Sunday, October 23, 2005

Meme Seven (and the transmission of mesorah)

"Meme Seven" has been working its way through the Jewish blogs for a few weeks now, and I've recently been tagged to continue by DovBear. (Update: Alleged gratuitous insult has been deleted.)

Before I get to it, a few words are in order about memes and the Jewish problem. A meme, briefly, is an element of culture transmitted by imitation. That is, it's something people do because other people have done it. In Jewish lingo, we call that minhag ("custom") or mesorah ("tradition").

When referring to material transferred among blogs, a meme is also something else: a text. As with (l'havdil) traditional Jewish texts, a meme can be altered in transmission, either carelessly or deliberately. And so it has been with Meme Seven.

Seven appears to have infected the J-Blogs via Matza and Marinara, who I will treat for the purposes of this discussion as the original, "authentic" text. M&M presented a seven-by-seven matrix of categories: "Things I plan to do before I die", "Things I can do", "Things I cannot do", "Things that attract me to the opposite sex", "Things that I say most often", "Celebrity crushes" and "People I want to do this".

Next, Mirty reordered the categories, from light to serious. Rabbi Neil Fleischmann, appropriately enough, excised the inappropriate categories ("opposite sex" and "celebrity crushes"). Steg received it from Neil, and passed it on to OrthoMom, who changed (in typical Jewish fashion) "Things I plan to do before I die" to the more upbeat "Things I Hope To Do In My Life". Finally, before passing it on to me, DovBear (intentionally or not?) dropped the category of "Things that I say most often".

(I should also note that the number of people tagged to continue the meme has been altered capriciously from seven to whatever number the blogger had in mind.)

Received tradition or restored authenticity?
So, as one faithful to the traditions, which version should I do? Should I transmit the meme as I received it, remaining faithful to my place in the chain of tradition? Or should I aim to ascertain the original, authentic form of the meme and restore it to its rightful glory, correcting any distortions which have taken hold in the meantime?

On the one hand, tradition only bears authority to the extent that it is preserved as it has been transmitted. Within the framework of tradition, I can carry on the practices of my father or my teachers. But the moment I adopt someone else's practices, someone with whom I have no direct authoritative relationship, I am not being traditional. I am being arbitrary and autonomous.

If I follow Hassidic customs because my father is a Hassid, or because my rebbe is a Hassid, I am continuing the tradition. But if I do so because they sound nice to me, or I find them inspiring or meaningful, I am acting of my own accord and have severed any link I might have to the chain of tradition.

On the other hand, where it is possible to determine that the tradition has gone awry, that authentic practices have been lost or distorted, and foreign ones substituted, is it not my duty to restore authenticity to the tradition, discarding any errors in transmission which may have crept in - no matter for how long they have taken hold? I am not being arbitrary and autonomous - I am restoring truth to the tradition!

Which brings me to Gil's meme. Also tagged by DovBear, he restored two of the three missing categories, "Things I Say Often" and "Celebrity Crushes", though leaving the latter marked "N/A". He failed to restore the "opposite sex" category, and kept OrthoMom's wording of "Things I Hope To Do". So Gil took steps towards restoring the authentic meme, though he failed to do so completely and (contrary to the usual practice of textual emendations to Jewish texts) he failed to note the emendations. Coincidentally, in his very next post, Gil discussed the question of textual changes to the prayers, concluding that though it may be desirable to restore the authentic original texts, it is probably impossible. Did the same thinking guide his approach to the meme?

Ultimately, I have decided to propagate the meme as I received it from DovBear. Who am I, a lonely individual in the chain of tradition, to decide it must be altered? My link to the revelation of the meme is only through DovBear and his chain of transmission. Restoring the original, authentic text may be an interesting question for researchers (Wissenschaft des Blogentums), but it should not affect halachic practice.

Without further blather:

7 Things I Can Do:
- Design and build a working object-oriented software system using C++ and/or Perl
- Lein the Torah accurately (with a modest amount of preparation) and lead most of the high holiday services
- Play the William Tell Overture on my teeth using a pen or my thumbnail
- Smell a cigarette from across a large restaurant
- Spot an artificial satellite traversing the night sky
- Sing beautifully (or so I'm told)
- Research the medical journals to reach an informed decision on health issues

7 Things I Can't Do:
- Wake up at the same time each morning
- Basic household repairs
- Watch soccer for more than a few minutes
- Open an envelope containing a bank statement
- Work without noshing
- Pursue a consumer complaint effectively
- Conceive of a workable solution for the Arab-Israel conflict

7 Things I Hope To Do In My Life:
- Have more kids and raise them successfully
- Study for semicha
- Get my finances in order
- Finish writing the drasha this blog is named after, and get it published
- Lead Mussaf on Rosh Hashana
- Maintain a clean home
- Get into shape - and stay there

People I'd like to infect with this meme (alphabetically):
- ADDeRabbi
- Am Echad
- Cosmic X
- David B.
- Out of Step Jew
- Rachel Ann
- Sharvul


YMedad said...

As the term meme first came into popular use with the publication of the book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins in 1976, this gives me an opening to inform all that Dawkins was in Jerusalem last month, filming a section of a new documentary on the "interference" (my term) of religion in political conflicts. He interviewed the Mufti of the Haram E-Sharif and I was selected to counter, speaking about the Temple Mount. The film will be shown in January in England. Toby Katz of Cross-Currents was quite critical of my participation claiming that Dawkins, an incorrigible secularist, will twist what I intended to say. We'll wait and see.

Zman Biur said...

Sounds interesting. Please keep us informed.

Cosmic X said...

Gee, thanks(?) for infecting me. You can see my post here.

DovBear said...

Facinating discussin of tradition, Mr. Chametz (though I could have done without the gratuitous insult)

Zman Biur said...


I'm not sure I insulted you, let alone gratuitously. Besides, I thought you liked to play rough.

Ima Undercover said...

Well, I didn't start it but I did pass it to a J-blogger - believe me, I am not swift enough to start such nonsense :) But thanks for linking out to me. I do appreciate it.

Zman Biur said...


That's what I said: that you injected it into the J-blogs. I know you didn't start it.

Avi said...

I responded, it's on my blog. Admittadly belatedly but I did my meme.