Why are bricks red?

One way to explain the color of the brick would involve discussing the quantum mechanics of the atoms bricks are made of, (and this is where most readers eyes gloss over and skim to the end of the paragraph…) and the possible energy levels electrons can take when those atoms are combined into the compounds they are when they comprise a brick. Why those permitted levels means that those electrons will more readily absorb particular frequencies of electromagnetic waves. And how, of the frequencies in the range humans can see and thus call “light”, the result is that less light in the lower frequencies  is absorbed. Then we detour into the physiology of the eye, how the cone-shaped neurons in your retina detect light, why the three types of cones respond more to different ranges of frequencies. In particular, we can then trace the signal from the kind of cone most sensistive to lower frequencies of light, like the majority of the light that is reflected off the brick to the brain, and from there perhaps analyze why we group that under the label red. (… Hello again to all you skimmers!)

None of which actually touches on the first-hand experience of what it’s like to see red, what is called in cognitive science the “quale” of red. Not just to know something is red, but the first-hand mental image.

My question, though, is which is the cause and which is the effect?

Do we experience the quale of red because of the physics, biology and neural networking involved? Or, is what’s primary is that a soul experience the red of the brick, and that causes all the explanatory empiricism?

I am asking about the relationship between metaphysics and physics. We can take it as a given that Hashem causes metaphysics which in turn causes physics. That’s what metaphysics means — the spiritual “stuff” that lies behind physics.

So, to rephrase my question…

How are physics and metaphysics connected? Do metaphysical laws cause the physical ones? Are the laws of nature their implementation in physical “stuff”? Or, is their connection indirect, via people — who live both in this world and yet reach up to heaven?

I discussed this latter idea (from a different angle) in an earlier post titled “Mind, Perception and Metaphysics“. R’ Chaim Volozhiner (and I believe R’ Dessler is on the same page, see that post) writes in Nefesh haChaim 1:6:

אבל עיקרו של דבר כי הוא ית”ש אחר שברא כל העולמות ברא את האדם אחור למע”ב בריאה נפלאה כח מאסף לכל המחנות. שכלל בו כל צחצחות אורות הנפלאות והעולמות והיכלין העליונים שקדמו לו.

But the essence of the thing is that He (blessed be His name), after He created all the worlds, created man differently from the Act of the Beginning Of [ie the process of the rest of creation]. A wondrous creation, forces / potentials gather from all the camps. That unified in him all the Refinements, Lights, Wonders, Worlds and Upper Palaces that preceded him.

Physical objects exist and impact in the empirical world. Angels have their various planes of existence. In all of creation, only man’s existence runs from earth to heaven.

Related to this is the difference between how Chassidim and Litvaks understand the concept of tzimtzum. Tzimtzum is the Ari’s model of creation in Hashem “contracts” in order to make conceptual space, a possibility (we do not mean literal physical spacia contraction), of other things existing.

In Chassidus, tzimtzum is understood to refer to the Ein Sof, the Infinite One Himself, but is only an illusion. After all, Hashem Himself cannot change. As tzimtzum is an illusion, it would seem they assert an actual unity between metaphysics and physics.

In the Vilna Gaon’s thought, tzimtzum is real, but not a “contraction” of Divine Essence, but something else. Different opinions then multiply as to what — the Or Ein Sof (the Infinite Light), Hashem’s Ratzon (the expression of His Will – R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s position), and other opinions (wordings of the same idea?) exist. This removes the association between Hashem’s Unity and saying creation is inherently connected. Whereas Chassidim would have Hashem linking the various worlds, Rav Chaim — as we saw — says the linkage is via the human soul.

Interestingly, my theory fits the two communities’ respective attitude toward segulos, actions designed to achieve particular goals through metaphysical mechanics. Whereas it might be common to see a Chassid (or a Sepharadi, or… but let’s keep this in scope) wear a red string as a bracelet to avoid ayin hara, or a single Chassidah wear a magnet to attract a date, until recently you would not have found Litvaks doing the same. (Scoffing at the whole notion was far more common.)

To the Chassid, what happens in this world directly influences what happens in higher ones and the reverse. Thus, the notion that one can use Qabbalah to engineer a given consequence. A chassid can think in terms of the protection afforded by the mezuzah itself.

