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




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.

Understanding “The Pianist” & Jewish Opinion on Trump

If you’re Jewish and confused by other Jews’ response to Trump, whether the support he has from the religious and particularly the religious Israeli Jews or the powerful, loud opposition he faced from the non-religious American Jewish community, it will pay to remember The Pianist.

The story: A talented Jewish pianist from Warsaw is saved from certain death by his beautiful performance of Chopin. The Nazi officer who discovers him does not have the heart to destroy the artist and works to rescue him from the destruction of the holocaust.

The question is why. What happened in the mind and heart of an officer otherwise more-or-less committed to the Nazi endeavor that allowed him to make an exception for the pianist? The question is not so much on the true story behind the novel; in the real world it is always dangerous to assume the motions of the heart follow the dictates of logic; the pianist was saved because Hosenfeld the German officer was a Catholic, or because he was a schoolteacher, or because he felt guilt for the occupied Polish. It doesn’t matter; the question is how we read that unbearable moment in the shelled-out building when Szpilman is revealed to be an artist. If we want to understand what happened in those precious seconds of mortal and moral peril, what story could we tell?

The answers to this question, it must be pointed out, are the very answers that frame the Jewish response to the holocaust and perforce the Jewish response to all new external threats. To understand why a Nazi might not have killed a Jew is to understand why the Nazis killed so many Jews and how we might prevent any similar thing from occurring in the future.


So, here’s one answer:

The Nazi doesn’t kill the pianist because in that moment he realizes that Nazism is a lie, or at least a lie relative to the deep truth of shared humanity. The Jew and the German both participate in a shared appreciation of capital-A Art, highest of human endeavors, a mating of beauty and truth that demolished all the contrived boundaries that separate us. Hitler may say that a Jew is not a person, but in that sublime moment when a Jew’s will and a Jew’s hands transform wood and wire into undying eternity, even the Nazis do not believe him. Hitler forgot that we are all human, that we are united by far more than divides us. His and the Germans’ fear of the “other” and desire for power drove out the innate love of man that otherwise beats in every human breast.

The Nazis’ defeat, the unmaking of their plan, though obviously requiring military force in the short-term, comes ultimately and permanently from our refusal to separate from the “other,” from our acknowledgement of our shared humanity, from art, beauty, and love.

If Hosenfeld’s actions are to effect us, they must not be allowed to translate as a mere personal tolerance or forbearance. We must see them as a victory of our best self, the self we all share, over the fractious tendencies of tribalism and nationalism that threaten to swallow the subterranean truth that is human unity. It cannot be, “A certain nazi found it within his heart to save a Jew.” It must be, “We all find it in our own hearts to save one another, deep down in the place that makes us people.” This is how we learn.


Here’s another answer:

The Nazi doesn’t kill the Jew because, at the moment Szpilman plays the piano, he is a perfect German. Indeed, Nazism at its root is not proven a lie by the incident but rather proven true. Given enough training in culture and artistic talent, the Jewish untermensch can approach being human. The Nazis may have believed in a brutish philosophy but the majority of them were, at the end of the day, standard bearers of Western Civilization in general and German culture in particular, lovers of Wagner, Mozart, and Goethe, who saw the arts as yet another area where the Aryans were superior. And if a dirty Jew should succeed at the highest level of artistry, if he could demonstrate that he, too, was German, he may not deserve death. Not that this was of any benefit whatsoever to the millions who were killed, children and all. No, the opportunity to prove the quality of Jewish genetics was not extended to them; they were still Jews, after all. The progress of humanism, the arts, and love of all men was a casualty of the war; Chopin was just another heuristic for determining whether a Jew was fit or deserved the gas chamber; the survival of the pianist is in consonance with the death of six million Jews, most of whom could not find middle C.

Thus, the unmaking of the Nazis’ plan can come only through the application of force or authority, whether through military opposition to fascism or appeals to moral or religious principles to curb the will to power of the murderous art lovers. They must be taught, as Merlyn tries to impart to Arthur, that might does not make right. When art is a cudgel rather than the key to enlightened universalism, when Beethoven does not necessitate the brotherhood of man, all that’s left is morality and the Sherman tank enforcing it.

Hosenfeld’s actions are thus extraordinarily virtuous but do not directly present a lesson for us to learn; the good deed of one Nazi, if it ought to be seen in a broader context at all, is the exception that proves the rule of an evil in man’s soul that no amount of art or culture can fix. There may be no solution to the problem of tribalism, except education to choose the right over the easy and using all the tools of politics and intellect to systemically prevent the seizure of power by the power-hungry and imperious. To stop evil, those who are not evil must be confident and strong and must spread their influence as far as possible; it is only the binding principles of good and right that can truly civilize, if anything can.


The first of these answers was largely adopted by American Jews, whereas Israelis and the religious Jews found the latter narrative more compelling. Naturally, the average American Jew sees the crimes of the Nazis as a violation of universal humanity, as a perversion of the good man would do unto his fellow if society only allowed it. Many religious Jews, on the other hand, feel the Nazis’ crimes are evil like those of any murderer or tyrant, but special insomuch as they signal the failure of enlightened universal humanism buttressed by culture and the arts to withstand hijacking by the same old and brutal forces that once hijacked religion, monarchy, and everything else.

It is thus no surprise that, thinking narratively, the average American Jew sees an orange barbarian whose signature trick more than any President since the war is “othering” vast swathes of people, who expresses no overt devotion to the project of enlightened humanism, the arts, or erasing the boundaries society places between men, and that Jew concludes that Hitler or something like him has come once more.

On the other hand, many a religious Jew sees a barbarian with few morals, a narcissist who is successful in business but lives a life of debauched excess, and that Jew says that as the law governs and the society believes in a traditional rules-based morality, there is no reason to suspect a Hitler will be elected to the White House in January, nor could he carry out Hitlerian plans if he wanted to.

The average American Jew is especially despondent, because the project of universal human brotherhood based on what we all have in common has been meeting stiff resistance of late and (for various reasons not worth arguing here) President Obama was seen as the new hope and is now seen as the last hope with the electorate’s reversal.

