The Secular Geocentrism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Why I Am A Plastic Bag Optimist

On the matter of whether I need to feel guilty when disposing of garbage in plastic bags, my intuitive reaction is a resounding “no.”

But why?

My imagination is as open as the next fellow’s. I can see in my mind’s eye the garbage truck and its massive pile of billowing polymers, and the landfill where those membranes will sit, sheathing their payloads of rotting chicken and eggshells for a thousand thousand years or whatever. “We are choking the earth!” people say. “We will die if we go on like this.” Again, I imagine. I see with my mind’s eye the vast brown Mad Max wastes, in which the endless red sand dunes shift in the wind to reveal the desert’s bedrock — a sea of plastic bags, a straightjacket on the earth.

When I think of this I fill with horror. I have worn polyester pants on a hot summer’s day, and I understand how the earth might feel under all that plastic. On a serious level: won’t our massive-scale waste practices couple with non-biodegradable materials lead to some sort of massive environmental catastrophe?

Let me tell you why I used to think the answer was “no.”

I used to think the answer was “no” based on a certain childlike faith in G-d. That is, He wouldn’t let this sort of mass catastrophe take place. He would surely intervene.

But relying on G-d’s direct intervention is silly. After all, some pretty terrible things have happened on a large scale that seriously challenged and continue to challenge our notions of what a beneficent G-d would allow in his world. Now, granted, none of those scenarios was apocalyptic (Except perhaps for the Biblical flood); they were merely really. really unpleasant, like the holocaust. Still, the line between the categories is blurred, and if you’re risking millions of lives with your plastic bags on the chance that the environmental outcome would assuredly be so bad that G-d would have to step in, I’m not sure if I’d go to Vegas with you.

The G-dly intervention way of thinking is dear to my heart. I feel it is an expression of deep faith and it’s important not to lose it in light of a more reasoned explanation. Nevertheless, there is a more reasoned explanation why not to freak out about plastic bags.

It is a deeper, more adult form of faith to realize that things are the way they are largely because they have to be that way. In other words, the way things could work out has all been worked out from the get-go. The world is a put-up job. Barring some mass decision on humanity’s part to exercise their free will and intentionally bring about an environmental holocaust (as it was the intention of the Nazis to bring about their holocaust), there is very little reason to think such a situation will come about by accident.

Think about it: There is nothing especially dangerous about a landfill. A landfill is to a city what a trash can is to a house. Though it’s true that the trash can empties into the landfill and the landfill does not empty into anything per se, and thus our visions of an entire Wall-E world piled up with trash, planet Earth at the end of the day is ridiculously, preposterously gigantic, and the future in which we are in danger of living in a wasteland made of garbage is remote. The only concern on that account would be for our descendants, and it is hard to even imagine what technology will be able to do even twenty-five years from now, never mind in that far away future when our garbage is supposed to hit critical mass.

No; unless we are some sort of innate doomsayers, utterly responsible for negative outcomes of our actions to an infinite degree, then the connection between my garbage now and the doomsday of my imagination is quite tenuous. It is the same sort of thinking that says we should be nice to our machines now because the robots will not be kind when the revolution comes. It is imaginative; it is possible; it is a ridiculous way to make decisions right now. I think most people would, upon thinking about it, come to agree that our trash worries are similar.

So, what, then, is the big deal? Why do I, too, sometimes fear this outcome? If, on the level, the trash itself is not the problem, what is?

Environmentalists say that it is not so much the garbage itself that is the issue, but rather that garbage is the indicator of other stresses we are putting on the planet with our resource consumption.

I think this hits the nail on the head.

I think what I fear is not what we humans may actually do, but rather our potential to do it. The concern when I put yet another Glad bag out to chill on the sidewalk is not really that I’m helping bring the trashpocalypse, but rather that I am brought to consider my ability to unintentionally cause that great calamity. The guilt is not the guilt of having committed a crime I fully understand, but the diffuse, generalize guilt that comes with power uncompensated by responsibility.

As smart apes with atom bombs and Snapchat, the trip to the end of the driveway is a moment to stop our thoughtless day-to-day activities in service of ourselves and consider what we are effecting on a wider scale. We realize, just for a moment, that there is no check on us whatsoever, that between us and the destruction of the world is only happenstance, that is everyone on earth started throwing all their trash bags into their backyards in unison, or whatever, we could end the world.

Then our critical faculty engages and we are forced to conclude: G-d wouldn’t allow it.

Not “he wouldn’t allow it” because he would intervene and cut power to all the platic factories or the oil refineries or whatever. He intervenes by having made the world exactly as it is.

Smart apes could conceivably destroy their world accidentally. Man, created in the image of G-d, cannot. There is more than happenstance between us and oblivion. On the contrary, we were created on this balanced sphere to bring it to perfection and completion.  It is our resource, and we are its resource, and we were made for each other.

