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.

Faith and Rationality (I) — Who Needs Both?

I have written before about the difference between “gods,” the limited demigod superheroes of pagan understanding, and the G-d of monotheism. Mainly, the G-d of monotheism is not merely the greatest or most supreme being in existence, but is the Creator of all other existences, a necessary being upon whom all else is contingent.

Though at first this difference may seem subtle, G-d the Creator is the catalyst to a mental chain reaction that fundamentally shifts our understanding of reality. It is a notion, in fact, that is just as revolutionary to our modern sensibility (which congealed from the so-called enlightenment and has since crumbled into the light-and-loose postmodernism-cum-nihilism you can pick up from any awards banquet or Twitter account on the street) as it was to the hyper-rational Greek weltanschauung.

The idea of G-d demands a radical reconsideration of rationality itself, which in turn opens new doors in our understanding of “faith.” I put the word “faith” in scare-quotes because it is terribly maligned in the public consciousness, a term that has come to mean a belief in what cannot be proven, the decision to abandon the rational for the unproved. In Judaism, at least, this is a slander; the term emunah does not mean anything like putting aside our rationality and choosing G-d because he makes no sense. The Jewish faith (and, if I understand correctly, several forms of Christianity) rejects Tertullian; Credo quia absurdum is not our way.

I hope, in a series of exploratory essays, to deal with the nature of rationality and of faith in the Jewish understanding. First we will busy ourselves with trying to get a handle on these terms from the perspective of the hidden Torah. We will then refine our understanding of faith in particular into several particular categories, one of which could even be said to grasp the Creator Himself, a matter whose controversial nature will become clear in time. We then hope to make a brief diversion to recapitulate an old point of this blog on fossils and the way the Lubavitcher Rebbe deals with them and the Torah’s creation narrative in general. We then plan to dive into the world of comparative religion and see how our understanding of rationality and faith might shed light on the way Judaism views other religions. The next essay will probably deal with Darwinism and Religion from an unusual angle, observing the most “religious” Darwinist arguments one hears today and evaluating whether and to what extent they fit with our monotheistic worldview. Finally, we hope to test the practical application of our faith/reason dichotomy by diving into the world of chance and probability with an eye to Jewish history and the Jewish future.

But before we get to any of that, even to the definitions of faith and rationality, we must first ask the question: What does it mean that G-d is the Creator of everything that is not G-d?

If we take the notion seriously, it means that “faith” and “rationality” themselves are creations, a position that to classical philosophy might seem quite radical. On the other hand, classical philosophy did not view G-d as the creator per se, and their rationality had trouble openly acknowledging its own limits.

And rationality is limited, if it is a creation. Even if it is eternal, it is still contingent and thus of a “lower order” than the creator; G-d can perform or create a logical contradiction, and this is precisely what the Talmud said he did in various miracles, perhaps the most famous being his original call sign to Moses, the bush that burned but was not consumed, almost as if at the very beginning of his recorded prophetic revelations the Creator wanted to distinguish himself from the logic-bound “god of the philosophers.”

Alright, so rationality/intellect and faith are both creations. What are they?

Again, it is worth re-emphasizing that each of these terms have connotations in the popular/secular culture that are not helpful in the context of monotheistic creation. We have already touched on how faith is not some sort of backup system that maintains our connection to G-d or religion at the point where intellect and rationality fail. This is an insult to the true religion, which is rather like a binding relationship and is not in the first place based on answering one party’s questions; religion is not based on intellectual understanding and so if intellectual understanding were to be taken away we would not need to improvise some magical blind faith to stay connected and involved. This is not what we mean by faith.

Furthermore, the distinction between reason and faith does not fall on the line between learned and revealed wisdom. A Jew might be tempted to say that the teachings of Jewish philosophy stem from reason, but the mystical revelations of the Kabbalah (which literally means “received wisdom”) are taken totally “on faith.” This, again, is not what we mean either by reason or faith. We will see how there are aspects of the Kabbalah largely susceptible to reason, whereas there are perhaps aspects of philosophy only properly penetrated by faith. In other words, the truest distinction between these concepts has nothing to do with the provenance of information, whether we learn something through tradition, revelation, or demonstration. Certain traditions and revelations are quite reasonable, and certain demonstrations get at the supra-rational.

Faith and intellect are two powers of the soul. They each grasp a different sort of truth.

G-d created the world in two ways, the intelligible and the unintelligible. These have many different names and manifestations. Philosophically, he creates the form of each being in an intelligible way, whereas the matter of each being is created ex nihilo in a process that is utterly inexplicable, as much a melding of opposites as the bush burning but being not consumed. Form, after all, is what allows us to abstract away from any individual apple and consider “appleness” as a whole, as an abstraction we can compare to elephantness or triangularity or any other without actually dealing with the physical objects themselves. This is the process of abstract thinking, and it allows us to reverse the creative process and meet the Creator at his blueprints. But matter is not so easily disposed of; there is no “meeting the mind of G-d” at the source of the actual stuff that makes up the apple, since it has no source; it is created something from nothing.

