Monday, November 19, 2007

Historical Mad Lib

This comes from a political exchange between two poets. Can you guess the people about whom this is written?
If you can convince the [________] that your armies are bombing their cities and rendering their women and children homeless beggars -- those of them that are not transformed into "mutilated mud-fish", to borrow one of your own phrases --, if you can convince these victims that they are only being subjected to a benevolent treatment which will in the end "save" their nation, it will no longer be necessary for you to convince us of your country's noble intentions. Your righteous indignation against the "polluted people" who are burning their own cities and art treasures (and presumably bombing their own citizens) to malign your soldiers, reminds me of Napoleon's noble wrath when he marched into a deserted Moscow and watched its palaces in flames. I should have expected from you who are a poet at least that much of imagination to feel, to what inhuman despair a people must be reduced to willingly burn their own handiwork of years', indeed centuries', labour. And even as a good nationalist, do you seriously believe that the mountain of bleeding corpses and the wilderness of bombed and burnt cities that is every day widening between your two countries, is making it easier for your two peoples to stretch your hands in a clasp of ever-lasting good will?

Yes, I think it sounds a lot like Iraq, too. I'll put the answer in comments, or you can read the whole exchange.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1, Mishna 17

by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Shimon his son [the son of Rabban Gamliel of the previous mishna] said: All my life I have been raised among the Sages, and I have not found anything better for oneself than silence. Study is not the primary thing but action. Whoever talks excessively brings about sin."
Maimonides, in his commentary to this mishna, has a lengthy but very worthwhile discussion about speech which we will summarize below. He divides speech into five categories.

(1) Obligatory: speech which the Torah requires us to utter. The primary example of this is Torah study. (Maimonides does not mention prayer. I assume this is because prayer is not considered "speech" per se, but is more of an internal, meditative activity.)

(2) Praiseworthy: speech which is not commanded by the Torah, but which fulfills a positive purpose. This would include complimenting others, praising good people and qualities, and denigrating bad qualities. Also words -- as well as song -- which inspire, which touch the soul of the listeners and goad them to become greater people would fall under this category.

(3) Permissible: speech which relates to our businesses and our basic needs -- food, clothing etc. One is considered praiseworthy if he minimizes his speech in this category.

(4) Undesirable: empty talk, that which the listener gains little from. This would include much of what we hear in the news (if it's not the juicy stuff which probably belongs in an even lower category). The commentators give such examples as discussing how a person became rich or died (or both), or how a wall was constructed. (It's almost amusing that scholars such as Maimonides had difficulty even coming up with examples of such talk. One imagines that they could not easily conceive of wasteful talk that would hold anyone's interest in the first place. Guess they lived in the days before pro ball... :-)

(5) Forbidden: that which the Torah explicitly forbids -- cursing, false testimony, gossip (whether true or false), vulgar language, etc.

Maimonides writes that needless to say, the first two categories should form the bulk of our speech. Even regarding this, however, he adds two qualifying conditions:

(1) We practice what we preach. Learning but not doing, or praising good deeds which we ourselves do not fulfill may very well be worse than not speaking or learning in the first place. In this vein, our mishna stated: "Study is not the primary thing but action."

(2) Our speech should be concise and to the point. We should always be wary that our words are proper and carefully chosen. Too much speech is counterproductive in almost every area. Even regarding Torah study the Talmud writes that one should teach his students in as concise a manner as possible (Pesachim 3b). And likewise, our mishna concludes: "Whoever talks excessively brings about sin."
In truth, however, there is a much deeper idea here as well. Speech does not have to be about G-d and religion to be valuable. Even light speech may be worthy if it is an expression of caring and concern for others. Kibitzing with another in order to befriend him or her, to show an interest in the other and to become a part of his life: all such speech is a form of using our Divine gift properly.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Quotations #098

"They are very fond of wine, and drink it in large quantities. It is also their general practice to deliberate upon affairs of weight when they are drunk; and then on the morrow, when they are sober, the decision to which they came the night before is put before them by the master of the house in which it was made; and if it is then approved of, they act on it; if not, they set it aside. Sometimes, however, they are sober at their first deliberation, but in this case they always reconsider the matter under the influence of wine." -- Herodotus, on the Persians

“a heroic tenor, not a hero… A dreamer, a numbskull, a man without ideas, without strength of purpose, in a word: stupid” -- Oswald Spengler, on Adolf Hitler.

"Rationalism is at bottom nothing but criticism, and the critic is the reverse of a creator: he dissects and he reassembles; conception and birth are alien to him. Accordingly his work is artificial and lifeless, and when brought into contact with real life, it kills." -- Oswald Spengler, The Hour of Decision

"Romanticism is not a sign of powerful instinct, but, on the contrary, of a weak, self-detesting intellect. They are all infantile, these Romantics; men who remain children too long (or for ever), without the strength to criticise themselves, but with perpetual inhibitions arising from the obscure awareness of their own personal weakness; who are impelled by the morbid idea of reforming society, which is to them too masculine, too healthy, too sober." -- Oswald Spengler, The Hour of Decision

Every work of man is artificial, unnatural… This is the beginning of man’s tragedy — for Nature is the stronger of the two.” -- Oswald Spengler, Man and Technics (1931 ).

(Spengler quotes from NYRB)

"Does your Mr. Winkie need upgrading?" -- Anonymous ED Spam