Now, one could respond that certainly as man naturally is he would not destroy the earth; but humans have chosen to exploit her and this will lead to her ultimate destruction, and theirs. Aside from the fact that this argument more or less reduces to an argument that we return to hunter-gatherer societies, which are theoretically man’s “natural,” non-exploitative pursuit, I feel that this argument completely fails to recognize what we really mean when we say man is created in G-d’s image. It is saying somehow that using the earth is not man’s role, that technological progress and the utilization of resources is outside of G-d’s plan and against his will.

It is saying, at essence, that it is only the ape in man who naturally fits into the world, but that the man in man is somehow at odds with the system he was placed into, that mans’ discovery of, say, the steam engine is some sort of divine misplay, that these are secrets not meant to be pried into for we will end up ruining the perfect world with our meddling.

Truly, this gives man too much credit. It is not viewing him as part of G-d’s world at all.

I do not understand the religious view that holds the smart ape conception of man is limiting, whereas the if we are all children of G-d we are free of all bounds. Really, the opposite is the case.

An ape with a brain has infinite potential, and that is terrifying. He can as easily destroy the world as uphold it and that he has not yet destroyed it reflects a disappointing lack of ambition. An ape with a brain could, in theory, do anything.

Man, however, as classically conceived, is not a powerful creature in a moral vacuum, free to move about the billiard balls of material existence as he wills. He is placed on earth with a purpose, and all of his faculties are directed toward beauty, transcendence, discovery, knowledge, peace. Though he may often choose to go against that nature, he is by definition part of the system of the world, and not in dominion over it. To imagine that his building a factory inherently changes anything is to underestimate G-d’s foresight and overestimate our own power. It is to believe that all that separates the entire project from destruction is time and happenstance.

Thus, even when a man thoughtlessly buys plastic, and thoughtlessly sends it to the landfill, he is compelled to realize that though thoughtlessness is a vice rather than a virtue, a thoughtless vice will not G-d’s creation unmake.

This isn’t due to G-d’s capacity for intervention, but rather due to the inherent nature of people and things, a qualitative inherent nature not often spoken about.

If we spoke about it more often, it might relieve a bit of stress.

Taking out the trash is not a moment to realize our terrible, tremendous power. It is a moment to remember that we have a chance, if we choose, to transform the only parts of life which we truly control, our moral decisions, into an to altar the creator of the system that binds us.

The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place

There was a Russian guy I knew in Tel Aviv who clearly lived with pain and depression. He hated everyone and everything, but not all on the same day. We got along. I once asked him if, when he went to sleep, he looked forward to the fresh start of the morning, whether he felt the potential of the new day when he woke up. He rolled his eyes and said, “What am I, twelve?” If I gave in to my own gnawing feelings of despair, I would’ve said fourteen, since G-d split my life open with an ice pick when I was fifteen.

Okay, there’s no way you’re not going to think that’s melodramatic after you hear the story. I wasn’t raped or abused, G-d forbid; I didn’t try to kill myself; I wasn’t forced to listen to Nickelback on infinite repeat. I just went to a party. Not even a real party; a nice-Jewish-kids-from-the-suburbs-try-to-party party.

That’s all.

It was a Saturday night in September of sophomore year. I remember because before my parents drove me there I showered and changed out of my Shabbos clothes into what I considered social clothes. It probably involved a T-Shirt and jeans. What did I know? I hadn’t been to a high school bash before, but my time had come; a guy in our class lived in a big house, and his folks were out of town for the weekend. I looked forward to it.

There was less Xbox than I expected.

I waved my parents off and went around the back entrance. Oh. Dude from school was hanging out in the Jacuzzi with some girls. Nice guy. Still like him to this day. Welcomed me and told me everyone was in the basement.

Through a beautiful, dramatic living room and down to the bottom. It was busy. A bunch of people were playing pool. Some were smoking hookah. On a side table, someone set up an electronic pocket scale exactly like the one my father uses to weigh gunpowder. Boys and girls cavorted (pardon my French) in the bedrooms. There was alcohol everywhere replenished from a bona fide wine cellar (never saw one of those before). It wasn’t really my thing. Or at least, I wasn’t interested in finding out if it was. Now, my father offered me beer and whiskey all the time and I had definitely noticed these girl things before. None of this should have been any kind of shock. Nevertheless… I retreated into myself, struck dumb. I sat on the side, fended off offers of fun & substances, and waited ‘till the morning for it to end.

It still hasn’t.

The sun came up and I went to school on Monday and after a week the head cold from sleeping for a couple of hours under an air vent in the home theater burned away, but I was different forever. From something I doubt ninety-five percent of the attendees remembered two months later.

