Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Machen Zich Nisht Visindig

In my last posting I reprinted the wonderful story of 'The Emperors Clothes'. I thought the text was useful because it brings out very poignantly how something can be in front of our eyes and not be acknowledged. In Yiddish we call this phenomena 'machen zich nisht visindig', making yourself (as if) not knowing. Another colorful Yiddish phrase is 'machen zich tamavatte'(?), making yourself stupid, naive. ( The great Sidney Morgenbesser once said "Yiddish is such a versatile has so many ways of expressing negativity.")

The Kolko story is a story of how many good people made believe they did not know something which they clearly did know, and ought to have acknowledged.
Yeshiva people have an equally clever and sharp expression. They describe the phenomenon of turning away from/cutting someone as 'not being GOIRITH' the person. They don't read him, as if a person was a philological error, a corrupt text, as it were.(An older person experiences this situation every day. When I walk along the lake I follow the custom to nod/smile to the people coming at me, especially when I think they might be locals. College & high school kids hardly ever smile at me, even when I smile at them. They see right through me. I say to myself 'Northwestern & ETHS are not goirith me'. )

Slifkin and Kolko are different from the central Freudian case of knowing something traumatic and repressing it, so that there is no memory of the event.

There is an interesting midrash on/ (variant of) the Hans Christian Anderson story. The little boy blurts out the truth, the crowd beats the boy to death, ('what a shande, a real chilul ha-emperor, what will the goyim say'). Years later the death is not remembered by anyone. Now THAT story is echt Freud.

I want to go on and talk about Slifken, The Documentary Hypothesis, intermarriage, Ugarithic, and much more. All of these will provide a new opportunity to raise questions about denial, horizontal splits, forseen but unintended consequences of actions, and other hot hot hot intellectual questions. I imagine my imaginary reader, needs a break or my imaginary reader will remain forever my nonexistent reader. I'll lighten up for a while.

The Emperor's Bekisha

In trying to understand how people can know something (consciously) and yet not acknowledge it to themselves and/or others, I offer as a data point the original Hans Christian Anderson story.

