with detail through philosophical explorations. Proofs only convince those ready to be convinced, and therefore the opening of the mind to the idea or the willingness to believe a question has a yet unfound answer are the greater challenge.

Emotions lead us to decide which questions are insurmountable, and which ones we can shelve for later. Leitzanus can therefore lead the mind to places it never otherwise would have agreed to go.

(It is for this reason I have a very strict policy about which blogs can be pointed to on emails to the Areivim discussion group. Pointing to a challenging or non-Jewish idea is not as hazardous as pointing people to someone’s forum for venting about everything and he doesn’t like in our community.)

Why do we light the new candle first?

My son (4th grade) had a class Chanukah party, for which he was aked to prepare a devar Torah. A short vertl, a question and answer to fit in less than a minute.

My son wanted to know why we light the Chanukah menorah starting from the left candle and working your way to the right. Usually mitzvos start on the right! He was so drawn to this question, he was going to present it even though he didn’t have an answer.

Here’s what we eventually came up with (2 minutes before “showtime”):

One of the most important things in Yahadus is to constantly growing, to always try to be a greater tzadiq than one was the day before. We light the left candle first because it is the new candle. As we rule (following Beis Hillel), we light every day more than the day before because “ma’alin beqodesh velo moridin – we ascend in holiness, not refress”. We therefore start with the symbol of progress.

Shiluach haQen

This entry is a continuation of the previous one.

I – Shilu’ach haQein

האומר על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך ועל טוב יזכר שמך מודים מודים משתקין אותו:

One who prays, “Upon the birds nest your mercy extends[, so too may you have mercy upon us]” … we silence him.

- Mishnah Berakhos 5:3 (33b)

פליגי בה תרי אמוראי במערבא רבי יוסי בר אבין ורבי יוסי בר זבידא חד אמר מפני שמטיל קנאה במעשה בראשית וחד אמר מפני שעושה מדותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא רחמים ואינן אלא גזרות

Two amoraim in the west (i.e. Israel) are divided about it, Rabbi Yosi bar Avin and Rabbi Yosi bar Zeveida. One said: Because he places jealousy upon the creatures of Genesis. And one said: Because he makes the attributes of the Holy One to be Mercy, but they are only laws.

-Berakhos 33b

We are obligated to send away the mother bird before taking eggs or hatchlings from her nest. This is the mitzvah of shiluach haqein. We are told here that the mitzvah can not be about having mercy on birds because (1) if it were, there would be similar laws for mothers of other species; and (2) they exist as laws upon people, not as part of Hashem’s relationship with His birds.

It would seem that shiluach haqein is similar in thrust to why we make a berakhah on bread before other items. We show respect to bread, the staple of our diet, beyond the respect shown other foods. Similarly, Aharon, not Moshe, initiates the plagues of Blood, Frogs and Lice. As Rashi repeats form our sages, this is because the Nile saved Moshe when he was hidden there as an infant, and the sand saved him when Moshe killed the Egyptian taskmaster and buried him in the sand. Even though bread, the Nile and the sand of Egypt are inanimate objects, and do not feel the gratitude shown them, people need to express the gratitude, to reinforce the middah in ourselves.

I think this is the second explanation in the gemara. The mitzvah is not for the sake of the bird experiencing receiving mercy, but for the sake of the person having the excercise showing it mercy.

But does the bird not suffer to see her children taken from her? Why is it wrong to acknowledge Hashem sparing it that suffering? And why aren’t there mitzvos sparing other animal’s mothers such suffering?

II – Can Animals Speak?

The simplest explanation of the Targum I discussed in the previous entry describing the human soul as a “ru’ach memalela — a speaking spirit” is that there is some fundamental skill necessary for true speech that people have and animals lack. In recent years, this has become difficult to identify. There are apes that have been taught American Sign Language. They lack grammar; the ape Koko will say “Koko wants banana” and “Banana wants Koko” interchangably. Perhaps grammar is the critical skill implied. Without grammar distinguishing “I threw the ball” and “a ball threw me”, all we know is that an ape can identify that the world involves a ball, itself, and throwing, and not necessarily describing the event itself.

However, more recently the orangutan Chantek was taught ASL, and not only can phrase her needs, she invented “tomato toothpaste” as a sign idiom for catsup. While there is still no sign of an ape mastering grammar, that’s impressive.

To further complicate things, it’s unclear how non-human Chantek is. It depends what the gemara means when speaking of “adnei hasadeh“. If I take the aggadita part literally, the are human beings that grow off stalks; their navel is on a stem that goes into roots in the ground. Halachically, killing one can qualify as murder. Is this a hypothetical case — people say these things exist, and if they do, it would be murder? Or is the aggadita metaphoric, and it’s talking about apes or some subset of apes. Perhaps the aggadita speaking of how they would die if you took them from their habitats and thus “are attached to the ground”. The Malay “orang + hutan” (man + wilderness) sure sounds a lot like “adnei hasedeh” (men of the field).

