Friday, June 6, 2014

Summer Series: Eli Talks - "Social Intelligence"

Hey OOTOB readers,

This June, you're in for a treat.  OOTOB is partnering with Eli Talks to bring you four interesting conversation-starters of Jewish interest.  These four posts are sponsored by Eli Talks, and we are sure the OOTOB community will find its content interesting and worth pursuing further in your own conversations locally.

About ELI Talks

Judaism is a conversation. It is a religion that does not stand on faith alone, but pushes its 
adherents to wrestle with new ideas and never back down from a good argument. 

The digital age breathes new life into this grand Jewish conversation. Now we can capture, 
share, remix, and reimagine inspired Jewish ideas from across the spectrum. We can access 
them anytime, anywhere, and add our voices.

This is what ELI Talks is all about.

ELI talks are “inspired Jewish ideas” addressing issues of Jewish religious engagement (E), 
literacy (L), and identity (I) in highly produced, 12-minute presentations. ELI Talks are given 
by some of the Jewish world’s most thoughtful, inspiring, and unexpected personalities. While 
initially inspired by TED Talks, the mission of ELI is to go beyond the TED-style sharing of great 
ideas to real engagement, sparking and hosting deep conversations around the implications of 
those ideas for the community. 

Talks can be used in a variety of settings: as conversation pieces at conferences, in staff 
learning and at board meetings, as resources in adult education, and to spark discussions with 
your friends by sharing on Facebook or Twitter. If you’re interesting in developing materials 
around a Talk or series of Talks, please contact Program Director Miriam Brosseau who will be 
happy to help.





What Does OOTOB Have To Do With It

Eli Talks are offered by a variety of Jews - different educators and lay people.  I do not personally endorse the content, and will offer my responses where we differ, and my comments where I agree.  I'm really looking forward to this partnership.  We will share four posts on four Thursdays in June in addition to OOTOB's usual content at the beginning of each week.  Hope you like it!

And now, for the very first talk:  Social Intelligence by Dr. Rona Novick

Eli Talk's Program Director, Miriam Brosseau, says:

I come from a family of teachers, so we talk a lot of about the value and purpose of education. It's a huge question, and not an easy one to answer. We have to ask ourselves: what, really, is the goal of education, Jewish or otherwise? What do children need to know, what skills do they need to have? Ultimately, what kind of people are we trying to shape? 

Social intelligence - it's so important, yet so easy to overlook; it's such a primal, but nuanced skill that carries us throughout our entire lives. I love Dr. Novick's talk not only because she so eloquently argues for the value of social intelligence, but because when we re-frame the goal, when we change our intentions, we have to rethink everything. And that's scary, and it's hard. But it's worth it. 

OOTOB's Ruchi Koval says:

Very often when Orthodox kids do things that are socially or ethically wrong, people say, "Is that what the schools are teaching??"  This really, really (really) bothers me.  Schools can and do run all sorts of programs on anti-gossip, anti-bullying, kindness begins at home, blah blah blah, and these are all good and important programs.  Yet.  If the same message isn't being loudly promulgated at home, fuggeddabbouddit.  Home.  Parents.  These are the primary, and must be the primary, place of moral and ethical teaching.  Day schools are to be considered a supplementary source of social intelligence. Not to take the heat off the schools - but to rather place it, squarely, as Dr. Novick suggests, on the parents.

What do you think?



  1. I agree with both Miriam and with you, Ruchi. Great idea for June

  2. Whenever my child does something I don't like, I can almost always trace it back to something she's seen me do. I know where she gets it. Parenting is an intensive self-improvement program.

    There is a school in my community that has all the right lingo. They talk all the time about how the kids should treat each other. It's an explicit part of the curriculum. I like the parents at this school. But the kids treat anyone outside their group like dirt. They are rude and unfriendly towards adults and exclusionary towards kids they don't know. The kids don't seem happy, despite going to a school with a great reputation. And all the parents always tell me that community is the best thing about this school and that all the kids are nice to each other.

    I talked about it with my partner and we couldn't figure it out -- how can we square what we've seen with what is being said? The only theory we could come up with was that maybe kids see being nice at school as part of the curriculum. When they are at school, they are "on task'. And when they are home and having their free time, or hanging out with people outside their school, they don't need to be nice to other people.

    We are sending our kid to the school where they didn't talk much about social development or community and the parents seem different from us (money, observance, politics) but all the kids we met were really, really, really, really nice.

    1. I don't know. I don't understand it at all. Honestly, even when you back it up at home kids do plenty of embarrassing and socially unintelligent things. You just pray they grow up into mentschen.

