A Teaching of the Rebbe Rashab

In commemoration of the birthday of the Rebbe Rashab, 20 Cheshvan, 5778.

Why would G-d create the universe? It doesn’t make sense.

A philosopher knows it doesn’t make sense. G-d is, of course, the perfect, necessary being. He needs nothing; He is utterly complete in a fashion quite beyond human reckoning. Even the words “complete” or “perfect” fail to describe him, for our words work metaphorically, and to say He is perfect is to say He shares a quality of all other things that are perfect, of a category or form or nature of perfection. But G-d does not exist in a category; He is His own form; He has no nature but is the ground of all natures. To say He is perfect is only to say he lacks all known imperfection. This is the highest thing we can say about G-d. But how, then, does G-d come to create a universe? When we act, we act because we are lacking something. When we want something, it’s because we want something — we are found wanting; we lack. But He does not lack. Therefore, He does not want. If He does not want, He does not want the universe. And yet the universe is here. Isn’t it?

A kabbalist also knows it doesn’t make sense for G-d to create the universe. In the beginning, we are taught, there was G-d and his infinite light, the full expression of His being. The light filled the entire place of the void; all that was, is, will be, can be, and cannot be was filled with His light, was filled with the fullness of His self-revelation. He decided to create the universe, and so He moved His light to the side, leaving over a vacuum and an empty space, into which he poured a single ray of the original light. This is the primordial Kav, the ray or vector, by which He creates all worlds spiritual and physical. After an infinite number of infinite descents, the Kav eventually creates the worlds of emanation, creation, formation, and action, and finally the very physical realm in which you are reading these words. The universe is the terminus of a single beam of His expression within a space devoid of the knowledge of G-d. And one day, in the messianic age, when the purpose of the world’s creation is fulfilled, that void and empty space will once again be full of His infinite light. First, his light filled it. Then, there is the creation, and his light is removed. Finally, his light is returned. So, the light was here, and one day it will be here again. The universe is just a moment in between. What could be the point of that?

One source says, He created the universe in order to be known. He wanted something else, something other, to taste of His truth. But when only He and His light existed, there was no other. In fact, there was no room for other, as a concept. All of reality was subjective. Everything was I. There was no room for thou. There was no room for reality. Everything was “in His head.” So G-d contracted his “I” and left a void and an empty space, so that objective reality may arise, and then He created other beings, who could meet him in that objective reality, and they could know each other. A Creator looking down at reality. A creation looking up at reality. A shared place. And He would no longer be alone.

But this itself does not make sense. For in our physical universe, we do not know Him. His presence is so concealed here that we have no inkling of what He is, and many have even forgotten that He is. The objective meeting ground is almost entirely beyond our grasp. “The Creator,” reminds the philosopher, “is completely beyond the limits of human intellect, to the extent that none of our words describe Him.” We know Him only through negations, only by saying what He is not, and even then, this is not an experience, not knowing — it is running on fumes, a grasp of His reputation. We do not know Him the way we know our mother, the way we know ourselves. It is only the soul as it stands above, or the abstract intelligence of the angels, that begin to understand the Creator. If He wished to be known, He should only have created the higher realms, the hidden realms, where G-d is as obvious as the rising sun and as directly experienced as ice cream. If He desired to be known, why would he create the low pit of physical reality?

Another source says He created the universe in order to actualize His potential. Before He created objective reality, He was only able to do it, and once He did, He actually did it. Everyone knows that doing it is better than the ability to do it; the perfection of potential is in its actualization. To this, both the philosopher and kabbalist speak up. The philosopher objects that we’ve misunderstood, since obviously the perfect being is pure actuality; He does not have unfulfilled potentials, since that would entail multiplicity which cannot be true of G-d. The kabbalist objects that we’ve misunderstood, since what part of His infinite light being the full expression of His being did you not understand? Everything that can be and cannot be is expressed in that One Infinite Light, the Ein Sof.