Back to the point, I now find it possible but difficult to explain Targum as saying that people qualitatively have some communication skill lacking in animals, rather than quantitatively superior skills. This drove my conclusion that the speech here is internal to the self, the stream of consciousness of the seikhel, and motivated much of the previous entry.

III- Are Animals Self-Aware?

Revisiting the issue of the Turing Test and if it can produce false positives: Do animals have this ability to perceive their own thoughts? Are they self-aware? Does an animal not only recognize self, but have an “I” in their consciousness that can know what it’s like to make that recognition?

Targum Unqelus describes the human soul as being uniquely a ru’ach memalela. We noted that animals are also described as having a nefesh, but no mention of their having a ru’ach. And we also argued that self-awareness is a feature of free will, which people have and animals lack.

If the mother bird lacks self-awareness, she can still feel and respond to the pain of losing her children. It is pain because it is something she responds to by trying to minimize. But there is no “I” to experience that pain, the pain isn’t internalized by the koach hadimyon within the bird’s soul. It is pain, but it is not suffering. Which would explain why the Torah is not concerned with her suffering. Rather, it is concerned with creating people who are capable of inflicting pain. It is not Divine Mercy on birds, it is a personality-shaping law given to man.

Ruach Memalela

I – Ru’ach Memalela

Here’s the creation of man, as described in the Torah.

וַיִּיצֶר יְ-הוָה אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו, נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.

Hashem G-d formed man, dust of the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils a living spiritual-soul; and man became a living life-soul.

- Bereishis 2:7

וּבְרָא יְ-יָ אֱ-לֹהִים יָת אָדָם, עַפְרָא מִן אַרְעָא, וּנְפַח בְּאַפּוֹהִי, נִשְׁמְתָא דְּחַיֵּי; וַהֲוָת בְּאָדָם, לְרוּחַ מְמַלְּלָא.

Hashem G-d created man, dust of the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils a living spirtual-soul; and it became in man a speaking will-soul.

- Targum Unqelus, ibid

Nefesh, ru’ach and neshamah are defined as the ideas are developed in Qabbalah. There are many posts in this blog that touch on the subject. The distinction between them must be addressed here, as all three words are used.

The Torah’s version of the pasuq uses the root “yatzar“, to gives shape or form to something that already exists. Hashem shapes man, breathes into him a neshamah, a spiritual soul, an existence in heavenly realms. This transforms man into a living nefesh. Being a nefesh alone does not make man unique. The prohibition against eating blood is “for the blood is of the nefesh.” Animals have a nefesh, which lends significance to their blood as well. The relavent term here would seem to be that the nefesh of man is chayah, living.

Unqelus uses terms that stess what is new and unique about a person. He opens the pasuq with the word “uvera“. Unlike yetzirah, beri’ah is creation of something toally new, yeish mei’ayin — ex nihilo. And while the Torah speaks of how the breath transforms man into a living nefesh, Unqelus speaks of it as a new thing — a speaking ru’ach that is within him. Ru’ach (lit: Wind) is the flow from the neshamah, the “breath” before it fully leaves the Breather, and the nefesh, the breath at rest. (See Nefesh haChaim 1:5 or the translation and discussion here.) The soul as wind, the unseen will which can change the universe.

The Torah writes of the being of dust becoming living, a changing, growing, dynamic nefesh. Nefashos existed before, in animals, as did the body. The fact that it’s living is a change, not a creation. Unqelus writes of man now having a will that speaks. As his work is a Targum, not a commentary, presumably these are two sides of the same coin: being endowed with a speaking ru’ach is key to giving chiyus (life and dynamicity) to a nefesh.

II – Two Ways of Thinking

By my own experience, conscious thought happens two ways: the internal monologue we call a “stream of consciousness”, and by setting up thought-experiments to run through. For example, there are two ways to think through the question “Does an elephant have hair?”

Streams of consciousness, hereafter seikhel (for reasons that will become evident later), are a common tool of an author’s trade because it’s thought in the form of words. A solution based on this mode of thought might run something like this: Elephants are mammals, all mammals have hair, and so unless elephants are the exception to the rule, they must have hair. Elephants are well known and discussed animals. Could they be an exception to the rule and I don’t know it? Nah, they must have hair.