To a Litvak, the only connection is the soul and what is best for it “as he is there”. Thus, actions that do not refine the soul (or ch”v the inverse), do not change what is best for it, will not change outcome. Even the reward for mitzvos can not be determined mechanistically. A mitzvah will change the soul and thus what it deserves, but every soul and every moment of a life is different — we cannot know what that is. And so doing the mitzvah of mezuzah merits receiving protection (rather than it being a power of the object), but even so if for other reasons that soul needs trauma rather than protection… Even homes with the most beautifully and passionately written mezuzos have been broken into r”l.

So, returning to my opening question…

I am suggesting that the Chassid would say that the quantum mechanics, biology and neurology that goes into seeing the brick as red are caused by higher principles Hashem put into place beforehand. On the other hand, the Litvak would say that those higher principles are why a person has the experience of redness, the quale called “red’. This then causes the empirical world to “do its thing” to provide it.

The Mussar Ideal

(This is a rewrite and expansion of a couple of comments I made to something someone posted on an online course offered by The Mussar Institute. )

There are many middot that one can apply in relation to others, or reflecting back to themselves. For example, kavod (respect) or ahavah (love) are attitudes I must have toward others, but must also feel toward myself. But while we may simply be expressing the same fundamental attitude, but in different directions, I think there is a fundamental difference between a middah when directed at someone else than when directed at oneself.

Because self-help is so much part of our surrounding culture, and because it shares many of the same tools as Mussar, we have to take special care to keep the two distinct. Mussar is a spiritual practice because it has a spiritual definition of what it is we are trying to shape our character into. Mussar is a means of refining one’s soul, one’s Image of the Divine. I think it’s for this reason Dr. Alan Morinis tends translate “middot” as “soul traits” rather than “character traits”, even if we intend the same thing. The advantage is that it keeps in focus the idea that we are on a spiritual path, not a self-help one. Self-help is about being able to be who we wish we could beMussar is a perspective into the Torah and thus of Jewish teachings about who G-d made us to be.

Which is what?

From within the Mussar perspective (and there are many other traditional Jewish perspectives), that ideal we are reaching for is to be a giver. The Creator made this world for the sake of bestowing His Good on others. To be in the Image of the Divine thus similarly means to be focused on bestowing Divine’s Good on others. Rabbi EE Dessler’s “Discourse on Lovingkindness”, in Strive for Truth vol. I, pp 118-159, is a nice introduction to this worldview.

One of Mussar‘s foundation stories tells of a Yom Kippur when Rav Yisrael Salanter realized that his community needed a Mussar Movement. Rav Yisrael was away from home, and didn’t have a machzor, a Yom Kippur prayer book. At one point he lost his place, and needed to peer over another person’s shoulder. He got shoved in response to his efforts. How dare you interrupt my concentration! At that point Rav Yisrael realized that he couldn’t keep Mussar to himself, and had to share it with the world. Rav Yisrael realized that when people value their own prayer more than helping someone else — and think THAT’S what is going to get them forgiven on Yom Kippur — Judaism got derailed somewhere.

For that matter, the entire genre of R’ Yisrael stories and those of other Mussar greats extols their making the interpersonal central to their worship. Like the Yom Kippur when R’ Yisrael heard a baby crying, looked in and saw an overwhelmed older sister trying to watch the baby while her parents were in synagogue for Kol Nidre (the solemn first prayer of Yom Kippur, one of the liturgical year’s most significant moments). Rav Yisrael Salanter missed Kol Nidre himself to help the girl and the baby. Or when his students asked him how to be meticulous in baking matzos to have the best possible matzos for the seder night, R’ Yisrael told them that the greatest stringency in matzah was to be careful not to overtax the widows who worked in the matzah bakery. Or…

There is a famous story in which three converts approach Shammai and then Hillel asking to convert — but each posing their own precondition. The third:

There is another story with one non-Jew who came before Shammai. He said to him [the non-Jew to Shammai], “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one leg.” He [Shammai] pushed him [away] with the builder’s amah-stick which was in his hand.

He [the non-Jew] went before Hillel, who converted him. He [Hillel] said to him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. This is the whole Torah in its entirety, the rest is its explanation. Go learn.”