We might object that the universe does not exist as a physical entity within the unity of that expression. That is, even though everything is somehow contained within His infinite expression, it does not exist there as it does when He actually creates it by removing the light etc. But this is no real objection. Everything that happens from the removal of the light down to the actual physical universe is only a lower, more distant, “dimmer” expression of those same realities. In simpler terms, the creation of all worlds from His light is a subtractive process. The world is created by taking things away, not by adding them. And so if He already has his light, actually creating a physical universe adds nothing to it. It is not a further expression of Him. On the contrary, it is the slightest, most limited, most infinitesimal part of what He already possesses in Himself, before the creation. This is the general rule: There is no potential above that lacks actuality. He already possesses everything that can (or even cannot) exist. So why go through the diminishing process of actually creating a universe?

Indeed, the creation of the universe does not make sense.

He creates it simply because He desires it. If he wanted it because of its qualities, that would imply He was lacking those qualities, and He is not. He does not want, or lack, anything. He chooses to create the universe not for its qualities, but for its deficiencies. He “desires a dwelling place in the lower realms;” He does not desire it because it accomplishes some end (this being impossible, since he has no ends that are not accomplished), but for its own sake, for no reason, from a place beyond reason.

But if He himself is the perfect being, utterly actual, and lacking nothing, then how does He choose to create the universe for its own sake? He does not choose to create a being, for he is lacking potentiality, and if such a being were possible it already exists, one with His light. He does not create a new potential for a being, since if that potential were new, it would not have been expressed in His infinite light, which is impossible, since His infinite light is the full expression of His being. Whence, then, the Universe?

Rather, He chooses to create the world from the place of His own “being beyond being,” where He does not exist at all in any sense of the word existence, where we say He exists only because we cannot say He does not exist. This is what we call G-d’s own self, and it cannot be said to exist, or not exist. It is beyond all reckoning. There, in Himself, he bears potentials that are not actualized, for He Himself transcends the binary distinction of existence and non-existence, potential and actual, perfect and imperfect. Within Him, there is imperfection, though the word “is” refers to something utterly unknowable. Within Him, imperfection is a limitation and violation of His Truth only as much as perfection is. And it is from this place that He chooses to create the Universe. And therefore, it is only the physical universe, in violation of all laws that seem to bind Him, that fulfills not some external or arbitrary calculus that He creates, but satisfies Him Himself.

This is what is accomplished by the moment of the universe, the moment  between His infinite light filling the void before creation and the messianic age. It is not the same light. The first light was the full expression of His being, but since it was an expression, it was not Him Himself. And through the universe, the blink of an eye between eternities, He Himself is expressed, in a new and greater light.

Based on the first discourse of the famous “Samech Vov,” Yom Tov Shel Rosh HaShana 5666.

A Framework For Torah Politics

One of the tensions Chassidus is most concerned with is between investiture and transcendence. G-d has made the world in such a way that both are necessary but are opposing forces. Investiture is necessary if one wishes to truly change something — the famous example is that the brilliant teacher cannot give the student his own knowledge as-is but must, if the student is to truly learn, convey the lesson at the student’s level of understanding. Transcendence, however, is necessary to truly change something, for to change is to become something new, not just to reshuffle what one is. A teacher who only invests himself at the level of the students’ understanding can give them nothing they don’t already have; a teacher who only transcends them can give them everything but they will understand nothing. It seems that instead some sort of synthesis is needed.

If we assume (and it seems a safe assumption) the Torah is meant to teach the world G-dly wisdom, we would need some synthesis in our understanding of it as well. Indeed, even a superficial analysis, we see that there are varying levels of investiture and transcendence — a written law and an oral law; four books of the Torah vs. Deuteronomy, the speech of Moses; Torah in the holy tongue and Torah in translation. Nevertheless, these syntheses provide no obvious approach to the relationship of Torah to worldly ethics and (less ethical, and more worldly) politics. This leads to a tendency for investiture and transcendence to separate out, like oil and water. What is required then, for Torah to “teach” politics, is a framework for their synthesis.

Without such a framework, we see the extremes in the usual attempts to apply Torah to a political context. On the investiture side, you have those who believe the Torah speaks directly to our political choices in the real world. Verses are selected (more on the true nature of this selection later) in support of a candidate or ideology. Mrs. Clinton is compared to G-d, the Zohar is said to have predicted a Trump victory. People point to this law or that Midrash to demonstrate the Torah’s support of progressivism or conservatism, limited government or entitlements, traditional sexual values or transgenderism. The obvious problem with this is that the truth of G-d is co-opted for fights that are all too human. This, in turn, incentivizes new interpretation of the Torah, trying to read it in a way that supports our pre-existing biases.

