Thursday, May 29, 2008

Saying Nothing In So Many Words

I just skimmed some articles in a newsletter put out by a university that is well-known in Jewish circles and reminded me of the fact that the written word often does more to obscure meaning than to illuminate it. This is not true only in academic circles but in businesses that use the buzz words so regularly that Dilbert was able to use them in bingo games with coworkers. Job applicants attempt to emulate that style and cram their introductions with such general terms, completely oblivious to how vapid such writing is. But I suppose that if the intended audience is the HR person whose thinking is not only inside the box (the reverse of one of the favorite catch phrases in business today) but really two-dimensional (as in Flatland See then there really is no point to writing clearly and directly.

When I taught composition and rhetoric I often started with photocopies of the essay "How to Say Nothing in 500 Words" that you can read here:
Orwell, in his way, tackles the subject with examples not from college writing but from published material in "Politics and the English Language" that you could read in full here:
I am quoting an excerpt that contrasts the concrete language of the Bible (Koheles) with the "modern" approach.

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit (3) above, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations -- race, battle, bread -- dissolve into the vague phrases "success or failure in competitive activities." This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing -- no one capable of using phrases like "objective considerations of contemporary phenomena" -- would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase ("time and chance") that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Don't mind the budget gap

You've heard of people with champagne taste and beer budgets? For some people there is a definite gap between what they could afford and what they want. In the past, wisdom dictated that such people get grounded in reality and learn to like the beer they could afford and give up on hankering for what was beyond their financial grasp. But that is not the attitude I see today. Instead, those who can only afford beer insist, not only on champagne but on the finest imported French bottles and only from the very best years of vintage, metaphorically speaking, of course. So if the drinkers of champagne cannot afford to pay for it, who is to foot the bill? Other people, of course.
On the neighborhood email list, I am constantly seeing requests for money or other types of handouts from people who are not destitute but who just don't want to do without. And those who are getting married seem to have the greatest sense of entitlement. For example, a few weeks ago a prospective groom who is getting married in one of the higher priced venues in the area (by his own account in his post) wanted someone to pay for his brother's plane ticket so that he could fly in for the wedding. Today I saw one announcing he is getting married July 6th and can't afford a wedding hall. Well, what of the food? And it simply amazes me that he has set the date without ascertaining availability of venue. Also the date is a Sunday -- a champagne day-- one that caterers, florists, photographers, etc. are not nearly as negotiable on price for as they are for a weeknight.

Another prospective groom who is finishing his degree at YU now and marrying in early summer says he and his kallah need a lot to furnish their new home. He had a follow-up email that indicated he was not interested in suggestion so much as actual tangible contributions. In other words, he did not want directions to the pub that serves cheap beer, but a gift of a case of champagne. I don't know why he anticipates no wedding gifts that could help cover their household needs and demands that this community furnish him in advance. In contrast, when we got married, all my husband and I bought were 2 beds with dressers, tables, and chairs contributed from what was in our parents' homes. We used our gifts of china (not an expensive type), silverware, etc., and what we couldn't use we exchanged (if possible) for what we could. And, yes, we lived with no living or dining room set for quite a long time until inheriting the former and only buying the latter some time after buying our first house. I don't really think I would enjoy the taste of champagne, knowing it was given as charity when I could make do on my own.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Proof I've been a good influence on my husband ;-)

Mother in Israel, your post is mentioned and linked to there!

In anticipation of Father's Day (or is it Fathers' Day?)

Over the weekend, my husband and I observed various fathers' behavior. On Shabbos, we walked to a park in the area. As we were leaving, we saw a father with two young boys coming. We both had the same reaction: At first we were impressed that the father was taking his children to the park, but then we saw that he was merely dropping them off to be attended by the babysitter who was already there. But we were really impressed by the frum father (who actually lives in the 5 Towns) we saw on Sunday with his son and daughter at the production of The Importance of Being Earnest. The children (who appear to be jhs and hs age) said that their father does this sort of thing regularly. A third father . . .well, I won't go into that one. Enough said about contrast. As for father-kid outings in my family, though we did not take our children to this play, they have been exposed to theatre, as well as theatre in the park, not to mention countless museums, etc. And on Monday we took them to White Post Farms, where they had a great time.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Torah True Market Value

I've been meaning to post the following piece since I read it last week, but I was very involved with magazine layout on top of finishing the round of essay scoring. But better late than not at all, for it is an idea that is always relevant.