Now, by the time you’re fifteen, you already know that you’re screwed up. Some of us know it when we’re very little, but the teen years really ram it in everyone’s face. More and more of your waking hours are occupied by Screw-up; the kid you once were has to fight an uphill battle for every moment of your attention. I knew of my own daily struggle with Screw-up, and since I was a smarty pants in Honors Algebra I made the connection and assumed everyone had their own issues, even though we didn’t speak of the issues, we didn’t live the issues, and we didn’t campaign for acceptance of our issues. Our school was a happy place of music, learning and sunshine (who am I kidding? It was a hippie commune with textbooks. We didn’t even have a building) in a non-ironic, non-creepy way.

Why didn’t anyone release or even talk about the Screw-up at school? It’s possible they did, and I just didn’t notice. I was several years and dozens of disillusions away from beginning to notice other people’s issues, and to this day I have friends who were raised by Chassidic wolves with iced vodka for blood that noticed Screw-up better when they played with their Aleph-Beis blocks than I do now. The subtle web of damaged human contact in which I bathe leaps out at me like the ninja in this picture:

shluchim

I know for a fact, however, that my parents rarely released their Screw-ups, and from my early dealings with my own S.U., I grasped how difficult this was. I tried to live up to them. They were subtle, they were dignified (especially my mother, may she be well and not get too upset over anything I write), and I expected the same of everyone else.

That night, in my eyes, everyone’s worth took a dive.

Since that night, in some small way, people are animals.

You know what it’s like? Stand in front of a mirror, make sure no one’s around, and take the pointer and middle finger of each hand and insert them into your mouth (I’m going somewhere with this). Pull back and sideways at your mouth’s four corners so you reveal a good amount of tooth and gum. See how creepy that is? Aren’t your hyper aware of your skull right now? We love the sight of our own faces, normally. But that’s because we think of ourselves as ourselves, not as animated meat sacks. Like everything from umbrellas to ultrabooks, the sign of good craftsmanship is the sublimation of the atoms and the molecules and the wood and the plastic into something higher. Look just a little too much at the meat and it’s unsettling. The composite disintegrate into parts, matter disengages from form, we become aware of our bodies, and we don’t like it. I certainly didn’t like it that September night in sophomore year.

I want to go back. I want to be fourteen, when I was worried about my sanity but not about the world’s. I want days that end as optimistic and as integrated as they start. I want to greet the stars not with weariness and melancholy but with the wonder I felt as I gazed at the celestial and mortal glowings on the drives to grandma’s house and didn’t understand how the moon followed us home.

Most nights, I think it’s impossible, and sleep to forget.

When I don’t, it’s because an old Jew in Brooklyn who spoke English with an accent said that this world is not a jungle. This world is a garden, he said and says. He, whose sainted father wrote kabbalistic teachings that strike the mind like orchard-scented thunderbolts but died young surrounded by loincloth-wearing savages for insisting on Kosher matzah for his congregants. He, whose father-in-law had to send teenaged yeshiva students to their deaths to teach Jewish children about Moses. He, who from childhood struggled to understand how in Messianic times we will thank G-d for the tribulations of this longest exile, its inquisitions and its pogroms and its bookend holocausts.

He insisted and insists that the world is G-d’s garden.

Why do I believe him, when I do?

At fourteen I had high hopes for the world even though I’d met my own potential for ugliness, and I would have needed only the G-dliness within to right the sinking ship of my thought, words, and deeds. At fifteen, my eyes opened to a flawed reality, and I needed to hear a brave voice. I needed to hear that there was more at issue here than my feelings. I needed to hear someone deny, truth to power, that prayer was here to make us feel better about the messed up world and that the highest human achievement existed in the context of that mess. I needed someone to deny that everything good is only a metaphor for something evil. I needed to hear someone say that G-d is real, the most real, and that He runs the world, that it’s not a jungle and that so help us, warts and all, we will say it’s beautiful and we won’t be lying.

If I can trust that after plunging through layer upon layer of disillusionment and fear I will hit upon the solid ground of his conviction instead of some naïve dream, I’ll escape this place.

I really should call that Russian guy.

 

Featured image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0. Post title shamelessly stolen from an Explosions in the Sky album which you should listen to while you stargaze.

The Rebbe, The Chief Rabbi, and The Fossils

In the fall of 1987, the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits of blessed memory, engaged in a short correspondence about something the Lubavitcher Rebbe once wrote. The Chief Rabbi’s position was that, though well-stated and perfectly above-board, the Rebbe’s argument was “simplistic” (which Rabbi Jakobovits claimed is not at all in the pejorative; he used the Rebbe’s argument before he ever read the Rebbe’s words on the matter).

What is the simple argument in question?

The Rebbe wrote a famous letter in December 1961 on the much-hyped Torah/Science clash, specifically about evolution and the age of the universe. In it, he mentions the issue of fossils, dinosaur bones, etc. which seem to be, uh, slightly past their six thousandth birthdays. The Rebbe makes two points. The first: It is conceivable that dinosaurs and the like existed a few thousand years ago, and the earth’s past “atmospheric pressures, temperatures, radioactivity, unknown catalyzers, etc., etc.” could have created fossils in a much shorter time than is normally considered possible.