On the transcendence side, however, one sees a desire to remove Torah from any connection to worldly concerns at all. The Torah says only what it does, they wish to say, and any resemblance to secular matters is purely coincidental. This leaves a Jewish politician, say, free to support whatever position they like as long as it is not in clear violation of the law. However, this attempt to leave Torah uncorrupted also leaves it impotent, having nothing to say on matters of great importance to the average man seeking to do what is right. Further, it corrupts the Torah in every sense other than the legal one. That the book is the truth rather than a mere guide for action falls by the wayside, at least as far as truth human beings can appreciate or act on. Ultimately, it places a strict barrier between the human mind and the book and forbids its traversal — the mind is too universal and objective and would only apply the Torah to places, as a holy book, it has no business going.

So, everyone who wishes the Torah to be a holy and true book of practical moral teaching must find some kind of synthesis. Just such an approach was put forth by the Rebbe Rayatz, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch, sixth Rebbe of Chabad. The Rebbe Rayatz was the leader of Lubavitcher Chassidim in Russia under Stalin and was no stranger to political movements and their Jewish followers. His famous incarceration was the work of the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish communists later largely purged by the dictator.

On one of his journeys, the Rebbe Rayatz encountered a group of people arguing over which political system was supported by Torah, and each one brought proof that his position was favored by Torah. They asked the Rebbe his opinion. He told them that Torah, being the ultimate good and truth, contains and is the source of what is good in all the political systems.

This is not so much a straightforward synthesis as a redefinition of terms; we are not saying Torah is good so much as redefining good and truth to mean what Torah says. This is not arbitrary. If the Torah is G-d’s wisdom, it precedes the world and defines the world; it makes sense that “good” is defined by Torah rather than vice-versa. Therefore, what the Rebbe Rayatz has technically done is applied an even higher transcendence than what was previously considered. Not only is Torah too good for the world, but goodness itself is too good for the world. The entire process of seeking a “true” or “good” course of action is, in the Rebbe’s view, non-secular, since Torah itself is the G-dly Torah.

However, this further form of transcendence is, in fact, more permitting of investiture than it might appear. For if the Torah is merely a document existing beyond worldly concerns it is quarantined from practical application. But if Torah is truth itself, then any true or good aspect of any non-Torah worldview, no matter how base, is Torah — the way in which the thing is openly connected to the truth. Conversely, this does not bring the Torah down to the level of manipulation for political ends, because the only true end is the Torah itself.

More simply — the Rebbe acknowledges that every politics has some truth to it, but also that anything which is not Torah itself can never be the whole truth. The Torah is both invested and transcended, the truth of every thing but fully present in nothing except itself.

This synthesis allows us to begin to approach matters of Torah and politics without having to worry about whether the Torah is sidelined or corrupted. Take, say, universal healthcare. Sources can be brought from either side of the matter. The Talmud recognizes a need to heal the sick and the cost of care on individuals and communities. But what cannot be said is that there is no Torah opinion on the matter — since the very notion that anything about a man-made healthcare system can be good or true is predicated on reflecting Torah. On the other hand, we also cannot say that any man-made system is the Torah or could shift the Truth an inch, since if we know Him, we would be Him, and no approach to worldly affairs until Moshiach’s coming can be Truth.

We can plot a course of action that does not violate the Torah. We can even devote ourselves to fulfilling it in thought, speech, and action. But to build any sort of secular system is by definition to build something outside of Torah. It is only by bringing to bear G-d’s will upon our actions (rather than by trying to bridge intellectual systemic gaps) that we can bring true peace between the truth of G-d and the truth of the world. This is what is meant by Moshiach — to find the true part of every thing, and return is to the Truth that’s only one.

Why Antisemitism Is A Historical Constant

All that varies in Jew hatred, over continents and millennia, is in the details. Every group has their own claim. The Jews killed Jesus (all of us; I was there!), the Jews did not accept Mohammed, the Jews drink the blood of small children. Jews have horns, their men menstruate part of the year. Jews are pathetic parasitic cockroaches. Jews rule the global order. They’re communists! They’re capitalists! They’re Zionists!