On the other hand, when I someone, and realize he has red hair, I don’t simply pick up another fact about the person, I have the experience of seeing red hair. I can remember and reproduce the image of him and his red hair in my mind. The knowledge isn’t reducable to words, it involves qualia, attributes of internal experience. And when I imagine what he would look like with black hair, I manipulate an image, not simply reason with concepts reducible into the words of my seikhel. There is a shared feature to seeing and hearing something when it happened, remembering the event, and imagining what the event would be like. When I remember my son’s face, I do not simply remember facts about it translatable into my seikhel, the flow of words in my head. I actually recreate the experience of seeing it. When I remember last Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidrei, I reproduce the experience of hearing the Chazan sing it, the congregation singing along.

This is the “koach hadimyon“, “the ability to make likenesses”. It is usually translated as “imagination”, but this translation is anachronistic — the word “imagination” changed meaning since first coined by Aristotilians (such as the Rambam). Dimyon is the laboratory of my thought experiments.

Solving the elephant problem through dimyon, you can remember elephants you saw, or saw pictures of. The detail may be blurry, so you may have to manipulate the picture a bit. Finally, a version of the picture which has a tuft of hair at the tail, maybe (if your memory is good) some downy hair around the eyes and ears, strikes you as the most familiar, the most real. And again you could reach the conclusion that elephants have hair.

Note that both require being aware of one’s thoughts: there is no stream of consciousness without a “listener” hearing the thoughts. There is no dimyon without an observer (and listener) watching the theater. This is a kind of self-awareness essential for the idea of “free will” to be meaningful. Free will is the ability to choose one’s actions and reactions, which is impossible if one can not perceive which thoughts to choose among.

And therefore, the ru’ach, the seat of will, must be self-aware. Conscious thought comes from the awareness of our thoughts, including our awareness of that awareness itself, and so on in an infinite regress. Free will comes from being able to monitor one’s thoughts and edit them based on judging what one monitors.

III – Yeitzer Hara or Key to Nevuah?

Rav Yisrael Salanter opens his Igeres haMussar (The Mussar Letter, Ohr Yisrael ch. 10; heb & eng, smoother English trans.) with the following (tr. mine, but it and the comments are based on a combination of the above):

A person is free in his dimyon and bound by his reason.

The phrase here is “assur bemuskalo“. Assur literally means bound or imprisoned (beis ha’asurim = jail), but to anyone familiar with halakhah, the meaning of “prohibited” will certainly also leap to mind.

Muskal is a conjugation of the same root as seikhel (mind) using the passive mode the Haskalah chose for their name and carried echoes of that meaning to contemporary readers. It is used elsewhere in Or Yisrael to connote thought about one’s middos.

His dimyon walks him unfettered in the direction of his heart’s desire, without fear of the certain future, the time when Hashem will call to account for all he caused to happen.

Is Rav Yisrael’s dichotomy between muskal and dimyon the same as the one we laid about above between seikhel and dimyon? Can we really take a mixture of Aristotelian thought and my own observation of what goes on in my mind and assume it is Rav Yisrael’s intent? And if that is the distinction he is drawing, why is dimyon being demonized?

After all, nevu’ah (prophecy) also uses dimyon.

The information that is made known to a prophet in a prophetic vision is made known through a parable whose meaning is immediately engraved [understood] in his heart in such a manner that he knows what it is.

- Rambam, Yesodei haTorah 7:3

I think therefore we must conclude key of Rav Yisrael’s thought is more in the contrast between free and confined than in dimyon vs. muskal. Dimyon is far more readily uncontrolled. Emotions are more readily fired by events rather than ideas, and so of our thoughts, our ability to create and recreate events has a strong ability to shape our desires.

As Rav Dessler writes (Michtav meiEliyahu IV pp 251-255) in the name of the Alter of Slabodka, this very same ability, when controlled, gives us the leverage to shape ourselves, to climb the Mesilas Yesharim’s ladder to prophecy and beyond. Dimyon as a mussar tool warrants its own post, be”H.

Rav Aryeh Kaplan comments on the following story in the gemara (Yuma 69b). The members of the Anshei Kenesses haGedolah fasted for three days, trying to destroy the yeitzer hara for idolatry. A lion of fire came out of the Qodesh haQedashim and the navi tells the Jewish people that it is the yeitzer hara that they have been seeking. They trap it in a cauldron of lead, and ever since then the call for idolatry is muted.

Note the desire to worship idolatry is recognized only by the navi. It appears in a dimyon, a lion that exists in perception, but isn’t a physical thing they see. This desire isn’t purely evil, it stems from the heart of the Beis haMiqdash itself! And, as Rabbi Kaplan adds, this story is about the last of the prophets. After Anshei Keneses haGedolah, the people who trapped this inclination, prophecy ceases.