Form (e.g. the apple’s sweetness or redness) and matter (e.g. the actual physical stuff of apple) are different because they require different G-dly expression to create. Redness or sweetness or any other quality in the world derives from one or a combination of the ten sephiroth, is an instantiation of the G-dly realm of Atziluth, where all things have a G-dly source/essence. But matter does not (and cannot) have a spiritual source; it is created something from nothing; no layering or combining of spiritual beings will ever produce a physical atom; they exist in different realities entirely.

We thus find that the intelligible aspects of the creation, its forms, perforce derive from G-d’s self-limitation (after all, G-d is beyond conception but the forms are not) whereas the unintelligible aspects of creation, its brute material existence, come from G-d’s infinite expression (as it is only G-d’s limitless power that can close the unbreachable gap between immaterial and material).

Intellect may thus be summarily defined as that faculty of a human being which grasps G-d’s limited expression, and faith is the faculty which grasps G-d’s infinite expression.

The question remains: Why, indeed, does a G-d who creates everything decide to create both the reasonable and the irrational, to express Himself both finitely and infinitely within the same creation? Or, in other words, why is the creative process both one of spiritual gradualism (in form) and abrupt creation ex nihilo (in matter)?

The Midrash says that G-d creates because He desires to dwell in the lowest possible place; He desires to completely hide Himself from a certain realm of reality and then to be known there, on its own terms, as He knows Himself. That is, our physical world is designed to conceal G-d more-or-less completely, and the purpose of creation is fulfilled when He is revealed in this place not by his own action but by the choices of those from whom He is hidden.

Now, he could create this lowest world entirely ex nihilo, with no intelligible G-dly forms whatsoever. (Indeed, in the Aristotelian philosophic understanding this is very much what He has done; this is how the Moreh Nevuchim might describe the creation, though he would of course say that though there are no G-dly forms there are forms immanent in the creation.) But this is essentially an external imposition of will. G-d would be interacting with the world in a way of all or nothing, take it or leave it. No matter how deeply one understood a world created entirely ex nihilo, it would never reflect the “mind of the creator”, since there would be no such mind. Nothing in the world would convey a G-dly truth. All truths would be worldly proofs. So the Creator instead chose to let Himself into his creation; he limited Himself in the expression of the G-dly forms, the sephiroth and all the spiritual worlds. He made reality at least partially collaborative; if the sweetness of the apple reflects Chessed d’Atziluth then understanding it means understanding some aspect of the Creator.

So perhaps then the Creator ought to have created only through limitation? After all, He can do anything, and if He desires to be truly known in his world, why create ex nihilo at all? But this, too, will not achieve the goal of His full expression in the lowest worlds. After all, if He were only to Create through conceivable forms His true infinitude would be excluded from the creation. Or in other words, if G-d could be fully collaborative and open to human participation, He would not be G-d, and though He could make Himself not-G-d to the creation, this would be contrary to His desires to be fully expressed within the lowest worlds.

We can therefore add to our definitions, since in understanding what intellect and faith grasp we have gained insight into how they grasp.

Intellect is that faculty of a human being which grasps G-d’s limited expression, and its mode is collaborative, the self-subjugation (by any number of parties) to one reality. Faith is the faculty which grasps G-d’s infinite expression, and its mode is receptive, the acknowledging of the reality of another even if one cannot make it one’s own. The necessity of both is born straight from the notion that the G-d of monotheism is a true Creator, bound by neither infinitude nor the finite rules of rationality.

In the next essay, I hope to start where we leave off here and analyze different types of faith and also to explore how this distinction plays out in the Jewish way of acquiring truth, the study of Torah.

A Novice’s Lament

Anything is possible in the world of spirit.

There the universe is overturned. I used to think this glorious inversion was at the core of truth, that the opposite is always higher, that G-d loves underdogs in sports and metaphysics. This revolution, I thought, would take the modern world by storm.

I used to watch the latest studies for signs of Moshiach’s arrival; speed of light broken, event horizon a loose guitar string. The world will be perfect when we are all one. When we find the spirit in nature, competition, war, vying shoulder to abraded shoulder will disperse from the truth’s headlights.

In the the end, what is right will become what is easy. By His power we will mind our own business but no one will be poor, money will be dust yet life will not be boring, and those who die will truly deserve it.

All this, I know.

I can explain how G-d will reveal himself and why he concealed himself in the first place.

I can explain matter and form and placing the refined before the coarse and how all sin is madness and how not sinning is (not rational; that would be an insufficient reversal, but rather) suprarational.

I can throw out triplets like cardsharps slicing melons from twenty feet — immanence, transcendence, their unity; illogical laws, logical laws, testimonies; man, woman, creator; NissanIyyarSivan; infinitude, limitation, He Himself.