As a somewhat religious fellow, my question on all these persistent, bizarre, and contradictory claims is not just “Why?” but “Why, G-d?” It is clearly part of our mission to be distrusted and oppressed; we tell prospective converts that they join their fate with that of a beleaguered people. Why is this the way it must be, in a world where G-d expects the Jew to accomplish things?

Anyone familiar with the sources realizes prophecy and sagacity are two different qualities, though both prophet and sage receive word from G-d in some way. However, one of Judaism’s great sages must, in our case, be charged with uncanny prescience. Rashi, most famous of all Torah commentators, answers our question in his first words on Genesis.

That the explanation is on the words “In the beginning” indicates just how deep the roots of antisemitism might go. Rashi asks: The Torah ought not (as the book of teachings for the Jewish people) have begun with the world’s creation (which in many ways is none of our business) but with G-d’s first commandment to the Jews, recorded later in the book of Exodus. Rashi answers: The book of Genesis exists to answer the future claims of the non-Jew, who will come and say, “You are robbers; the land [of Israel] belongs to us!” The Jew can respond, “G-d created the world and gives it to whom He will; He willfully gave it to the Seven Nations and willfully took it from them and gave it to us.”

Here is an answer, on a simple level, to those who wish to take the land from the Jewish people, to those who call us thieves, oppressors, insufficiently progressive, etc. It is not, however, an explanation for all antisemitism in history. In fact, it has only sounded relevant since 1948 for the first time in almost two thousand years.

But that is not all that’s contained in Rashi’s words, which demand deeper consideration. After all, does Rashi truly mean to tell us that an entire book was added to the beginning of the Torah, God’s books, just to answer some mistaken future claims? This seems to lend their accusations of theft far more credence than they deserve

Really, the case Rashi raises is not a particular accusation of land theft but rather the eternal claim of the world against the Jew. “You come from the desert, inspired, claiming to have met the Creator and therefore transcended the bounds of this reality. It is surely a spiritual people whose entire nation is founded on the deliverance of, and covenant with, G-d. Surely any claim to a physical land is, on your part, out of place, a ‘theft’ from those who do not claim to have spoken with God.” In other words, the Jew is alien, not because of custom, appearance, or even religious practice (we have “controlled” for these and were still hated) but because their story sets them apart. To be a Jew who does nothing is, by a simple act of history, to stake a claim. And the claim of the Jew (not the claim the Jew makes, it must be reemphasized, but the claim made by history (and G-d) through the Jew) is that there exists a reality before whom the world is nothing. To put it in vulgar modern terms, antisemitism is in some sense the world rejecting a question on its stake to ultimate reality, like a body rejecting an organ transplant.

This, it should be noted, does not excuse the antisemite’s actions in the slightest; no one is compelled to be the messenger for this rejection. However, this does explain why antisemitism refuses to die, as an impulse — because the Jews refuse to die, and with the world as it is now, before any sort of radical messianic transformation, there is a fundamental resentment toward the people whose story negates the world. And since the world includes all man-made ideologies and all of man’s animal impulses, it is never very hard to find an excuse for Jew hatred.

What, according to Rashi, is the Jewish response to this resentment? “G-d is the creator the world and gives it to whom He wills.” Even though a G-dly people may seem to contradict the world, it is, on the contrary, G-d’s will that they enter it, settle a land, and repair the world from within. It is our whole aim to know, and then to teach, that though we may have different stories, we and the non-Jew are made by the same Creator and the “secular” world is as G-dly as the event at Sinai, if not more so. The “solution” to antisemitism can only be found in dissolving the seeming difference between the physical and the spiritual, the mundane and the holy.

The world is an estranged child who has forgotten her roots in G-d, and the Jews are here to guide her back. She must be taught that in her very weakness, in her acknowledgment that she is not just a mother but a child, an offspring of a higher reality, she discovers not death and limitation but true eternal life in service of the One G-d. Just like the Jews.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 4)

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

We finally continue our series on atheist arguments that help us improve our faith in G-d. Our previous installment spoke about the perennial question, “What caused G-d?” Indeed, it is a good question, and we spoke about how we need to think of G-d as the uncaused cause of the classic Cosmological Argument, how G-d is qualitatively different from everything else.

