Thursday, July 20, 2006

You Kant always get what you want

This post continues Mah Rabu's coverage of the minutiae of the independent minyan scene, as in the Hilchot Pluralism series or the Hanhu Chavurata column. This post addresses the darker side of minyanim, discussing relatively trivial issues and using them as a jumping off point to rant about economic, political, and moral philosophy. The airing of these unsavory aspects of independent minyanim should not be seen as a condemnation specific to minyanim; all of them (except perhaps the last one) are as bad or worse in mainstream synagogues, but I'm not writing about synagogues because they're not on my radar.

Consider this dialogue between a little kid and his/her parent:
"Stop doing that."
"But why??? Johnny's doing it too. Why don't you tell him to stop?"
"Because I'm your parent, and I'm not Johnny's parent."

So I'm writing about independent minyanim because that's what I have a connection to; synagogues might as well be on Neptune for all the relevance they have to my life right now.


I've posted in the past about laissez-faire economics as a desirable model for the Jewish community. While it may work for "the" Jewish community on the macroeconomic scale, I don't think it's such a good model for individual Jewish communities' internal affairs, or for, well, actual economics.

Adherence to laissez-faire economics is in part a positive (as in "descriptive", not as in "good") belief and in part a normative belief. If you say "If the market is left to run on its own without intervention, this will result in the optimal outcome", you are both making a prediction about what will happen under certain conditions, and a normative statement about what outcome is preferred.

So I'm not sure which of these I'm actually disagreeing with when I say that an unregulated free market doesn't work. If I say "An unregulated free market results in vast income inequalities and in the concentration of power in the hands of a few large corporations", am I making an empirical claim contrary to what laissez-faire economists would claim, or would they agree with the empirical claim but disagree with my normative statement that this outcome is unacceptable? Maybe it depends on which laissez-faire economist you ask (a clueless one or a malicious one). But either way, I'm going to say that an unregulated free market (the actual market, not the minyan market) doesn't work. Assuming certain agreed-upon definitions of "good" results for society as a whole, I claim that if individuals are permitted to pursue their rational self-interest without regulation, then this will lead to an overall result that is not the "best". (I'm not claiming that I've found an internal inconsistency in the economic theories, only that the theories' assumptions don't reflect real-world conditions.)

There are two alternative ways to achieve society's goals, if the invisible hand isn't going to do this on its own:
1) Regulated capitalism. Through the political process, society decides on its objectives and creates a government to carry out those objectives. By creating enforceable laws (taxes, tariffs, zoning ordinances, appropriations, etc.), the government alters the incentives, so that individuals can go ahead and maximize their utility (taking into account these new incentives), and this will result in the outcome that society has decided on.
2) Individual moral choices. Rather than pursuing their self-interest, individuals make their own economic choices based on which choice will result in the best outcome for society.

I think that "compassionate conservatism" claims, on paper, that #2 can solve the problem without the need for #1 -- voluntary private-sector philanthropy can compensate for the shortcomings of the free market without the need for governmental intervention in the economy. (This is more nuanced than the pure free-market view, because it recognizes that the free market doesn't work perfectly on its own.) However, the magnitude of what can be accomplished by the private sector is so much smaller than the magnitude of what needs to be done that it's not clear whether the proponents of these ideas are simply deluded into thinking that their policies will have the (supposedly) desired outcome, or whether they don't actually care if this outcome is achieved. (The Republican politicians themselves are clearly in the latter category, but the people who vote for them are some of each.)

(Of course, in practice, the Bush administration is anything but fiscally conservative (compassionate or otherwise), but that's a story for another time.)

On the flip side, Jim Wallis (The Soul of Politics) criticizes liberals for relying solely on #1 at the expense of #2. I'm not so sure that this criticism is accurate. But if, by criticizing both the left and the right and thereby appearing to be evenhanded and nonpartisan, he can get his fellow evangelical Christians to read his books and learn that they have a religious obligation to pursue economic justice (and not merely to oppose stem-cell research and marriage equality), then as far as I'm concerned he can say what he wants.

