Sunday, May 31, 2015

Maximizing Mitzvos

I was talking with a friend of mine yesterday, and he raised an interesting question: Is the increasingly-fast chumrah creep good or bad for Orthodoxy's numbers? And by extension, for those who care about such things, for the amount of Torah being learned and mitzvos being kept?

Of course, no one is cynically controlling the creation and maintenance of chumros, but if you could, how would adding chumrahs - or taking them away - affect the amount of people who identify as Orthodox? On the one hand, I think that the increasingly restrictive chumros raise the bar for entry to Orthodoxy, so that fewer people are willing to accept Orthodoxy than might have been if there were fewer restrictions and therefore fewer people are keeping (Orthodoxy's version of) halacha. On the other hand, chumros supposedly enhance the mitzvos that are being done, and practically, often act to create a barrier to leaving for those already in.

So if we could deliberately set the level of chumros/debatable halacha at a point to maximize the mitzvah-points being earned, the perfect blend of quantity and quality, where would that point be?

Friday, May 29, 2015

History Stories

I think that history is often taught the wrong way. Kids learn history as unconnected chunks of stuff they have to memorize, as boring lists of names and dates, as stuff that happened once upon a time a long time ago.

I recently read "The Last of the Doughboys" by Richard Rubins. The book is a history of the American involvement in WWI told through interviews with American veterans of the war. Interviews the author conducted in the early 2000s. One interview I found particularly interesting was done in 2003, with a man who was 110 years old. He talked a bit about his experiences as a combat engineer in 1918, repairing railroads for the Allies and blowing up German bridges. He also talked about his parents, who had been born slaves in the antebellum south and had been married, as free people, just after the Civil War ended.

My personal connection to history only goes back as far as the 1920s, to the depression in Germany after WWI and my grandfather's story of how he got a million marks for his bar mitzvah and that was just enough money to buy a candy bar in the store around the corner. Yet in 2003, while I was in college, there was a man in this country who could remember his parents stories, the experiences of people who were adults when Lincoln was elected. I've been to a few Civil War battlefields, read the markers and looked at the memorials and cannon and tried to imagine what it was like to have been on those fields when those guns were firing. As recently as 2003, there was someone who could remember his parents telling him what it was like to wait for news of those battles.

That's what history is, and how it should be taught. History is memories, stories from our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. And from other people, and their parents and grandparents. Anyone who could have talked to this man about his life would have listened to his stories. When people get together, that's what we do. We trade stories about our lives, about our personal histories. The older the stories and the more different than our own, the more interesting they are. People who found it boring to memorize who Lincoln and Davis were, to remember names and dates like Fort Sumter, 1861 and Appomattox Court House, 1865 would have found it easy and interesting to listen to this man talk about his parents.

As a rule, the best histories are the ones that, like novels, focus on the experiences of a handful of main characters and tell the story of the events through their experiences. When history is, "This happened at this place to these people on this date, and then this happened to these people on this date, and then…" it's artificial and boring. When history is used as a tool for moralizing,  whether it's the apocryphal story about Washington and the cherry tree or the myth of the pious shtetle, it becomes a fairy tale, something that happened once upon a time a long time ago to story characters who aren't like us or anyone we know. When history is the stories people tell about themselves, their family and their friends it's real things that happened to real people, anecdotes that we would happily spend an afternoon trading with friends.