Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Rationalist Remembrance

A treasured memory from eighteen years ago -
on a canoe with my dad, sipping from coconuts,
during a father-son trip to Mombasa, Kenya.
Tonight is the ninth yahrzeit for my father, Professor Michael Slifkin, of blessed memory. He was a wonderfully patient and good-natured father, a brilliant scientist, and a man of outstanding integrity. In a career spanning biochemistry, physics, electronics, membrane biology, and nanoparticles (amongst other things), he published 197 papers, including 11 in the prestigious journal Nature. He strongly believed in doing the right thing even if it made him unpopular, such as when he voted according to his conscience and not according to what was "the done thing" in England, or when he took on the position of safety officer for university labs and actually enforced safety regulations. He also had a terrific sense of humor!

I decided to deliver a shiur in his honor, for family and friends. However, when my family were planning this event, we realized that if it were to be held tonight, one of my sisters would not be able to make it, due to a scheduling conflict. I therefore said that we should hold the event tomorrow night.

"But that's not actually the date of the yahrzeit!" said someone near and dear to me. "It won't have the proper effect for his neshamah!"

This is, I believe, a terrific example of the difference between the rationalist and mystical worldviews. According to the mystical worldview, our actions serve to manipulate various metaphysical energies. If they are not done in exactly the "right" way, then they don't have any effect. According to the rationalist worldview, on the other hand, our actions are not manipulating any metaphysical energies. The date of a person's passing is a meaningful and appropriate time to honor their memory. If it's done a day late, in order to better accommodate the family, that honors their memory more, not less.

This also relates to the fundamental nature of what one does for the deceased, a topic that I examined in detail upon the passing of my dear mother-in-law, Anne Samson, of blessed memory - see my essay, "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" In brief, the mystical viewpoint, of very recent origin, is that one elevates the soul of the deceased by doing mitzvos whose reward is transferred to their mitzvah-account. The classical and rationalist view, on the other hand, is that by doing memorial events we honor their memory, and by performing good deeds we become a credit to their influence.

Dad, I love you dearly, and I miss you more than ever. I'm sure you would understand why we are doing the shiur a day late. Because amongst the many good qualities that you taught me, one of them was common sense!




25 comments:

  1. I have never understood the idea of manipulating metaphysical forces. HaShem is in charge and we are supposed to direct our attention in prayers and in life to Him. I guess that makes me a rationalist?

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    1. Surprised to see this comment from a bio-statistician dedicated to identifying patterns to manipulate biological forces. "HaShem is in charge and we are supposed to direct our attention in prayers and in life to Him."

      Note that there's nothing superior about manipulating biological forces to meta-physical forces (if you accept the latter). Biology is nothing but subject to contingent laws, usually (potentially) reducible to chemistry, reducible to particle physics, reducible to... nothing "rational".

      So, you cannot assert a priory that the Torah tests us by commanding us to manipulate reality through these bizarre natural laws that exist; there can equally be an opportunity to intervene through another set of non-physical laws.

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  2. ... the mystical viewpoint, of very recent origin is that one elevates the soul of the deceased by doing mitzvos...

    Of a very recent origin origin??? When the story of Rabbi Akiva and a son [of a sinner who was saying Borchu and Kaddish to relieve his condition] happened?

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    1. Discussed in detail in my linked essay, "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?"

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    2. Your essay does not seem to deny that there is a reference in ancient sources that deceased can accrued merits from the actions of at least his/her descendants.

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  3. Very nice remembrance and tribute.

    For those of us not familiar with your family background, it helps us understand you and how you have acted in recent years when confronted with certain challenges, sticking to what you felt was right, despite great pressure in the other direction.

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  4. Nittel Nacht (December 24th) would seem to derive from such understandings. No?

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  5. Very moving article!One question:at the end of it you speak directly to your father ("Dad, I love you dearly, and I miss you ....")
    Is this allowed in Judaism?Isn't it some kind of Doresh el ha methim(necromancy)?

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    1. No, it's just a normal, healthy, emotional reaction and a way to express the fact that he misses his father.

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    2. It's only a problem if he expects and answer.