Without the challenge there is no growth; without fighting a desire for idolatry, one doesn’t develop the skills for prophecy. As it is put in Mishlei “zeh le’umas zeh — this [is created] in opposition to that” everything in this world is created to balance our opportunities for good and for evil. That quality of dimyon needed for nevu’ah that was also the main call of the idol was placed in a cauldron.

IV- The Turing Test and the Limits of Free Will

Alan Turing, one of the fathers of computing theory, decided that the question of whether machines will ever be able to think is meaningless. He instead proposed this question: Can a machine be made whose output is indistinguishable from that of a person? To that end, he designed the Turing Test. A tester is given access to two teletypes. At the other end of one connection is a human being, the other is controlled by a computer. The tester needs to decide which is which solely on the basis of the text on it. Both the human and the program must try to be identified as a human being. The program passes the test if the tester is unable to make the determination.

If you think about it, this is how we judge other people as well. We can’t know what’s going on inside their own minds. Rather, we assume they’re aware based on judging their behavior.

But I find this shift of the problem dissatisfying. It may be outside the purvey of science to discuss my subjective experience, but that does not mean it exists. I know what it’s like to be me, to see a red ball and have within my mind a mental image of the scene which I can replay by memory and modify — or even construct on my own — through dimyon.

We know from computer programming that very complex output is possible without this awareness of my thoughts, including that awareness itself as a thought of which I’m aware. Perhaps even behavior complex enough to pass the Turing Test without having “anyone home” aware of the thoughts. No “I” experiencing them.

As we saw in the previous entry, angels are credited with complex activity and yet we do not assume that it’s the product of free will.

Not all human decisions involve free will to the same extent. Rav Dessler gradiates decisions based on their distance from the bechirah point. (See this post.) Consciousness is more involved the closer a decision is to the battle-front between one’s desires. One person might have to consciously choose not to cheat a cashier at a restaurant. For others, the idea would never cross their minds — the decision is unconscious.

Psychoanalysis speaks of things happening in our unconscious, preconscious, and subconscious.

And people can be trained to have Pavlovian responses. I recall a high school science teacher make this point. He had us write an “X” in our notebook every time he said “X”. The first so many times, he said “X” while banging a ruler on his desk. He went at a rapid clip, not giving us time to think, and the ruler was much louder than he was. At some point, he stopped saying anything, and just hit the desk. Most of us kept on going for quite a while before realizing, writing “X” when we heard the slap of the ruler rather than follow instructions.

So people can act without full self-awareness. Not every decision involves seikhel that the ru’ach both produces and “listens” in on, or a dimyon that has an audience. As Rav Dessler writes, who we are is defined by where our bechirah point is, which decisions require conscious attention, what issues get address with conscious thought. And it is on the distance we moved that bechirah point, and against what odds, that we are judged.

V- A Living Soul

Perhaps we can use all of the above to address our opening question.

What does it mean to be a nefesh chayah? Sartre summarized Existentialism with the enigmatic words “Existence precedes essence.” When it comes to a table, one can know something about the plan for building the table, the kind of wood the table will be made from, etc… and thereby know much about the table before it even exists. Human beings, however, exist before their essence is defined. We are changing, dynamic beings (as also discussed in the last entry, in contrast to angels).

In terms of the bechirah point, we mean that the topic which grab our awareness and therefore more fully enter conscious decision making changes during the course of our lives. Hopefully for the better, sometimes not so. In many different directions: we can be moved to be more compassionate or at another time, to be more spiritual. There are many different values about which we can be challenged at different levels.

“For a man is a tree in the field”. This pasuq refers to the prohibition against waste; do not chop down a fruit tree when attacking the city, because that tree represents future lives. However, it is also often used homiletically. I would point out that a tree only grows on the outer edge, constantly moving the bark further out and further up. The majority of the tree is static, rigid. We too only grow under that spotlight of our bechirah point. The rest of our territory is rather rigid. We change as we move that area, changing where and how we grow.

Seikhel takes ideas and develops them into new ideas. It is a rigid system guided by logic. If it is functioning properly, the only time it would reach wrong conclusions is when working from false premises. It is therefore an ideal tool for channeling our growth. Dimyon is a more effective tool for maximizing that growth. The two combine to make a vector: one provides direction, the other, quantity.

How was our nefesh given chiyus? The Targum tells us that it was our getting something new, a ruach memalela. A will that communicates, that is both a “speaker” and a “listener”. It’s to be capable of engaging in conscious seikhel and dimyon, to be able to watch our thoughts, judge them, and adapt them, in one seamless loop. That is the engine that moves our bechirah point ever forward.