But many religious Jews and Israelis are cautiously optimistic. Even if the man is G-dless and immoral, his total destruction of the status quo may be an opportunity to fix the long-eroding roles of the rule or law and traditional morality in our society, especially as they relate to the death struggle of Israel (and now, large portions of Europe) with totalitarian Islamism, a system which gives room to many of the worst domineering impulses of the human spirit. They feel this is a threat that can only be beaten back with military power and allies willing to accept that their way is, at the very least, the far lesser of the two evils. In short, they seek leadership willing to say that the enemy is evil and that we would be evil not to name them so, a president willing to use war correctly rather than write it off as a violation of the deepest ideals of humanity, a bit of the old-time “us and them.” And they think Trump may be the answer.


In the end, I think the divide in the Jewish community over President-elect Trump is far less an issue of ignorance, “fake news,” or deception than a pure “fact-based” analysis might let on. It’s instead a fundamental divergence in worldview that traces back to at least World War II, when our community chose two different paths in trying to ensure that calamity would never again strike our people or the world.

The Science of the Gaps

The tension between religion and science, at a sociological level, does not exist. There are plenty of religious scientists and scientific believers, and they do not walk around all day clutching their foreheads trying to relieve the pressure of intense cognitive dissonance. On the contrary, the obvious point that there cannot be two contradictory truths denotes an agreeable and elegant unity between the two approaches, whether one views them as a tightly intersected Venn diagram or as non-overlapping magisteria that deal with separate but equally-valid truths.

All is not as peaceful as it first appears, however. With the decline of popular religious feeling and the ascendance of popular science, many religious people have come to view the claims of religion – and indeed, everything else – in a scientific light. It is not so much that there is science and there is religion and they are both avenues to the truth(s), but rather that science is all knowledge but religion can exist comfortably as its subset, as the rational belief in the irrational or whatever.

This may sound like a crazy claim to most religious people, but I beg you to consider: In the subconscious of many a religious believer today floats the notion that one day scientific knowledge will advance to the extent that we will no longer “need” G-d to explain anything. Now, this idea can be defended theologically, and often is. Someone is always quick to declare that G-d created brains and science that we may use them. Other will chime in with the more mystical claim that G-d loves us so much he wants to set us free and never see us again, like any good modern parent, and that human history and the enlightenment is humanity’s opportunity to “move out of the house.” Even more open-minded (and my favorite) is the idea that “using” G-d as an explanation for anything in our world is to make of the deity an instrument, a terrible degradation that should embarrass any mature believer! G-d, like true art, can have no purpose!

These arguments may be correct[i]; it doesn’t matter. We are motivated to make them by this slight niggling feeling in the back of our minds that in a few more years “science” (the disembodied god of wisdom from the headlines) will have it all figured out and religious understanding will be relegated to the museums and university classrooms like all good but useless things.

Really, the opposite is true. Nearly unnoticed, science is headed for a nice solid wall while stodgy old religion is taking new and compelling form in the intellectual crucible.

Instead of religion being in danger from the advance of scientific knowledge, science is in imminent danger of losing its grip on the truth with the advance of religious thought.

This deity we think of in scientific terms is the much-maligned “G-d of the Gaps,” the power that presides over things science has not figured out yet. This G-d finds expression in the religious parallel of Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from religion.” Just as ancient man believed in magic and spirits controlling the weather because he didn’t have meteorology, so he believed in G-d because he didn’t know about astrophysics or biology or evolutionary psychology. Indeed, it follows logically that as he learns more about any of these things, he will believe in G-d less. And if he still believes in G-d, it will not be that same vigorous one from the old texts who created heaven and earth and performed miracles and wonders, but rather some kind of impotent abstraction.

It is worth pointing out that this God of the Gaps derives from the assumption that G-d is a scientific proposition. That is, we postulate in the first place that G-d is the best explanation for all the things science hasn’t figured out. When science figures them out (as it certainly must and will), G-d’s domain shrinks to the yet further things science hasn’t figured out. And if science eventually closes out on all the important questions, well, G-d is no longer a good explanation for anything important.

It is equally worth pointing out that the assumption is false. As I’ve written before, G-d is simply not, in the first place, a “scientific” principle subject to any kind of falsification through empirical discovery. G-d is not Zeus, a god of thunder made irrelevant once the gap in meteorological knowledge was filled in. On the contrary, the best arguments for G-d’s existence presuppose only the most basic claims that science would agree to as well. They start with premises such as, “This hydrogen atom exists” and the like, and their logic proceeds deductively. Unless science somehow puts forth the claim that no contingent creations exist (or any other of a few equally preposterous and unlikely claims), the logical necessity of a creator is unaffected. Indeed, the logical necessity of a maintainer is equally unaffected; not only did G-d create the universe once upon a time, but due to the nature of instrumental causes he must create it at every moment from nothing. If there is an atom, there is G-d, according to the classical understanding, and learning more about Darwinism or big bang cosmology (despite recent prevarications about the meaning of the word “nothing”) won’t change it one bit.

So much for the sad and misleading “God of the Gaps.” But, wait, you may wonder, what if I’m unfamiliar with classical theology and don’t recognize the arguments you’re referencing and basically find these references to scholasticism a bit medieval?

I’m glad you asked. Because we don’t really need to resort to all that at all. In fact, science’s claims to truth are weaker right now all on their own than they have been in perhaps three hundred years.

To understand the curious weakness of science at the moment, we must distinguish between the experimental data acquired through the scientific method and the theoretical underpinnings of those facts. But first, a quick disclaimer on what we mean by science’s “weakness.” I do not mean to put down or diminish the significance of the scientific pursuit, nor to deny any specific scientific findings. Instead, what I mean by the weakness of science is the way in which scientific ideas, unverified and unquestioned, punch far above their objective paygrade in the public imagination. In other words, that scientific “truth” should change one iota beliefs accepted as revelation because they both allegedly have equal claims to the truth is simply mistaken. Scientism, the belief that scientific truth is the only kind of truth, is patently false, and science does not have a claim to the truth such that any proclamation in its name should be taken seriously by default. In fact, the most logical approach to many disciplines within science nowadays is brutal skepticism.