  3. Should be workingJune 7, 2014 at 5:13 PM

    The presenter seems like a sincere, thoughtful, motivational educator, and it is a good reminder of my own job as a parent, and the questions Ruchi raises about the primary responsibility of parents vs. schools are discussion-worthy, not just for Jews of course.

    Here's a comment that's more about her setup and also some of what happens on this blog. She offers the one-legged-learner anecdote where the rabbi says the whole Torah is about treating others the way you would like to be treated, and I've heard that anecdote before. But when that anecdote is offered from an O perspective, honestly it feels to me like a bait-and-switch tactic. Sometimes on this blog, for instance, there is talk of God's inscrutable calculus regarding why certain rules are applied and how merit is decided. The complexities and need for interpretation are the reason for needing (see Rabbi Z's previous post) Talmudic commentary, and rabbinic interpretation. Didn't someone here once say that there is no "smaller mitzvah", so even one of the "little" ones is as important as one of the "big ones"?

    So the one-legged-learner story comes across as bait-and-switch: "See, this is the whole point" in a sort of smug way, and then at other times the line is, "It's very complex; we don't know why; we need interpreters; every mitzvah is equal--even the little practical ones that don't involve how we treat other people" and so on. So frankly that anecdote should, in my view, be dropped from the O repertoire. It comes off as condescending and at the same time also underhanded.

    1. SBw, don't you sometimes tell your kids something is the most important thing, and other times overlook it in the grander complex scheme of things? Wouldn't you agree that sometimes you give your kids clear and unadorned maxims and other times express that things are complicated? It seems from your comment that you feel there is some kind of underhanded intention here; what?

    2. Should be workingJune 8, 2014 at 3:13 AM

      Not sure the analogy works. I have maxims with the kids, yes: "Be kind"; "Do your best"; "Be grateful". But I don't claim that that is the boiled-down version of a long, complex, much-interpreted set of writings that we treasure every word and nuance of and try to live by in every single instance (as I think you do with Torah). Plus I have lots of much-contested "aesthetic" rules that don't "boil down" to those maxims (e.g. use silverware properly).

      It seems to me that the anecdote plays to a feel-good fantasy that the whole Torah really DOES "just" mean "treat others as you would wish . . .". And what does washing your hands seven times have to do with treating others as you would wish (I'm trying to think of the commandment, or complicated interpretation, that you have mentioned that is least relevant to the rabbi's "maxim", but I don't even know most of them).

      You spend a lot of time on the blog very generously explaining and defending the complexity and even the opacity of some of the complicated rules and practices that Os see as commanded in the Torah. Where there's a good reason you try to offer it, and where not you point out the parts about not judging and letting God figure out the calculus. All fine. The anecdote is in my view disrespectful of both of those approaches.

      What if you changed the characters and had a Christian leader say that line, "The whole Torah basically boils down to 'treat others the way you want to be treated'"? Wouldn't that be disrespectful, wouldn't lots of Jews be offended? They should be. It would sound like the Christian trying to make Judaism sound more like Christianity.

      I'd like to know the history of the anecdote, it feels like a way to convince people, especially Jews that "Jews are just like everyone else, just trying to be nice, nothing out of the ordinary here". And yes, there is something "sneaky"-feeling about this anecdote. It feels like an "aw shucks" simplicity parading itself when in fact OJ is all about complexity (from what I gather). This is what I mean about bait-and-switch.

    3. Ah. I understand now.

      Ok, so firstly your question is dealt with in the Torah. See a short piece here that my husband wrote for one of our newsletters (I just posted it to our other blog today so I could share it as a link but he actually wrote it a couple of months ago):

      And in terms of this anecdote parading as all of Judaism, I too cringe when it's presented with no context -

    4. Should be workingJune 8, 2014 at 2:39 PM

      Mr. Ruchi's 'elevator answer' is much better than the anecdote's. It is open-ended and begs further questions about what KIND of relationship.

      I'm noticing how much O Judaism as you portray it seems caught in a paradox, as I noted in a comment to a previous post. The commitment to complexity, nuance and multifarious interpretation seems to collide with a practical need for unambiguous prescriptions for behavior. Or (as in the case of Tatz and the circle dance) a "sound-byte". I have a lot of respect for the complexity, not so much for the sound bytes.

    5. So I never really thought about it quite that way, but yes. It is a paradox. Because it's theologically and historically extremely complex, but you just need to LIVE. You need sound bites. A business's elevator pitch doesn't detract from its complexity.

