Monday, August 10, 2015

Memes and parshas Re'eh

When looking through parshas Re'eh (starting Devarim 11:26), I thought it might be useful to consider the parsha from the perspective of memes. To cite Wikipedia for a quick definition of meme:
The word meme is a shortening (modeled on gene) of mimeme (from Ancient Greek μίμημα pronounced [míːmɛːma] mīmēma, "imitated thing", from μιμεῖσθαιmimeisthai, "to imitate", from μῖμος mimos, "mime")[4] coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976)[1][5] as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Examples of memes given in the book included melodies, catch-phrases, fashion, and the technology of building arches.[6]
Proponents theorize that memes are a viral phenomenon that may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution. Memes do this through the processes of variationmutationcompetition, and inheritance, each of which influences a meme's reproductive success. Memes spread through the behavior that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagateless prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Memes that replicate most effectively enjoy more success, and some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.[7]
This sort of meme is distinct from but related to Internet memes, the silly pictures with short captions which spread virally on the Internet.

The basic idea is that which ideas which spread are those which can compete successfully with competing ideas, and influence behavior in ways which help them spread.

For an example I've heard as regards to Torah law, consider circumcision. How did this practice become widespread? The argument goes that circumcision decreases penile sensitivity and in such a way that circumcised men would prefer vaginal to anal sex. As a result, those who practice circumcision would have more children than those who are uncircumcised. And those children would carry on the traditions of their parents. Thus, the practice of circumcision (introduced for whatever reason) would spread and compete effectively with the non-practice of circumcision.

Ideas or practices can also mutate, and those mutations will either succeed or fail. It is survival of the fittest of ideas and practices.

We might grapple with some of the laws in parshas Re'eh, especially if we approach it with a modern attitude. For instance, are we comfortable with betray a spouse or kin who secretly entices to idolatry? What of familial loyalty and love? What of the free marketplace of ideas? Is it not extreme to execute a missionary?

There may well be good answers to this sort of moral / ethical question. Obviously we don't actually practically practice these laws nowadays. But in thinking about this, perhaps we should adjust our modern attitude. Perhaps we should say society has changed. Perhaps we should explain it in a way that some would consider apologetics.

But perhaps we should just sidestep this whole like of thinking. We should consider these laws from the perspective of memes.

The Torah contains a core monotheistic idea, as well as a series of religious, legal, and ethical practices. If the Giver of the Torah wanted to ensure that this idea / ideas last, and that the Masorah carried on, what could He do preserve the Torah -- to avoid its adulteration or replacement with other competing ideas?

Devarim 12:2-3:

ב  אַבֵּד תְּאַבְּדוּן אֶת-כָּל-הַמְּקֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ-שָׁם הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם יֹרְשִׁים אֹתָם--אֶת-אֱלֹהֵיהֶם:  עַל-הֶהָרִים הָרָמִים וְעַל-הַגְּבָעוֹת, וְתַחַת כָּל-עֵץ רַעֲנָן.2 Ye shall surely destroy all the places, wherein the nations that ye are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree.
ג  וְנִתַּצְתֶּם אֶת-מִזְבְּחֹתָם, וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם אֶת-מַצֵּבֹתָם, וַאֲשֵׁרֵיהֶם תִּשְׂרְפוּן בָּאֵשׁ, וּפְסִילֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם תְּגַדֵּעוּן; וְאִבַּדְתֶּם אֶת-שְׁמָם, מִן-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא.3 And ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and ye shall destroy their name out of that place.

Hashem is a "jealous God", but what does He have to be jealous of? One answer is that the best defense is a good offense. Hashem is not really jealous or hurt by people worshiping other, non-existent, gods. However, if people worship other gods, then they will not be monotheistic worshipers of Hashem. And there are other sources of law and determiners of good and evil.

Now consider two Biblical Judaisms. One version plays nice with idolatry. It allows their altars, pillars, and Asherim to remain. The other version commands the destruction of their altars, pillars, and Asherim. Which would be more effective in propagating the core and secondary ideas of Judaism?

ד  לֹא-תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן, לַה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.4 Ye shall not do so unto the LORD your God.
ה  כִּי אִם-אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, מִכָּל-שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, לָשׂוּם אֶת-שְׁמוֹ, שָׁם--לְשִׁכְנוֹ תִדְרְשׁוּ, וּבָאתָ שָּׁמָּה.5 But unto the place which the LORD your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put His name there, even unto His habitation shall ye seek, and thither thou shalt come;

By making people come to a central location for worship and festivals, one curbs the mutation of the religious idea.

ח  לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן--כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנַחְנוּ עֹשִׂים פֹּה, הַיּוֹם:  אִישׁ, כָּל-הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו.8 Ye shall not do after all that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes;

What is right should be defined by Hashem, not by each individual.

