G-d Followed Me On Twitter

It was the end of a long summer Shabbos, the Atlanta sun finally giving in after 9 pm. I started my computer booting and prayed the evening service; I turned on my phone and prepared for the Havdalah, the dividing ritual. We thank G-d over flames and spices for separating the holy from the mundane…

I logged in and opened Chrome; the tabs of the previous week reasserted themselves like dry bones rising. Tweetdeck’s columns unfolded, first on the left my TL, second, my notifications, and there among the likes and the retweets, I saw the Creator had followed me.

His username was not “G-d” (that would be the first sign it was some fourteen-year-old) but rather a male name of vaguely Asian provenance. The profile picture was of a male, in his twenties, of vaguely Asian provenance. I knew in my head that G-d was not a man in his twenties of vaguely Asian provenance, G-d forbid. G-d is of course without a body or the form of a body, He probably does not use Twitter, and if He did, He would not follow me.

In my gut, however, I felt the world open. I was young again, in the way the morning is young, how at the sunrise everything is possible and the constant renewal of the world pierces the pitted facade of nature like the breaking dawn, and the soul tastes, just for a second, the infinite potential of what might be.

I felt something I haven’t for many years, a slight excitement deep inside at a meeting, the only feeling that can fight the implacable entropy of death and parting.

Who is this new person, and what gifts do they bear?

What is this new development, unexpected and wonderful?

What is this delightful shock, this pleasant upending, the joy of expecting the exceptional?

It is like being a child again, expecting each day to bring something not just new but something good. It is like having faith, knowing not just in your head but in the root of your stomach that your life has a plan, that it is progressing from a fine thing to a better thing, and that all you have to do is enjoy it. It is the feeling that somebody up there likes you.

It is not logical, this feeling. It does not remember experience or wisdom, the way people and life disappoint with disheartening consistency. It does not remember the reason you don’t feel it anymore. It is overwhelming precisely because it is a negation of experience, of the causal link between the past and the future. It is in this feeling that Hume came closest to being right. There is no induction; the past does not dictate the future; our soul can step outside the flow of time and see from above that there are no rules that can’t be broken.

The rules of time are an illusion, made to be broken, and if life has disappointed us it has no bearing on what it will do tomorrow.

The stranger who follows you on Twitter may come bearing friendship or strange gifts so great they are beyond imagining.

Then the moment is over. He follows 4,110 and is followed by 5,386, and when I join their ranks I get an automated DM. He wants me to follow his Instagram.

Blessed are you, G-d, who separates between the holy and the mundane.

For now.

On Legalizing Weeds

Here’s why fathers are important: They fret over weeds.

It is certainly the case, though it is not totally clear why (let’s face it, physical ability probably plays a role), that in the average middle class suburban American home blessed enough to have two parents, the mother’s role is usually in some way more confined to the home itself, whereas maintenance of the yard/pool/deck/etc. is more the purview of the husband.

So it was in my home, growing up, and the statistic was in no way mitigated by my mother’s propensity for gardening. It was somehow clear in subtle ways that her role was to plant and nurture beautiful life in riotous color but not to push the damn lawn mower around. Thus I, growing up, came to push it (being second in size to my father and chief honored recipient of his powers of delegation), and eventually, none of us really wanting to push it, we hired a yard service.

Yet still, after years of dissociation from the actual labor of dealing with our oddly shaped front yard, it is not unusual to hear my father, as we stride out toward the synagogue or take the dog for a loop around the cul-de-sac, assessing the extent of our weeds.

Very slowly, as I, over the past couple of years, have become ever-so-slightly less dense, I have come to secretly wonder whether this is the single most important thing my father can do for us.

This is not to downplay, of course, all his other roles. A provider is most basic and in most ways most essential, a protector, the law enforcer, etc. But I can’t help feeling that these are roles too appreciable by the lost philosophers of our Internet age. Fatherhood’s advocates tend to emphasize responsibility, particularly fiscal responsibility, in their efforts to get an entire generation adrift in nihilism to set aside their baser hedonism. They argue that family life is perhaps the only means of civilizational survival; they bring all the power of Darwin and evolutionary psychology and stories about cave men and fighting wild animals to bear on the problem of lost masculinity.

All of this is ultimately the fatherhood of the animal, and when it comes to convincing men, I take the old, counterintuitive approach. We do not first need to become animals to be human; stories of a father killing the bear that threatens his young brood speak to a place in the human heart little above the self-destructive pleasure-seeking boheme.

Fatherhood, in the human sense, does not exist to ensure any sort of physical outcome. The physical protection and survival of the family are themselves only animal means to a human end. And the human end is intellectual, purposive, and ultimately spiritual.

At the intersection of intellect, purpose, and transcendence, one finds the Kabbalistic concept of Chachma, the highest distinct faculty of the human soul, its ability to subjugate itself to, and thereby unify with, an external reality. It is the foundation of all wisdom, and it is the part of the intellect that lets a person open a window beyond the limits of their own existence and devote themselves to a higher truth.

And Chachma is often referred to, in the Kabbalistic texts, as father.

My father tells us that the weeds do not belong. He tells us that a human being is civilized, that chaos and all growing wild is fun, but order and civilization are right. He does not explain himself and does not need to. By dint of being the father, he is our collective familial Chachma. He sets the tone for higher truth; he tells the family that what they are is wonderful and more than he deserves, but what they can be, if they find purpose, is something much higher.

