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.

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.

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…

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 10)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

Last time, we spoke about the famous Euthyphro dilemma, and whether a G-d-based morality is self-contradictory.

In this, the final installment in this series, we will deal with the big one, the center of it all, not so much an argument for atheism but atheism itself, and we will see how it improves our service of G-d.

10. G-d does not exist.

Throughout these blog posts, we have endeavored to examine some of the “smaller” atheist claims, that is, the sort of things an atheist might say casually or have printed on a bumper sticker or the like. Rather than serious arguments for atheism, I feel these more intuitive perspectives, by dint of their common-sense approach, capture something of the truth. Furthermore, they capture a deeper truth than religion per se — a deeper truth than lazy religious thought.

Why should this be? After all, an approach that intuitively senses that there is no G-d hardly seems appropriate as a source of religious insight.

In fact, it is an excellent source of religious insight, because (and this is the underlying message of this entire series) G-d’s nonexistence is a fundamental principle of monotheism. That is, just as we gain ever-deeper and more detailed understanding of the Creator through studying His world and His revelation, we also continue, in the religious endeavor, to realize how little it is possible to know about G-d.

This is why the famous response of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev is true. “The G-d you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.” Just as there is the positive commandment to know G-d, so there is a negative commandment to forsake idols. Until we realize that not believing is fundamental to religion, we will always lack a deep religious insight. Ultimately, the atheist perspective is (mostly) not a flase construction of man but a reflection of the reality of the Creator — that aspect of the Creator which is utterly unknowable, the mysterium tremendum.

To ignore the truth of G-d that we cannot grasp is indeed a certain form of religious arrogance. Once the idea of G-d becomes somehow disentangled from the ideas of omnipotence, infinitude, and transcendence, we begin to worship our understanding of the Creator rather than the creator himself — an intellectual form of idol worship. The impulse to atheism is rooted in the rebellion against this prosaic conception of G-d.

It is intellectual idol worship that allows us to think of G-d as contingent and that his existence is demonstrated like a contingent being. If G-d is indeed just another being, then perhaps He is merely the temporal rather than causative foundation of reality, and his knowledge of the finite realm poses no quandary, and an intimate knowledge of Him is easily conceivable. We run the risk of thinking G-d exists for our emotional satisfaction, or that His subjective experiences mirror our own, or that His mission aligns with what we find easy or important. We can even make the mistake of viewing him as a demigod bound within the laws of the universe he creates. Without exception, these errors come from the certainty that we know the creator, rather than the humility of knowing that we can never know.

Now, the reader might think I am playing with words. Sure, intellectual humility is necessary, and atheists certainly bestow that upon believers, but at the end of the day the theist certainly believes that there is a G-d; that’s what makes him a theist, after all.

But even the assertion that G-d exists is technically false in the monotheistic view. G-d is indeed so transcendent, says Maimonides, that there is no meaning of the word “exist” by which G-d exists. After all, to assert that a table exists is to say that there is such a thing as a table, a defined form, and that there is matter that participates in that form — there is wood in the form of a table, and so a table exists. But the G-d of monotheism cannot be an instantiation of a form, since this would imply duality and finitude — there is Him, and there is his form. And so, by the definition of the term “existence,” G-d does not exist. He shares no positive trait with any other being, and that includes existence itself.

Indeed, the most that could be said about G-d is that he does not not exist. But there is no meaning of the term “exist” by which we can say He exists.

And so, we find in the end that the atheist is right practically all the way down.

The difference between the theist and the atheist is that the theist also believes in the positive aspects of religion, that through some miraculous process the infinite, unknowable, non-existent creator cares about humankind and told them His will that they may serve Him. The atheist, on the other hand, knows only G-d the non-entity, mysterious, and utterly uninvolved in our reality, indistinguishable from a truly non-existent being.

The G-d he doesn’t believe in, we don’t believe in either.

If we’re lucky.