- Shabbos 31a

Similarly, Rabbi Akiva and (less famously) Ben Azzai teach:

“And you shall love your friends as yourself [I am Hashem].” (Vayiqra 19). Rabbi Aqiva said, “This is a great principle in the Torah. Ben Azai said, “‘This is the book of the generations of Adam’ (Genesis 5) — this is a greater principle than that.”

-Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4 (vilna 30b)

Mussar makes it very clear that the whole point of the Torah enterprise is about bringing G-d’s Good to other people. Taking the words of Hillel, Rabbi Aqiva and Ben Azzai at face value — it is the summary of the entire Torah, and its great principle. Those are the “golden eggs” we were made to produce. Including acts expressing love and honor. Returning to our opening examples, showing others respect and love are direct expressions of Mussar‘s ideal; it’s a person producing what we were designed to produce. Mussar‘s ends.

The same middot when expressed toward myself — self-respect and self-love – are more caring for the “goose”, making sure one can be better at bestowing good. Not producing, but developing further capacity to produce in the future. Having the resources to share with others. Making sure that what I think of as “doing good” matches what the soul’s Manufacturer lets us know really is good. Not driving oneself to burnout. Being able to assess all of the above clearly rather than being caught in reflex, prejudice or the desires of the moment, etc… Mussar‘s means.

Interpretations of Probability

At “Casting Lots” I tried to use the relationship between the field of statistics and Divine Providence as a means of looking at the verse “Hipil pur hu hagoral — he cast a pur, that is a goral” (Esther 3:7). I asked:

Which raises the more general question as to whether the Believer’s lexicon even has meaning for the word “random”. Is anything truly random? How far does Providence extend — Only to those who know Him (Rambam)? Only to those who merit it? Only to humans? Or, as became mainstream thought in the Orthodox community since the idea was first introduced by the Gra and the Baal Shem Tov, that every event in history is providential? And if we do take the last stance, what does “random” mean? What does a statistician study?

The question doesn’t exist according to the first positions on hashgachah peratis (individualized Divine Providence, hereafter: HP) that I mentioned. However, if every event, or at least every event that impacts any person’s life is the product of HP, then what random events do statisticians ever experience? What is it probability measures, if in truth Hashem causes everything witnessed according to His Plan?

(Tangent: For what it’s worth, my personal believe is that contemporary science supports the universal views of HP taught by the Gra and the Besh”t. Chaos Theory is usually popularized through the example of the butterfly in Africa that does or does not flap its wings, and could be the reason why there are or aren’t tornadoes ch”v in Kansas. Systems are complex, with feedback loops that allow small, often immeasurable, changes in initial condition to have large impact on the outcome. Even if only a small subset of people earn HP on a subset of the events in their lives, every event contributes to the set of causes for what happens to them. I don’t think partial HP is consistent with such a model of the world.)

The comment chain on “Casting Lots” opened up a discussion of whether various understandings of the relationship between nature and Divine Providence wouldn’t actually rest on the various interpretations of probability. So, I hit Wikipedia as a quick-and-easy source of a list of the more discussed interpretations. Quotes will be from there.

1- Classical Interpretation

The theory of chance consists in reducing all the events of the same kind to a certain number of cases equally possible, that is to say, to such as we may be equally undecided about in regard to their existence, and in determining the number of cases favorable to the event whose probability is sought. The ratio of this number to that of all the cases possible is the measure of this probability, which is thus simply a fraction whose numerator is the number of favorable cases and whose denominator is the number of all the cases possible.

Pierre-Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

So, the probability of flipping a “heads” is 50% because there is nothing causing a heads more than a tails. Since there are two options, the probability of each is 1/2.

But if everything is ultimately caused by Hashem and reflects His Plan, then there are no events describable by the classical interpretation of probability.

(And for these reasons we can also dismiss probabilistic logic and propensity theory, both of which extend the classical theory’s use of the notion of cause.)

2- Frequentism


Frequency probability is the interpretation of probability that defines an event’s probability as the limit of its relative frequency in a large number of trials.

In other words, the probability of flipping a “heads” is 50% because given enough coin tosses, we will eventually find that half of them are heads.