    6. I'm not sure why practical rules are sound bites. I think of sound bites as more like slogans. Do we really need them? We do need practical rules. To some extent it's like a group of doctors disagreeing on a diagnosis. At some point the patient needs to know what to do. Of course, the analogy doesn't really work because in the Torah the different opinions can all be right in different ways (multiple layers of meaning), whereas in medicine the doctors can't all be right. But still, we have to live in practice. On the other hand, sound bites seem a bit simplistic.

    7. Should be workingJune 9, 2014 at 8:18 PM

      I can see why a need for practical rules would mean that ambiguities have to be set aside and so a decision for a meaning has to be made in a particular case.

      But the sound-byte phenomenon would offend me if I were O. By "sound bytes" I do mean simplistic, crudely reductive: "The whole Torah boils down to . . . " in the anecdote. Or also, "The reason men dance in a circle is because . . . ". These strike me as attempts to parade around a smug simplicity--where it's not even necessary to do that because no rule is being decided. It's like showing off a "See? It's simple!" attitude when in fact it's NOT simple, and it doesn't have to be because no one is making a decision at that moment anyway.

      It offends me as well, as a dumbing-down of complexity. Leave it open instead (like Mr. Ruchi), don't dumb it down and pretend that all the loose ends can be tucked in.

      Maybe my reaction seems overblown. Maybe an analogy would be how maddening it is that Hollywood romance movies include little stock-recipe elements that everyone expects to see, thereby perpetuating the need for those stupid elements in other movies and training the audience to expect them all the more : A pretty woman as love interest (with surgically enhanced nose and other things); a car chase; sickly-corny, overbearing background music. We already know where it's going when it starts . . . and then it goes there. Why can't it challenge our expectations instead of satisfy them (where they have already been conditioned for sappy, predictable stories anyway).

      And there it is, my analogy to Hollywood romance films, here on the mostly-Orthodox blog where people don't watch those things . . .

    8. You're so funny. I'm going to wager 99% of people on this blog have watched "those things" :)
      Sound bytes (bites?) are a problem, but again, you have them in every industry. It's a necessary evil.

    9. What Rabbi Hillel said, whilst standing on one leg, was "what is hurtful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary go and learn". In other words, here is someone who wants to convert to Judaism, he is given a teaching about what Torah is all about "in essence" but then he is quite clearly told to "go and learn" the rest of the commentary, which of course is going to result in breaking down the slogan into the complexity of the rest of Torah.

      The new-comer needed a simple starting point so he was given something that in Hillel's view summarized what Judaism was all about, we might paraphrase it as "being a better person and making a better society". The trouble is if we were to leave it at that, as many people do by the way and figure that's a good enough goal for a good life, then they won't achieve their goal, the Torah is the detailed action plan to figure out how G-d wants you to achieve this goal.

      Anything can be reduced and simplified when necessary. We tell our kids, "grass is green" and "sky is blue" when they're painting but it's up to the great artist or the scientist for that matter to discover and show us the real complexity in the grass and the sky. Torah has infinite depth, by definition, and infinite complexity and that is why Orthodox Jews place such a great emphasis on studying Torah and learning. It's NOT just a legalistic attempt to figure out what they're supposed to be doing, although there is that too since every situation presents novel combinations of factors that will determine how the halacha is to be applied in each case. Rather, the learning is something done for its own sake because to delve into the infinite depths of the Torah is the closest we'll get to understanding the "mind of G-d" as it were.

      At the same time though, G-d is a perfect unity, so there is a sense in which unifying and simplifying concepts get us closer to the truth too. Think science. you can go small: bodies, organs, cells, cell structure, DNA, molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks, superstrings..... before you know it you're in astrophysics and origins of the universe.

      Or you can go big: people, apes, mammals, animals, living beings, terrestrial, planet earth, solar system, milky way galaxy etc and back to astrophysics and origins of the universe.

      That being so, practically we operate at the comfortable mid-sized level, all the while acknowledging the complexity and ultimate unity that lies in either direction.

      It doesn't matter how much you try to "simplify", when you are discussing infinite things you'll always get back to The Infinite which is why Jews say "ein od milvado" because really and truly there's nothing besides Him and the rest is commentary, go and learn!

    10. Wow. Thanks for that great, in-depth response. SBW, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this comment.

    11. Should be workingJune 11, 2014 at 11:49 AM

      It is true that there is more open-endedness than I gave the anecdote credit for, esp. with the "go and learn". Still, the relegation of the rest of the Torah to "commentary" is in my view oversimplifying.

      SoSw's analogies to learning science in pieces and moving from small-scale to large-scale are also useful. I like the "infinite depths" part. But likely I will continue to be puzzled by how this clashes with the need for definitive practical rules.

  4. Looking forward to these talks! Have to think about my answer to your question . . .


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