First, the facts of science, the actual experimental work behind the “new study finds” we read about in the news or in pop-sci books. These are the rock-solid realities that, through the sieve of the scientific method we all learned about in middle school, banish forever false hypotheses and allow the scientist to build theoretical understanding. Except that the public is becoming more and more aware of what worries over 50% of polled scientists – the replication crisis, the stunningly pervasive inability of scientists to reproduce the effects of published experiments, rendering the broader applications of said experiments largely void. Perhaps part of the problem is that, as any honest statistics professor will tell you, you really can prove almost anything with statistics, and researchers do just that all the time. Or perhaps it’s other sources of error, such as biases, that create conditions for most published research findings to be false. The situation is not aided by the incredible pressure to “publish or perish,” or the general drift of science away from practical (and thus verifiable) concerns, or the massive problems with the peer review system which is supposed to be the scientific guarantee of honesty. In short, when confronted with the “scientific facts” on any particular issue, one must either be prepared to do all the dirty wet work of assessing the research methodology etc. oneself, or one must have a trust for published papers that published papers, at least at the moment, do not deserve.[ii] Why any of these “facts” should pose, without a lot more research, any sort of challenge to the truths of the religious believer, remains a mystery.

Things get even murkier when we make the leap to theoretical science, which provides much of the more ephemeral fodder for the quantum think pieces and string theory rumination. Unlike the social sciences or medicine, the theories of physics largely have solid foundations in demonstrated, reproducible facts. The problem is that once one departs from the strict facts, the theoretical possibilities begin to multiply, and there is no particular reason for any one of them to be true. In fact, Newton’s laws of physics, which were at one point considered the most experimentally-confirmed scientific theories of all time, turned out to be incorrect, invalidated hundreds of years after their publishing by astronomical observations and replaced by Einstein’s theory. There is no reason to think this could not happen again with today’s physics.

It is almost as if science is good at making quantifiable predictions but bad at finding general underlying truths about the universe.

The truth is that science’s problems go even deeper, to the extent that in private I have whimsically begun calling it the “science of the gaps.” Nothing written so far justifies this moniker. After all, despite the muddled state of scientific research and its weakness as an assertive force, we can still rely on science to at least in theory pick itself up, dust itself off, and to march forward to a unified theory of everything and knowledge of all of reality, thereby banishing the god of the gaps to the realm of pretty daydreams. In other words, if science has some problems and has not yet figured out all there is to know about life, it is only due to technical problems. In principle, however, science can do all of these things.

Except it can’t.

You see, science is fundamentally flawed, not so much in its chosen areas of interest, but in its failure to acknowledge it has a chosen area of interest. Because at some point in early modernity, the forerunners of what today we’d call science decided that it would be beneficial, in understanding the natural world, to ignore everything that cannot be quantified or mathematically measured. Over time, somehow people excited about all the technological progress etc. came to think that what cannot be quantified or mathematically measured does not exist, which is about as correct as a chef deciding there is no moon because it had never been mentioned in a single great cookbook.

This is not, in and of itself, a terrible flaw – after all, a chef may ignore the moon indefinitely and continue to receive Michelin stars. One might say the same of science – that everything is going swimmingly so far ignoring the unquantifiable, and it will continue so indefinitely.

Unfortunately, this is not true. Because it turns out (as the briefest perusal of science headlines today will demonstrate) that the unquantifiable has much more to do with the natural world than the moon does with cooking. In fact, if human beings are part of the natural world, then theoretically psychology, political science, history, sociology, anthropology, law, economics, literature, art, theology, morality, ethics, and philosophy should all be ultimately explicable by natural science, whether by reduction (e.g. economics is real, but is emergent from brain chemistry) or by elimination (e.g. economics isn’t real; only the laws of physics are real).

It goes without saying that, despite continuous process and the best efforts of scientists, psychology has not even nearly been reduced to neurobiology, and the social sciences have generally been unable to produce solid, easily understood, replicatable theories such as Newton’s or Maxwell’s laws. In fact, even economists (for example) admit in candid moments that at least half the time they are wrong, despite the application of all the latest methods and theories. Let us not begin to start down the road of the scientific experiments in social engineering, which have played their role in the deaths of countless human test-subjects and have left their mark in even non-scientifically organized societies through the enduring theories of eugenics, IQ quotas, and the rest. Questions of morality notwithstanding, the “scientific” approach to human behavior and human societies has yet to produce any sort of success comparable to older societies, outside of some great dystopian novels.

So, because not-easily-quantifiable things such as human nature, the experience of subjectivity, and pure reason are important to the sciences broadly defined, we must enter into the great shell game, the fantastic, audacious lie that perpetuates the science of the gaps. We say that one day, when the methods are better and the computers are fast enough and we better understand the chemistry and the genomes and the evolutionary process, we will understand all of these more difficult things. Indeed, just as once upon a time humanity didn’t understand electricity but today it is safely harnessed the world over, so, too, one day we will scientifically understand the human experience. The difference between an electric circuit and the human mind is one of degree, and the scientists simply need more time.

But this is an intellectual Ponzi scheme, which takes deposits from one place to cover its ever-expanding debts and never pays them back. It works like this: (1) Believers in scientism declare that everything can be explained scientifically. (2) It is pointed out that there are plenty of things that cannot be explained scientifically, including the very commitment to the idea that everything can be explained scientifically. (3) Believers in scientism attribute all scientifically inexplicable phenomena, from near-death experiences to the subjective knowledge of the self, as epiphenomena of the human mind. (4) It is pointed out that science does not understand the human mind. (5) Believers in scientism say that science will understand the mind one day, and that nothing exists outside of the realm of what science will understand!

You cannot hide the dirty laundry that is the unquantifiable under the heading of (mere) mental phenomena and then claim that one day science will understand the mind. In fact, science will never fully understand the human experience, because it consists of things that are not quantifiable and not reducible to material explanations. And the only reason this isn’t blatantly obvious to everyone yet is due to the shell game in which we say that all the things science, by its very nature of being a study of the quantifiable, cannot explain are things that one day it will explain, things in the brain.

I think it’s time to face it: the human mind, society, and spirit has not remained impenetrable to scientific analysis because the techniques are not yet advanced enough or the computers fast enough. They are impenetrable to science by their nature, and science has gained its prestige and perception of omnipotence by mostly ignoring them and focusing its attentions elsewhere, like a good cookbook does.

We do not go searching in even our best cookbooks for the truth, because we realize that cookbooks are excellent for the purposes they’re designed for, but those purposes are relatively practical and limited. Indeed, cookbooks preside over certain gaps in our broader knowledge of universal truths that make them unbelievably useful. Science, too, presides over the gaps left by broader, more fundamental ways of understanding.

