My Final Answer
by David Holzel

I watch "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" I admit this now because, in light of what I'm about to write, denials would be useless.

Two things in particular strike me about the show. One is the host, Regis Philbin, himself. Except for William Safire, he seems to be the only '60s pop icon to have survived into the '00s intact. I don't remember Regis too clearly from back then because I didn't really watch the "Joey Bishop Show," which was ABC's ill-fated attempt to put a wrinkle in Johnny Carson's trousers. The name Joey Bishop is itself a punch line (see the transcript of my bar mitzvah speech). How much more so his sidekick and second banana, Regis Philbin?
 
When I next heard of Regis, he was paired up with the unctuous Kathie Lee on their morning show. Now, I'm not saying the long-suffering Regis is any Hurricane Carter. He's not even a Nell Carter. But he's such a good sport sitting there with Kathie Lee that he deserves for Harold Kushner to write a book about him. With "Millionaire," though, I think he got something better than that. Regis has become The Man. Think about it: The show is the dictionary definition of anti-climax, yet it can still thrill. And Regis is the reason. Like an old blues master, he gets more mileage out of a bent note here, a shout there, than if he was a 20-year-old smashing his guitar into the lead singer's face. How many times can you watch that before you lose respect for the guitarist?

The other thing that strikes me about "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" is the idea of a "final answer." Since no one (including me) has not seen the show, only people reading this in time-capsule form will not know that "Is that your final answer?" is the tag line Regis uses to build suspense into the contest. It has replaced "I did not have sex with that woman" as the catch phrase of the day.

Because of the condition of the universe, and our apprehension of it, there is no final answer, of course. Only simplification can leave us with what appears to be a final answer. This realization is undoubtedly the Jews' greatest contribution to civilization, not the cabana as some might think. One only has to go to that sacred Jewish text, "Fiddler on the Roof," to recall how many "on the other hands" a person can come up with.


It's true that Tevye did conclude that "No! There is no other hand!" But this undoubtedly was a device to advance the plot.. As the Talmud seems to imply in the following discussion, the axiom is: If you only have two hands, get more people.

One who is about to enter an outhouse should remove his tefillin (phylacteries*) four cubits away and then enter.

Rabbi Aha said in the name of Rabbi Sheshet: "This was meant to apply only to a regular outhouse (where there already is excrement). But if the outhouse is made for the occasion, he then takes his tefillin off and eases himself at once. When he comes out, he goes a distance of four cubits and puts them on, because he has now made it a regular outhouse."

The question was asked: "What is the rule about a man going in to a regular outhouse with his tefillin to make water?" Ravina allowed it, but Rabbi Adda bar Mattena forbade it. They went to Raba and asked him about it and he said: "It is forbidden, since we are afraid he may ease himself in his tefillin" (or as some report Raba saying, "lest he break wind in his tefillin").

According to the school of Shammai, one who enters a regular outhouse should take off his tefillin at a distance of four cubits and put them in the window on the side of the path. The school of Hillel says, "He should keep them in his hand and enter." Rabbi Akiva said, "He should hold them in his garment and enter."

In his garment? But the tefillin might slip out and fall. Say rather that he holds them in his hand and in his garment, and enters, and then puts the tefillin in a hole on the side of the outhouse, but not on the side of the public path, because a passerby might take the tefillin and ruin the man's reputation.

For once a student left his tefillin in a hole on the side of the public path and a harlot passed by and took them. She went to his school and said, "See what he used to pay me!" When the student heard about this he went to the top of the roof, threw himself down and killed himself. So it was ordained that a man should hold his tefillin in his garment and in his hand and then go into the outhouse.

Is that their final answer? Of course not.

Originally they used to leave tefillin in holes on the side of the outhouse, and mice used to take them. So it was ordained that they should be put in the windows on the side of the public path. But then passersby took them. So it was ordained that a man should hold them in his hand and enter...

(Talmud, Tractate Berakhot, 13a)

The Hebrew term for this sort of holy hairsplitting is pilpul. Pilpul also has been translated as "cauistry," probably by the same chowderhead who came up with that wretched term "phylacteries."


If you felt sorry for that unfortunate
student whose phylacteries were snatched by the hooker, think of the confusion that K., the land-surveyor in Kafka's "The Castle," was subjected to. It isn't just an outhouse he had to parse, but reality.

Here is K. undergoing a browbeating by his landlady after he refuses to be interviewed by the village secretary, Momus, to complete a protocol, a record of the day's events. Momus is an employee of the elusive Klamm, who resides in the nearby castle and whose signature is affixed to the letter of employment that brought K. to town. K. is desperately trying to contact Klamm to clarify his assignment. Now K. is trying to discern whether he has any hope of reaching Klamm through Momus if he cooperates in writing the protocols. Here is the landlady:

"The hope that I mean consists simply in this: that through the protocol you have a certain connection, perhaps with Klamm. Isn't that enough? ... That's the best that can be said about this hope of yours, and certainly Herr Momus in his official capacity could never give the slightest hint of it. For him it's a matter, as he says, merely of keeping a record of the afternoon's happenings; for the sake of order..."

"Will Klamm, then, Mr. Secretary," asked K., "read the protocol?"

"No," replied Momus, "why should he? Klamm can't read every protocol, in fact he reads none..."

"Land-Surveyor," groaned the Landlady, "do you think it's necessary, or even simply desirable, that Klamm should read this protocol and become acquainted word for word with the trivialities of your life? Shouldn't you rather pray humbly that the protocol should be concealed from Klamm—a prayer, however, that would be just as unreasonable as the other—for who can hide anything from Klamm? ... And is it even necessary for what you call your hope? Haven't you admitted yourself that you would be content if only you got the chance of speaking to Klamm, even if he never looked at you and never listened to you? And wouldn't you achieve that at least through the protocol, perhaps much more?"

(Franz Kafka, "The Castle," chapter 9)

In other words, if you manage to speak unofficially to a man who doesn't listen, wouldn't it be more effective to convey your thoughts in an official document that he doesn't read?

Is that your final answer?

"Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" is a bit like Kafka in this one regard: When Regis reminds us that "the question is only easy if you know the answer," he also reminds us of the deeper truth found in the statement's opposite.

Or do you want to use a lifeline?


Copyright 2000 by David Holzel

Selection from the Talmud adapted from the Soncino English-Hebrew edition.
The universe being in the condition it's in, there is no final answer, of course.
 
The Hebrew term for hairsplitting is pilpul, also translated as "casuistry," probably by the same chowderhead who came up with that wretched term "phylacteries."



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*Isn't translating tefillin as "phylacteries" about the dumbest thing anyone can do on something less than cold medication? But that's the standard English translation. What, in Webster's name, are phylacteries?

I can tell you what tefillin are. They are two small leather boxes, connected by leather straps, worn on the forehead and arm during Jewish morning prayer. The boxes contain four verses of Scripture in Hebrew: Exodus 13.1-10 and 11.6 and Deuteronomy 6.4-7 and 11.13-21. Return