So too, even with permitting of besar taavah as a result of spreading out across the land making making eating meat inconvenient, for ritual sacrificial purposes, one still comes to a central location:

כו  רַק קָדָשֶׁיךָ אֲשֶׁר-יִהְיוּ לְךָ, וּנְדָרֶיךָ, תִּשָּׂא וּבָאתָ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר יְהוָה.26 Only thy holy things which thou hast, and thy vows, thou shalt take, and go unto the place which the LORD shall choose;

When conquering other lands, even though you are being militarily successful, there is a danger of assimilating their religious practices into the worship of Hashem. There is a command to avoid adopting even those aspects which strike you as positive religious innovation and adoption:

כט  כִּי-יַכְרִית ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לָרֶשֶׁת אוֹתָם--מִפָּנֶיךָ; וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֹתָם, וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בְּאַרְצָם.29 When the LORD thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest in to dispossess them, and thou dispossessest them, and dwellest in their land;
ל  הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ, פֶּן-תִּנָּקֵשׁ אַחֲרֵיהֶם, אַחֲרֵי, הִשָּׁמְדָם מִפָּנֶיךָ; וּפֶן-תִּדְרֹשׁ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם לֵאמֹר, אֵיכָה יַעַבְדוּ הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה אֶת-אֱלֹהֵיהֶם, וְאֶעֱשֶׂה-כֵּן, גַּם-אָנִי.30 take heed to thyself that thou be not ensnared to follow them, after that they are destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying: 'How used these nations to serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.'
לא  לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה כֵן, לַה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ:  כִּי כָל-תּוֹעֲבַת ה אֲשֶׁר שָׂנֵא, עָשׂוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם--כִּי גַם אֶת-בְּנֵיהֶם וְאֶת-בְּנֹתֵיהֶם, יִשְׂרְפוּ בָאֵשׁ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם.31 Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God; for every abomination to the LORD, which He hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters do they burn in the fire to their gods.

Next, bal tosif and bal tigra. Devarim 13:

א  אֵת כָּל-הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם--אֹתוֹ תִשְׁמְרוּ, לַעֲשׂוֹת:  לֹא-תֹסֵף עָלָיו, וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּנּוּ.  {פ}1 All this word which I command you, that shall ye observe to do; thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it. {P}

According to the petucha and setuma breaks, this pasuk associates with the previous perek. If so, one could argue (on a peshat level) that this has to do only with the sacrificial rites. It is understood by halachic midrash to refer to all sorts of Torah law. According to the perek boundaries, this pasuk starts a new section, such that it is joined with the laws of false prophet. Thus, a prophet (post-Moshe) is not empowered to innovate new laws.

This is not just anti-innovation. This instruction of don't-add-don't-subtract ties all the laws together, such that they all live or die together. In this way, the law of circumcision, if it is an idea which aids in its own propagation, also aids in the propagation of the law to love one's neighbor.

[Devarim 13:2-6] False prophesy of an idolatrous prophet -- the death penalty is preservational.

[Devarim 13:7-12] A close family who invites to idolatry is exposed and stoned to death by you, followed by all the people -- consider that this is otherwise a great way for foreign ideas to infiltrate. Just convince one member of a family unit of the idolatry, and let the family tolerate it in silence. Eventually, those ideas spread within the family unit.

Make the family and the community at large participate in the sentence, so as to take a physical stand against the outside influence, and to put the fear of God into the people.

יב  וְכָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל--יִשְׁמְעוּ, וְיִרָאוּן; וְלֹא-יוֹסִפוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, כַּדָּבָר הָרָע הַזֶּה--בְּקִרְבֶּךָ.  {ס}12 And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness as this is in the midst of thee. {S}

[Devarim 13:13-19] The utter destruction of the idolatrous city. Here, the foreign idea and worship has spread even further. More drastic action is called for, entire obliteration. It is unclear if this was ever carried out, or if the very idea was preventative enough.

[Devarim 14:1-2] No cutting or baldness because you are a holy people;
[Devarim 14:3-21] A special diet, because you are a holy people. Certain abominable things you may give to the toshav among you, or sell to a gentile, but you may not yourselves eat of it, because you are a holy people. All this serves to set the Israelites aside as special, both in eating habits and in their own minds. This is a good way to prevent assimilation of ideas and practices.

[Devarim 14:22-26] Regular bringing of maasar to a central location of worship, as above. Of course, not every law is towards this aim. There is another thread running through this is support for the Levite, widow, orphan, and so on, until pasuk 29.


Yosef Greenberg said...

An amazing, original idea. An angle I never dreamed of, but is an excellent starting point for some of the tougher hashkafah questions out there.

Still needs more work, though.

madaral said...

Surely, religion develops/developed this way. However, there is no guarantee that the resulting religion after thousands of years has anything to do with the Truth.
The Islam developed out of Judaism, and so did Christianity. Islam uses the memes of sepher Devarim quite literally; it kills people freely. And it works! Christianity has a altogether different meme, it has the Father, who basically has no demands of people. It works/worked!
But where is the Truth? With the rabbis? With Sepher Devarim?

Unknown said...

Much more on this topic here:


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