Even if everything I’m saying is correct, it would still at this point be unfair to compare science to the lowly God of the Gaps. After all, the true power of that pejorative title stems from the development of science. The God of the Gaps is like a shy model with ever fewer scraps of clothing left to work with; the domain of what we need a deity to explain allegedly grows ever smaller with the march of scientific progress. Can the same be said about science? Is its (self-defined) limited purview being encroached upon by the development of other forms of knowledge? Isn’t religion and all that stagnant and confined to old texts that have said the same thing for centuries?

Surprisingly, it’s not. And science itself is partially to blame for it. The enlightenment and the scientific revolution continue to force religion to refine itself. In effect, science has, to the general public and even among many believers, at least partially stolen the crown of religious authority. If a priest and a scientist each make exclusive claims and say, “Believe this because I say so,” the scientist wins today ninety-nine times out of a hundred. But rather than leading to the death of theology, this loss of authority has led to a quiet but steady religious flourishing.

If one must explain how every human has a divine soul, or why suicide is a moral evil, mere declarations of authority will no longer suffice. Instead a serious Rabbi or Pastor now has to actually crack open those dusty books, try his hand at the good old schoolmasters, struggle to understand and apply concepts from a different time and place to the matter at hand. And what these Rabbis, Pastors, and even non-religious philosophers have found to their surprise is that the old books hold up surprisingly well – much better than the assumed materialist metaphysics with which so many scientists are acquainted.

Indeed, it isn’t hard to imagine that when the day comes and the scientists finally admit that they have no damn idea how to design a successful society, there might not be a theologian or two waiting in the wings with a book of Proverbs and Nicomachean Ethics, ready to supply advice that was not acquired by scientific method but that has stood some old civilizations and religions in very good stead.

One day, we will not “need” science to explain anything of true significance to the human experience. Its days as the official Best Explanation for the world around us are numbered, as it draws ever-closer and with ever-more embarrassing errors to the limits of its understanding.

Someday soon, science will hit a wall in its understanding, and the public will become aware of its inability to solve the most intractable problems of our nature. At that instant, our minds will be able to spring free from the materialist confines of scientism. In that moment, when all will seem lost to chaos, the new, leaner, modern theologies will be waiting, with answers, without the gaps.

[i] They aren’t, at least not entirely, but that is not my concern here. Suffice it to say that these errors all involve driving G-d from the world in significant ways (after all, as Aristotle would say, what is not an explanation is not a cause) and this isn’t really what most religious people want to do, I’d think.

[ii] That these are the only two choices makes the layman’s attempt to decide political issues purely scientifically laughable at best.

Love and Fear in Elul (part 1)

By G-d’s grace, weird politics have given me a little insight into some difficult passages:

A learn-through of the discourse “Ani L’Dodi” from the Alter Rebbe’s Likkutei Torah and the Rebbe’s “Ani L’Dodi” of 5732 reveal strange contradictions, mysteries within mysteries, all bound up with the relational modes of love and fear.

Love and fear at their most basic are simply two ways one connects to another. Understood simply, the difference between them lies in how they are implemented: Fear is the connection that disregards the inner life of the person as themselves; it is an objective connection separate from feeling or perception. Love, on the other hand, is a connection that acknowledges the inner form of both parties; it is a “subjective” connection wherein one’s inner makeup is directed toward another, and vice versa. It is this distinction which gives rise to the common understandings of love and fear and attraction toward or repulsion from something. These common understandings are less nuanced and therefore fraught with contradiction; to love someone is to be connected to them in an inner fashion but to simultaneously be separated from them by the very insistence of one’s own feelings into the picture, whereas fear/repulsion/hatred often manifests not in escaping from the object of fear but being permanently bound to it as if by fate. On the whole, however, in terms of our conscious/active perception, love represents a connection and fear the negation or fleeing from such a connection, and thus the common definitions.

These notions of love and fear give rise to the famous formula, D’chilu-R’chimu-R’chimu-U’d’chilu, or, Fear-Love-Love-Fear — basically a path to unity, the process of connection to the creator that terminates in utter nullity within the deity. The first step is the Lower Fear, also known as accepting the yoke. In this case, the connection disregarding the inner life is the first vitally important step because one’s inner life is not yet ready to love. This is the responsibility that precedes appreciation. It is the idea that there is G-d, a King over the world and over oneself, to whom one must pledge devotion. Whatever the King demands is what one will do, and one’s appreciation or understanding of those demands is utterly irrelevant. The relationship is (apparently, see below) based entirely on the manifest truth of His existence and dominion and not on one’s feelings or understanding at all.

Next are the small and great love, wherein one works on an understanding and appreciation of the creator, bringing one’s intellect and emotions around to a grasp (and therefore an appreciation) of G-d and His commandments. The great love at its highest reaches is an ecstatic communion with G-d in which one’s entire personality is perfectly congruent and transparent to the creator. However, (again, in the basic understanding) there “remains one who loves,” a separate creation, bound to G-d only through the intermediary of love, feeling, “the relationship” in all its declarative existence. This is why there is a final step.

The final step is the higher fear, which (like the aforementioned lower fear) disregards the inner life and experience of the person for a relationship based in external objective reality. Unlike the lower fear, however, the higher fear is reached after the achievements of the small and great love have been attained. In other words, while the lower fear circumvents one’s understanding and appreciation by necessity (because these faculties are not yet refined enough to grasp the creator or his commandments) the higher fear circumvents these things by choice, that is, in order to escape the state of being “one who loves” and simply ceasing to be, in complete and utter transparent unity with G-d.

All of this is relatively simple, the order of G-d’s service in chassidus as known to first-time learners etc.

Then we try to understand these Elul discourses…

First we read that both love and fear, if they are to be established permanently in one’s personality, demand objects. That is, it is impossible to truly fear on one’s own, in one’s head as it were, and that is one of the reasons why the fear one feels on the high holy days can only be born from a revelation of G-dliness, some perceptible expression of G-d to give anchor to our fear. After all, it is only the knowledge of something which allows an emotional reaction to its form — it is only by either seeing a good meal before our eyes, or at least knowing the form of it in our minds, that we can desire it.

So, even love demands an object and cannot be generated by one party alone. This is not earth-shattering. Though fear is indeed more rooted in external objectivity whereas love is a function of the internal faculties of one’s being, for anything to be consciously detected to a human being it must pass through the intermediary of intellectual recognition/contemplation. Nevertheless, in the case of fear, we can say that the object of the apprehension is actually the external reality (I am aware of something beyond me that renders me nullified in some way) whereas in the case of love, the object of the apprehension is more the act of detecting the divine (I am aware of being in alignment with or grasping something beyond myself).

