Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Microscopic has turned us Myopic

A hat tip to Wolf bringing this to mind.

Years ago, when I was working as a national advisor for NCSY, I became very frustrated by a particular question I got from someone attending one of the regional conventions. The question, about frumkeit, equated to someone's looking at the Bayeaux Tapestries and asking why, in Tapestry 11, 37.8896 inches in from the right hand side and 59.3962 inches down from the top edge, one stitch may be a slightly lighter blue then the stitches next to it. The assistant director at the time gave me an interesting answer. He said: "Gantz Yiddishkeit shteit off a hure"--all Yiddishkeit stands on a single strand of hair.

There are three ways to look at that statement. The first way is to say that frumkeit is very fragile, as a single strand of hair is very fragile. Our grasp of yiddishkeit needs to be seen as constantly in danger, balancing as it does on that single strand. So every strand is important. We cannot afford to overlook even one single strand.

Another way to look at it is that you can do all kinds of things to a hair--you can dye it, cut it, twist it, pin it up, curl it, cream it, spray it and anything else you can think of, but you haven't done anything to the basic construction of that hair--it is still a hair no matter what you attempt. The strength of that hair is that it never "forgets" not matter what is done to it that it is a hair. You can even try and get rid of all the hairs by shaving the head, and in the end they all grow back as hairs. Like a hair, Yiddishkeit, no matter what has been done to it, will always keep its basic nature.

A third way to look at the phrase is the one that the Director favored. He said that we sometimes get so very bogged down in the extreme minutiae of a problem that we literally fail to see the forest for the trees. Some people see a "body" in need of healing or perhaps fine tuning, and immediately go looking for one hair to cure. And, as the director pointed out to me, hairs can remain on the head even after they are "dead."

Why this story right now? The post by Wolf references an article in which the writer is narrowly focusing on the habit of some women to use their maiden surnames after their marriage. And he makes the point that this is a causative factor for all kinds of ills in marriage, including the high divorce rate. Frankly, I think this is analogous to saying that one dead hair on the head causes typhus, cancer or strokes.

During the Great Plagues in Europe people were coming up with all kinds of reasons for why the Plagues were decimating the population. Some were so fanciful as to have no possible logical relationship to the Plagues. And while the people debated the impossible and the improbable, they failed to notice the dead rats among them. The article that Wolf posted about reminds me of this. The writer is off in the realm of fancy while dead rats are piling up around his feet.

Yes, there are some problems in the frum communities that affect Yiddishkeit, and no, they aren't going to be all that easy to fix. But we are never going to fix them if we devote our resources and energy to one dead hair. Far too many of the articles written as of late, and far too many of the chumras adopted, are trying to fix problems one strand of hair at a time.


BrooklynWolf said...

Thank you for the link and for putting the matter into far better perspective than I could have.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

An interesting saying. English has one that is sort of similar in meaning. If you tell someone that they are splitting hairs you mean that they are getting too detailed. Wonder if other languages also have hair sayings.

Re the name issue, why is this even a problem? I vaguely remember hearing my kesuba read and no last names were used at all.

Anonymous said...

There is also the problem of not being able to distinguish between very small details that can make a difference and those that won't. Even a tiny ten cent screw in the tail section of a rocket costing billions overall can make a difference if it is poorly made and won't hold up under pressure of takeoff or orbit. But surname usage as a cause of divorce or the cause of shalom bayis issues? As you say, focus on a dead hair.

s(b.) said...

yasher koach