Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Robot

Once upon a time there was a robot.

It was superbly engineered. This robot was nothing like anything else that anyone had ever seen. It helped people in the town with all kinds of tasks. It dramatically improved the quality of people's lives.

It wasn't a very complicated robot. It didn't have a lot of bells and whistles. But this was part of its beauty. It was simple and highly effective. And everyone in the town loved it.

The robot had been designed and constructed by a phenomenal robotics engineer, the best that the town had ever seen. He had left the robot to the town, for their benefit, and then he had gone away. The designer had left them with the instruction that the robot would work perfectly and would always improve their lives, as long as they didn't tinker with it.

One day somebody had an idea. "Wouldn't it be great if the robot had some additional features?" So they brought some engineers and some tools and they added an extra arm to the robot with additional functionality. The robot wasn't quite as sleek as it was in the past, but people were too excited about the additional functionality to care.

Then somebody else thought of some further features that could be added. So the engineers came back and attached some more parts that gave the robot even more functions. This happened again and again and again.

At one point the robot changed even more dramatically. One of the engineers, Lionel, said that he had happened across some of the original designer's plans to add many more features to the robot. Some people wondered if these plans really were written by the original designer, but many (though not all) highly respected engineers were very impressed with these plans and said that they must indeed have been written by the designer. So they added a whole slew of new features to the robot.

After a long time, the robot looked nothing like its original state. It had arms and tools and lights and exhausts everywhere. Some people thought that this new look was beautiful in its complexity, though others differed. The robot now offered a myriad of different features, which many people thought was most wonderful, and they boasted about how their robot was the greatest robot in the world. But others felt that it had become less effective at many of the more basic tasks. It had become cumbersome, and some of its new abilities directly hindered some of its original abilities.

Furthermore, due to the new complexity of the robot, it now required a legion of engineers just to maintain it. Eventually almost everyone in the town was working to keep the robot operational. This seriously detracted from the other tasks that needed doing in the town, but as almost everyone agreed, there was nothing more important than keeping the wonderful robot in the best condition.

Then one day a little boy in the town was reading a book about the history of the robot. He saw how it originally looked, in its beautiful and pristine condition, and how it had improved everyone's lives, enabling them to get on with other tasks with great efficiency. He discovered reports of how, as the towns' engineers added more and more features to the robot, there were always some engineers who had protested these "improvements", arguing that they were not being true to the intent of the original designer. And so the little boy spoke up, and argued that the new features should be removed, and the robot restored to its original condition.

"How dare you?!" thundered the engineers. "What do you know about such things? You are not an engineer!" And the engineers' supporters also vociferously rebuked the little boy: "Why do you have to be so negative and so critical? Why can't you just look at the positive aspects of the robot? And don't you see that all the engineers are against you? Where is your respect for them?"

So the little boy stopped talking. Instead, he found some of the city's engineers who didn't agree with all the modifications that had been added. They left the town and moved to a new village, where they managed to build a robot that was identical to the original model. It helped them with all kinds of tasks and dramatically improved the quality of their lives, just as the robot had done originally.

The people in the first town heard about them and jeered at them, claiming that they had disrespected and lost the respect of the engineers. But the townsmen were running into a problem. There were so many people working on their robot, that they weren't able to do all the other things that need to be done to make a town survive. And so they reached out to the village and demanded that the village supply them with everything that they needed, in order for them to be able to keep on working on their robot.

Some of the people in the new village didn't want to acquiesce. But others did. Eventually the resources of the new village were all drained into the old town, in order to provide for the engineers who were working on maintaining the robot. Both the new village and the old town were threatened with ruin.

What happened in the end? I don't know, the story isn't finished yet.

47 comments:

  1. In the end, the new town still had a different robot. Not an evolution of the original.

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  2. The obvious analogy describes an inevitable process of mounting complexities in already complex human institutions by growing bureaucracies and technocracies. Scary, but the occasional panicked reactions by purists which call for lopping off arms, legs and other appendages without a record of which the original bits were or without an ability to foresee what happens when you lop off a seemingly extraneous appendage, that can be just as scary. Tough one, this one.