This time, we will be dealing not with the existence of the creator per se, but rather a problem with religion.

4. The infinite creator of the universe cares about what we do? Preposterous.

Rather than say G-d is such a trifling matter that His existence is irrelevant, this argument takes quite a different tack. It is incredibly hard to understand, we are told, that the same being of infinite power who created the universe would care at all about the humans on earth. He is too big to care about our behavior, our feelings, or perhaps our existence as individuals at all.

There are several ways to answer this argument, and several ways in which it thus helps us improve our theism.

The theistic preconception many of us naturally have from our childlike understanding of G-d is that the creator essentially exists for our purposes, rather than vice versa. It is indeed this approach, wherein G-d is the solution to all of our problems and we are the solution to none of His, so to speak, that turns many people off from religion. When the deity is constantly on our side and helping us live our lives, the whole enterprise begins to smell somewhat…artificial. Man-made. A put-up job.

And so, the atheist points out: Either your guy is infinitely powerful and the creator of the Universe, or He is your own personal cheerleader, warrior, confidante, etc. How can He be both?

The obvious answer to this question is also a bad one, and that is, “He’s G-d; He can do anything.” There we go. You don’t have to think. You don’t have to question or self-evaluate. All the atheists’ favorite things…not.

The truth of serious religion, as any thinking theist knows, is that we exist for G-d, rather than the other way around. The question is, how can we possibly exist for a being who is transcendent and infinite and totally beyond us in every way?

In Judaism, at least, there is more than one answer to this question, and each leads to a different way of looking at the entire G-d/Man dynamic.

The philosophical, nonmystical position, especially in the Maimonidean view, maintains G-d’s simplicity and infinitude as the ultimate truth, to which all other aspects of reality, including Judaism, must conform. Thus, on the matter of whether G-d cares about us or anything that happens on earth, the answer is a resounding no. G-d doesn’t care about anything. G-d doesn’t have feelings; feelings are a logical contradiction to being G-d, as is caring, thinking, or anything else we know from our experience. After all, if G-d feels, then there is Him and His thoughts, and they exist in some kind of unity, and any unity must indeed comprise some third, higher category, and this leads to some sort of strange holy trinity that falls flat on Jewish ears, not to mention it means G-d has parts and is not truly infinite.

No, the Rambam is forceful in his insistence that there can be no positive knowledge of G-d, that what he is totally incomparable to anything we know of. And that includes emotions like concern, love, hatred, compassion…

So, what is a human being to do? What does it mean to serve G-d? And what does the Rambam make of the religion of Judaism, with its famous 613 precepts and a metric ton of moral responsibilities demanded of mankind?

Suffice it so say, there is an entire way of looking at man’s service of G-d that allows Him to “remain still” as we do all of the moving. We work to refine ourselves and achieve a connection to the Good, and the more we refine ourselves, the more we are transparent vessels for the truth of G-d, though He will never feel or care about our efforts. Though there exists an ultimate reality that creates and sustains the world, whose existence the atheist denies, there is nevertheless no interaction between that reality and us. The historical revelation in our religion, says the philosophical view, is, on the whole, to teach us how we can refine ourselves and become vessels for knowing G-d.

If all of this sounds to you a bit like Cthulhu, impersonal and cold and far vaster than anything to which man can relate, you’re not alone. But there is another option open to the theist that is as rationally consistent and in consonance with religion, divine revelation, and man’s moral responsibility to G-d.

Such is mysticism, in which G-d’s unity and transcendence are not the ultimate truth to which everything else must bend. But instead of relying on a dismissive “G-d can do anything” approach to the Creator’s relationship with the creation, Chassidus, Kabbalah, and Jewish mysticism write at great length about the G-dly desire for revelation in a place of darkness, and how the Creator’s simplicity and transcendence are not contradicted by His reaction with the world. This is achieved by the kabbalistic concepts of G-dly light and the ten sefirot, concepts absent from Jewish philosophy and claimed as part of the divine revelation of the oral tradition of Kabbalah.