Many years ago there lived an Emperor who was so exceedingly fond of fine new clothes that he spent vast sums of money on dress. To him clothes meant more than anything else in the world. He took no interest in his army, nor did he care to go to the theatre, or to drive about in his state coach, unless it was to display his new clothes. He had different robes for every single hour of the day.
In the great city where he lived life was gay and strangers were always coming and going. Everyone knew about the Emperor's passion for clothes.
Now one fine day two swindlers, calling themselves weavers, arrived. They declared that they could make the most magnificent cloth that one could imagine; cloth of most beautiful colours and elaborate patterns. Not only was the material so beautiful, but the clothes made from it had the special power of being invisible to everyone who was stupid or not fit. for his post.
"What a splendid idea," thought the Emperor. "What useful clothes to have. If I had such a suit of clothes I could know at once which of my people is stupid or unfit for his post."
So the Emperor gave the swindlers large sums of money and the two weavers set up their looms in the palace. They demanded the finest thread of the best silk and the finest gold and they pretended to work at their looms. But they put nothing on the looms. The frames stood empty. The silk and gold thread they stuffed into their bags. So they sat pretending to weave, and continued to work at the empty loom till late into the night. Night after night they went home with their money and their bags full of the finest silk and gold thread. Day after day they pretended to work.
Now the Emperor was eager to know how much of the cloth was finished, and would have loved to see for himself. He was, however, somewhat uneasy. "Suppose," he thought secretly, "suppose I am unable to see the cloth. That would mean I am either stupid or unfit for my post. That cannot be," he thought, but all the same he decided to send for his faithful old minister to go and see. "He will best be able to see how the cloth looks. He is far from stupid and splendid at his work."
So the faithful old minister went into the hall where the two weavers sat beside the empty looms pretending to work with all their might.
The Emperor's minister opened his eyes wide. "Upon my life!" he thought. "I see nothing at all, nothing." But he did not say so.
The two swindlers begged him to come nearer and asked him how he liked it. "Are not the colors exquisite, and see how intricate are the patterns," they said. The poor old minister stared and stared. Still he could see nothing, for there was nothing. But he did not dare to say he saw nothing. "Nobody must find out,"' thought he. "I must never confess that I could not see the stuff."
"Well," said one of the rascals. "You do not say whether it pleases you."
"Oh, it is beautiful-most excellent, to be sure. Such a beautiful design, such exquisite colors. I shall tell the Emperor how enchanted) I am with the cloth."
"We are very glad to hear that," said the weavers, and they started to describe the colors and patterns in great detail. The old minister listened very carefully so that he could repeat the description to the Emperor. They also demanded more money and more gold thread, saying that they needed it to finish the cloth. But, of course, they put all they were given into their bags and pockets and kept on working at their empty looms.
Soon after this the Emperor sent another official to see how the men were ,getting on and to ask whether the cloth would soon be ready. Exactly the same happened with him as with the minister. He stood and stared, but as there was nothing to be seen, he could see nothing.
"Is not the material beautiful?" said the swindlers, and again they talked of 'the patterns and the exquisite colors. "Stupid I certainly am not," thought the official. "Then I must be unfit for my post. But nobody shall know that I could not see the material." Then he praised the material he did not see and declared that he was delighted with the colors and the marvelous patterns.
To the Emperor he said when he returned, "The cloth the weavers are preparing is truly magnificent."
Everybody in the city had heard of the secret cloth and were talking about the splendid material.
And now the Emperor was curious to see the costly stuff for himself while it was still upon the looms. Accompanied by a number of selected ministers, among whom were the two poor ministers who had already been before, the Emperor went to the weavers. There they sat in front of the empty looms, weaving more diligently than ever, yet without a single thread upon the looms.
"Is not the cloth magnificent?" said the two ministers. "See here, the splendid pattern, the glorious colors." Each pointed to the empty loom. Each thought that the other could see the material.
"What can this mean?" said the Emperor to himself. "This is terrible. Am I so stupid? Am I not fit to be Emperor? This is disastrous," he thought. But aloud he said, "Oh, the cloth is perfectly wonderful. It has a splendid pattern and such charming colors." And he nodded his approval and smiled appreciatively and stared at the empty looms. He would not, he could not, admit he saw nothing, when his two ministers had praised the material so highly. And all his men looked and looked at the empty looms. Not one of them saw anything there at all. Nevertheless, they all said, "Oh, the cloth is magnificent."
They advised the Emperor to have some new clothes made from this splendid material to wear in the great procession the following day.
"Magnificent." "Excellent." "Exquisite," went from mouth to mouth and everyone was pleased. Each of the swindlers was given a decoration to wear in his button-hole and the title of "Knight of the Loom".
The rascals sat up all that night and worked, burning more than sixteen candles, so that everyone could see how busy they were making the suit of clothes ready for the procession. Each of them had a great big pair of scissors and they cut in the air, pretending to cut the cloth with them, and sewed with needles without any thread.
There was great excitement in the palace and the Emperor's clothes were the talk of the town. At last the weavers declared that the clothes were ready. Then the Emperor, with the most distinguished gentlemen of the court, came to the weavers. Each of the swindlers lifted up an arm as if he were holding something. "Here are Your Majesty's trousers," said one. "This is Your Majesty's mantle," said the other. "The whole suit is as light as a spider's web. Why, you might almost feel as if you had nothing on, but that is just the beauty of it."
"Magnificent," cried the ministers, but they could see nothing at all. Indeed there was nothing to be seen.
"Now if Your Imperial Majesty would graciously consent to take off your clothes," said the weavers, "we could fit on the new ones." So the Emperor laid aside his clothes and the swindlers pretended to help him piece by piece into the new ones they were supposed to have made.
The Emperor turned from side to side in front of the long glass as if admiring himself.
"How well they fit. How splendid Your Majesty's robes look: What gorgeous colors!" they all said.
"The canopy which is to be held over Your Majesty in the procession is waiting," announced the Lord High Chamberlain.
"I am quite ready," announced the Emperor, and he looked at himself again in the mirror, turning from side to side as if carefully examining his handsome attire.
The courtiers who were to carry the train felt about on the ground pretending to lift it: they walked on solemnly pretending to be carrying it. Nothing would have persuaded them to admit they could not see the clothes, for fear they would be thought stupid or unfit for their posts.
And so the Emperor set off under the high canopy, at the head of the great procession- .It was a great success. All the people standing by and at the windows cheered and cried, "Oh, how splendid are the Emperor's new clothes. What a magnificent train! How well the clothes fit!" No one dared to admit that he couldn't see anything, for who would want it to be known that he was either stupid or unfit for his post?
None of the Emperor's clothes had ever met with such success.
But among the crowds a little child suddenly gasped out, "But he hasn't got anything on." And the people began to whisper to one another what the child had said. "He hasn't got anything on." "There's a little child saying he hasn't got anything on." Till everyone was saying, "But he hasn't got anything on." The Emperor himself had the uncomfortable feeling that what they were whispering was only too true. "But I will have to go through with the procession," he said to himself.
So he drew himself up and walked boldly on holding his head higher than before, and the courtiers held on to the train that wasn't there at all.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Bad Faith