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  3. The analogy misses one important point: it's not that the simple robot was better. This new robot is far more appropriate for the complicated society it serves. It's that the engineers claim that the current model is also the original model and that the robot has never changed over time.

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    1. Perhaps the engineers fortuitously found a long-lost blue print which upon in-depth meditation by special engineers revealed hitherto hidden plans?

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    2. You mean like that the original robot didn't have a single architect but was designed by committee and built on and refined earlier robotic systems. ;-)

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  4. Wow, so you want to do away with all derabanans? Pretty radical.

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    1. Completely not what I had in mind! (I guess that is the danger of writing a parable.)

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    2. Pretty radical as well, to assume that there only two polar opposites available.

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    3. To the always erudite Temujin: I was well aware that he had something else in mind. My point is that his parable can be easily extended to include all derabanans, evidencing a weakness in the parable.

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    4. I'm waiting for a literalist to come along and say "Wow, I didn't know you were a robot engineer?"

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  5. The Original Designer of the robot made the robot have expansion ports and wrote in the instruction manual the permission to change some things in the robot based on what the engineers derived from the manual as best they could. That built-in mod app caused the robot to change over time. Then the engineers were fired, and only technicians remained. The technicians did not have the authority to make any further mods, but only to maintain the robot, its mods, and to clarify how to use the mods to others. The problem of the old town is that the technicians started behaving like engineers and adding their own mods, some of which came may have come from other town's robots. Then, they claimed that the new mods were in fact always mods made by the engineers but were stored away in a warehouse that we just found the keys to (although they never show anyone the warehouse).

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  6. Everyone agrees that robots evolve. Some questions are:

    How fast should robots evolve? Which model robot is closest to the original, authentic robot? Can one have hybrid model robots, for different towns? Is there mutual recognition by towns of the functions and features of different model robots? In this analogy, people in the old town will say they provide for the new town as well.

    Speaking of robots, or golems, R. Berel Wein tells that the Baal Shem Tov had a golem, and he instructed it to oil the wagon. Problem was that the golem oiled the seats too, so people slid out! I think R. Wein used this to explain to a group of non-Orthodox people that Judaism is like a rickety, old wagon that needs just the correct amount of oil to keep it functioning( Vintage Wein).

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  7. Allegories are interpreted according to the biases of the interpreter.

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  8. While I understand the point of your analogy, my Commodore 64 would no longer be useful today.

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    1. Bite your tongue, sir. There is still no better platform for playing Jumpman on.

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  9. An important flaw in the analogy: "The designer had left them with the instruction that the robot would work perfectly and would always improve their lives, as long as they didn't tinker with it." I don't think that's the way most of us look at Orthodox Judaism. It is SUPPOSED to be tinkered with - in the right ways. What works for one generation doesn't work for another (let's take corporal punishment of children, for one example of where the standard has changed over time). That doesn't mean we can change ANYTHING. But some things must be changed. And THAT is where a lot of the dispute takes place - in determining whether a given issue something that should or should not be tinkered with.

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  10. Let's go to the other extreme and end up in the middle - as we learn from the Rambam.

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  11. Indeed, we need to return to Torat Eretz Yisrael and the type of Judaism Hazal had in mind and drop many nonsensical and cumbersome stringencies which were not intended by them. In a nutshell,let us return to that which Rabbi David Bar-Hayim advocates.

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    1. Why roll back to right before the second exile? Ezra and Anshei Keneses haGedolah made more radical reforms than Chazal did...

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    2. I admit I have a bias as a Rav Bar Hayim fan but it is a really strong interpretation of the parable. Rav Natan, I'm really interested to hear your thoughts on Torath Erets Yisrael. You've mentioned the topic but have never addressed it directly.

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    3. I agree! Lets build the proper Torah Nation that has functionality, capacity and capability to function as the Divine Blueprint requests ....

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  12. I actually think it's a perfect parable for the history of the American federal government (except for the end which posits a new country that goes back to the original vision of government).