This answer is common in the Torah/Science dialogue. It’s the second part which earned the Chief Rabbi’s attention:

“(b) Even assuming that the period of time which the Torah allows for the age of the world is definitely too short for fossilization (although I do not see how one can be so categorical), we can still readily accept the possibility that G-d created ready fossils, bones or skeletons (for reasons best known to him), just as he could create ready living organisms, a complete man, and such ready products as oil, coal or diamonds, without any evolutionary process.

As for the question, if it be true as above (b), why did G-d have to create fossils in the first place? The answer is simple: We cannot know the reason why G-d chose this manner of creation in preference to another, and whatever theory of creation is accepted, the question will remain unanswered. The question, Why create a fossil? is no more valid than the question, Why create an atom? Certainly, such a question cannot serve as a sound argument, much less as a logical basis, for the evolutionary theory.” 

As previously mentioned, the Chief Rabbi does not argue with this point, but calls it simplistic; he resorted to using it because it was effective, but on its own it leaves him uncomfortable. This raises the question: If there are intellectual explanations for evolution and the age of the universe that fit with Torah, and in fact the Rebbe himself brings such an explanation for fossils as his “Point A”, what does the Rebbe gain with this second point? The explanation seems tacked on for those backed against the wall by science and have no other way out but to say “He just made fossils. So there.” The Rebbe confirms everyone’s worst suspicions about religious fundamentalism by ignoring evidence of an ancient universe with an argument that could be applied to any scientific fact we don’t like: G-d just made it look that way. Why would he do that? No idea, and how dare you ask.

Seems like a fundamental misstep, pun intended.

 

 

Now, the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Lubavitch, or Chabad, is known for a specific, well-defined, vast theology/philosophy concerned with every aspect of life. Therefore, if we hope to understand the Rebbe’s position on any given matter, it would pay to examine the general perspective of Chabad philosophy.

Perspective is important because even if everyone agrees on empirical fact, where each person stands influences the interpretation of those facts. An example that’s near and dear to my heart is the endlessly-repeated back-and-forth on the relative evils of religion and atheism that I get to meet quite often thanks to the Internet (imagine the effort one used to have to exert to find idiots arguing. Now the entertainment is right in your bedroom). Archie the Atheist will say, “Grr, the religions. Crusades, terrorists.  Source of all evil. If only we all listened to the science.”

Davros the Devout will respond, “Bah! Humbug! You are wrong, because Hitler/Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot/Dawkins!”

Archie will smile and say, “How do you know that those people weren’t evil because of the little bit of influence religion had on them?”

Davros will reply, “For that price, perhaps the evils of the religious are only due to not being religious enough. It’s too much G-dlessness that made them that way.”

You get the idea. Obviously the issue is more complicated than that, but it is clear one cannot deduce anything about the nature of evil from the examples of evil men alone, but must always fall back on one’s general vision of reality. This particular debate can be reduced to a fundamental disagreement about man’s true, “uncivilized” nature, i.e. whether man is naturally evil or naturally good. Whichever way one hypothesizes, one’s theory is untestable, as any debate on the Internet (despite all appearances) takes place from within the boundaries of civilization; no one arguing today can claim to be free of the influences of religion or atheism. Who can say whether thousands of years of religion has refined man or cast him into the depths, if a controlled test cannot be performed? Pure empiricism is not enough. When it comes to how one feels about the facts, living with the facts, perspective is everything.

 

 

Why are we here on this earth?

1) The nonreligious answer ultimately negates the question; to assume an absolute answer is to assume an absolute reality outside of any individual perspective which simply doesn’t exist, and no amount of scientific discovery and observation will answer the question. The universe simply is, we simply are, and we might as well live a satisfying existence while we’re here.

2) The religious answer is that we’re here to do what G-d wants. Life involves making the right choice between the gross and physical and the G-dly. We are only given so much time here, and we are responsible for our actions, words, and thoughts. “I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil…choose life!”

3) Chassidus’s answer is that we’re not here at all, at least not in the usual sense of the word. It’s not that we exist, i.e. that we walk this earth, eat of its fruit, sleep, work, love, and raise children, and G-d expects us to do all the aforementioned in a G-dly way. He is all there is, was, and will be, a Necessary Existence, and everything that’s not Him is either false or an expression of Him. We don’t exist. Oh, it seems that we do exist? So G-d must need us for some great purpose. We’d do well to fulfill it.

The difference between the religious answer and the Chassidic one is only in our perspective; both advocate fulfilling G-d’s commandments and learning his wisdom. They are nevertheless profoundly different.