The Rebbe explains further that, though (as we have just noted) all forms of love and fear require objects and those objects are all accessed by man through intellectual contemplation/recognition, sometimes that recognition is implanted (it seems, automatically) through an external revelation, whereas sometimes it must be attained through the efforts of man. Specifically, the lower fear’s contemplation/recognition of G-d is accomplished by man’s efforts, whereas the higher fear’s is implanted by G-d.

To summarize so far: Fear is a connection with another rooted in an objective fact rather than the inner life of each party. The experience of fear is a function of one’s intellectual apprehension of this external, objective fact. This apprehension, in the case of the lower fear, is accomplished through the effort of the individual. In the case of the higher fear, it is accomplished through some process by G-d, and the person is, it would seem, a mere passive recipient.

The difference between the activity of the lower fear and the passivity of the higher fear are made clearer by their specific divine objects. The objective fact that one must apprehend to achieve the lower fear is G-d’s utter dominion over the universe He creates, ultimately: “The one thinking this very thought could not exist were it not for G-d.” And the logical conclusion — the one thinking this very thought will subjugate himself to the will of his creator. The fact that causes the higher fear is the perception that G-d in His infinitude transcends all creation and all limitation. Aside from impossibility of attaining such an impression on one’s own steam (being that all comprehension begins within the framework of logic and the very worlds one is utterly negating in comparison to G-d), the inherent passivity of the higher fear is reflected in one’s logical conclusion — not that one must subjugate himself to G-d, but that one indeed is already subjugated to the point of having no definition outside of G-dliness itself. In other words, and in accordance with our understanding of the higher fear mentioned above, there is technically no person left as such to actively do anything, but rather only an expression of the creator. We thus see how the higher fear is surely utterly passive, a recognition of the reality of the infinite creator given to one by the Creator, whereas the lower fear can be accomplished through the efforts of man.

It is at this point, however, that things take a turn, and in order to understand it, we must re-examine, from first principles, our entire understanding of love and fear.

(to be continued)

On The Topic Of Having A Band At Slichos

With thanks to Eli Berger, who wanted me to write something about Jewish aesthetics.

If live music can stir our emotions and slichos is meant to be an emotional prayer connecting us with our creator, it might seem like being against a band at slichos is pure stodgy contrarianism.

But the truth is, unsurprisingly, more complicated. The reactionary distaste for live music at what is meant to be a mere prayer service like any other has nothing to do with the way non-Orthodox Judaism uses instruments or even with the music being a distraction from prayer. We all know that musical instruments were used in the Beit Hamikdash, and very few of us have powerful emotional attachments to the grief of exile that we will only listen to instruments in a Jewish context when the Third Temple is rebuilt.

No, the objection to a band at slichos has to do with authenticity and reflects a deep existential dissatisfaction. The question is: Were we robbed, or weren’t we?

The Jews who want a band to play their slichos feel like even if they were robbed, there was still something left over. Even if the thieves came in the night and took, with the Temple, with prophecy, with our innocence, our true love and fear and G-d, and we sat mostly bereft, they did not take everything. We still have something left. If we go to slichos and hear the music and are moved, that motion of the heart and soul is good and true and G-dly, it’s what He wanted, and our slichos is only enhanced.

The Jews whose noses curl up at live music at slichos feel, deep in their hearts, because of a certain painful honesty, that they were robbed to the last slipper and have nothing left. Band or no, they have nothing to place before their creator at slichos, not really. They will certainly try, but their efforts will always be insufficient. We have been living purely off of G-d’s mercy for some time now. No, all that’s left for us, even in these powerful prayer services, are the widow’s empty vessels. We work our lathes in the long dark, we go through the same motions. We hammer out the slichos, one word at a time. One day, we will have oil to pour into them. The oil is nothing but ourselves, if we can find it. But a live band won’t help us find it. We still have the tunes, the words to arouse passion, which are part of the nusach. But to think that a bit more music will push it over the top and invoke the miracle of Elisha? No.

The Jews who would have a band think this is defeatist thinking, the intellectual shtetl, the exile inside. They’d say that these traditionalists aren’t even trying.

The traditionalists will reply that, on the contrary, we’re the only ones who are still trying. It is these vessels that will hold the oil, whole and complete, needing no decoration. They are what will survive, passed on hand to hand in the cold. Only these plain vessels will ever make it back into the light.

In Defense Of Taking Offense

It stands to reason that free speech laws protect especially speech disliked by those in power. Otherwise, there would be no need for a law. However, free speech on its own is only a negative principle, and governmental respect of rights has never and will never be enough to sustain a civilized society.

What do I mean when I say that free speech is a negative principle? The First Amendment does not tell us what we should say or what speech means; it simply says that whatever it is, the government ought not to get involved. It is concerned with rights rather than what it right. Take, for example, flag burning. Flag burning is a form of expression that I think should be counted under the First Amendment and protected in this country. After all, is speech to be free only if it is patriotic? Where is that constitutional caveat? No, those who protest this country should have the right to speak their minds. Indeed, they have the exact same right to speak as one who praises America. Neo-nazis have the same rights as peace protestors who can speak as freely as pulpit clergy who in turn have as much of a voice as Black Lives Matter. This is what makes America unique – we say that the government has no power over the speech of any of these individuals.

However, this legal principle has led to a modern turn on the political right, in which all speech is viewed as equally valid and anyone who is offended by, say, a neo-nazi sending them pictures of gas chambers somehow has a weak character and is viewed as too childish and soft to deal with American freedoms; they must need their safe space. In other words, a legal negative principle (that the right to free speech shall not be infringed) has come to mean that all speech is beyond moral castigation.

This happened the same way everything in 2016 has happened: Too many years of unbearable progressive puritanism and doublespeak has fueled a partisan hatred of the left; anything that even smells like Barack Obama or his administration is indelibly tainted and must be purged from the conservative ranks. Therefore, since Social Justice Warriors say that praising America is an act of violence and asking someone to play golf is a microaggression, all speech must be equally morally valid. If that logic sounds absurd, it’s because it is. If there is one lesson I have learned from the kulturkampf of this year and this election cycle, it is that two wrongs do not make a right.