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  13. I understand your allegroy to be about charedim. The robot is orthodo Jewry, and the engineers are charedim. But I must tell you, my first impression was exactly like that of Yehoshua above - the robot is Judaism, and the engineers are chazal and the creators of orthodox Judaism. In one other words, one level up. The allegory works perfectly well on that level too. What is the significance of that? Don't know.

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  14. Ika d'amri...
    The engineer build a great robot. Its outside simplicity belied its extreme complexity. For reasons known to him, the engineer wrote a users' manual which only described the robot's basic functionality. But the engineer did teach the townspeople the robot's inner workings and instructed them on how to use the robot's full, very powerful, potential.

    Over the course of time, these instructions were lost to all but a select few keepers of the knowledge. Until one day,.....

    .....I don't have to write out the entire legend here. I'm sure you can fill in the rest.

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  15. I heard this parable for Judaism's coping with modern times:
    There was once a very accurate clock, that was kept several stories high, in the middle of the town square. Everyone in the town would synchronize their watches and clocks in their houses according to this main central clock.
    Then, one day, people said that it wasn't convenient having the clock so high, but that it rather should be at eye-level, in the street. So they lowered the clock to street-level.
    Suddenly, people started noticing that the clock wasn't so accurate anymore. So they made an investigation: what happened to the clock in the course of lowering it down to street level?
    It was discovered that, after they lowered the clock, instead of people adjusting their watches to the time on the main clock, they started fiddling with the time on the main clock, to fit what their wristwatches said. One person moved it a few minutes back, whereas another moved it a few minutes forward. It was rare that the clock was ever set on the correct time anymore.

    It should be noted that the Rav who told this parable was addressing the Reform and Conservative movement--not modern Orthodoxy, and certainly not Open Orthodoxy, (which didn't exist at the time). But people will probably counter me by saying that everyone has been tinkering with our "clock" over the centuries.

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    1. Orthodoxy is just as guilty as the Haredim, Reform, Conservatives, Ultra Orthodox etc groups imo. All have seriously gone off the derech ...

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    2. Then the question is: what is the "derech"? A powerful argument against that is the process of smichah: a rabbi gets ordained from previous rabbis, who also were ordained by rabbis before them. Reform and Conservative rabbis, by and large, can't claim to have a chain of rabbinic ordination going back to the time of the Rishonim.

      An important part of the clock parable is that the clock in the town square was originally regarded as accurate. That corresponds with the belief that the Torah is divinely inspired, and something to which we must adjust our lives. Bringing the clock down to street level corresponds to the Torah being lowered to being regarded as just another piece of Near Eastern literature, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, l'havdil, or an anthology of several texts put together.

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  16. Brilliant, R Slifkin. (Oh that Lionel ;)!)
    But I do believe that you may have forgotten part of the story.
    Before the phenomenal robotics engineer departed, he left verbal instructions with some of the town engineers to maintain the upkeep of the robot, and how to deal with any problems that might arise. He entrusted the robot to their care, and gave them the authority to tend to it as they saw fit. At least, that is what they told the townspeople.
    When the young boy proposed modifying the robot, these engineers felt it was an usurpation of their rightful authority.

    R Stefansky

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  17. Kol HaKVod ! Great Story and Spot on too ! One I have been pondering for quite some time. There is no question at all in my mind that we need to return to the original robot. The question at hand remains as what is that? I suspect but cannot prove that it is Tanach and Mishnah with Midrash, as everyone can agree on that. I dont think the Talmuds make the list as there is too much dispute around them to have consensus in todays society. Thoughts?

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  18. a plausible addition to the parable: don't forget you need many engineering schools to train the engineers, as well as so many heads of engineering schools that have to justify the need for their schools and also support their student engineers (and also entice them to study engineering at their school). This can by itself lead to a spiraling not only of numbers of engineers but also of numbers of improvements "needed" for the robot. After all, the great engineer in Massechet Chagiga (3a) already said "Ein Bet Midrash lelo chiddush"

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  19. For reading of the story behind Torah Sheba'al Peh, see the introduction of the Rambam to Peirush HaMishnayos. He traces the history of derashos chachomim with the sources. There may be some surprises for those who would like to believe that the Rambam was Modern Orthodox

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    1. True, but at that time there was nothing to contradict his version and he, therefore, felt justified in positing this as a ratioanl explanation that was in accord with the sources he had. He may not have said the same today.