I can outline for you the difference between philosophy, Kabbalah, and mysticism. I can show you the best footnotes of the sublime Hadranim. I have read that letter of the Rebbe, and I have opinions on its interpretation. I learn the sichos in the original Yiddish. I pronounce the words correctly.

I understand the role of the BTs and the FFBs and I don’t seriously undervalue either. I have found my own personal metaphors for many concepts and have memorized and delivered discourses before masters. I have thought of what I learned before and during prayer; I know the supremacy of action of speech and even thought; I am aware of the qualities of the simple man, that they far exceed my learning’s worth.

I know very specifically why someone always arguing against the alternative will at best be mediocre at pursuing his own path, and I know how to argue anyway. I have learned my own weaknesses in so many ways, found my worst in unexpected places, seen those who are more firmly on the path, who have it together and cannot exist even propositionally in the dark and worldly planes I sometimes tread.

I have logged morning and evening hours with the discourses and read Likkutei Dibburim on hard days. I have wrapped people in Tefillin, sung niggunim, comforted friends, rebukes acquaintances, listened to teachers, challenged farbrengers, played the skeptic and the believer, poured and drank, remembered storied with the names. I was close with good students and iconoclasts, valued principle and family, and even managed to sometimes not take myself too seriously.

Anything is possible in this world.

Except having a master, a ruler, a lord.

Except having a

God

over

me.

The Mistake Not To Make In 2017

The mistake not to make in 2017 is the mistake of thinking we know what’s going to happen, or, more precisely, that it makes any difference whether we know what’s going to happen or not.

This should not even be possible for a Chassid. Kabbalah is, if it is learned badly, gnostic, platonic, and reductionist; a learner can convince themselves that they are gaining knowledge of the secret undergirdings of the creation, knowledge that can be used in some practical way. These are the patterns; these are the rules that bind the way things work.

Philosophy, on the other hand, does not claim to know of a priori categories from which everything is built with little variance; philosophy is essentially at liberty to follow the evidence where it leads, and if it leads to a place that we cannot know, we can at least be certain of the truth of what we don’t know.

Chassidus is an unfair, paradoxical melding; it says that we can be what we cannot know and we can use all that strange, intervening Kabbalah to get there. Chassidus says that it’s all about G-d, but G-d wanted it to, in a sense, be all about us, and so condescended to make a world that runs parallel to our structures in every way which in turn run parallel to His chosen mode of expression which means that the place which is furthest from him is not so different from one facet of his infinite truth. Chassidus says that the Darwinists have it backward, that it is not that something is True because it happens to survive long enough but that life itself is the truth which is following G-d’s plans.

So much for all of the inevitables, the things that must be, the Kabbalah, with its forms and faces and spheres, the spiritual blueprint of the world that allows too many students to mistake the map for the landscape and assume that the world actually IS predictable.

But the joke was on us; the Kabbalah is just the post-hoc interstitial stuff, the logical outgrowth; “I wish to create a terrible, dark thing called a world, but I wish to dwell there as well, on its terms — I had better create some sort of blueprint, so that all my pieces can find their way back…”

No, our reality is more like philosophy, which seems mundane when “follow the evidence wherever it leads” includes only the broad, stable categories but grows increasingly tumultuous when “the evidence” includes independent beings with wills of their own. Indeed, this mode, in which G-d allows Himself to consider things purely on their own terms, is what allowed the world of Tohu to arise, unsustainable, wild, real, the short-long path, similar to G-d but not close to Him, just like an “independent” human being, just like a world that, with man at the reins, can shoot off at a moment’s notice into the wild unknown.

It turns out that G-d and what He creates in his image are not rule-followers by nature; they do as they please; they create. The world is full of madness and randomness and unpredictability, and (to the horror of the badly-learned Kabbalah) he who knows that he does not know is wisest of all.

And so, according to all the “right” thinking, the “religious” thinking, the rules that all dead things follow, 2016 was just some arbitrary bound, a meaningless set of time signifying nothing of great significance. But we are not dead things, and in some sense a significant time has passed; many of us have felt it, cursed it.

I entered this year with hubris; forgot my place and the place of my chosen discipline. We are not here to understand it — on this, at least, the Darwinists may agree. We are here to take our potential for doing whatever we damn well please and actualizing it in selflessness; we are gods set free with the greatest faith of all time, the faith G-d has that we will choose to be servants to him than deities over our own worlds.

Until we reach that unity and there is only One Will in this domain, literally anything can happen, and this year, it did. We were certain; we thought it could not be; just as certainly, it came to pass.

The reaction is not to cry over our own uncertainty like a first-year student whose Sephiros chart does not match all thirteen tribes.

The reaction is joyous, rapturous awe; the happiest feeling in the world, to lose ourselves and find some truth instead, to remember that we are not the creators and we do not understand.

The mistake of 2016 was to think we could understand.

The lesson for 2017 is to give up more easily, to have faith, to trust, to be willing to follow it wherever it leads.

Just like He does.