Why I’m Not Worried About Your Conspiracy Theory

Here’s what’s incredible about fixed and eternal morality: A bad man tried to own or control goodness by doing something good. He cannot. Instead, goodness tames and controls him. He tries to tarnish it, it purified him. He tries to pervert it, it straightens him.

This is one reason why efforts to rationalize the Torah or its commandments are misled. Rationality, with its qualities of order and systematization, has little room for purposeless commands or self-defined wisdom; indeed, under the rules of rationality, these are almost self-contradictions.  This is why another way of saying that the Torah is rational is to say that the Torah is a means to some practical end. And if the Torah and its commandments have not achieved that end, then this implies something is lacking in the Torah itself.[i]

For example: Some wish to say that the purpose of charity is ultimately to refine one’s character. When the unforgivably wealthy boor gives a lot of charity, where does this leave us? We can obviously argue that they are still more refined than they would be otherwise, or that the personal effects of their beneficence remain hidden, building to a critical mass. We can argue, very easily, that they undoubtedly are better for giving charity. But the commandment itself is nevertheless defined and qualified. To even fully define tzedakah, we must take unsavory men into account. “That moron gives charity, and what did it accomplish?” is a question with which we are compelled to reckon.

Perhaps we object that this is the wrong understanding of charity, and that this form of kindness primarily benefits the receiver, not the giver. Of course, this alternate but equally rational explanation comes with its own qualifiers and corrupting definitions. We start measuring charity by its perceived benefits; it is good only inasmuch as it “makes a difference”; we must now explain the benefit to cancer research or the perennially homeless or the terminally ill.[ii] Once again, we can muster arguments to defend the long-term benefits of even “fruitless” cancer research or the sociological benefits of not distinguishing between the “responsible” and “irresponsible” poor. The very fact that we must muster arguments is the problem.

These explanations are manipulable by the evil and the powerful. People start huge charities, multinational organizations with vast ambitions like helping the global environment or fixing African poverty. They argue through public relations organs and the media that good people give to their cause, and certainly don’t oppose it. They, as an organization, matter. We need them, they say. They are good, and we are good by association if we help them. We are compelled by our goal-based value of charity to agree; to disagree, we must delve into their reasoning and find fault with it. Once we commit to charity generally, logic works as a trap, and only further logic is the key, and it is our individual efforts against vast (shadowy!) marketing departments.

But if we set aside (as difficult as it now is for us) pragmatism for a moment and consider charity as an end unto itself, we immediately see that it’s the multinational getting played when they manipulate us into giving them money and power. This or that Foundation thinks it is achieving power through controlling the generous, when, in fact, it is generosity achieving power by controlling a multinational.

The Nietzschean businessman or politician who worships power always thinks they are bending the weak men who follow rules to their will. In reality, businessmen and politicians are just men in G-d’s world, and the world, even the logic of the world, is created for charity. Since this is purpose, and G-d is not dead, there is a more fundamental level of reality than power. Power, itself, is like a parasite, living off of the reality of G-d’s commands.

What do I mean? Tzedakah, charity, is good. The act of giving one’s wealth away is desired by G-d. It elevates the world not through what it accomplishes but by its very being. It is not an improvement to the plot of the world’s story; it is the presence of the Author in the story. The world’s purpose, its very design, its nature is fulfilled by the giving of charity. The coin exists to be donated. The businessman may even exist for a single act of philanthropy.

We object: But the magnate thinks he exists to win at games and quench the flames of bodily lust! He intentionally abuses the notion of charity for his own benefit! He tricks us, once we admit we think giving charity is a good thing, to give it to him!

The response: If tzedakah did not exist in the eyes of G-d and the world and its rules were the highest reality, then the magnate would be in a position to truly control the situation, and whatever events took place, whenever he committed the funds to foul ends, they could call our charity into question.

As things actually stand, however, a human being cannot manipulate tzedakah at essence. It has no goal[iii], so its goal cannot be subverted.[iv] As an act, it is sanctified and holy. The coin is good only inasmuch as it is used for a mitzvah, but the mitzvah is good. The businessman is trying to steal donated money, but he causes his unwitting marks to express the unity of G-d and the world through giving of their sweat-and-blood in the form of currency to another, to a stranger, and the charity is good. Not only that, but the businessman himself is good inasmuch as he is a vessel for the charity. Rather than the charity only being beneficial if it achieves a certain goal, the businessman is only beneficial if he achieves charity.