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  20. We should call you the Rationalist Dubner Maggid.

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  21. Eventually the townspeople accepted how troublesome the confrontation was, recognized that the world was a very different place from when the original robot was built, and collectively decided that it wasn't worth the hassle of having a robot at all. That we no longer lived in a world where the robot offered anything worthwhile and pretty much ONLY caused confrontation.

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  22. There was a science fiction story I read as a youth with a similar theme. The punch line was the "priests" served a deity which was really a nuclear reactor that provided energy for the community. They had long ago forgotten the science and just knew something about some of the settings.

    In my rational mode (I'm still working on being a holistic mind if that is possible-and some of The Rav's work implies it is not) I sometimes think of the breakdown of the Sanhedrin of putting us in exactly this situation and the father we get from Sanhedrin (or the engineers) the more the technicians are (in all sincerity) grasping for clues at what the engineers had in mind as they try to keep the reactor within operating limits as the world changes around it. I often think this is at least part of what R" Asher Weiss has in mind when he says all our tzarot are one big tzarah -not having the Beit Hamikdash

    May we be worthy of the geula shlaima so we get the answer (and if it's a streimel and a red bendel, I'm fine with that too, I'll just say I'm sorry, I did my best and I won't shed a tear for my sroogie)

    KT

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  23. I hope R. Slifkin doesn't take this post down just because many people see many things in it, some of which are rather more apikorsish than others. If he wanted to provide his readers with a peirush/nimshel this might help narrow the field somewhat, though it might also spoil the fun.
    Or--make it a live doc and update it with the best comments, like Reuven Meir's, so we end up with a brand new aggodata from beis midrash shel bal ha'behemah atzmo.

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  24. I know how this ends. There is a cataclysmic, apocalyptic battle between a giant robot built with the original specifications and the also-giant updated robot. i just got off the phone with Michael Bay and he's very excited about the project.

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  25. Calling all robots: let Avodat HASHEM and the quest for truth be our guiding lights.

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  26. Don't buy the analogy at all. The growth of Torah literature over time and the changes in practice from the earliest takkanos to the latest responsa and minhagim is part of the system of Torah She B'al Peh and was always meant to be that way. Plenty of indication of that in Chazal. Romantic fantasising about some kind of early pure version of Torah life which we could go back to is pointless. Perhaps you could say that First Temple Jewish life was simpler and more lechatchila in a way. Well that's the point, aveira caused galus and galus is complex. If you think life for Chazal was simpler, just consider living with the dinim of tuma and tahara, and interacting with those who don't. Makes navigating different kashrus hechsherim seem like a walk in the park.

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    1. In Haggai 2:10-14, Haggai quizzes the Kohanim about their knowledge of the laws of tumah and taharah. If I recall correctly, the Meforshim say the Kohanim answered one question correct and one incorrect. And that was only after 70 years of galus.

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    2. Interesting. Haggai and Zechariah were contemporaries, and yet Haggai's book is much shorter and gets cut off much earlier. One theory is that the was more challenging to the establishment, and so they threw him out of Yerushalayim.

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  27. I'll say more. The kind of rose tinted retrospection you're opposed to in the Chareidi world is no different to what you're doing here. This is also a rose tinted retrospectoscope. There was no period where everything was great and smooth with a simple, 'pure' Torah kept by everyone. Ok, maybe a few decades under Shlomo Hamelech. Every generation has had its challenges and that was intentional. Most failed them in broad terms. Communal life was never simple, ever.

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  28. I wonder if this parable corresponds to my occasional ironic comment, "Chazal did not keep kosher."

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  29. Lionel?
    should it be Moses ben Shem-tob de Leon

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  30. I thought the Slifka Rebbe's mentor was very clear that the robot was never designed by any engineer and just randomly came into being when some clay was left out in a lightning storm? So what's the big deal with changing it into another just as meaninglessly random arrangement?

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  31. Society is changing as well - the curse of Chava has nearly been removed.....now women are almost like equals in modern society...

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