I think this interpretation is the implication of R’ Dessler saying that teva (nature) is merely a pattern that Hashem hides His action behind. (Although later he says that teva is a pattern those of us who don’t merit miracles impose on the world of our perceptions. And those who experience miracles due so because their view of reality imposes a loftier pattern, one where justice and mercy have more reality than gravity or electromagnetism.)

Teva as opposed to seeing hashgachah, therefore inheres in the Law of Large Numbers, the idea that if you flip a coin more and more times, you will get closer and closer to 50% heads, and if you roll a die enough times, 1/6 of the rolls will be a 6, etc…

Therefore, I think REED is saying that Hashem chooses which coin-toss will be heads — and that is HP. But in order to hide His “Hand” from our sight, Hashem does so in accordance with the Law of Large Numbers.

3- Bayesian Probability

The Bayesian theory of statistics relates probability to knowledge and ignorance. To give Jaynes’ formal definition of Bayesian Probability, “A probability p is an abstract concept, a quantity that we assign theoretically, for the purpose of representing a state of knowledge, or that we calculate from previously assigned probabilities.”

For example, if someone puts 5 white balls and 5 black balls in a jar, and each person takes a ball, but no one looks until the 10th person takes their ball, each person has a 50:50 of opening their hand and finding a white ball. What if each person peeks, but doesn’t share that information? If I’m the 2nd person taking a ball, then the person who took the first ball and knows it was white, also knows my odds are only 4 in 9.

That first ball-taker is assessing the probability of my picking a white ball, GIVEN that one white one was already taken. No one else has that given, they are assessing the simple probability of my taking a white ball out of the original even mixture. They are coming up with a different number, but really they are answering a different question. By changing the knowns, the givens, we alter what it is we are assessing the probability of, and therefore will get a different probability.

Similarly, the odds of my taking out a white ball after I looked in my hand and saw the ball was white is 100%. But that’s not “the odds of my picking up a white ball”, full-stop. It’s, “the odds of my picking up a white ball GIVEN that I picked up a white ball”.

Hashem has all the givens, so the only probability “questions” He faces only events with known answers of 100% or 0%.

Using Bayesian Probability, saying that there is a 50% chance of flipping a heads (reminder: assuming HP applies) boils down to saying that we really can’t fathom the mind of G-d well enough to make any prediction about which way He would want the coin to fall.

Casting Lots

Regardless of what one believes about Creation and the origin of the species, we have evolution since then. In order to even entertain the possibility of evolution as the origin of the species, one would have to understand that “random mutation” is not random, but Divinely guided. So that in addition to the filtering effects of “survival of the fittest” on the results of those mutations, G-d, by loading the genetic dice, entirely guaranteed His Will was manifest in the result.

Which raises the more general question as to whether the Believer’s lexicon even has meaning for the word “random”. Is anything truly random? How far does Providence extend — Only to those who know Him (Rambam)? Only to those who merit it? Only to humans? Or, as became mainstream thought in the Orthodox community since the idea was first introduced by the Gra and the Baal Shem Tov, that every event in history is providential? And if we do take the last stance, what does “random” mean? What does a statistician study?

Purim is an oddly named holiday. It comes from Haman’s means of selecting a date for his planned genocide. “Hipil pur hu hagoral — he cast a pur, that is a goral” (Esther 3:7). “Pur” is a Persian word meaning “lot”. Purim, the Lottery Holiday, actually represents, though, the presence of G-d’s Hand in events. The Persian conception of lots is actually the reverse of the holiday’s entire message!

More on target is the Hebrew word “goral“. When the land of Israel was divided in Yehoshua’s day between the tribes, a “goral” is used to determine Hashem’s Will. A goral is a means of opening up the options within nature, making no one outcome more miraculous than the other, to allow us to see Hashem’s choice without miracles. A kind of prophetic event.

Add to this the irony of “Purim Sameiach“.  Ben Zoma says the wealthy person is one who is “sameiach bechelqo — happy with his portion”. He is someone who knows his portion is planned, a goral given by G-d, not happenstance. “Everything that happens to me is in the Hands of the One Who made me.” “This too is for the good.”

A pur was cast before Haman, but in truth the pur was a goral.