Of course, charity is even better if the funds we donate with the best of intentions actually do help feed the poor in Africa, and we have every right (and possibly obligation) to try to ensure that it does. The point, however, is that the businessman only has power here under his own paradigm. He has only made good people into fools from one point of view. From the truest and most eternal perspective, however, his marks have made a fool of him, and used his greed and will for power to a holy end.

It turns out that philosophy matters, and that a relationship with G-d for its own sake is the deepest form of power in its simple and automatic negation of worldly power. By revealing that the rules of G-dly morality are not logical constructs aiming at, say, a certain vision of society, but rather that any given society is merely a means to the appreciation and implementation of the rules, we turn the forces of chaos against themselves. Where before, they found power in walking over the ants who were so weak as to follow a code, they are revealed, in the second perspective, to be mere minute reflections of the infinite, worshipping an undeserving deity for his own sake. Where once they could argue the rules must be abandoned because they are inauthentic, the rules are now seen to run deeper and far truer than any man or society.

In short – if G-d is not dead, and we refuse to settle for a pragmatic view of G-d’s commandments, then control of the world is firmly in G-d’s hands, not because of His authority (alone), but because this is the truth built into the very fabric of our reality itself. Neither NASA, nor Bush on 9/11, nor Koch, nor Soros can bind the good to their own will and possess it. They either participate in good, and so are shaped by it, or they oppose it and abandon it and good remains untainted by their influence.[v]

It is really those who feel they must struggle to discover the purpose of Torah who must shadow box at multinationals or the lizard people who truly run things. For the Jew who sees physical reality as the means and Torah as the ultimate end-within-itself, the nations may plot and scheme and donate as much money to bank accounts in the Caymans as they like. The world still moves ever-closer to goodness and perfection in union with the Guardian of Israel, who neither slumbers nor sleeps.


[i] Moshiach, incidentally, does not count, since Moshiach is nothing other than the Torah itself, realized. It is defined recursively; the (true) reward for the mitzvah is the mitzvah.

[ii] Indeed, this is exactly why many criticized Mother Teresa; she would wipe the mouths of the suffering of Calcutta, but did not set up clinics for palliative care; is her charity really charity?

[iii] That there are levels of Tzedakah, that it is best given to the poor, etc. are valid aspects of the commandment, but they do not constitute set goals for it. They are Torah-derived (rather than goal-derived) aspects of the commandment that constitute the relationship of the commandment to worldly reason while in no way defining the commandment within that system. Those mitzvot that generally find expression within worldly reason are called Mishpatim, whereas those that express only their essential nature – that they have no rational end – are called Chukim. It would seem there is no commandment in the Torah that even appears entirely justified by worldly reason in its details, nor, conversely, is there one that has no rational explanation whatsoever. Perhaps it is their role of uniting G-dliness with the physical world that dictates they all lie upon this spectrum.

[iv] Perhaps the best attempts to subvert holiness in history were not attacks on its goals but rather irrational resistance to its essence, devotion to stopping the act of holiness at all costs, no matter its outcome. This is the infamous evil of Amalek, and perhaps Midyan as well.

[v] The view of Torah Law as an end unto itself also saves us from the Groucho Paradox, paraphrased as I would never want to do a mitzvah that I could do. In other words, not only do the commandments transcend cynical manipulation by bad actors, they also are not besmirched by the well-intentioned participation of sinners. We cannot ask, “If I am so evil and can fulfill this commandment, how great can it be?” because the greatness of the commandments is self-defined. It is only we who are elevated by performing a commandment, never the commandment lowered by performing it.

Control

Shabbos ended three hours earlier but none of us had changed out of our sweaty slacks. My two companions, one a local, the other a visitor like me, wanted to see some sights in the town. I came with. We drove down the road parallel to the sea with the windows rolled down and the cool salt-sprinkled air soothed our every ache.

We made a few stops. First was the dramatic sea wall, where the breakers offered themselves up in spraying plumes and the sweep of the bay and arched sky dwarfed us. We clambered, dress shoes slipping, onto a rocky promontory that jutted from a tiny peninsula of huge houses on million-dollar acres, and felt like a coin in the Atlantic’s palm, unity just a wave away. Eventually we wandered a green park beside a harbor still clear of its summer yachts and cracked jokes about the two high school kids standing and smoking pot near the bathrooms instead of sitting on a bench by the water as G-d intended.