The religious and nonreligious answers both have human experience as the ultimate baseline of reality; the question is merely whether there is any higher cause which humanity can serve other than itself. For example, the nonreligious say that human intellect is an end unto itself, and thus any and all thought and inquiry needs no justification, the same way a basketball needs no justification. It takes up space; it exists. No more explanation is needed. The religious say that the human intellect is a means to an end; think kind thoughts and holy thoughts, and protect yourself from falsehood and blasphemy. Thoughts of illicit pleasure or of violence towards one’s fellow are contrary to G-d’s wishes.

Chassidus says that there is no intellect, there is only G-d, and if you seem to have thoughts, they’re only here to play some role in G-d’s plan. In other words, it’s not that intellect (or the world for that matter) is neutral, and we must use it according to G-d’s will; everything that exists is a claim against G-d’s singularity and must argue for its own right to exist. Guilty until proven useful.

 

 

At first, there was just G-d. He then created a world. The world is here for a specific purpose, and nothing exists without being part of that purpose; there is nothing here on technicality or by chance. This includes the human intellect. In fact, human intellect is the crowning glory of His purpose; He wants to fully express Himself in a place that denies Him, and there is only one entity in the entire creation that can go against his will, a human being. What makes a human, human, is the intellect. The mind can do one of two things: deny its Creator entry and thereby lose all justification for its own existence, or emancipate Him by thinking G-dly thoughts and thereby actualize the greatest potential in all of creation.

What, by the way, is a G-dly thought? This is a contradictory phrase. Is there any reason to suppose that the infinite being that created everything falls within the limits of rational thought? The most logical assumption is that an infinite divide separates G-d from us and our conception. Only one side of the relationship can initiate a connection, and it’s not the limited, physical side. If G-d decides for some strange reason that He wants to be known by the hunks of flesh that walk on two legs, it’s a different jar of gefilte fish. This odd desire of His gives genesis to the vast wisdom known as the Kabbalah. The Zohar and other works describe an intricate spiritual system of interlocking worlds, lights, vessels, contractions, and creations that span the vast distance between our physical world and G-d’s infinite light, a system that is utterly unnecessary. If G-d wills, physicality can arise with no spiritual antecedents, from true nothingness; He instead created logic, the System that must underlie anything that hopes to hide Him. Then He acted according to his own arbitrary rules as much as possible, and revealed his actions to the sages, all that we might be able to relate to Him, so that there could be a G-dly thought.

The practical upshot here is that knowledge is a dependent creation and a tremendous lowness in G-d’s eyes that one ought to use only to fulfill its purpose. Knowledge, as an end unto itself, does not exist, and that’s why the Rebbe added his second answer. The question, Why create a fossil? is no more valid than the question, Why create an atom?

The more one comprehends, the more it seems everything must be comprehensible. The scientific worldview assumes that everything follows rules and patterns. If there’s something that seems to not make sense, it’s only because we haven’t yet invented a tool, physical or theoretical, that’s accurate or powerful enough to plumb the thing’s depths. A phenomenon that cannot be apprehended by the intellect in some way is by definition beyond the reach of science, and since science has never met such a phenomenon, it must not exist; a new discovery comes along that seems to contradict Torah, and if we cannot understand how the two can coexist, it bothers us. We demand answers. And the Rebbe spends much of his letter dispensing the answers: interpolation vs. extrapolation, dating methods, untestable assumptions, etc. But there is another aspect of reality that cannot be left out. As “simplistic” as it sounds, as much as we may have to leave our comfortable thrones as the arbiters of truth, there are some things that cannot be grasped by reason. He is the basis of reality, and intellect is a means to an end, not the other way around. It is more surprising that we comprehend anything than that we fail to comprehend something. The Rebbe’s second argument is not the desperate gamble of a harried believer, but the contextualization of the intellect, without which G-d remains divorced from reality, even for the religious.

 

 

This is why it makes sense to reach out to other Jews and get them to do things like wrap Tefilin or light Shabbos candles. Emphasis, to do things. The Rebbe advised people never to get into debates or intellectual arguments about Judaism on the street; get the commandment performed, that’s all that matters, that’s what will get people in touch with their heritage and their G-d. What of the marketplace of ideas, of weighing Judaism against other systems of thought? How could leather or a palm frond ever bolster confidence in Judaism as a way of life? Shouldn’t we be rational and only do that which totally makes sense to us?

Every Jew has a special Jewish soul, indestructible and united with G-d. Doing a mitzvah, one of His commandments, awakens that connection. One who serves G-d because it make sense really serves themselves, like a spouse who gets married because their mate is “just perfect” and get divorced when reality ousts the dream. This logical misstep of the religious, trimming G-d to fit their tastes instead of the other way around, transforms the whims of an individual into moral absolutes that must bind all of humanity. It changes an individual trying to do the right thing into an aggressor who campaigns against the heretic and apostate. They are the driver and G-d is the vehicle. Only the non-rational reaction to the warm glow of the Shabbos candles or the taste of the Matzah, the feeling that somehow the Mitzvah is right, is home, is G-dly, is a healthy foundation for lasting religious observance, and, for a method that banks on an empirically ridiculous claim to a soul, works well.