In his commentary on Parshas Behar, the Abarbanel brings out an important point about the price set on a field sold. The price should be higher if there are more years until the yovel than if there are fewer years, for the purchaser is really paying according to the the field's yield. That the text says "velo tonoo ish es amitho"[one should not oppress his fellow], the Abarbanel says is a warning to the wealthy buyer who holds the advantage over the poor seller who is forced by circumstances into a situation of having no recourse other than selling his estate. Given the seller's desperation, the buyer could take advantage in naming his own price. So the Torah warns him to not to do the hona'a . The buyer is not supposed to make a killing at the expense of the desperate seller, but to fear G-d, the One who holds the ultimate power over the heights of wealth or depths of poverty. "mashpil af meromem umekimi meafar dal" And he says, "I am the Hashem, your G-d; all is within my hands like the clay in hands of the craftsman."
The Abarbanel adds the following: "It appears to me that lo tonoo is not a mitzvah but a hoda'a [notification or warning] " not to fall into hona'a [oppression] in the situation where the price depends on the number of yields until the yovel.

The Abarbanel's point is that even though one can claim that capitalism gives him the right to get the best price he can, and that to take advantage of another's circumstances to achieve that end is quite correct, The Torah view is different. And there is a warning for these cases when one can claim to be acting within his legal rights -- after all price is determined by what the market will bear and if someone needs to sell immediately, he'll just have to accept what I offer him -- but knows that there is an element of unfairness here -- that the prices should be a straight calculation of yield. True, you could get away with a lower price and pat yourself on the back for getting a bargain, but that is not what real fear of G-d is about. G-d does not want you to show you're the bigger macher, but to deal in business with fairness and even compassion. What a radical notion! And should you say that such a notion smacks of communism, I would answer that placing that label on it does not prove it wrong. All -isms have their flaws, including capitalism and communism, which is why they cannot be embraced as our absolute standard for behavior. The only absolute standard is the Torah.

But this is not just and abstract idea. On a practical level, I find it appalling how Jews who consider themselves very observant and G-d-fearing throw all scruples out the window when it comes to business dealings. They get things so crooked that they seem to believe that it is a mitzvah to cheat another (Jew) or to keep back payment way past its due date and give the debtor a guilt trip for calling repeatedly for the money. In the very same breath, they could boast about their vast holdings and say they don't have money to spare to pay what they agreed to pay you in the first place. They would never consider themselves thieves, but practicing hona'a is considered good business and proof of your alpha macher status.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Gotta love those cure-all segulas

I got the following email:


You now have the opportunity to donate the minimal amount of $72 for Chai Rotel Mashkeh on the holy day of Lag B’omer. Countless people saw great Yeshuos and Refuous, it has been proven a powerful Segulah (talisman) against barrenness, illness, shidduchim difficulties and countless other crises in people's lives. Just visit _____ and click on “Take Part”."

May the Zchus of the holy Tana Reb Shimon Bar Yochai always protect you.


[But, apparently you have to buy that protection for a minimum of $72. Why should a yeshua require a minimum payment of $72? Why not $36 or even $18, or even some amount not divisible by 18? What a commercial use of RaShBY's yotzeit. And, you know, based on what we know of Rav Shimon Ben Yocahi, I would say he would be one of the last people to hawk yeshuos. Remember, he was the man who learned in the cave with his son for years and years. When he emerged, his burning gaze literally burnt the people he saw. So he doesn't seem like the type to be sympathetic to quick fixes for 72 bucks.]