Don’t be an animal; don’t fight with your siblings; keep your promises; pay your debts; delete the weeds; take pride in your lawn.

There are things worth doing, a whole world of truth beyond what we are or even desire, and it is ultimately Good.

For this, I thank my father, and all fathers everywhere.

Why Beethoven Is Better Than Bieber

“Better? How can you say better?”

This is a very common question nowadays, what with the collapse of all discourse into postmodern nihilistic emptiness. As with all such questions, it can only be answered by a return to old ideas, ideas older than the current back-and-forth between enlightenment and post-enlightenment thinking.

Once, in those benighted days, people thought a work of art or a course of action could be “better” than the alternatives, subjective preference be damned.

How were they able to do this?

There are several layers of groundwork that must be in place to truly argue for it, and expounding on them would take much more effort (and time) than I can currently give. Suffice it to say, one would probably begin with the question of whether a human being can actually apprehend the truth of anything, then move on to what that truth it, work one’s way through the steps of the ancient philosophies, perhaps discover G-d along the way, and (more important for our purposes) even discover man.

It is this last part of the groundwork that forms the foundation for the ladder of better and worse. Simply stated: A human being is an animal that can do something no other animal can do. Just as an animal is a plant but more, so too is a human an animal but more. A human being is an animal that can think.

When we say “think” here, we mean in the old sense of the word. Not that one can process data, or accomplish organized tasks, or even organize socially. Rather, to think is to grasp the form of the object of thought, to understand what it is, in distinction to other things.

If I think about dogs, I will come to realize they are not cats, and that they are not tables, and that they are not the Pythagorean theorem. But I will also come to realize dogs probably are more feline than they are Pythagorean. In this sense, to think is to grasp what different things are, and how they fit together. Therefore, a human being is an animal that can grasp what different things are, and how they fit together.

However, not all things are created equal in their form. This is evidenced by the difference between man and other animals. Our dog, for example, can definitely react to a cat differently than he reacts to a table. However, a dog cannot react to the Pythagorean theorem at all.

Why? Because a cat not only possesses a form but is also made of physical material. A dog cannot really think in the human sense, cannot grasp forms, what a cat is and how it fits together with dog food or squirrels. A dog reacts to a cat differently than a table but does not understand what a cat is in any abstract sense; it could not tell you what makes a cat a cat, but only that the thing in front of him right now, with the claws and brushy tail, must be chased. In other words, it grasps not so much the form of the cat as the smell or appearance of certain matter. A form is general, abstract, and qualitative; a dog grasps only what is particular, concrete, and embodied.

This is why Pythagoras spoke only for people, and not for animals. A human being can grasp more of reality than his best friend; a human can grasp what things are and how they fit together, even if they are general, abstract, and qualitative.

It follows, then, that the more one grasps form over matter, the further away from an unthinking animal one becomes: Just as a chipmunk can sit on a log, so, too, can a man as wise as a chipmunk. But to craft a mahogany chair informed by engineering and aesthetics, to impose a form on the log and reduce its matter to that which is necessary (or most beautiful) to hold up a sitting person, is a profound reflection of what makes us human. The latter is the imposition of the general, the abstract, and the qualitative upon the matter of the log. It is the imposition of form onto matter. It is what humans can do that no animal can do.

Similarly, there is a difference between a hooky melody with lyrics of young lust and the Ninth Symphony.

The difference is not, as our modern minds are trained to think, one of complexity. It’s not that Beethoven uses a full orchestra whereas Bieber uses Pro Tools, per se. Complexity and the dominance of form over matter are not synonymous. We could make the information conveyed in the Ninth Symphony more complex by breaking it up into smaller pieces. But taking an ax to a chair and reducing it to kindling makes it more complex, too, and what is achieved is only chaos. Chaos is not an expression of form but rather the deepest expression of matter, because to grasp a form is, again, to grasp not only what things are but also how they fit together.

The “how they fit together” aspect of a form derives not only from the form itself (because, after all, chaos and white noise are technically forms as well) but from a third aspect of every thing, namely, its purpose. The matter of a chair is wood; this an animal can appreciate. The form of a chair is its legs, its seat, the specific shape of the carving, etc., and that is human handiwork. But what makes the chair a chair rather than an oddly shaped arrangement of stuck-together kindling, what lends the form an advantage over the matter, is ultimately the chair’s purpose; it’s for sitting. If either the matter or the form is not conducive to sitting, then the chair ceases to be a chair, and its form ceases to be an imposition on its matter, and we are left with a jungle-like chaos inimical to humanity.

The same holds for Beethoven. What makes Beethoven a higher form of human expression than “Baby” is not raw complexity, but rather a complex form used to the specific ends of the great composer.

It is this purposive complexity, the masterful demonstration of unity and harmony in the imposition of form over matter, that is the higher form of music. The simpler, more rhythm-based forms of Mr. Bieber, especially as they are so focused on the animal realm of material sensation, simply do not manage to achieve those heights.

And so, for humans, at least, Beethoven is better than Bieber, since it is more in line with what we are, and is a clearer demonstration of what makes a person more than an animal, that is, our ability to grasp what things are, and how they fit together.

