Friday, January 27, 2012


3 Shvat, 5772
January 27th, 2012

Dear reader, herein find the cautionary tale of Jean Martin Charcot.

Charcot was a French neurologist of the 19th century. His impact on modern neurology is profound: he was the first to describe and name multiple sclerosis, and one of the first with ALS; he counted among his students Sigmund Freud, William James, Alfred Binet (of IQ test fame), and Gilles de la Tourette; he contributed significantly to systematic neurological examination. 

But his unfortunate legacy is forever linked with hypnotism.
Hypnotism was the popular scientific rage of the time. Charcot believed that the ability to be hypnotized was the best sign that a person was a hysteric - an antiquated term for neuroses (itself antiquated). A natural showman, physicians came from all over Europe to watch as Charcot, with merely a glance, sent his patients into deep hypnotic trances, whereupon they would produce dramatic hysteric fits. 

But there was a problem. It turns out that Charcot’s patients were carefully prepared by his assistants beforehand, essentially told how to act. Thus Charcot wasn’t uncovering anything in his patients; he was producing the effects himself. The brilliant physician’s demonstrations were discarded as studies of the etiology of disease, and became an eternal example of the power of suggestibility. Charcot, a father of neurology, died with the shame of public discredit. 

Even the best of us has a huge capacity for self-delusion. When our blood pumps hot with the felt truth of our convictions, it is hard to remember that we bend the world to meet our opinions, and that we hide that bending from ourselves.

This then is the power of studying Torah. To train one’s mind and heart to seek truth beyond one’s personal intuitions -- this is the responsibility anyone who would speak for truth in the world. 

“Lips that speak truth last forever; Gone in an moment is a tongue that speaks falsehood” Proverbs 12:19

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Parshat Shemot
16 Tevet, 5772
January 11th, 2012

There is a story told in Talmud of two havruta (study partners) who were bonded for life. They spent years together, learning and arguing, and these two, Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish became the greatest of their generation in the land of Israel. To this day, students of Talmud know them with intimate familiarity.

At the end their partnership broke up, with catastrophic results. The students, distraught over their rabbi’s pain, sent to Rabbi Yohanan another havruta with which to learn, Rabbi Eliezer ben Padat – a brilliant scholar. And to every word that Rabbi Yohanan said, Rabbi Eliezer said, “there is a teaching that supports your point.”

Eventually, Rabbi Yohanan had had enough. He said, “Do you think you are like Resh Lakish? Resh Lakish, when I would say anything, he would contradict me twenty four different ways. Then I would give him twenty four answers. And of itself the learning would grow.” (Bava Metzia 84a)

This past weekend, conservative political commentator Tony Blankley passed away from stomach cancer. Blankley served Ronald Reagan as an analyst and speechwriter, and as Newt Gingrich’s press secretary. In later life he was known for his journalism, in print, radio, and television.

I am an inveterate listener of KCRW’s Left, Right, and Center, and spent years listening to Blankley every Friday afternoon. God knows I disagreed with the man, but there is no question of his prodigious and incisive intellect, his manner that was both genteel and deeply challenging, and the intelligence of his positions.

In politics, as in religion, the game is to get people to think like you. It is the convincing of others to share your belief that allows for the momentum all change requires. But in the end, I thank God that none of us actually win, for then how would the learning grow?

Tony Blankley will be missed.