I think we need both.

The "compassionate conservatives" are wrong (insofar as even they believe their own rhetoric) for a whole host of reasons if they believe that the shortcomings of the free market can be solved solely by individual "points of light".

One reason is the sheer scale of the problems in search of a solution. Just as private industry could not have produced the Interstate Highway System or the Apollo program without coordination and resources from the government, private volunteerism could not have created Medicaid or Social Security.

Also, the prisoner's dilemma makes it difficult for people to do the right thing when there is a clear incentive to do the wrong thing. For example, in the absence of minimum wage laws (and assuming that the market wage is below a living wage, otherwise minimum wage laws would have no effect), employers could still choose to pay their employees higher than the market wage. But they would leave themselves susceptible to being undersold by their less scrupulous competitors, who pay lower wages and can thus charge lower prices. The industry could decide collectively that it's going to pay a living wage, but in the absence of a coordinating mechanism such as government, there is nothing to prevent individual businesses from defecting. Yes, consumers can choose to only purchase from socially responsible businesses, but again, the consumer is forced into a difficult choice.

By relying entirely on individual moral choices, this system depends on suppressing the yetzer hara (evil inclination) entirely, and assumes that we are all capable of being angels (and policy experts), an unrealistic goal. Regulated capitalism, in contrast, harnesses the yetzer hara in the service of the yetzer hatov (good inclination), by formalizing our social contract in the form of law and government. If society makes these moral decisions collectively, then individuals are not faced with the question of whether or not to act in society's interest.

In smaller groups, such as a family or the old-time communities where everyone knows each other, much of the social contract can be unwritten, and formal regulations are less necessary. But in a nation of 300 million people, it's much more difficult for individuals to see themselves as responsible for every other individual, so we need more structure.

Wallis's straw-man liberals (who, like true "compassionate conservatives", may or may not exist) are also wrong. It's impossible for government to regulate everything, or to enforce all of its regulations, and therefore, even in the ideal case where all the right laws are passed, it's still going to be possible to beat the system without getting caught, and people will still have a moral obligation not to. This is the type of case where the Torah says "v'yareita meiElohecha" - "you shall fear your God". Rashi says at Leviticus 19:14 that these cases are not enforceable by human authorities, and no one is going to know whether you've done the right thing, but you still have a responsibility before God, who knows what you're thinking.

Furthermore, the political process is slow, and government cannot respond instantly to new realities, and individual initiative is necessary to plug the gaps.


What is a moral choice?

Let's go with Kant's definition, and define it as a choice in line with the categorical imperative:

Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law.

This has nothing to say about how we determine what the universal laws should be, but it does tell us how to act once we've established those laws.

This definition of "moral" is very different from the definition that prevails in contemporary American politics and media. When they talk about "moral values" as a campaign issue, they're restricting "morality" to issues related to sex and fetuses/embryos, while turning a blind eye to the Republican policies in other spheres that are actually immoral.

When GWB lost his veto virginity this week, he said that the bill allowing federal funding of resarch on new embryonic stem-cell lines would be crossing a "moral line". But there isn't a moral and an immoral side to this issue. Both sides are acting morally, but they disagree on the universal laws. One side thinks that saving lives of living, breathing humans is more valuable than preserving an embryo in a petri dish (which is going to be thrown out anyway). The other side thinks that the embryo is more valuable. Given these inputs, both sides are pursuing policies consistent with what they would will to be universal laws. I know where I stand on this one (and you can probably guess), and I think the other side's universal laws are horrifyingly wrong.

Likewise, the "homosexual relationships are immoral" accusation just doesn't compute. People who are in same-sex relationships (other than closeted Republicans) generally believe that everyone in a same-sex relationship should have the right to engage in the debauchery of filing a joint tax return, so there's no disparity between their own actions and their preferred universal laws. Again, people have different views on which universal laws are correct, and again, it should be clear where I stand on this one.