 

 

Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century and in the words of Freeman Dyson, “[A] famous joker and a famous genius, [but] also a wise human being whose answers to serious questions made sense,” understood this view of intellect. He related the following:

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

At first blush it’s a grounded rebuff of artistic fancy by a levelheaded scientist. Not really, though. Implicit is the appreciation of artistic sentiment, that the flower is beautiful not only as a source of knowledge, a specimen to be dissected, but as a mystery, something that exists beyond us that we are allowed to see. And in the end, what is the point of science’s analytical microscope? To bring one to a greater appreciation of the ineffable. The scientist need not dictate terms to reality; on the contrary, through his discoveries, he allows reality to blow his mind. With his peerless grasp of the workings of the body, he touches the exaltation of the spirit. In the words of R’ Saadiah Gaon, the goal of knowledge is to know that He cannot be known.

No bones about it.

Featured Image of Anisopodidae in Amber By EvaK (EvaK) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation

A certain moment in Asterix the Gladiator always struck me as odd, even poignant. Asterix and Obelix are recruited as gladiators in the Coliseum in Rome, and meet a group of burly, courageous, childlike warrior-slaves who await their gruesome fate in the arena. Asterix, subversive as always, teaches the gladiators children’s games (duck, duck, goose; “I bet I can make you say X”; riddles) that they (naturally) enjoy more than their regular occupation. They sit in a circle in the center of the coliseum and begin to play, to the outrage of the audience and Caesar, who if I remember correctly sends in the lions, who are in turn put off their appetites by the Gaulish secret weapon, Cacofonix (I should really reread those comics…)

Grown men, capable and powerful, sit in a circle and play at children’s games. It’s an image that has fascinated me for some time. I constantly see it playing out in real life. I think it’s inescapable. I think it’s the trial of our generation. To understand why, we have to know that there are three recurring states in Jewish history, three missions, three challenges. The first originates from the Hebrews in their desert wanderings, and the second two are in the story of Purim. Every time, a leader sent by G-d helps the Jews triumph.

 

 

Imagine our ancestors and their lot in life for those forty years in Sinai. They ate the skyfood and drank the rockwater and wore clothes that grew with their bodies and spent all day learning G-dly wisdom directly from Moses, generally recognized as a good Jew and universally recognized as a great leader. The story of their lives must be peaceful, happy, and short. What could possibly have gone wrong? Well, there were the complaints, first about the water, then about the food. There was the golden calf. Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, perishing in the temple. Korach’s rebellion. The debacle with the spies. The hitting of the rock. Man, we wonder, reading all this every year for the rest of eternity, what was wrong with them?

Their problem was faith. Faith is a terrible thing, fickle and useless. Faith is the story in the Talmud of the robber in his underground tunnel, ready to steal and kill, asking G-d for success in the night’s mission. He believes that G-d runs the world; he even believes G-d can make him successful. But between his faith and his actions there is a sharp disconnect. And who doesn’t know a friendly atheist who can remind you of the religious atrocity of the day? Clearly, faith in G-d doesn’t make people better people.

No, for that, you have to see G-d. That was Moses’ job, and it took forty years to drum it into the Hebrews. G-d is not a concept. G-d is real, like tables and chairs are real. The soul sees Him; the challenge lies in the fleshly eyes that do not. Moshe Rabeinu is the tent-stake G-d drives into reality to make a fair game between the material and the spiritual. Almost everything we ever deal with is made of gross physical matter, while the belief in a higher existence is up in the air, ephemeral and difficult. Until people meet Moses, that is; somehow, he changes their minds (this phenomenon is so dangerous to the strict materialist that he invented the modern concept of charisma to explain it away).

The parallel of the desert is the shtetl, the secluded Jewish village of Europe, a world left in ashes by the Nazis and the Soviets. In the shtetl, Jews lived an impoverished, precarious physical life with a bounty of spiritual riches. Judaism was the soil, the air, the food of the shtetl; all of life was Torah and the ever-challenging yet ubiquitous Aibishter (Almighty). In spite of Pogroms and compulsion from modernized Jews to integrate into the more accepting Western European non-Jewish society, life in the shtetl was a life of peace, where all the rules were certain and G-d’s dominion was supreme. The challenge was to take the faith that was as natural to those Jews as mud in the street and effect deep internal change. For this, they went to a Rebbe, a personal Moses.

 

 

What is a Rebbe?

There once was a family of peasants who fell far behind on their debts to the nobleman of their estate. The nobleman threw them into the festering dungeon beneath his castle. The dungeon was underground, dead silent and dark. The only contact with the outside world came every day at noon, when the trapdoor in the dungeon’s ceiling would open and a servant would throw food into the pit.