Midgets on the Shoulders of Giants

Someone recently (when I first wrote an earlier version of this post, Feb 2007) asked me about nisqatnu hadoros, the decline over time from one generation to the next. How is this possible, given that we now have universal education, and the masses know more Torah than any other generation in millennia?

Pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident.
Pigmies placed on the shoulders of giants see more than the giants themselves.

– Didacus Stella in Lucan 10, tom. ii. (39-65 CE)

So, sometime around the end of the Second Beis haMiqdash period is the earliest documentation of the idea that people of later generations, even if not as great as those of earlier generations, could still get further — because we start with their accomplishments.

This metaphor first enters Jewish Thought with the Tosafos Rid, Rav Yishaya di-Trani (1180-1250). His student, the Shibolei haLeqet, is clear that the Tosafos Rid was using “an aphorism that he heard from the non Jewish scholars. … [W]e are dwarves riding on the neck of giants because we see their wisdom and delve deeper, and we learn from their wisdom to discover everything that we say. Not because we are greater than they were.” Quoted from translation by R’ David Sedley in his blog (see there for a discussion focusing on this particular expression). R’ Sedley identifies the “non Jewish scholars” as Bernard of Chartres, quoted by John of Salisbury.

Meanwhile, the idea, if not the metaphor, has a long standing amongst Chazal well before the Tosafos Rid. The most similar is probably:

Rabbi Zeira said that Rava bar Zimuna said: If the earlier [Sages] were the sons of angels, then we are mortals; but if the earlier ones were mortals, then we are donkeys – and not the donkeys of Rav Chanina Ben Dosa and Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair but like the other donkeys.

- Shabbos 112b

The term I rendered “mortals” is “benei temusa — sons of death”. There is a version which has “benei adam — children of man”, i.e. people. But I think this variant is more telling.

The reference to Rav Chanina ben Dosa’s donkey is explained in the gemara. Thieves stole the donkey and gave it untithed grain to eat. The donkey refused to eat. Eventually, the thieves realized that the donkey was useless to them; if they kept it, it would starve to death. So they released it, and the donkey returned home. Rabbi Pinechas ben Yair sold his donkey to non-Jews, but the donkey somehow knew when it was Shabbos, and refused to work.

We have three levels:

1- Angels, which are purely spiritual. They embody Hashem’s Will, and therefore do not change.

2- People, who are body and soul. Particularly if we are actually being called “mortals”, ones who are destined to separate soul from body.

3- Donkeys. The word is “chamor“, which we noted in the past is standard midrashic idiom for symbolizing man’s physical nature, due to the word’s similarity to “chomer“, substance. Thus our heroes come riding donkeys — in full control of their bodily desires and urges, and channeling them constructively.

A second metaphoric use of “chamor” is that person with knowledge is often compared to a donkey carrying a burden. For example, in how our sages (as quoted by Rashi, Bereishis 49:14) explain Yaaqov comparing Yissachar to a donkey in his blessing, that Yissachar was a tribe that was noted for its Torah knowledge.

A donkey would not be the animal chosen to represent ignorance. There is also no basis that I know of for saying that angels are more informed than people.

Within the class of donkeys, this gemara defines two sets:

  1. the special donkeys of the two tannaim, and
  2. regular donkeys.

Donkeys can’t think as humans do. When they act, they are responding to stimuli, acting as per habit, rote.

Notice, though, what we skip a level. Either we are like mortals to our predecessors’ angels, or we are like regular donkeys to their humanity. It is never suggested that we are like the special donkeys.

I think this is what this gemara is saying. If we view the earlier generations as angels in their perfection, then we must view ourselves as mortals — beings in a process to reach for that perfection, as an unattainable goal to strive for. If we view them as beings-in-process, then we should realize that they act as their souls dictate, and our actions are the rote of donkeys. And it’s not even like we have the best possible habits! If we were speaking of R’ Chanina ben Dosa’s or R’ Pinchas ben Yair’s donkeys, then at least we could invoke “mitokh shelo lishmah ba lishmah — from acting without the proper intent, one is brought to proper intent.” The process could begin with even donkey-like action and that bring us to our spiritual selves, but only if it were instinctively, habitually, following proper action.

So as I see it, the message of this gemara is that either we see how our perfection falls short of theirs (angels vs. mortals) or of how our pursuit of perfection falls short of theirs (mortals vs. regular donkeys). Again, the message appears to be about a decline in commitment, rather than knowledge.