So my main points here are:
1) Acting morally is necessary but not sufficient. It's possible for an action to be both moral and wrong. Determining standards of what's right and what's wrong are outside the scope of this post (which is about morals, not ethics).
2) Despite the baggage associated with this term in our culture, "immoral" isn't the worst thing in the world. Many actions that are immoral by the Kantian standard (such as the utterly trivial actions discussed below) are still much better, from a right-and-wrong point of view, than other actions which are moral by the Kantian standard yet based on FUCKED-UP universal laws.


Now that we've addressed the big issues, we're going to talk (as promised) about independent minyanim, and consider issues that are not only utterly trivial in comparison with finding cures for Alzheimer's or market failures, but utterly trivial in their own right. But that's what blogs are for. Remember: while "immoral" is (ceteris paribus) less good than "moral", I'm not using this word as pejoratively as it is usually understood in our time. So I'm about to call all of us immoral.

In today's emancipated societies, Jewish communities are voluntary associations (unlike society at large), united by some common thread -- in addition to being Jewish, a community might be unified by geography, ideology, aesthetics, etc. Each community gets to decide, through whatever process it uses, what objectives it wants to achieve. (To keep things simple, let's assume that everyone in the community agrees on these objectives.) If these objectives are achieved spontaneously by everyone acting the way they want to act, then great! This community is a n instant success! I've seen it happen.

However, sometimes it's not that easy. In that case, there are two options (as outlined above) for how to bridge the gap between individuals' behavior and the community's objectives:
1) The community (acting on behalf of its constituents) can impose regulations on the individuals to compel them to act in the community's interests
2) Individuals can make moral choices so that they will act in the community's interest (seeing the community's objectives as the "universal law" to which their actions must conform)

And, because the issues discussed below aren't so important in the grand scheme of things (unlike the issues of life and death discussed above), and aren't so ethically charged, there is also a third option:
3) The community can revise its objectives to be more in line with the result that would arise spontaneously from the desired actions of the individuals, to reduce the effort that needs to be put into #1 and #2.

I think there's a place for all three. #2 is nice work if you can get it. But people don't always act morally (said in that friendly non-judgmental way), and don't always act according to that maxim that they would agree would be swell if it were a universal law (in this case, the unanimously agreed-upon community objectives). So if that's the case, the community has to rethink things and decide whether it's worthwhile or feasible to maintain its objectives. If so, then #1 is in order, and if not, then #3 is the way out.

Often, in our small and informal independent communities, #1 doesn't really make sense in our culture, so it's a question of #2 (which can be enforced socially) or #3. Larger, more institutional communities attempt #1, often in vain.

So let's consider some of the nuts-and-bolts issues that every independent minyan (and other communities too, I hear) has to deal with.


I was at a minyan on a recent Friday night (I'll keep the specific minyanim anonymous) where the chairs were set up in a hybrid of the Single Direction Approach and the Concentric Circle Approach: The chairs were in three concentric (parallel) circular arcs, with each arc spanning about a quarter circle. The leader sat near the center of curvature (the place where the center of the circle would be if the circle went all the way around), facing the congregation.

I arrived at the advertised starting time; most people did not. (Grrr. See "Time", below.) I sat in the front row, to be a good citizen, and because we were already so far away from the leader. The other people who were there at the beginning sat in the second and third rows. As people steadily trickled in during kabbalat shabbat, the second and third rows filled up, and the first row remained completely empty except for me and one other daring person. So what happened after more people showed up? The Aufbau principle should dictate that they would sit in the first row, right? Wrong! They stood in the back. As even more people arrived, this group in the back became large enough that they started adding chairs from elsewhere in the room to create a fourth row. All the while, the first row remained stably underpopulated, and I felt like I was wearing a dunce cap. By the end of kabbalat shabbat, I had given up trying to fight, and abandoned my post and stood on the side for most of maariv.