Lag Ba’Omer, From The Top

La Ba’Omer is the best. I will explain this holiday to you. But it is a long story.

In the Beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.

Why he would do this is mysterious, and the matter cannot be easily adjudicated in a humble space like this. The best way to put it is that He desired to be in a new way. As He is unto Himself, but in Another place. He wished to demonstrate, to Himself, that He was as True in a false place or that all places were false in light of His truth or something. It took Him six days, and the sixth of these was Friday, and we call it the first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashana, head of the year. (We celebrate the sixth day because that is when man was created, and despite what anyone may tell you, the universe was created for him.)

However, some opinions say that man was, or could have been, or will be created on the First of Nissan — a spring month, halfway across the year from Tishrei, a time of rebirth and sprouting rather than withering and in-gathering. That the world could have been created on either says something about the world.

In any case, these two months have since then ever competed for the main focus of Jewish life. The fall season also includes Yom Kippur,

The fall season also includes Yom Kippur, day of atonement, and Sukkot, the festival of ingathering and joy, and Simchat Torah, when the yearly Torah cycle ends and begins again, for all eternity. The fall season is one half of the dance between man and G-d. It is the part when man tallies his deeds, considers his distance from the Creator, and attempts to make amends. Our motion toward the creator takes the shape, like all things born, of a pregnancy. The relationship is established on Rosh Hashana, when we convince G-d the project of creation is worth continuing. The consummation is on Yom Kippur, when we are as angels in a moment of sublime unity with the creator. The child grows through its time in the Sukkot booth, the seed becoming differentiated and fully-formed, and its birth-culmination is on Simchat Torah.

The spring season is diametrically opposed. It is the time when G-d moves close to man, whether man is ready or not. The relationship is foreshadowed by the drunken celebration of Purim, and a month later is consummated in the commemoration of that ultimate moment of kindness, when G-d took us from Egypt on a promise, on Passover, to go receive the Law in the desert. But we were not ready. That was only the seed. The pregnancy for such a great gift, that it may survive in the world, takes 49 days. The 50th is what may scientifically be respectfully termed “The Event at Mount Sinai”. Between the lesson that there is a G-d before whom nature and empires are a plaything, and the choosing of a nation for a perilous mission, there are 7 weeks. 49 days, and most of them are for introspection and mourning.

One exception is the 33rd, tonight and tomorrow.

The 49 days are called the Omer. The 33rd day is Lag Ba’Omer.

It “happens” (if such a term is not idol worship) that the 33rd was the day of passing of Rashbi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

The Rashbi lived in the Mishnaic period and studied under the famous Rabbi Akiva. He was a master of all forms of Torah, and a contender for one of the greatest men who ever lived. Most relevant, perhaps, for our time, he was the author of the holy Zohar, the book of radiance, key to the Kabbalah. He was, in this sense, something like Moses. While Moses gave the world the Torah in its revealed sense, rules and laws telling man how to live, Rashbi gave the world a hidden Torah, containing the secrets of the creation, mystical prophecy, He spoke of a third realm, a reality between the world and the creation of which philosophy cannot dream. He spoke of metaphors, and they were true metaphors, for what happens below has a source above. He spoke of Light and Vessels, of the heavenly chariot, of secrets that belonged to the few because in the wrong hands they led to madness, idol worship, and death. Not by accident was he the student of R’Akiva, the only of the four to enter and exit the orchard in peace.

Most profoundly, maybe, he revealed an inner truth to the Torah of Moses. He showed that what appeared on its surface to be a law was much more, was a step in the reparation of creation, a step toward the state G-d imagined when He created the world, the state in which He would be known in a different place as He knows Himself. Just as Moses gave us stitches for the binding of will and truth, the animal and G-d’s will, so did Rashbi let us bind the world and G-d, explained to us how the commandments refine the truth of G-d from the world, and their source in the sublime.

I’m sure it was an accident he passed away on the 33rd day of the Omer, and asked that his death be a celebration for all time. After all, the Omer is the process of bringing the simple faith-truth of G-d into a tangible reality, of systematizing the One truth. It has 49 days, because in the Kabbalah there are 50 gates of understanding, but only the first 49 are available to man. We can only prepare. But the 50th gate on the 50th day, the Event at Sinai, G-d must give.

But in Kabbalah, understanding is only the second step. Before understanding comes wisdom, as the question precedes the answer. And in the Kabbalah, there are 32 paths of wisdom. 32 steps to preparing for an even deeper truth. But the 33rd path transcends them and is the ultimate, the place where Highest Truth resounds in the lowest depth, for that’s what makes it highest. For that, G-d must provide, and as he sent Moses, he sent the Rashbi. And that is what, tonight and tomorrow, we celebrate, on the 33rd day of the Omer, between the Exodus and the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

A Framework For Torah Politics

One of the tensions Chassidus is most concerned with is between investiture and transcendence. G-d has made the world in such a way that both are necessary but are opposing forces. Investiture is necessary if one wishes to truly change something — the famous example is that the brilliant teacher cannot give the student his own knowledge as-is but must, if the student is to truly learn, convey the lesson at the student’s level of understanding. Transcendence, however, is necessary to truly change something, for to change is to become something new, not just to reshuffle what one is. A teacher who only invests himself at the level of the students’ understanding can give them nothing they don’t already have; a teacher who only transcends them can give them everything but they will understand nothing. It seems that instead some sort of synthesis is needed.