Is there anything about the culture, I want to know, that generates this sort of turning away, passivity, and moral blindness that permeated the Kolko case? Does ultra-orthodox culture generate what one might call an "emperor has no clothes" syndrome?

My hypothesis is that communities have different kinds of defenses. Not every community deals with issues in the same way. Orthodoxy, as it was re-established in America after the war, relies heavily on variants of denial as a way of dealing with reality. (16th century Jewish Poland, for example, didn’t need denial in the same way. There was no modern science that was in conflict with Torah. Jews believed what the science of it’s day believed.) We can see this in all the issues that have come up in recent months. For example, the response of the rabbis to the Slifken books is a classic example of denial. Rabbi Slifken, in a series of books, suggested in a very guarded way that there is some truth to evolution, and woooo the world might be millions of years old. (No kidding.) It was fairly tepid stuff when compared to the Dawkins-Dennet type of bomb throwing. What Slifken said is certainly compatible with versions of creationism and intelligent design. The rabbis, headed by Rabbi Eliyashav, the chief decisor in the orthodox world, banned the book, even though most everyone knows there are a couple of mountains of evidence for evolution. The rabbis chose not to look at the evidence, read it, or offer detailed criticisms. In Freudian jargon this is called denial. Ditto for the Tendler cases & "The Making of a Gadol" silliness. (Details to follow in subsequent blogs.)

In each of these cases, there was evidence staring people in the face that was simply denied. These cases are all classic "emperor has no clothes" situations. The theme of denial, refusing to acknowledge either reality or what one already knows, is a theme that will emerge many times as I blog away.

Showdown in Flatbush

The Kolko case involves 20 children who have allegedly been molested by this elementary school rebbe over many years and the teacher was never asked to leave the school.The issue that is somewhat confusing, if not disorienting is the possibility that many other people knew what was going on: teachers, rosh yeshivas, parents and family, friends of parents and family, and on and on, who turned away and refused to step out and confront the situation.

There could have been a thousand people who knew about it all along. Let us divide them into different categories and empathically imagine their situation:

  • The children who were most traumatized said nothing. They tried to forget/repress what happened.
  • The parents who began to protest and attempted to stop the creep, but were bullied by the school machers or dissuaded by various rabbis. After a while, they gave up and looked away. The extent of this racketeering aspect of the case will come out in court.
  • The teachers and other insiders who knew of the situation, but looked away because their livelihood depended on keeping silent. After all, good teaching jobs are not so easy to come by, and there was a wife and children at home.
  • The friends and relatives of the children who kept silent because the parents remained silent. Who were they to step out ahead of the parents? And anyway, did they really know what happened?
  • The parents of the children who did speak up, kept silent because they must have felt that they would further damage their kid if they made a fuss. As I imagine it, they reasoned that their child would be branded as someone who had a traumatic sexual experience, and when the time came, it would be much more difficult for the child to marry. Whistle-blowing would hurt the yichus, the social standing of the child and the family.
  • The children who confessed to their parents kept quiet because their parents told them.