If I had been an organizer at this minyan, I would have eliminated the first row (causing the second row to become the first row, etc.) once the second and third rows had filled up and it was clear that the first row had cooties. And if I had been the leader, I would have moved closer to the kahal once it was clear that they weren't moving closer to me. But I was a guest, so I kept my mouth shut.

The people at this minyan (including me, by the end) were acting immorally, in that Kantian way. Let us assume that the configuration of chairs (set up in advance) reflected the collective will of the community. (It's not what I would have chosen, but that's beside the point.) The number of chairs was a fairly accurate prediction of the total number who showed up by the end (the number sitting in the new fourth row was roughly equal to the number of empty chairs in the first row), and the spacing and orientation represented some set of collective preferences. Therefore, the moral thing to do would be for individuals to act in ways that respected these collective preferences.

I don't think the categorical imperative was meant to apply in ridiculously narrow cases. For example, if someone wants to sit in the third row, fifth seat from the left, this does not mean that s/he must also will that everyone sit in the third row, fifth seat from the left, because that's just crazy (and people act like fermions). However, in the absence of unique personal circumstances, each person should have a set of ranked seating preferences that would be consistent with everyone having the same set of ranked preferences. ("If it's available, I'll take the third row, fifth seat from the left. If that's already taken, I'll take the second row, all the way to the right. If that's already taken, ...")

It seems that most people in attendance that night had a similar set of ranked seating preferences: "I'll sit somewhere in the second or third row. Under no circumstances will I sit in the front row." This is, of course, mathematically impossible (outside of Chelm) if everyone abides by it -- the frontmost row where anyone is sitting becomes, by default, the front row. This would lead to infinite recursion were it not for the fact that people are willing to sit behind empty chairs. But even without any logical paradoxes, the summation of these individual ranked seating preferences is inconsistent with the collective preferences represented by the chair setup. If there is a front row (and no chairs that are intended to remain permanently empty), then someone has to sit in it. If the hospital or the power plant is open on weekends, then someone has to work the weekend shift.

Therefore, there are two possibilities:
  • People were acting immorally (applying a different set of rules to themselves than they would apply to other people in the community) and/or irrationally.
  • Our initial assumption was faulty, and the seating configuration was not an accurate representation of the collective will. For example, maybe people do prefer having a row of empty seats in front of the frontmost populated row, providing a security barrier between them and the leader. Or maybe people want there to be a huge gap between the leader and all of the chairs (even larger than the gap that was already there).
Of course, there are Jewish prayer spaces with an intentional gap between the leader and the congregation -- they're called synagogues. (And even there, with that huge gap, people still avoid sitting in the front.) But I think most people who go to independent minyanim are trying to avoid the synagogue aesthetic. They don't actually want this gap, they just don't want to be the ones to sit near the leader.

One solution (#2) is for individuals to decide to take one for the team and act morally and sit in the front even if it wouldn't be their first choice. Another is for someone to give top-down instructions, but, while this may work in a synagogue (the rabbi says "let's move closer" and people grudgingly comply), independent minyanim tend to have a less top-down culture (which is generally a good thing).

Another option is creative social engineering solutions, which could be seen as deception, or could be seen as helping the community carry out its own objectives. At Kol Zimrah, we might get 100 people, but there are more like 20 people at the beginning and the rest show up later. We use the Concentric Circle Approach, and people are likely to gravitate toward the outermost circles. So instead of starting with 100 chairs, so that people start out scattered on the periphery, we sometimes start by setting out fewer chairs than are needed, so that people can start out relatively concentrated, and then add more chairs on the outside as they become necessary. (This assumes that people will fill up the existing chairs before adding their own, an assumption disproven by the minyan discussed above!)

Another option is to plan around expected behavior. At the most recent Brooklyn KZ, I wanted to minimize the dead space in the center of the circles. So I made lots of circles, with the innermost circle unrealistically small. As expected, very few people sat in the inner circle, but lots of people sat in the second circle (who might not have if the inner circle hadn't been there), which, though obviously larger than the first circle, was still smaller than the innermost circle usually is, so our objectives were deviously achieved.