If we assume (and it seems a safe assumption) the Torah is meant to teach the world G-dly wisdom, we would need some synthesis in our understanding of it as well. Indeed, even a superficial analysis, we see that there are varying levels of investiture and transcendence — a written law and an oral law; four books of the Torah vs. Deuteronomy, the speech of Moses; Torah in the holy tongue and Torah in translation. Nevertheless, these syntheses provide no obvious approach to the relationship of Torah to worldly ethics and (less ethical, and more worldly) politics. This leads to a tendency for investiture and transcendence to separate out, like oil and water. What is required then, for Torah to “teach” politics, is a framework for their synthesis.

Without such a framework, we see the extremes in the usual attempts to apply Torah to a political context. On the investiture side, you have those who believe the Torah speaks directly to our political choices in the real world. Verses are selected (more on the true nature of this selection later) in support of a candidate or ideology. Mrs. Clinton is compared to G-d, the Zohar is said to have predicted a Trump victory. People point to this law or that Midrash to demonstrate the Torah’s support of progressivism or conservatism, limited government or entitlements, traditional sexual values or transgenderism. The obvious problem with this is that the truth of G-d is co-opted for fights that are all too human. This, in turn, incentivizes new interpretation of the Torah, trying to read it in a way that supports our pre-existing biases.

On the transcendence side, however, one sees a desire to remove Torah from any connection to worldly concerns at all. The Torah says only what it does, they wish to say, and any resemblance to secular matters is purely coincidental. This leaves a Jewish politician, say, free to support whatever position they like as long as it is not in clear violation of the law. However, this attempt to leave Torah uncorrupted also leaves it impotent, having nothing to say on matters of great importance to the average man seeking to do what is right. Further, it corrupts the Torah in every sense other than the legal one. That the book is the truth rather than a mere guide for action falls by the wayside, at least as far as truth human beings can appreciate or act on. Ultimately, it places a strict barrier between the human mind and the book and forbids its traversal — the mind is too universal and objective and would only apply the Torah to places, as a holy book, it has no business going.

So, everyone who wishes the Torah to be a holy and true book of practical moral teaching must find some kind of synthesis. Just such an approach was put forth by the Rebbe Rayatz, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch, sixth Rebbe of Chabad. The Rebbe Rayatz was the leader of Lubavitcher Chassidim in Russia under Stalin and was no stranger to political movements and their Jewish followers. His famous incarceration was the work of the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish communists later largely purged by the dictator.

On one of his journeys, the Rebbe Rayatz encountered a group of people arguing over which political system was supported by Torah, and each one brought proof that his position was favored by Torah. They asked the Rebbe his opinion. He told them that Torah, being the ultimate good and truth, contains and is the source of what is good in all the political systems.

This is not so much a straightforward synthesis as a redefinition of terms; we are not saying Torah is good so much as redefining good and truth to mean what Torah says. This is not arbitrary. If the Torah is G-d’s wisdom, it precedes the world and defines the world; it makes sense that “good” is defined by Torah rather than vice-versa. Therefore, what the Rebbe Rayatz has technically done is applied an even higher transcendence than what was previously considered. Not only is Torah too good for the world, but goodness itself is too good for the world. The entire process of seeking a “true” or “good” course of action is, in the Rebbe’s view, non-secular, since Torah itself is the G-dly Torah.

However, this further form of transcendence is, in fact, more permitting of investiture than it might appear. For if the Torah is merely a document existing beyond worldly concerns it is quarantined from practical application. But if Torah is truth itself, then any true or good aspect of any non-Torah worldview, no matter how base, is Torah — the way in which the thing is openly connected to the truth. Conversely, this does not bring the Torah down to the level of manipulation for political ends, because the only true end is the Torah itself.

More simply — the Rebbe acknowledges that every politics has some truth to it, but also that anything which is not Torah itself can never be the whole truth. The Torah is both invested and transcended, the truth of every thing but fully present in nothing except itself.

This synthesis allows us to begin to approach matters of Torah and politics without having to worry about whether the Torah is sidelined or corrupted. Take, say, universal healthcare. Sources can be brought from either side of the matter. The Talmud recognizes a need to heal the sick and the cost of care on individuals and communities. But what cannot be said is that there is no Torah opinion on the matter — since the very notion that anything about a man-made healthcare system can be good or true is predicated on reflecting Torah. On the other hand, we also cannot say that any man-made system is the Torah or could shift the Truth an inch, since if we know Him, we would be Him, and no approach to worldly affairs until Moshiach’s coming can be Truth.

We can plot a course of action that does not violate the Torah. We can even devote ourselves to fulfilling it in thought, speech, and action. But to build any sort of secular system is by definition to build something outside of Torah. It is only by bringing to bear G-d’s will upon our actions (rather than by trying to bridge intellectual systemic gaps) that we can bring true peace between the truth of G-d and the truth of the world. This is what is meant by Moshiach — to find the true part of every thing, and return is to the Truth that’s only one.