I'll tell you one set of players that have not remained quiet over the years. I'm willing to bet many of these children, psychosomatized their traumas and guilt into physical symptoms. One child couldn't sleep at night, the other was a bed-wetter, a third developed a tick… Their bodies knew and found a way to give expression to their tragedy.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Better Shocked than Farmisht

I want to talk about issues of philosophy, politics, gossip, and public policy that effect Jewish life, with an emphasis on the traditional range of the spectrum. I don't know exactly what I'm going to say, so I guess I'll find out as I say it. If I get really bored, I might talk about the stock market or my arthritis.

Right now the Jewish blogosphere is an exciting place. There's a certain intellectual ferment in the air, a sort of new found freedom because of the internet to discuss issues that have long been repressed. I would like to add my voice to this conversation. I, also, have a kibbitzing side to my personality and I would find it impossible to maintain a totally serious tone for more than a week or two. I will try to alternate high-minded rants with ironic observations, or so I hope.

I'll begin with the topic that is on everyone's minds, at least in Brooklyn Orthodox circles, the Kolko affair. From what I gather, every since the article appeared in New York magazine, the internet blogging noise has been non-stop. The Kolko case involves twenty children who have allegedly been molested by this elementary school rebbe (teacher) over a long period and nothing was done. As I understand the case no child has come forwarded saying Kolko did anything bad in the last 25 years. All this happened over 25 years ago.

Some events are shocking, some are disorienting. If you run after money your whole life and end up broke, you might be shocked or depressed or disillusioned. When you discover that having money is not what you really want you become disoriented, confused. I want to say the Kolko affair is depressing and shocking but not really disorienting . No basic value is being challenged.

Analytically, the affair has a few unrealted threads. The first is how to bring the perpetrators to justice, and prevent such horrors in the future? I have no doubt changes will be made so as to minimize this sort of tragedy. After all, there is NO disagreement that child molesting is horrible & MUST be stopped.

The second is the attempt at covering all this up by the school administration and in particular R. Margulis.This guy is either a really bad charachter or totally out of touch with the way every one views child abuse. In either case he should be forced to resign. The problem is the yeshivah is owned by an individual and his name is Margulis. Again, depressing but not the end of Jewish life as we know it. If the current parents are upset they can send their kids to a different yeshiva. If, not, not.

The third thread revolves around Rabbi Sheinberg's remarks. Rabbi Sheinberg is this revered American-born Rosh Yeshiva who emigrated to Isreal and developed a big following. He is reported to wear, I know it sounds odd, 80 pairs of tzizit a day, so as to fulfill all possible views on how to tie the knots, etc. He was reported to have allegedly told parents of the children their case is not actionable in Jewish law because there was no penetration, only fondling. When I heard this story, I was even more shocked than when I heard about Kolko.Here, too, I don't believe there is any deep issue that is being raised. Assuming for the moment that the good rabbi is not out and out corrupt, and assuming that he actually said what he said, then what you have here is somebody who is very learned & very saintly & a fool. In general, we assume that a learned saint would be wise. We now see otherwise.

No balanced person would go on to say that this shows anything about the ultra orthodox rabbinate in general. We must remember that the ‘daath Torah’ ideology, the view that the ultra-orthodox rabbinate's views are somehow sovereign and ought to prevail, is not the same as rabbinic infallibity. It is a view about the collective opinion of the rabbinic leadership over time. The intuitive idea is that the rabbis are best equipped to judge what is good for the communities' welfare and growth. The Scheinberg incident is a story about an individual and not the collective leadership.

At the lowest level of gossip, the scandal has raised a really intriguing question, as in inquiring minds want to know. Is it possible that Kolko wasn't exposed because he had some damaging material on others, either sexual or financial? Even if people didn't want to make a big stink about it intially, the rational thing would have been to ease the guy out over time. There must be a background story or blackmail. How can anyone be so stupid to let this guy go on for so many years destroying children's lives?We may never know. I want to turn to the deeper and harder questions concerning this affair, which I hope to begin next time.