The left’s delusion does not mean that gas chambers are a joke, or that any jerk off the street deserves to say his piece in one’s home or business. More important: If someone at my dinner table cries “To the gas chamber with you,” it is not a moral weakness to kick him out of my house. On the contrary, it is moral strength; it is hating evil. But in 2016, hating evil is equivalent to needing a “safe space” free from being offended. Call it whatever you like; I’m willing to bet you would not allow just anyone to come onto your private property, to your business, or even up to you in the street and speak their mind with impunity. If, for example, you are walking with your mother down a public road and someone starts hurling verbal abuse at her and you do not get offended, you are the worst sort of cretin. True, no number of words will twist your ankle, but it is just as true that honor often demands a response to effrontery, especially when it is not our own honor we are defending.

What I am saying, in other words, is that free speech is more of a rule for what the government cannot do than a guiding principle for life. As a moral principle, it fails the same way that libertarianism fails generally. That philosophy does not recognize the need for a shared moral code in society. The United States Constitution limits government censorship of speech but never tells us what man is or what happiness he ought to pursue. It does not explain that no matter how law-abiding a citizen may be, there will never be neighbors living in peace so long as there is contempt between them. It does not and cannot explain what peace is, or what neighbors are, or that speaking in a certain way will inevitably make people hate you, and that this is natural and human and just. That is because the constitution only limits government power and trusts other moral authorities to guide man in forming a functioning society, a role fulfilled at the time of the constitution’s writing by religion.

It slanders the founders to say they considered all speech that is legal to be right. It is false to assume that they sought no Judeo-Christian peace and love of their neighbors and always spoke whatever dark thought entered their minds. This is to attribute to the Founders a post-modern nihilism, a view of society in which every individual truly is detached from the common good. Not merely declining to centrally legislate for the common good, but rather failing to care about it at all, which is madness.

The notion that society will survive just as well with every man truly caring only about his own affairs goes not against the legal but against the moral core of our country. It is a cruel nearsightedness warned against by the holy texts of our religions, in which “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours,” a society of alienation, detachment, and moral turpitude.

It leads to a situation in which base opportunists with racist followers are defended by conservatives when they are kicked off Twitter. True, Twitter is run by progressives with a double standard. But two wrongs do not make a right. People from whom the average conservative would have categorically distanced themselves ten years ago are defended with the perennial argument that got Mr. Trump nominated, the argument that the left does worse all the time.

A man who says whatever he wants is a slave to his worst impulses. Though the government should not stop him, he should stop himself, and we should look down on him when he doesn’t. But instead, we now defend his right to service from a private company, no matter what he says, and call his political views conservative if he makes feminists upset.

All because “the left is worse”.

Two wrongs make a right to free speech, anywhere, at anyone’s expense.

And don’t you dare get offended…

On Churches, Wagon Drivers, And Contradictions

I think it is part of human nature that, when confronted by big, old contradictions, we try to find a way around them. We hedge, feint right and left, poke for weaknesses. If indeed the contradiction lies across our only path, we then choose to idle, convincing ourselves that where we stand is where we truly want to be. Finally, when inner or outer force compels us forward, we turn for the last line of defense to our imaginations, which let us pretend contradiction does not exist, which is an elegant, clean solution to a messy problem that deposits us on a firm moral high ground (also imaginary) where we may live out our lives pleasantly repeating, “All is one, all is one.” Or, if our imagination is not so strong as to make all equal while remaining on the high ground, we may at least imagine that we have the strength to one day make it so, and devote all our lives to leveling mountains and valleys…

But facing a contradiction, despite the pain and the mess, is how we, collectively, figure stuff out. Not by avoiding it or attempting to uproot it but by engaging it in its structure do we sharpen our minds. The alternatives are either to dull them through endless, desperate hammering or to discard them in favor of our dreams, as castles in the sky need not these mundane tools for their construction.

Here’s an interesting contradictory structure:

(i) A teacher and Chassid I profoundly respect argued at length that the Vatican City is far, far worse than Las Vegas, as far as concealments of G-d go.
(ii) The same teacher on a different occasion shared with us a well-known fact about the great Baal Shem Tov — that the sage wouldn’t ride with a non-Jewish wagon driver who did not cross himself when his wagon passed a church.

At first glance, it seems like we’re saying Christianity is both bad and good, or both desirable and undesirable. There are many ways we could manipulate these statements to resolve the contradiction. We could simply call into question the veracity of either claim or say they actually represent two different worldviews that are allowed to freely contradict. We could question whether the BeSh”T story could actually be trusted or whether he would agree with my teacher or my teacher with him; there is enough room here to easily escape this dilemma. But suppose for a moment we were convinced that (i) and (ii) are true and that they must coexist in the same worldview.

Our next method of escape is to simply avoid the question through inaction. It might help to point out that the question is academic or pedantic, and that answering it reflects moral weakness. The question of Christianity’s place in the world, as a devoted religious Jew, is largely irrelevant to day-to-day life. There are (as always) so many other more important things to deal with. People are starving somewhere, grandma needs a new pair of horseshoes, etc. So let the question stand; we don’t need to pass through it. Just don’t get in the wagon!


I don’t have a choice. I do need to move forward. Because the ride in the wagon has grown rougher of late, and its drivers are leery, and threats loom on every side. We Jews seem to draw closer to the end of our post-war pass; our defenses are collapsing. If there is some wisdom that could tell us whom to trust, we must find it, and fast, because the wagon may be entering the woods, and the sun is setting.

And so: the next solution, an ever-more-familiar one. Wherein I deny not the source or relevance of the contradiction, but its premises — that is, the shared premise of every contradiction, that things have differences that make them incompatible. This is the best solution so far because we get to say that we have respected the problem (“The Baal Shem Tov really did say it!”) and that we have not just let it stand but rather proceeded forward and dealt with it.