Time passed. Months dragged into years. The family, refusing to die, inbred, and produced children, who with the passage of the years themselves married each other. The nobleman passed away, then his son, then his grandson. Those hoary elders who had once lived outside of the pit tried as best they could to pass their memories of the sky and the trees to their descendants. They eventually passed on, and faded into the past. The remaining family members were split into two camps: those who believed in an outside world, mainly on the word of their parents’ parents, and those who held that the outside world was a fairy tale made up to give hope to little children. The arguments between the two groups were long and never reached any conclusion. Those who believed pointed to the daily food that came through the trapdoor as proof; the others would scoff and say it proved nothing. Pits produce food from their ceilings; that’s just the nature of it, no fantasies required.

One day, a man fell into the pit, together with the food.

They convened a council. Even the most scabrous of the prisoners put aside their lice scratchers and gathered around the newcomer, who seemed rather upset for some reason. The less intellectual ones offered him a brand new scratcher as a comfort, but this made him cry more for some reason. Someone couldn’t stand it anymore and asked him, “Well, is it true? Is there an outside world?”

The man looked at them as if they were mad, and spoke, for as long as he lived, of the sky and the trees and everything else from the surface. Even those who always believed had trouble relating to him; he was so different, so emphatic and certain. But no one could deny his claims, not because of his charisma, but because it was true; he was from there. Where else could he possibly be from?

 

 

That’s a Rebbe, and that’s the difference between seeing and believing.

We can learn how to see, if we choose.

 

 

Inevitably, the Jews cannot live peacefully forever. The clouds of glory will recede; the shtetl will burn. They must learn to live under Haman.

What are Jews to do when the most powerful of all government officials declares death to all who practice Judaism? Their knowledge of morality, of living a G-dly life, will not suffice. The question is: Your Judaism or your life? One may see the truth, but is it one’s entire reality? A pit-Jew may know with complete certainty that there is a Truth, but will they die for it? In other words, is it possible to make distinctions between life and Judaism? When life is Judaism in the most real way, such that death is the easy decision, it’s called Mesiras Nefesh, and it reflects the deepest part of us where we don’t just do Jewish, we are Jewish, before we are male/female, human, religious, or even logical. In the times of Purim, the Jews finished what they started at Mount Sinai; they realized that they could not and would not be separated from G-d. If our souls only saw G-d, there could be an obstruction or a blindness that severed our connection. But our souls are one with G-d, and it only takes a genocidal maniac to bring it out of us. That’s why G-d sends the genocidal maniacs. Mesiras Nefesh, as a relationship with G-d, isn’t for the fainthearted.

 

 

In the dark days under Stalin, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rayatz, stood against the darkness with utter impunity. He ran an underground network of ritual pools and slaughterers and, most importantly, chadorim, Jewish children’s schools, to keep Judaism alive. He gave no quarter or any easy answers, and Jews flocked to him by the thousands. He sent his Yeshiva students, often children of fourteen or fifteen, beloved as his own daughters, on deadly missions throughout Russia. The KGB would take them out in the dark of night and shoot them. The Rebbe would send replacements.

This is Mesiras Nefesh: He once said in a talk that if they come to you and tell you that either you put your child in a government school or they will burn you alive, you should jump in the fire. This was illogical; you would die and they would get your kids anyway. Nevertheless. Nevertheless.

A Chassid wrote to him once, explaining how the authorities warned him that they knew of the recent birth of his son, and that if he had the boy circumcised they would send him to Siberia. The Rebbe wrote back a two-word answer: “Fohr Gezunterheit!” Go in good health! How the Chassidim loved him, and he them.

Mesiras Nefesh, in its most pristine, nonsensical, G-dly form, is perhaps found in a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidus. He once became aware through spiritual means that he would share his portion in the world to come with another Jew. Curious, he sought the Jew out, and the trail led him to a shack in the middle of the woods. The owner greeted him at the door, and what an owner! Large as a house. Grotesquely fat. The Holy Besh”t asked if he might stay the night, and the Jew acquiesced. The Baal Shem Tov watched his host for a day, and could not figure out what great merit he possessed to partake in a rich afterlife. The Jew’s service of G-d was subpar at best: questionable Tefilin, hasty prayers without a Minyan, a day spent hunting without Torah learning. The only unusual thing about the man was his size, and the eating that caused it, enough for a battalion at every meal. The Baal Shem Tov asked the man why he ate so much, if he’d pardon the question.

He said, “When I was young, my father was killed in a pogrom. They dragged him into the middle of the town square and decided to burn him. Now, my father was a small man, very skinny, and when they threw him into the fire he went up like kindling, returning his soul to his maker in moments. I decided then and there that when they come for me, and throw me in the fire, I’m going to burn and burn and burn and burn…”

Does it make sense to you? No? Good.