Why Antisemitism Is A Historical Constant

All that varies in Jew hatred, over continents and millennia, is in the details. Every group has their own claim. The Jews killed Jesus (all of us; I was there!), the Jews did not accept Mohammed, the Jews drink the blood of small children. Jews have horns, their men menstruate part of the year. Jews are pathetic parasitic cockroaches. Jews rule the global order. They’re communists! They’re capitalists! They’re Zionists!

As a somewhat religious fellow, my question on all these persistent, bizarre, and contradictory claims is not just “Why?” but “Why, G-d?” It is clearly part of our mission to be distrusted and oppressed; we tell prospective converts that they join their fate with that of a beleaguered people. Why is this the way it must be, in a world where G-d expects the Jew to accomplish things?

Anyone familiar with the sources realizes prophecy and sagacity are two different qualities, though both prophet and sage receive word from G-d in some way. However, one of Judaism’s great sages must, in our case, be charged with uncanny prescience. Rashi, most famous of all Torah commentators, answers our question in his first words on Genesis.

That the explanation is on the words “In the beginning” indicates just how deep the roots of antisemitism might go. Rashi asks: The Torah ought not (as the book of teachings for the Jewish people) have begun with the world’s creation (which in many ways is none of our business) but with G-d’s first commandment to the Jews, recorded later in the book of Exodus. Rashi answers: The book of Genesis exists to answer the future claims of the non-Jew, who will come and say, “You are robbers; the land [of Israel] belongs to us!” The Jew can respond, “G-d created the world and gives it to whom He will; He willfully gave it to the Seven Nations and willfully took it from them and gave it to us.”

Here is an answer, on a simple level, to those who wish to take the land from the Jewish people, to those who call us thieves, oppressors, insufficiently progressive, etc. It is not, however, an explanation for all antisemitism in history. In fact, it has only sounded relevant since 1948 for the first time in almost two thousand years.

But that is not all that’s contained in Rashi’s words, which demand deeper consideration. After all, does Rashi truly mean to tell us that an entire book was added to the beginning of the Torah, God’s books, just to answer some mistaken future claims? This seems to lend their accusations of theft far more credence than they deserve

Really, the case Rashi raises is not a particular accusation of land theft but rather the eternal claim of the world against the Jew. “You come from the desert, inspired, claiming to have met the Creator and therefore transcended the bounds of this reality. It is surely a spiritual people whose entire nation is founded on the deliverance of, and covenant with, G-d. Surely any claim to a physical land is, on your part, out of place, a ‘theft’ from those who do not claim to have spoken with God.” In other words, the Jew is alien, not because of custom, appearance, or even religious practice (we have “controlled” for these and were still hated) but because their story sets them apart. To be a Jew who does nothing is, by a simple act of history, to stake a claim. And the claim of the Jew (not the claim the Jew makes, it must be reemphasized, but the claim made by history (and G-d) through the Jew) is that there exists a reality before whom the world is nothing. To put it in vulgar modern terms, antisemitism is in some sense the world rejecting a question on its stake to ultimate reality, like a body rejecting an organ transplant.

This, it should be noted, does not excuse the antisemite’s actions in the slightest; no one is compelled to be the messenger for this rejection. However, this does explain why antisemitism refuses to die, as an impulse — because the Jews refuse to die, and with the world as it is now, before any sort of radical messianic transformation, there is a fundamental resentment toward the people whose story negates the world. And since the world includes all man-made ideologies and all of man’s animal impulses, it is never very hard to find an excuse for Jew hatred.

What, according to Rashi, is the Jewish response to this resentment? “G-d is the creator the world and gives it to whom He wills.” Even though a G-dly people may seem to contradict the world, it is, on the contrary, G-d’s will that they enter it, settle a land, and repair the world from within. It is our whole aim to know, and then to teach, that though we may have different stories, we and the non-Jew are made by the same Creator and the “secular” world is as G-dly as the event at Sinai, if not more so. The “solution” to antisemitism can only be found in dissolving the seeming difference between the physical and the spiritual, the mundane and the holy.

The world is an estranged child who has forgotten her roots in G-d, and the Jews are here to guide her back. She must be taught that in her very weakness, in her acknowledgment that she is not just a mother but a child, an offspring of a higher reality, she discovers not death and limitation but true eternal life in service of the One G-d. Just like the Jews.

Modernity As A Delaying Tactic

The moral realm can be defined as that area where we determine not only what is but what human action ought to be. It is also notable for being perhaps the only part of human life in which we are able to weigh the options and use our free will to make a decision. Aesthetics are more connected to the subconscious; our choice of mate or food or residence could come from predetermined nature, but when we are faced with doing the right thing we have the opportunity to step away from all “inputs,”  from all immediate causes, and weigh the matter within ourselves. That there is, at that moment, a correct decision and an incorrect one, and that we are held responsible for the one we choose, and that the choice is truly a free one uncaused by anything other than our own souls, are all fundamental to the notion of divine reward and punishment so central to religion.

However, as in so many other areas, clarity is much harder to find in our times. The very proposition that there is a “correct” decision is of course famously under assault from “moral relativism,” whatever that is; our responsibility in the matter is downplayed by most social theories; those, in turn, are based on a materialist understanding of human beings which does not allow for an “uncaused decision” in what is a more-or-less deterministic universe.

