Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Towards Monkeys or Towards Har Sinai -- How Must We Modify This Famous Story In Light of Evidence From India?

The famous story, misunderstood by Eliyahu Stern on his blog at beliefnet (note that I am not the Rabbi Josh Waxman who also post at that blog):
The rabbi took a plane trip across the country with his extended family. After boarding his flight and getting himself settled into his seat, he turned to the person sitting next to him and introduced himself. The passenger responded by telling the rabbi that he was a scientist and was on his way to a conference to study the origins of man. The rabbi said that he traveling with his family and was going on a vacation were he would have the opportunity to study and learn with his grandchildren.

Over the course of the flight, the two men continued to engage each other in conversation, arguing the world and everything beyond its borders. Every 15 minutes or so they would be interrupted, however, by one of the rabbi's grandchildren, who were sitting at the other end of the plane. One by one, each would gently ask, “Zaidee [grandfather] can I help you? Is there anything you need?

Finally, as the plane was preparing to land, the scientist looked at the rabbi and exclaimed, “Rabbi, how is it that your grandchildren have so much respect for you? I am lucky if my grandkids call me once a week. Yours come visit you every few minutes!!”

The rabbi then turned to the bewildered gentleman and, pausing for effect, explained, “You see, when my grandchildren see me, they see someone who is one step closer to Sinai. When your grandchildren see you, all they look at is someone one step closer to a monkey!!”
(misunderstood, partially because this need not be understood as evolution vs. matan Torah, but rather towards where one is directed.)

Anyhow, what got me thinking about this story is exactly where this story will fail -- namely, in Kolkata. Citing the Reuters story:

Thousands of people are flocking to an impoverished Indian village in eastern West Bengal state to worship a man they believe possesses divine powers because he climbs up trees in seconds, gobbles up bananas and has a "tail."

Devotees say 27-year-old villager Chandre Oraon is an incarnation of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman -- worshipped by millions as a symbol of physical strength, perseverance and devotion.

Read it all.

We could rewrite the story with these Indian visitors who pay respect to the professor rather than to the rabbi.



ADDeRabbi said...


joshwaxman said...

cute. :) i see I was not the first to present a twist on this famous parable.

just a note, however. like some other of Godol Hador's spoofs, they are funny but I do not find them persuasive. One can mock and spin many things - Aesop's fables, for instance. that does not mean that a valid point did not exist in the initial parable.

If we don't conflate middot problems of some Jewish children with the general theme (as he seems to do), I could have the rabbi's children in his story behave, because they take their cue for how to behave from generations past.

In this case, I don't think that the story has anything to do with Evolution, or anything to do with kids' behavior/middot/respect. Both of these aspects of the story are metaphorical. Rather, it has everything do to with illustrating שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ, זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ.

One possible secular attitude looks at past generations as having lived in the dark ages, with each progressive generation improving upon the previous. However, countering this is a Jewish respect for tradition, since they are closer to a revealed truth, or are one step closer in the chain towards that truth. Monkeys vs. Har Sinai was just a convenient literary device for emphasising this distinction. I don't think the original parable had anything to to with yeridat hadorot either (which is the direction Godol Hador seems to interpret it), but rather with contrasting certain attitudes of science and Torah.

And I believe ancient Greek scientists made similar comparisons, and mocked the Pharisees' accepting certain things from tradition.

And personally, I think that a synthesis of the two attitudes are useful...


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