There's another minyan I go to that sets up chairs in the Single Direction Approach, with the leader in the center of the room. When they have lunch events, they put away the tables after lunch and do mincha, without setting up any chairs. Mincha is a short enough service (though always longer than you think) that people can stand for the whole thing. As usual, the leader and Torah are positioned in the center of the room. However, what typically happens is that almost everyone ends up standing behind an invisible horizontal line going through the leader, so that against his/her (and the community's collective) will, the leader effectively ends up in the front of the room. I'm not sure what the solution is. I suppose that after everyone takes their places, the leader could move to the center of the population distribution, but then people might reposition themselves (which is more likely if they're standing in a mostly empty room than if they're sitting), and this could go on recursively until we encounter degeneracy pressure (since people have finite size).

Then there's all the issues we encounter when we have Kol Zimrah in the park. There are many great things about davening in the park, but the acoustical quality is not one of them. In order for the acoustics to work at all, people have to sit close together. There is no other way. We've learned this the hard way, with a number of outdoor services where no one could hear each other. But this is not people's natural inclination. Since there's lots of space in the park, there is a tendency to spread out and fill the space (like the urban legend about goldfish), added to the usual phobia of sitting too close to the leader. As a result, the free-market seating distribution is highly dissipated, and (surprise surprise) there is a gap between the leader and everyone else. When I led one of these early unregulated outdoor services, I dealt with this by getting up and moving closer to the crowd (they were already settled on their blankets, so they didn't run away), but the distribution was still quite suboptimal.

Kol Zimrah generally strives to be non-coercive. We don't tell people when to sit or stand, what siddur to use, how to pray, etc. In order to pull off these services in the park, we make an exception. Now that we've learned our lesson, we have designated friendly-but-firm "fascists" who greet each person as s/he approaches the KZ clump. "Shabbat shalom, welcome to Kol Zimrah! Please sit right there. Thank you!" They make sure that people sit in a tight cluster, with the leader in the middle (not far away on one end). The initial nucleus (when the first 10 or so people are there at the very beginning) must be a cluster, not a circle with empty space in the middle, because the empty space will never be filled up. If you start with a circle, then people will arrive and sit behind it, etc. Generally we're opposed to fascism, but in this case, we've found that it's the only way.


I was recently visiting a Shabbat morning minyan where the population stayed in the single digits for all of pesukei d'zimrah, and we had to wait a while for a minyan so that we could start shacharit. Throughout shacharit, the spirit was anemic. After that, more people arrived, and the place was hopping by musaf.

There were two contributing factors to the lateness: the weather was inclement and people were walking a long way through the rain, and a number of people had (or were) young children. Because of the first factor, I'll give this minyan the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was atypical for them and that people are prompter in nicer weather. However, there are other minyanim and synagogues that fall into this pattern even in ideal weather conditions, including some where no one is there at the advertised starting time, so services always start late. And this minyan doesn't get a free pass for the second factor, because if people have young children this week, then they'll have young children (albeit a week older) next week, so this is a structural factor that the community needs to plan for, as discussed below.

Bishlama (granted), if a critical mass is always there at the beginning, then it doesn't matter when everyone else shows up, and there's no problem. (If a mikvah contains the requisite 40 se'ah of undrawn water, then you can add any amount of drawn water to that, and it will still be a kosher mikvah.) Hacha b'mai askinan, in a case where there isn't a critical mass at the scheduled starting time, so the service either starts late or starts lame.

Each community needs to decide what time it wants to start, and then actually start at that time. If each individual agrees that the community should start at a particular time, and if their presence is necessary to make that happen, then they have a moral obligation to be there at that time. But if the community starts at 9:30 AM and everyone would rather get there at 10:30, then the community (representing its constituents) should just start at 10:30! Problem solved.

Sagredo responds, "But if the service starts an hour later, then if you're still doing full liturgy, then it will end an hour later. This means that people will arrive even later, because people don't want to sit through a whole 2.5-hour service." If people don't want to be there for 2.5 hours, then don't have a 2.5-hour service!!! If the community isn't actually interested in full liturgy, then it shouldn't have it.