These views on the nature of man and the world that stand against the traditional understanding of morality are made more mysterious by the fact that they do not truly exist. Moral relativism is the somewhat murky general stance that in any question of right or wrong everything is equal from different perspectives. It is unclear whether anyone has actually ever held moral relativism as an actual position, as it seems we’d be hard-pressed to find a person who never judges anyone morally, or who is always willing to see the position of others as correct from a different point of view. Similarly, the social theories that blame, say, the choices of the young latino who robs a convenience store on his position in society, government policies, the hatred of others toward him, etc. seem less inclined to extend the same social theories to the young white racist who hates Latinos, and vice versa; taken to its (truly, at this point, farcical) extreme, there are few who’d say Joseph Stalin is as good a person as, say, Vanna White because both merely played the fated part their biology and upbringing laid out for them. And if no one is excusing Stalin on social grounds, neither are they excusing him on biological ones, despite the fact that his neurons obey the same unchanging and inexorable laws of nature that Vanna’s do and it would be easy to argue he was fulfilling more evolutionary imperatives by opening gulags than she is by revealing game show solutions.

Yet somehow, despite these strange internal contradictions and a seeming desire across the board to at least pay lip service to the old morality, somehow it always comes up from some angle that the action in question is not the fault of the individual. There’s always someone who says, “You know, I’m all for being moral, but if you had been alive during the time of slavery, you probably would have been for it!” I think that the real thrust of the argument is sometimes lost in the fact that it’s true; I agree at once that this point is true whereas its application is false. If we would have been slaveholders in antebellum Georgia, the question then becomes, “So what does it mean to be personally moral within you time?” After all, we will all be sitting under our vineyards one day after the coming of the messiah and telling each other we, too, would have sinned if only we had lived in the dark times when G-d’s presence did not shine in all of reality, and then, too, what we would mean is somehow that there is no morality rather than morality is complicated and must be discussed in context.

It is hard to believe that such questions are merely intended to further moral investigation when the follow-up is almost always some matter of practical concern. It is obvious to many of us who read literature or study history or even mull over in the dark the mysteries of our own fate that the moral question is the question of human existence, and so it is equally obvious when no one around us cares about it. How could it be that something so central could be so undiscussed?

I blame the near-infinite human capacity for distraction.

You see, the enlightenment (on whose dregs and fumes our society still runs) was a great turning, a decision to put aside all of what is to focus on how best to conquer it. This dogmatic narrowing of focus is what gave us that very mechanistic view of the universe codified by Isaac Newton and applied with astonishing success in technology to master nature; it is what diverted public attention away from the mystery of their own moral souls to questions of governance and politics, which can be used to change the circumstances of society and take certain ethical questions off the table.

And this great turning, in whose wake we are still all caught up, is in decay. When it was young and vigorous and had its bright eyes set firmly on mastery over nature, Hume was able to say clearly that one cannot derive an ought from an is; Newton and Descartes were aware that their mechanistic focus was merely the lowest function of a universe full of G-d and purpose and so were content to deal purely with mechanisms. But now, in 2017, we are far beyond the point when the revolution knew what it wanted and well into the part where chaos descends on the now-godless masses.

This is why the people we know propose more and more medical, political, or scientific solutions to tough moral questions or the time. The “solution” for criminality (and most other things wrong with people) is therapy, which we are meant to pretend is purely a medical solution to mental health problems and not an attempt to apply a moral theory (that always remains undiscussed) to the psyche of the patient. Which therapy is it that does not assign to certain moral actions a certain level of responsibility, a causative explanation, and a course of action one ought to follow? The “solution” to poverty is redistribution or central planning of some sort, which we are meant to pretend is purely an economic solution to material resentments and not an attempt to apply a moral theory (that usually remains undiscussed) to large swathes of citizens. Which form of welfare or entitlement does not directly incentivize certain behavior, altering the sort of moral choices one is open to making? The “solution” to boredom and ennui is the continuous march of technology and the new mission to save mother earth, which we are meant to pretend is obviously the reason we are here and not an attempt to apply a moral theory (which is almost never discussed) to the very definition of humanity. Which TED talk on imagination, or progress, or the cause de jour does not attempt to tell us what we ought to do without asking whether it’s right?

Just as the march of science has hit a wall with the problem of consciousness because consciousness was never a problem it was meant to solve in the first place, so, too, has the march of practical solutions and mastery of human nature come to its last breaths.

We have been working on an assumption that we are here to control nature, and many of us find that the more we control her to the detriment of other pursuits the more empty and adrift and purposeless we feel. But if the true reason we are here is for us to come to grips with our souls and our terrifying ability to choose right and wrong, to devote ourselves selflessly to each other and to God, and to find and participate in the truth, most of the solutions of modernity have simply been a distraction and a delaying tactic.

The Secular Geocentrism

The alleged “debate” between the church and Galileo is misunderstood, and not just because many get the facts wrong. Even if the scientist was locked up for saying the earth is not at the center of the universe, his statement was not religiously offensive on the grounds most people would assume.