The wind shifted, warm and cool and warm again, and the conversation deepened. In the moon’s wavering reflection, one friend found freedom from the stress and worry of recent days. The other friend shared his desire to build a house there on the water’s edge, to possess the scene forever.  But, he mused, it was a false wish. We mustn’t live in the future and miss our current experience. That park and that night were ours for free, and a lifetime of work to “earn” it, constantly living in the future, would leave us in our ocean-view mansions hungering for somewhere else, and so on until death, unsatisfied.

It struck me that their feelings meshed with mine.

All things within our experience were born, and to nothing they must return. “Nothing gold can stay,” says the poet. It is inescapable, and, especially to my myth-rattled mind, sad. The problem: Humanity as a whole may last ‘till the end of the story, the stars may watch forever from their midnight balcony, but eternity is beyond the individual’s grasp.

It came to me all at once:

One friend lives with a business mindset and he felt, not wrongly, that he must control his world, must manipulate the flotsam and jetsam of material existence (e.g. Starbucks, Gmail, checkbooks, TAG watches, sheitels) into a structure that will protect him and his family and allow them to thrive in the adverse conditions known euphemistically in Chassidic parlance as “Olam HaZeh” (“This World”).  The other friend wanted to own the waterside, to put it behind his own walls, to conquer it. I was depressed by my finitude in the face of G-d’s vast creation.

We’re all addicts.

At first glance, we might think that an addict is controlled by a substance or behavior, that an alcoholic is someone with an alcohol problem. In truth, an alcoholic is someone with an alcohol solution. Alcohol is the alcoholic’s way of controlling his or her life, or in other words, of being his or her own G-d. An addict is a remarkable spiritually sensitive person who, to deal with a painful world, turns to a behavior that relieves his or her pain. As Rabbi Shais Taub writes in his excellent GOD of Our Understanding, “(1) [Addicts] are profoundly disturbed and unsettled with their own existence as an entity apart from God; (2) for reasons unknown, they can somehow briefly simulate relief from this condition by taking their drug of choice.”

The first three of the famous Twelve Steps are  to admit that one is powerless over one’s addiction, to recognize a Higher Power, and to turn one’s will and one’s life over to its care. A parody of those first three steps (also in the book) describes the mindset of an addict: “1. We admitted we were powerless over nothing – that we could manage our lives perfectly and those of anyone who would let us. 2. Came to believe that there was no power greater than ourselves and the rest of the world was insane. 3. Made a decision to have our loved ones turn their wills and their lives over to our care even though they could not understand us at all.” Rabbi Taub explains at length how the addict needs spiritual care as well as physical and emotional care, and for many, it is only letting go of the need to control their own lives and reliance on a higher power that will heal the root of their addiction and not just its symptoms.

Addiction = Control.

What at that Massachusetts inlet freed us?

A sense of the miraculous.

Okay, the water merely lapped the shore; it didn’t split for us. The stars watched silently just as they watched Rome burn and the space shuttle launch. But they made us modern time-slaves feel like the Hebrews on the shore. We felt that there is something we cannot grasp, and we were emancipated by it. The need to be masters subjugated us, and when we saw the sea and the stars that we could not hope to own, we were allowed to escape.

In other words: No matter how many statues topple, no matter how many oppressors fall or pharaohs drown, someone will always rule over us, namely our own egos, our tendency to view everything in terms of ourselves. It gives us a sense of entitlement (and insists we’d survive the Total Perspective Vortex). It asserts that we’ve got it all figured out (unlike all those other saps). It contends that our way is probably the best way (and it always is, after careful factual analysis). Every time we free ourselves from some external limitation, it rubs its hands with glee – more time for me and my plans and dreams.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having an identity. Ego, like everything, is healthy in moderation, and self-destruction in the name of humility might be one of the biggest challenges of our time, much more than the base arrogance common a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, enough self-absorption and self-centeredness and you end up on a beach in the wee hours of the morning, struggling. The solution to our pretensions of mastery and conquest is exposure to some form of the infinite, something that is above nature, beyond time and therefore beyond us. A proof that we are not G-d. A vast sea and uncountable stars. A miracle.

My father told me a story he heard second-hand of an atheist addict who struggled for weeks, perhaps months, with the concept of a higher power that the Twelve Steps demanded. One night he stood outside and looked up at the stars and came to a startling conclusion – “I didn’t make them. I cannot make them. Something else must have.” This thought was the linchpin of his eventual recovery. A quiet hour on a beach could do the same for us all.

The vastness of reality should not depress us but hearten us. What will happen, will happen, and the stars will watch on, forever.

 

 

Further reading: GOD of Our Understanding by Rabbi Shais Taub; ספר המאמרים עטר”ת פ’ חיי שרה

Image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0.