Like this: Our problem arises from the BeSh”T’s judgment of a man based on his religious beliefs, or our teacher’s devotion to the view that Christianity (Catholicism specifically) has a nature or purpose that render it evil in our eyes. Neither of these need compel us, if we are brave enough to stand by our own judgment rather than theirs and say that a man should be judged by his individual tolerance alone and/or that Christianity and Judaism, like all religions, have the same goals and get at the same Truth. The mistake of my teacher and the holy BeSh”T lies not in any obvious disagreement of theirs but in their shared misunderstanding of the situation. And indeed, once we have discovered their mistake it’s easy to return to their statements and extricate them from error. My teacher was merely operating within a religious framework that, though sectarian, was a necessary precursor to our modern universal enlightenment. The BeSh”T certainly judged men only by their tolerance for others, but the best external means of ascertaining that tolerance was, in his benighted times, through signs of religious devotion. Presto! Other than the small matter of rendering them wrong and (appearing to be) relatively ignorant, we have rescued them from their contradiction through the power of imagination, which can conceive of a world where there are no contradictions. And, once it is imagined, we must make it so…

But, assuming I insisted on taking the BeSh”T and my teacher at face value, stubbornly focusing on the structures of (i) and (ii) as they present themselves, the definitions of all their terms intact. What if I insisted on engaging and fighting this contradiction that I may depart its straits with some wisdom for the non-imaginary riotous road?

Here is the problem, as I see it:

(i) is basically an argument that the church is a very old and powerful institution of idol worship and historic Jew hatred, which means it stands athwart the Jewish mission of revealing the one true G-d in this world. Of the few things that could definitely be declared unJewish, idol worship tops the list. On the other hand, (ii) seems to say that this very heresy is in some sense better than the alternative; that the Baal Shem Tov preferred a driver who preferred the Sistine Chapel to the Vegas strip.

We may be tempted to distinguish between (i) and (ii) by the difference between the collective and the individual — that is, the church is bad, but an individual Christian is good, or at least preferable to a non-religious person. But how precisely are we to measure this distinction? At what point does the net-positive of a group of individuals worshipping their non-True G-d become a cumulative negative? Conversely, how do the teachings of the institution, which allow for violence and falsehood, somehow become the opposite in the mind of a wagon driver?

Perhaps we can resolve it like this:

Judaism views the societal relationship with G-d at two fundamentally different levels. There is the connection with G-d that is viewed as an integral contributor to societal cohesion, that faith in G-d that is one of the Noahide Laws, Judaism’s recipe for a successful civilization. Then there is the relationship with G-d that has nothing to do with worldly purposes and everything to do with the divine, the purpose of creation, the G-dly mission that the knowledge of Him should fill the world and he be known even in the lowest place.

Christianity, as a not-quite-monotheistic faith, is at odds with this second goal. While base human nature is neutral on the G-d question, my teacher thought that the church actively spreads misinformation and has historically been at cross-purposes with the Jews.

However, just because we don’t think Christianity is True, we do not begrudge it to its adherents. On the contrary, as the holy BeSh”T would tell you, in the matter of civilization and order in the world, Christianity has been a force for great good.

So: if we are looking, as Jews, for those who would truly aid us in our G-dly mission, Christianity is institutionally disqualified and we would have better luck searching in Vegas, where we might at least find someone with the wrong actions but the right ideas and goals. If, however, we seek not allies but merely for civilized men who are guaranteed not to ruthlessly murder us in their wagon, the Vatican is a better bet than Reno or Amsterdam, for its men are bound by rules, and even though they are in their details the wrong rules, they at least bind a man to manhood, and prevent his descent into foulest savagery.

But this is, obviously, only one of many possible explanations. Perhaps a lack of Christian devotion was somehow much more sinister in the Baal Shem Tov’s time than today. Perhaps religious Jews have bad judgment. Perhaps what divides us all is illusory. Perhaps the whole question doesn’t matter. Perhaps my memory is faulty. Perhaps the words mean other things. Perhaps crosses are not Christian. Perhaps the question will be made moot by driverless cars. Perhaps…

5 Words I Despise

I despise very few things on G-d’s green earth, and at first glance words should be no different. If I am indeed a fervent believer in balance, constantly reminding myself that every stick has two ends and stopped clocks etc., why are there still certain arrangements of English letters that make me grind my teeth, roll my eyes, stomp my hooves?

Because some words are used as clichés. The crime of the cliché (in writers’ circles, at least) is a crime of tedium. Rather than engaging the reader’s mind in the difficult process of communication through the fractured meanings of words, the cliché is little more than a placeholder, read as a blank space, conveying nothing but what the reader knows already. The net communicative effect is nil; only recollection dimly flickers when we read clichés. In short, they’re boring and should never inhabit our writing.

But the cliché is also evil. It is a particularly dangerous sort of falsehood which at once claims legitimacy by naming something and simultaneously elicits an emotional, non-intellectual response. It says, “That guy is anti-semitic; you can’t vote for him.” It never gets around to asking what an anti-semite is, or why racism is bad, or whether it is the same as bigotry or loyalty, or how bad it is in relation with other evils. All it does is push a button somewhere deep among our tangled minds’ wires that says, “Bad! Bad! Bad!”

I’m not saying we have to define terms every time we use them. It would be incredibly detrimental to all forms of communication if we had to specifically delineate the boundaries of “anti-semitism” every time we mentioned it. Besides, I have a feeling this would only go on to eventually make the words of its definition into clichés — the actual clichés we see in our day-to-day life actually work as a sort of buffer, protecting more technical/academic/intellectual language from itself draining of meaning.

Nevertheless, if we do not constantly revisit and discuss the meanings of the terms we take for granted, we can eventually attach the  evil of anti-semitism (for example) to  things or people innocent of that transgression, and, through so diluting its meaning, we will be unable to convince anyone of it when it does occur. (In short, if we do not work into turning clichés back into meaningful terms, the entire shared meaning which is language falls apart, and even the most skilled orators or writers are unable to recreate their thoughts in the minds of others, and civilization falls apart. In a way you’re the real hero after all, you linguistic scourge!)

The reader may be thinking, “that escalated quickly.” But at what point does a meme, a touchstone joke, become a cliché? How easy it is to stop thinking about what our words mean! I heard the joke about the chicken crossing the road parodied and retold in so many ways as a youth that the actual humor of the joke, or that it was, indeed, ever meant to be genuinely funny, did not occur to me until I was much older. The joke became only the placeholder of a joke; it became a cliché. Relatively harmless with jokes and memes, the exact same effect touches “racism” and “God”, “right” and “left,” “evil” and “good.”

So when someone says in the context of a serious discussion that they don’t want to “waste time” defining words or categories, I worry that they’re charlatans, playing the intellectual game for ulterior motives. It is the most common and most upfront way of declaring bad faith. It says that they’d prefer the alternative, where we can argue past each other, playing for rhetorical points, without actually knowing what the other person is talking about, in the simplest sense of the term. Their conclusions are probably predetermined, and they fear to find, after their words have been grounded by meaning, that they contradict themselves or are illogical. This is a valid fear.