The attempted narrative is that religion is a crutch, a fig leaf for gaps in our knowledge, and the outcome of either base fear or an evolutionary glitch (like all forbidden beliefs). This being the nature of religion, it therefore strokes our egos and tells us that humanity is central to the universe, necessary, the goal of its creation. That, apparently, is why religion sees (or, less controversially, saw) the earth as the center of the universe. Meanwhile, the light of science, banishing the benighted demons of Carl Sagan’s worst dreams, says that humanity is a purposeless accident in a very strange universe. Galileo was simply initiating the reduction in ego modern man needed.

The irrationality of the human ego, at least, the Rambam would acknowledge. Though he maintains the geocentric Ptolemaic cosmology of his time (a solid four centuries before Galileo) he has no problem discoursing at length on fools who believe the universe was created for man. In fact, he maintains that there is nothing mankind accomplishes that is not accomplished better by others. In general, says the Rambam, we are not needed in the slightest. Just as the purpose of a tree is to be the best tree possible, so too man is directed toward the highest form of man, but why there should be men in general is a question on G-d’s inscrutable will, inscrutable by definition because to be based on reason is to be caused and that is notoriously problematic. Granted, other schools of Jewish thought say that man is important, though with the caveat that he is important specifically because of his lowliness, not because he is close to being the highest of all creations.

Suffice it to say, the argument between religion and science is hardly one of whether man is important or not important on a cosmic scale. We all know that before the cosmic scale we are nothing. The argument is much closer to whether we ought to use the cosmic scale all. In other words, everyone agrees (at least potentially) that man is irrelevant, whether he sits at the center of the Universe or on some rock flying through infinite space. The disagreement is on why he is irrelevant. The Rambam says we are irrelevant because of G-d’s will which is beyond understanding. “Galileo” (as represented in the narrative) says we are irrelevant in light of our vast new knowledge of cosmology.

Look at it this way: In the old philosophy of the schoolmen, G-d (and to them, there is and can be only One, “your G-d” making as much sense to them as “your physics” might to a modern physicist) is not what fills gaps in knowledge but what stands in the spot of the necessary but unknowable, the being who can end the infinite regress of causes but who is himself uncaused and thus unknowable. The universe in its being, motion, form, and telos cannot exist without a beginning (or, in the case of telos, an end); it is ever pointing to something beyond itself. In the materialist scientific understanding, the universe points to nothing but simply is.

The difference may seem academic but it in fact shakes the worldviews to their foundations. When Maimonides says man is nothing, he has coming to a conclusion that fits the stated goal of his pursuit, to understand of the infinite as much as a limited human mind is capable. Eventually he must throw up his hands and say, “I understand how vast is the universe and how tiny is man from the very fact that I cannot understand why it should be this way; G-d’s unknowable will for an irrelevant creature man truly is unknowable to that irrelevant creature.”

But when the scientist says man is nothing, he says it with the authority of a God. He will demur that he only follows the experimental observations where they lead, but this position is less humble when it is the best anyone can hope to do, even a god, who must exist within the bounds of science like anyone or anything else. When the scientist says man is a speck whirling in the void, he ceases to be a hominid whose lizard brain evolved into sentience and is instead making pronouncements on the cosmos, speaking at the highest level of all reality. There is no point when he must throw up his hands. He says, “I understand how vast is the universe and how tiny is man from my vantage point on a hill in the milky way galaxy, my biological chemistry evolved for fitness peering at the truth through massive telescopes. The universe’s production of a tiny, irrelevant creature is understood profoundly by said creature.”

Those who thought the earth was at the center of the universe were certain they were incapable of knowing the purpose of the universe. One’s ignorance needs no more explanation than a rock’s; one simply does not have the capacity to grasp G-d. Those, on the other hand, who hold that the earth is one of a billion trillion planets know their precise place in the universe, and this knowledge has no explanation other than that it is.

It is no accident that Maimonides’s passage on man’s irrelevance is written in the context of discussing theodicy and the claim that G-d does more evil than good. That G-d’s ultimate reasons for creating the universe the way it is are an outcome of his unknowable will refocuses man’s attentions away from the nature of the world’s being to what the world ought to be. There is a reason why the revolution in cosmology that places the earth at a random locus in space did not see a consequent revolution in personal humility among scientists or the public generally; the modern study of nature has not yet found its bound and is assumed by many not to have one; we spend much of our time studying forms and processes and assume that an understanding of morality or righteous action will eventually emerge.

Indeed, your average geocentrist thinks that he cannot know why G-d wanted man to be at the center of the universe, and this might make him self-effacing. He does not know why G-d tells him his own actions come first, then familial concerns, than societal ones, but it makes him truly compassionate. He does not know why G-d tells him to respect property and bodies, but he ends up respecting people. He is not quite sure how those who know the earth is a random planet could be caught up in their brilliance, or how those who care for all of society first often find their own righteousness to go by the wayside, or how those who say property is unimportant often end up treading on people, as well…

To him, these are all strange, paradoxical mysteries of a world impossibly made from nothing by an unknowable Creator.

Who is more humble, he who is nothing out of ignorance, or nothing by dint of his own wisdom?

A Piece of the Torah’s Pi

Here’s a semi-obscure controversy from the Hebrew bible that you may be aware of: The Torah (in two different locations,  I Kings 7:23 and II Chronicles 4:2) gives the incorrect value for π. For those who have forgotten since math class, Pi or π is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It has the same value for every circle, and though it is impossible to calculate its precise value it approximately equals 3.14159.