 

 

As inevitable as the genocidal maniac is, the eventual Jewish victory is even more inevitable. Ask Haman, or Stalin. But the new world order comes with its own set of problems. External enemies evoke Judaism like nothing else; in their absence, it’s easier to forget our souls. Many Jews who lived on the brink of execution day and night in the Soviet Union moved to the United States and, to put it kindly, became just like the rest of us. Cars, TVs, pools, vacations. Stuff. What happened to life is G-d and G-d is life and shoot me if it makes you feel better about it?

In the Sinai Desert, the issue was a Judaism that wasn’t true enough. In the time of Haman’s decree, the issue was a Judaism that was true to the point of martyrdom, but that truth was dependent on an outside cause. A disciple of Moshe might not have to die for his Judaism, might only be able to sacrifice his animals in the temple, or his money to charity, but what he does, he owns. His merit cannot be taken away from him. The follower of Mordechai in Haman’s times, the time of the decree, operates at a level that is much more serious; he is willing to sacrifice his life to put his right shoe on before his left as Jewish law dictates, but that decision does not come from him; it is forced upon him. Remove the outside force, and he reverts to whoever he was before, spiritually penniless.

It is only after Haman’s decree, when Esther is the queen and Mordechai is second to the King and the Jews live in wealth and security that they G-d expects them to combine the two approaches. Everything they do, they will own, because there is no outside spiritual impetus, no great enemy to drive them toward G-d. There’s only wealth, fortune, and power. But they no longer live in the shtetl, and the old method of a surrounding culture that will buoy their spirits and isolate them from depravity is no longer an option. They are of the world now; they have left the desert. Their inspiration has to come from within. Mordechai can instruct them, but he can no longer carry them. They themselves must arrive at the decision that all they want, with the same depths of self-sacrifice as their fathers who weathered fire and water, is G-dliness. And then G-d will grant their wish.

 

 

This is what it means to live in 2014. There are very few Jews today who could honestly claim to exist in a cultural bubble actually helps their service of G-d. There are very few Jewish leaders who can confer upon us their experiences from beyond the pit. On the other hand, there is also no immediate danger to the Jewish people, few dictators that have the power to threaten the lives of millions of Jews, who force us to choose between our lives and our Judaism. For this, we can all thank G-d.

That same Lubavitcher Rebbe who stood up against Stalin arrived in the New York harbor at an old age, in a wheelchair, determined to start again, as he did when he left the shtetl for a life of roaming exile in Eastern Europe. His American followers greeted him, and he did not like what they had to say. They told him, in effect, that America was different. The old Jewish way was the European way, and would never work on those golden shores.

His immediate response was to make a historic speech, and declare that “America iz nisht anderesh,” America is not different. It can work here, too.

 

 

We stand at a point of history unlike any other. It has never been so trivial to be Jewish, so easy to forget. It is so simple to be an American first, an Israeli first, a humanist first, an environmentalist first, a citizen of the world first, a democrat first, a republican, a social media cultist, an animal rights activist, an anti-bullying protester, a vegetarian, a vegan, a gun nut, a lifehacking gizmodo cellphoneista, a businessperson, a family man, an interior decorator, a charedi, a secularist, a kitten picture captionist, a yiddishist, a jerk, a pop culture flunky, a music nerd, a Talmudist. We are distracted. It is not a religious issue; it’s the logical issue of wasted potential. Just as it is a terrible waste for grown men to play children’s games, so, too, it is terrible for us, the first generation of all time who have to opportunity to be Jewish on our own, from within, to decide we prefer shiny objects and the fad or anti-fad of the day.

Someone once wrote to the Rebbe about the inherent limitations of being an observant Jew. Isn’t it a form of slavery? they wondered. Hundreds of rules, hundreds of restrictions. You can’t even put on your pants the way you want to.

The Rebbe’s response, to paraphrase:

Freedom is relative. Take a plant, for example. The highest form of expression for a plant, what separates it from mere inanimate objects, is its ability to grow. Therefore, to stunt its growth is to limit its freedom. But to root the plant in one spot and to disallow it free motion is not an imposition; on the contrary, plants don’t move. An animal, who can also move, is considered abused if it is kept caged and never allowed free range of motion. Freedom for the animal is different than that of the plant. So too, when we make the step to human beings. A person can think abstract thought, while an animal cannot. To deny a person an education, the ability to think, to express his or her innate intelligence, is oppression, but an uneducated animal has lost nothing at all. Within humanity there is a subset called the Jew, with a unique mission from G-d that comes with its own needs. The Jewish soul is not free unless it is connecting to G-d through Torah and Mitzvos, just as a person is not free without intelligence and an animal is not free in a cage. And that is why Judaism is freedom.

We have to break free from the distractions, and realize just how much potential we have. G-d believes in us, as do all the Rebbes, from Moshe to Mordechai to our own time. Grown men must put away their toys and their riddles, and become who they were born to be.

 

Image courtesy of Flickr.