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Fostering Integrity, or My Kids Are Also Doomed

My oldest daughter did not wish to go to camp this summer and so had to find something else to occupy her. She did contact some people who wanted camp counselor assistants, but they generally wanted someone older. So I encouraged her to pursue the mother's helper job that only required a minimum age of 12. She met with the mother and child and agreed to accept the job. While the pay is lower than I had anticipated, the mother says she did check the going rate, and I really believe she is not trying to take advantage in any way. Ok, so we confirmed on both ends. Just a day later, my daughter got called by one of the people she had called earlier. Apparently that job is still open. But my daughter had just committed herself to someone who is now counting on that. So I told her she has to tell that to the caller. You see, we are handicapped by integrity. On the other hand, a true bred macher would hold her cards and ask this woman how much the job pays and use her other job offer as a negotiating tool to work out the best deal for herself. The macher would have no qualms about going back on her word to the mother who would now be stuck, for looking out for number one is what macherhood is all about. You just have to step on some heads to get to the top. Integrity weighs you down in this climb and so should be dispensed with.
I know the values I hold for my children will not really help them get ahead in life, in the usual sense. I don't believe it will even win them more respect, for machers tend to get the lion's share of that in our society. They even get into the "top" yeshivas even when more dedicated students are told there is no room for them based on their status and money. But virtue is its own reward, and you have to do what's right because it is right and not because it will win you anything quantifiable in worldly terms. So my children appear to be as doomed as my husband and myself not to go far in life, burdened as we are by integrity rather than wealth.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Red nailpolish is bad news, or how you rate on the shidduch scale

from the 1930's check it out at

Wedding standards

Should you minimize or maximize? Check out Sephardi Lady's

The Quality of Infinity and the Pardes

This is what I thought of this morning. Those of you who have actually read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) by Robert Pirsigshould recall that the narrator had had a type of nervous breakdown. He recalled it starting from thinking about what do we really mean by "quality." I thought of the fact that this parallels that of a mathematician (can't recall the name) who went mad from attempting to divide by zero. I'm sure he knew the answer is infinity but was not satisfied with that, which is really more of a representation of the answer than the answer itself. There is an elusive quality to the grasp of the infinite in both the realm of language and numbers when it comes to representation, or to use the jargon -- the attempt to bridge the gap between signifier and signified. (A couple of years ago, a Dr. Anderson proposed a solution based on a new number - 'nullity' - which sits outside the conventional number line, but despite the boasts of solving a 1200 year old problem, all this theory does is rename the signifier.)
And then there is the episode in the Talmud(Chagiga 14b):
"The Rabbis taught: Four [Sages] entered the Pardes [literally "the orchard."They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher [Elisha ben Avuya] and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them "When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, 'Water! Water!' for it is said, 'He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes' (Psalms 101:7)." Ben Azzai gazed and died. Regarding him the verse states, "Precious in the eyes of G-d is the death of His pious ones" (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was harmed [he lost his sanity - Rashi]. Regarding him the verse states, "Did you find honey? Eat as only much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it up" (Proverbs 25:16). Acher cut down the plantings [he became a heretic]. Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace."
The ascent into the realm of pardes is fraught with danger because an instinctive response is wrong in this context. That is what R' Akiva warned the others about. The normal response to seeing what looks like water is to attempt to name it -- to pin it down in the way our mind categorizes in terms of language. But in the Pardes, what looks like water is not water, but something else, which in our account is called "pure marble stones," and a false naming directly in the presence in this realm of truth brings death, as happened to Ben Azzai. Ben Zoma's reaction is described in terms of eating too much honey with dire consequences. I would think that in his case, his attempt to contain the infinite, possibly by trying to define it in concrete terms in his mind, was what caused his loss of sanity (much like dividing by zero or thinking on the real meaning of "quality").
Just to briefly touch on the other two in the Pardes: the episode of Acher was one R' Silverstein regularly taught in his Michlalah course. There is a lot of background information to explain how it is not an episode but one's very base that is the actual source of loss of faith. His verse is the one from Koheles, "Tov acharis davar mereshiso," which, in context means, that the end of something is good if it is good from its beginning. As Elisha ben Avuya's father decided to that his son would be devoted to Torah because he saw its great power, there was a deficiency in motive from the beginning. (Then we went through the discussion of the encouragement to learn lo lishma versus the pronouncement of better for the fetus to have been smothered in the womb than to learn for the wrong motives. This thought just came to me now: After Acher's apostasy, he tells boys they should become tailors, builders, etc., rather than devoting themselves to Torah study. That is seen as his new devaluation of Torah, but perhaps it is a recognition of that quality of lo lishma in others that made him really believe that they should be pursuing other things. )