In the mainstream synagogue world, these attitudes often break down on denominational lines. The average Reform shulgoer wants to arrive at a late hour on Shabbat morning and be in services for a short amount of time. Therefore, most Reform synagogues have a late scheduled time on Shabbat morning and a relatively short service (shorter than full traditional liturgy). People arrive on time (or even early), the service starts on time, and people stay for the whole thing. The average Conservative shulgoer also wants to arrive at a late hour and be in services for a short amount of time. So he does. It's a free country. Except that the service has already been going on for several hours (with sparse attendance) by the time he gets there. Meanwhile, he considers himself Jewishly superior to his Reform cousins because his shul doesn't cut anything out of the service, even though he ends up spending the same amount of time (or less) in shul as they do at the Reform shul down the block.

I can't blame either of these fictional characters for their attitudes -- if I were going to services at either of their fictional average synagogues, then I'd have a hard time getting out of bed too. But which of them is being more honest?


I've seen this issue come up in a number of different communities.

  • Community C is volunteer-run
  • There are n people volunteering, who can contribute an average of h hours of volunteer labor per month
  • Community C wishes to maintain a level of activity that requires H hours of labor per month to maintain
  • n*h << H
Then there are only four possible solutions:
  • Increase n (get more people to volunteer)
  • Increase h (get people to increase their volunteering commitment; depending on the initial value of h, this might be a short-term solution that leads to long-term burnout, so it's equivalent to a loan that has to be paid back later)
  • Decrease H (scale back the community's activities)
  • Make the community less volunteer-run by paying for labor (this requires money and a shift in culture)
This is simple math. There is no other way around it.


  1. Just a thought about our friend Kant: I'm fine with your interpretation of the categorical imperative, but I'm not sure it applies so broadly. You put the issue of sitting in the front row in moral terms. But if you apply the categorical imperative to every action, rather than to actions concerning morality... I think you get nonsense.

    As an example: I'm a grad student. Let's examine the morality of my actions. I'm supported by a governement grant, and I don't have to pay taxes on part of my stipend. If everyone was a grad student, the world would be a worse place because taxes wouldn't be paid, garbage wouldn't be collected, there would be nobody to do any other jobs. (Hmm... and there would be nobody to teach grad school).

    My understanding of Kant (which is limited, I admit), is that he wouldn't classify the act of attending grad school as immoral, even though it fails the categorical imperative. Why? Because not all actions have a moral ranking.

    By the same token, I don't think where you sit in a minyan has a moral value, even according to Kant, who soemtimes said weird things.

    Good job on the blog, BTW.

  2. BZ - I love reading your analyses, though it frequently makes my head hurt. :-) This one reminds me why I dropped out of macro econ.

    I was reading a comment on another blog that "pluralism is moral relativism" and "we can't all be right." While I may blog about this further, if I'm willing to go out on a limb and take the controversy, it occurs to me that my universal value is one of connection with community and G-d, not of "most-rightness."

    In other words, different approaches to experiences with the Great Mystery/Great Spirit/Holy One/G-d are neither more right nor more wrong than another. They are simply different. This works in my theological discussions with my pagan (not Wiccan) friend, in that I leave the "rightness" of our distinctive attempts to connect with the Divine to G-d, and simply enjoy the surprising commonalities we find in our seemingly disparate beliefs and practices.

    But I haven't found that same enjoyment within a completely Jewish context. There's too much defensiveness about who's "right" and who's being de-legitimized.

    Except in the J-blogosphere. I've found a wonderfully amazing number of respectful and supportive Orthodox and other self-described "more traditional" people who may not share my practices but support them as the approach to G-d that works for me.

    Maybe that's why I spend far too much time online. :)

  3. BTW, I always sit in the front row, but I'm not sure how much is fearlessness and how much is having enough psych training to want to buck the system.

    I'd have joined you in the front seats.