This same question of how we differ from earlier generations was asked in a second gemara. What I want to focus on is exactly in which way we are lesser than those who came before, and how does that not interfere with our utilizing what they left us. I believe my take on R’ Zeira’s words are more explicitly made by here by Abayei:

R. Papa said to [his teacher] Abayei: What is the difference between those earlier [than us], for whom miracles were common, and us, for whom miracles are not common? If it is because of tenuyei

I want to break off here for a second. Tenuyei is from tani, to repeat, the root means “two”. It is also the root for masnisin, Mishna. Clearly the word means information memorized and repeated, the chain of masorah, in distinction to ideas that are derived or reasoned from those facts we inherited.

…in the years of R. Yehuda, all of tenuyei was in Neziqin, and we are masnisin…

which either means “learn mishnayos” or “repeat what we learned”. The difference wasn’t all that significant in those days. Mishnayos existed as an easily memorizable form for halakhah.

…6 orders. And when R. Yehuda delineates in [tractate] Uqtzin, [the case of] “A woman who dries vegetables in a pot”, or, some say [the case of] “Olives that were dried cut off”, [his students] Rav and Shmuel’s entire existances [were tied up in the resolution] of this issue. Yet we are masnisin Uqtzin in 13 schools [of thought, with 13 different explanations - Rashi]….
[Abayei] said to him: The are mosir nefesh [commit their souls] to sanctify The Name, we are not mosir nefesh to sanctify The Name.

- Brachos 20a

The gemara very clearly states that it is possible for one generation to know more than an earlier one. Abayei’s conclusion is that the lessening of the generations is in mersiras nefesh – commitment, not in knowledge.

Here’s R JB Soloveitchik’s way of describing the decline, as written in Pinchas Peli’s notes of his pre-Rosh haShanah lectures (“Soloveitchik On Repentance”, pp 88-89):

Allow me, please, to make a “private confession” concerning a matter that has caused me such loss of sleep. I am not so very old, yet I remember a time when ninety percent of world Jewry were observant and the secularists were a small minority at the fringes of the camp. I still remember – it was not so long ago – when Jews were still close to G-d and lived in an atmosphere perverted with holiness. But, today, what do we see? The profane and the secular are in control wherever we turn.

Even in those neighborhoods made up predominantly of religious Jews one can no longer talk of the “sanctity of the Sabbath day.” True, there are Jews in America who observe the Sabbath. The label “Sabbath observer” has come to be used as a title of honor in our circles, just like “Harav HaGaon” – neither really indicates anything and both testify to the lowly state of our generation. But it is not for the Sabbath that my heart aches, it is for the “eve of the Sabbath.” There are Sabbath-observing Jews in America, but there are not “eve-of-the-Sabbath” Jews who go out to greet the Sabbath with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet and/or with their mouths – but there are few, indeed, who truly know the meaning of service of the heart! What is the percentage of religious Jews today in contrast to the ninety percent only two generations ago? It seems to me that religious Jewry survives today solely by force of the Name of G-d who is there after man sins.

Otherwise we should have utterly despaired and given in to the feeling, with which I am often overcome as I lie awake at night, that we are building castles of sand, and any moment a wave will come and wipe out everything. But G-d who is there after man sins does not allow us to despair. He whispers in our ears the “Jerusalem is surrounded by mountains” – one must do much climbing and work hard, grasp every hand-hold and out-cropping, slide backward and try again to climb the mountain so as to be able to reach Jerusalem. “Who shall climb the mountain unto the Lord?” I do not believe that it is easy to return and repent. The path of repentance, for the individual, as well as the community, is arduous and many boulders are strewn about which can be overcome only with supreme effort. The road is long and tortuous until one arrives at the stage of: “Be cleansed before the Lord,” the cleansing of the Name of G-d who is there before man sins.

Now that we have universal education, we know more more. We are “higher”. However, in terms of religious passion we are “pand add far less to the total height. It is this poverty that is seen as now reaching crisis levels.