But enough of me being crotchety. I can already see the comments about defining what “define” means hovering before my eyes, or some-such. You came here for a list, and a list you shall get! Let us turn our eyes upon five words that, like cockroaches, do not look good with the light upon them, and that, suddenly illuminated, will dart off in search of a dark, warm, comforting preconception.

(I’m mostly joking when I say the words need replacing.

It’s not the words.

It’s the thoughtlessness.)


1. “Brainwashed” — An Opportunist’s Panic Blanket

When I spoke above about folk who mindlessly wield clichés, I could have called them brainwashed. I didn’t, because it’s a vile word. Unless used in the context of some extraordinary (and I mean extraordinary — actual brainwashing is extremely  rare if it exists at all) circumstance like the bowels of a North Korean torture chamber or somesuch, “brainwashing” is not merely the wrong word, it is purposefully manipulative.

Whenever I hear anyone use it, I instantly demand that they explain the difference between brainwashing and education. If they’re a real whacko or fourteen years old, they might agree that they’re the same thing, and then at least we could talk about education. But at least we’re no longer pretending that just because someone has a different view than our own, they must have been erased and rewritten by some sinister force looking to stay in power (Moriarty? The Elders of Zion? The Secretary of Education? ). Most of the time, they just disagree with you, and yes, education impacts our opinions. Byt no one wants to ban it outright.

Suggested Replacement(s): ill-informed, miseducated, ignorant, wrong, duped.


2. “Jewy” — The Latest Debacle

Not actually a cliché, but still sad, I don’t know where this word came from. It can burn in a Meah Shearim dumpster for all I care. This is the new word Jew-kids use instead of “Jewish.” What was wrong with “Jewish,” you ask? Nothing, and that’s the problem. You see, “Jewish” is merely a statement of fact, a fact that to Jews at least has no inherent negative connotations. So Jews who are feeling tired of the whole Jew thing have settled on “Jewy,” an irritating diminutive that still conveys your disgust at the concept while looking dazzling in pink. Instead of the classic “Zionist Jew greed,” Hello Kitty would say “Jewy Greed.” Doesn’t that make it sound nicer?

What? It’s worse because it’s a negative term masquerading as a neutral one? That’s crazy talk.

Suggested Replacement(s): Jewish, Jew, or your choice of honest anti-semitic epithet.


3. “Hater” — Moronic Reductionism

I don’t mind “haters gonna hate” as a pleasant song lyric or the like. But some people actually took it seriously as a life philosophy, which makes me want to individually pull out all my remaining hairs from the follicle. When you say, “Bernie for President,” and I reflect with vivid brilliance that, “I think the populist impulse driving Sanders’s momentum is similar to that of Donald Trump and neither are good for our country,” “Haters gonna hate” (“hater’s”? is it “hater (is) gonna hate” or “haters (are) gonna hate”?) is not a valid response. “Haters gonna hate” is an intellectual forfeit. To me, it’s trolling plain and simple.

First of all, hate is not necessarily a bad thing and is on the contrary incredibly appropriate and even necessary in some contexts. On the other hand, it is an incredibly powerful emotion that I think most of us feel quite rarely. To conflate disagreement, dislike, disgust, or distaste with hatred lessens the power of the term.

This image sums up the degree to which the term “haters” ought to be taken seriously, and is redolent with a multi-layered ironic aftertaste that I find quite delightful:


Suggested Replacement(s): “Dear Sir/Madam, I find it unfortunate that we diverge in our opinion on the matter; alas, would that I could argue further, but I must go on down to dat lit club wit crony and get turnt.”


4. “Nice” — The Empty Vessel

“Nice” is the ultimate cliché. It signifies nothing but utter milquetoast inoffensive blandness, and even that description makes it sounds more interesting than it is. On its own, blandness wouldn’t be so terrible. But people think it means something, like when your Rabbi has a “nice tie,” or he tells his son that peeing in the sink is “not nice.”

The obvious question is whether the tie is nice to the same degree that the boy’s urinary discretion is unnice. Of course, the tie might actually be the harbinger of a messianic utopia, since other things that I’ve heard called “not nice” include poverty, Cards Against Humanity, George Carlin, and the holocaust. This reveals the actual purpose of the term, which acts as a sort of uniform placeholder in small talk that will never hurt anyone nor, indeed, say anything.

How many times has the chivalric Jewish greeting ritual (“What’s your name?” “Tzvi.” “Where are you from?” “Oz.” “…Are you single?”)  terminated with one party muttering, “Very nice, very nice”? If anyone were paying attention, they’d call you Roger Daltry.  But “nice” is easier. It lets you pay no attention. It is to language what the schwa is to phonetics. It is the sound you make when you are asleep. Disgraceful.

Suggested Replacement(s): Try these.


5. “Leadership” — The Brain Taser

I eat a lot. I have a large apetite; have since I was little. Similarly, I have a sort of mind apetite. I like learning, okay? Also since I was little. But my mind apetite has these anamalistic habits, like Pavlov’s dogs. It knows what it likes and what indicates a hearty meal on the way, and what signifies intellectual junk food that will leave me hungry again in ten minutes.

One of the surest indicators that something intellectually anemic is to follow is the term “leadership.” I don’t mean as a passing mention, or even as part of a discussion of some specific action or policy. My problem begins when this benighted term shows up in advertising, or seminars, or advertising for seminars. I hate it when it’s used in businessese, that strange foreign language half of LinkedIn is written in. For me, “leadership” is representative of a whole class of words we hear so often, with so little actual meaning attached that they merely pass through our minds like white noise, chaos that grabs our attention and wrestles our critical faculty into submission through sheer force. A stun-gun to the brain that says, “Don’t even try digesting this; just give me your money.”

“Leadership” has, for most of my life, hovered on the edge of English, barely coherent, too meaningless to truly seem threatening, the employee that never says anything until he burns the building down. Maybe no one has ever bothered explaining the word to me and I’m totally off-base.

But I’ve yet to find a discussion of this term that describes a concrete reality and isn’t reaching for my wallet in some way that we’re usually too numbed to notice…

Suggested Replacement(s): Something in English.