Of course, the hero in this story is R' Akiva whose reshis is good, as he enters in shalom and [consequently] leaves in shalom. Shalom, of course, means peace but is also based on the root shalem [whole]. R' Akiva left intact because he entered with a sense of wholeness. I would think that means that he was not missing something that he sought to obtain by attempting to "take in" the experience of Pardes and thus try to capture the infinite. He was the one who warned the others not to attempt to define what was revealed to them in their usual terms which would prove false in this context. He had the ability to see and appreciate the Pardes for what it was without forcing it into a more limited form of human understanding. He did not attempt to name what he saw. He doesn't even say that he gazed [perhaps that could mean scrutinize, attempt to analyze by observation]. It says merely that he entered. Thus I would say that R' Akiva had the ability to enter into the Pardes and was not attempting to make it enter him, so to speak. He had the "negative capability," (indulge me in the Keatsian term) to suspend the limitations of his human judgment and appreciate the Pardes for what it was without forcing it to conform to his own ideas or outside experience.

"A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" is one of the most famous quotes from Browning. The idea is that man pursues with the knowledge that he will never attain. It is the attempt to pin down the infinite by defining it in our finite terms that is doomed.

Related post:

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Checking the price before agreeing to buy

The following was a real post on a neighborhood email list:"Hi, Does anyone know how to get the real estate taxes lowered? I am purchasing my first home in Woodmere. YIKES!!! I am wondering if there is a way to bring the taxes down - Prior to closing? Or after?? It's
very expensive (Over budget)Any ideas would help? Thanks"

There seems to be an assumption here that you can appeal to get your taxes lowered on the basis of entering into the contract without having actually reviewed the numbers and factoring it into the expenditures connected to the house. But the only basis I have ever heard of for lowering property taxes is conclusive proof that the assessment is out of line with comparable properties in the neighborhood. Inability to pay the taxes is not viewed by the powers that be as grounds for their reduction. While they may have been able to attempt to negotiate a lower purchase price from the sellers on the basis of the high taxes being a liability on the house, they already set their price. I just can't believe that people enter into contracts for what is probably the largest purchase they will ever make without reviewing all the relevant numbers.

It's like ordering whatever takes your fancy in a jewelry store without checking the prices. When you get the bill, you could hardly expect sympathy for suddenly discovering your purchases cost more than you had anticipated.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

I do have a post in mind

that I hope to get to soon. Right now I will just announce that there have been major improvements on the site. I've designed a new banner and divided up some of the material online to make it easier to find. So please do visit and let me know what you think.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Quick is not right in context

Way, way back I put up a post on my now gone forever Wordpress blog entitled "One degree please, make it a double and hold the education" about the programs geared toward granting seminary girls a bachelor's degree after only a year (plus a summer or two) enrolled in the program with the degree granting college. There is also an option to get a master's in education and special ed or literacy. For nursing, though, the BS will be stretched out to 2 1/2 years. the slogan for the program is: "Earning a degree? Do it quick. Do it right." Can you guess what really, really bothers me about this? It is not merely the fact that what is "quick" is presented as the idea and equated with "right," though that is rather irksome. What really bothers me is the grammatical ignorance that the slogan reflects. Quick is an adjective, not an adverb. One cannot do a degree, or earn it [if you can apply that term to such a program], quick but rather quickly. However, people don't often use the word "quickly" in conversation, so that it has rather an unfamiliar ring. The synonym "fast" could have been substituted to solve that particular problem; it functions as both an adjective and adverb.