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  6. Rationalist argument for the precise date: the person is more emotionally and psychologically sensitive to matters concerning the deceased on that precise date in a way he is not on other days, even those immediately proximate to the date.
    Halachic point against the precise date: a person should be called up for an aliyah on the Shabbat prior to the yahrzeit, but not necessarily on the day of the yahrzeit if the Torah is read that day
    Mystical evidence against the precise date: according to a Moroccan member of our synagogue, the custom in his community is say Kaddish for the entire week during which the yahrzeit falls.

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    1. I must take issue with your "rationalist argument" - in my experience, the person is emotionally and psychologically sensitive to matters concerning the deceased for at least the week surrounding the event, and perhaps longer. It makes perfect sense to do a yahrtzeit family event at a time when the family can be there, within a few days of the actual yahrtzeit.

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  7. If I recall correctly, the Lubavitcher Rebbe would say that things done in honor of the deceased (besides kaddish, such as learning mishnayos, tzedakah) should be done in the days following the yahrzeit, if someone didn't manage to do them on the yahrzeit itself. A person shouldn't feel that s/he is "off the hook" if the date has passed.

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  8. עד ביאת הגואל

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  9. > "But that's not actually the date of the yahrzeit!" said someone near and dear to me. "It won't have the proper effect for his neshamah!"

    This is mystically-minded not only in the sense that there is something about things done on the yartzeit that can have an effect they won't on other days, but also in the sense that it assumes the calendar is something other than an arbitrary counting system.

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  10. May I just say that I'm impressed with the generosity of your in-laws.

    May your father's righteousness live on in all his descendants in their search for Emmes.

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  11. Ah, the 11th commandment: A bit of common sense. I'm with your dad whom I also remember as a very gentle and kind man. I wish you and all the family long life. (Rachel Selby)

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  12. I apologize; it's been a while since I read your article about what we can do in memory of loved ones. But clearly Judaism believes in doing things at their right time. For example, there is an old minhag (not widely observed anymore) to fast on the yahrzeit of one's parents. One cannot push off this fast (at least I don't think one can) if it's more convenient to do so.

    I agree with you on postponing the shiur, but I think it's a dangerous thing to say that the time doesn't matter. Some non-frum Jews make similar statements, holding the Seder on a different night than the real one if it's more convenient.

    Of course, Hilchos Pesach (i.e., G-d's commands) are different than Minhag Yahrzeiten. Nonetheless, I think it is important to keep in mind how important times are in Judaism -- whatever school of Judaism (rational or mystical) one belongs to.

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    1. > I think it's a dangerous thing to say that the time doesn't matter. Some non-frum Jews make similar statements,

      Why is it "dangerous?" What are the consequences? Is it that there are non-Orthodox Jews who say that, and we must not be like them?

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    2. That only begs the question. Why?

      My personal take is that which day Pesach is doesn't really matter all that much. What matters is that everyone keeps the same day, and that everyone knows with absolute certainty which day Pesach will be, so that we can't just pick any random day and call it seder night, which would somewhat lessen it's חשיבות in our eyes. But if we were all to have collective amnesia and end up adding a day to the calendar it would matter not a jot.

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    3. I agree. There is value in everyone having a seder on the same day.

      More than that, it is the shared experience that *makes* the day special. Yomim Tovim are special days because we all make them special, not because of anything intrinsic to the time, as if "days" and "years" are things with their own ontology.

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    4. According to Calendar and Community, in ancient times Pesach was likely observed on different days in different places based on their respective local versions of the Jewish Calendar. Of course, the entire community would presumably have kept it on the same day.

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    5. A chasidic/mystical approach argues that the 15th of Nissan has the kedusha in it and that holiness triggered the exodus, as it triggered other great Salvations: Avraham defeated the kings on that day, sancherivs army died that day, the Jews in the Purim story fasted and were answered on that day.

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  13. G*3: Dangerous in an ideological/religious sense. As in that it undermines certain fundamentals of halachic Judaism. We simply don't believe that one may move Shabbos to Sunday, for example, if doing so is more convenient.

    Yavoy: If you discount the mystical approach completely, your collective amnesia argument works. But I'm not sure what it proves. The fact of the matter is that G-d wants Jews to do certain acts on certain days even if doing them on another day would be more convenient. As to why that is so, I think your answer is very straightforward and sensible.

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  14. Hi Rabbi Slifkin - my apologies, I am new to the site and your writings - so if you have covered this elsewhere, please send me there.

    So, my question is, based on this post, do you argue against all mystical reality? There are many sources who clearly quote Zohar etc. Do you deny their validity?

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