Here is one of the offending verses, from I Kings: “And he made the molten sea, ten cubits from brim to brim; it (was) round all about, and the height thereof (was) five cubits; and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.” And even if you have indeed repressed every memory of math class you probably see that thirty divided by ten is exactly three, and that three does not equal 3.14159.

The Torah using 3 as π’s value is sub-par whether or not you are religious. A secular observer would (and several have) note that other civilizations at the time of the events of I Kings had already approximated Pi much more closely, had at least realized that this fundamental constant of the universe exceeds the round number of three. And a religious observer obviously has trouble squaring how the eternal truths of mathematics can contradict a verse that clearly says the Molten Sea was thirty, ten, and round.

One answer to this quandary is that Jewish law obviously is willing to approximate when demanding of human beings to construct “perfect” circles. That is, the verse is not defining Pi, but explaining that the craftsmen of the Temple vessels measured a circumference of exactly 30 cubits and approximated the diameter, rounding 9.549 upward to ten. The Talmud notes that one is permitted to make approximations in measurement in the direction of stringency. In this case, using the absolute value of Pi would decrease the diameter of the Molten Sea, perhaps making it too small. The approximation is thus called for and perhaps even legally necessary so as not to err on the too-small side of the precise 9.549. Alternatively, the Lubavitcher Rebbe argued that the workmen used the exact 9.549 value, and the Torah was simply describing the circle with approximation, with the maximum precision necessary for practical purposes.

Either way, the sages of the Talmud were clearly aware that Pi does not equal three, as is stated clearly in the ancient Mishanat Ha’Middot, as Maimonides argues in his commentary on the Mishna, and is implied in the Talmud’s complex discussion of the required size of a round Sukkah in Tractate Sukkah 7b-8a.

However, the question remains — it is good and fine that the later sages were aware of more accurate values of Pi, and that the Biblical verses are mere approximations, but ultimately, the Book that is supposed to speak the truth presents a ratio that is misleading, and not misleading merely in practical matters but in a similar eternal truth of our universe, the hard-to-calculate, definitely-not-a-round-number phenomenon that is π.

An elegant and astonishing discovery of Rabbi Max Munk provides an answer of sorts, and to understand it we must first take a moment to speak of traditional Jewish biblical exegesis. The advent of computers has seen the rise of the controversial (and possibly downright-debunked) Bible Codes, an attempt to apply massive computing power to one ancient method of deriving truth from the Tanakh, that of counting spaces between the letters. However, most Orthodox Rabbis would tell you that it was the switch to computers that indicated the project was doomed to fail; like the story of the biblical Pi itself, a demand for ever-more “precision” tends to overlook the fact that the Torah was given to humans to grasp on the scale of human understanding. Besides, the Bible Codes apply only one method of exegesis, and far from the most common or important one.

Rabbi Munk, on the other hand, applies two better-established methods, and applies them not with a broad brush entering anything he can think of into a search box but with surgical precision, to the extent that it seems almost inconceivable that the verse should give rise to the meaning he discovered by accident. But you be the judge. Here is the verse that was translated earlier into English in the original Holy Tongue:

Rabbi Munk’s first method is to observe the parenthetical statement on the last line. It is a note on the three-letter word preceding it (remember, Hebrew read right-to-left). That word, וקו, is quite important to the verse; it is the “and a line” that refers to the 30-cubit circumference of the Molten Sea. The parenthetical statement tells the reader of the verse that even though the word is to be pronounced וקו (“V’kav”) it is written וקוה, (“V’kavah”). Now, the difference in the meaning of these two words is quite slight, the difference between “and a line” and “and its line.” However, the difference between the written form and the pronounced form has exegetical significance; the tradition of the book of Kings says that there are two superimposed realities in the verse, its written form and its pronounced form. One of the ways of dealing with this bifurcation is to view the pronounced version as the “revealed truth” whereas the written version is a deeper or “inner truth” of the verse.

Rabbi Munk’s second method is to apply Gematriah, the classic Jewish numerology in which each letter of the Holy Tongue is assigned a numerical value, to this verse. In the reckoning of the Gematriah, קו, the word that means “line” in the pronunciation of the verse, has a value of 106. The word that means “line” in the verse’s written form, however, is קוה, with a value of 111.

So, to sum up the two methods, the pronounced, revealed truth of the verse for the world has a value of 106. The written, secret, deeper truth under the surface, however, has a value of 111.

Rabbi Munk reasons that if we’re looking at a verse whose revealed meaning is problematic (because its approximation of a circle’s dimensions are so far off), maybe we can fix it by applying the verse’s hidden meaning. That is, we can perform an operation a little like dimensional analysis with the verse’s numbers. One can find the number of inches in three feet by multiplying (3 feet) x (12 inches / 1 foot), with the foot units cancelling out and leaving us with 36 inches. Similarly, our verse has a possible conversion: The revealed value of Pi into the verse’s deeper, truer meaning. The formula for this is:

(3, the revealed value of pi from the verse) x (the deeper truth of the verse, 111 / the “revealed” value of the verse, 106).

This, using only numbers put into the verse when the book of Kings was written, yields 3 x (111/106) = 3 x 1.04716981132 = 3.14150943396. And that is Pi to four decimal places.

QED.