I like the metaphor of the rules of grammar that Moshe Koppel uses in his seifer “Metahalakha”. A native speaker of a language may not know its rules, whereas an immigrant who went to enough ulpan or ESL classes would know how to conjugate past pluperfect irregular verbs. The native speaker, though, knows what “sounds right”. And thus, with his less knowledge, is capable of knowing acceptable poetic license to make his point more elloquently and poignantly. The immigrant will make precisely grammatically correct sentences. If he learns two grammarians opinions, and he is sufficiently scared of sounding like an idiot, he will often choose a sentence that conforms to both interpretations. The immigrant, because he lacks that feel for the subject, will play safe.

If this was all there was to it.

One of the basic differences between Orthodox and Conservative thought is the mutability of decisions made by earlier generations. Orthodoxy breaks history down into eras: tana’im, amora’im, rishonim and achronim (roughly: mishnaic, talmudic, medieval, and late authorities). A rabbi of a later era may not or would not dispute one of an earlier era without having another earlier Rabbi in support. The dictum used to support this system is that no court can overrule another court unless it is greater in chokhmah (to be translated later) and in number. Since we can get arbitrarily large courts today, we seem to assume that later generations have less chokhmah than earlier ones.

Chokhmah, therefore, is some mental process, but if we want our quote from the gemara to stand, it is not required for masnisin. So chokhmah doesn’t refer to collecting information.

There is a famous quote, from Mes. Tamid: “Who is a chokham? One who sees what will be born.” Chokhmah here is a mental skill. But are we saying it is a necesary skill to be able to trace cause to effects (think before you do?); or even, chokhmah is acquired by studying causes to get effects. This seemingly straightforward quote didn’t help as much as I’d guess it would.

What is chokhmah? Well, I went to my copy of the Tanya, the book describing a Judaism based on Chokhmah Bina vaDa’asChabad. I figured that R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi must define his terms somewhere. Sure enough, this is what I found in Chapter 3. (Disclaimer: I am not a student of Chabad, my knowledge is very superficial. This is just a quote from an authorized translation by R. Nissan Mindel (1962).)

The intellect of the rational soul, which is the faculty which conceives of any thing, is given the appellation of chokhmahkoach mah – the “potentiality” of “what is”. When one brings forth this power from the potential to the actual, that is when [a person] cogitates with his intellect in order to understand a thing truly and profoundly as it evolves from the concept which he has conceived in his intellect, this is called binah.

Chokhmah, then, is the ability to conceive, to imagine, to create new information, which is then developed by binah. Neither refer to just warehousing information spoon-fed by the outside world — the ability most related to the masnisin of M. Brachos. Chokhmah would be the ability to perform thought-experiments. This helps understand our quote from Tamid. A chokham is the one who is ABLE to envision consequences before acting.

(But what about the oft-quoted mishnah of Ben Zoma (Avos 4:1) “Who is a chokham? One who learns from all men…”? I don’t see how this works with the either gemara that we quoted, or the Tanya’s definition. I considered the same three alternatives as I did for the mishnah in Tamid: 1- A chokham is one who is able to learn from any person. This seems to be a statement about middos (personality traits) not intellect. 2- A chokham would know that you ought to learn from anyone. This could be, but so would a navon (one blessed with binah, deductive abilities). 3- Chokhmah is acquired by learning from any person. This is, again, about masnisin — remembering and being able to repeat what you learned.

(Perhaps, and I admit this is a lame reply, chokham is used in Avos in a broad non-technical sense. A chokham could be one who has chokhmah, or one who has any intellectual prowess.)

We can tie these two types of generational descent together by positing a single cause. Clearly, for mesiras nefesh — committing oneself to G-d, one requires Yir’as Hashem — awe of G-d. Similarly, we say upon waking up every morning: reishis chokhmah yir’as Hashem — the beginning or source of Chokhmah is awe of G-d.

It seems to me from these two phenomena that it is yir’as Shamayim that is the primary trait that is diminishing through the years. The gemara in Brachos about mesiras nefesh, and the increasing crystallization of halachic decision are the outward manifestations.

Yir’as Shamayim, an awareness of the magnitude and import of the One in Heaven and our relationship to Him is the essence of the Sinai experience. Someone who can feel it and live by it is truly a “native speaker” of halakhah. We who do not spend erev Shabbos in anticipation of Shabbos must rely on strict adherence to formalized rules.