And so, once again, those who believe in G-d must indeed confront, and try to understand, a contradiction it sometimes takes an atheist to see.

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.

A Sublime Tune

The year is 1877. Cornelius Vanderbilt and Brigham Young recently passed away, New Hampshire just became the last state to allow Jews to hold public office, and, on the other side of the world, in White Russia, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch delivers a famous series of discourses on Chassidic thought.

Your friend Richard walks into your well-furnished Boston parlor hefting some kind of canister, which with the obscurity of distance and a bit of wishful thinking you imagine to be packaged whiskey (perhaps he arrives from Jack Daniel’s Tennessee distillery, which just turned two years old). All hopes of drunken frivolity flee your mind, however, when you see the stern visage with broad forehead and wide lips staring at you from the side of the cardboard cylinder. Under the portrait, a florid signature acts as a mark of authenticity. It reads “Thomas A. Edison.”

Without explanation, your friend uses your best letter opener to lever the metal cap out of the cardboard tube, carefully upends the whole thing on the table, and lifts it away to reveal…something. It looks like a thick, hollowed-out candle, and its outer surface is covered in thin grooves. Your friend declares, bellows to mend, that you are looking at sound.

Finding this overly Sinaitic, you stare.

“Edison,” he presses on, “has found a way to record sound.”

You risk a glance at your European piano (I allow you, for the purposes of this exercise, to be fabulously wealthy) stacked high with recorded sheet music. Your friend seems hurt.

“It’s not just the notes he’s recorded. Those are used to create new sounds. He’s gone and recorded old ones onto these wax pieces, and with his new machine, you can hear them again.”

“New machine?” you ask.

“He’s calling it a phono…phono something. Isn’t it the bulliest thing you ever heard?”

Eager to wipe the smile off his face (you really like your letter opener) you say, “Impossible.”

He frowns. “I heard it myself. He cranks the machine, and it reads those notches on the wax there, and music comes out of its horn.”

“Who ever heard of a machine reading?”

“You just did.” He thinks that this a great point and grins like the cat’s uncle. He doesn’t know that your great, great grandfather Thaddeus was already rolling his eyes during the declaration of the Declaration of Independence, thereby bringing cynicism to America. Richard is destined to lose this exchange.

“Why should I care?” you ask with an attitude your descendants a century and a half from now will be proud of. “I don’t need any machine. If I want to hear music, I play it, or I find others to play it for me.”

“Oh, everyone knows you spend hours holed up in here with your drink and your piano-”

“If there is a better use of my time I’ve yet to discover it.”

“It’s not that. Don’t you want your music to spread out across the divide?” asks your friend.

“What divide?”

“Why, the one between yourself and everyone else, of course! What good is your music if only you hear it?” He crouches next to the cylinder, admiring it. “With this, the whole world can sing.”

 

First there wasn’t an existence, and then G-d created one. Before that (Augustine would tell you if you asked) He was preparing hell for those who pry into mysteries. Douglas Adams said with authority that the creation of the Universe “has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” But unfortunately, it’s here. We might as well deal with it.

We are told that He had a hard time creating it all. He’s infinite, you see, pretty much by definition, i.e. G-d(n.): He who caused everything else to be and was not caused by anything else to be. So He must be infinite, since if He’s there before everything else exists and He’s not infinite, we have to wonder what else is there, how it got there, where it gets off not being either G-d or G-d’s creation, etc. It would be terribly out-of-place, since no place or time had yet been created. But I digress.

The problem with being infinite is that all You see is more of You in every direction. If you want to create something that is decidedly not You, say, a slice of pizza, you have to make room for it. No problem, you say. Being infinite has its advantages; you’re infinitely powerful. But now – what do you make the pizza out of? It’s fine, You think. I’ll make it out of my own infinite existence.

A slice of pizza made of infinitude sounds great at first (people would have probably been less angry if the universe were any kind of pastry) but: 1) If it’s infinite, what makes it pizza and not G-d? Isn’t pizza by definition limited to being pizza and not, say, a giraffe? You can’t make these fine distinctions. All you have to work with is Infinitude, and whatever that is, it probably doesn’t come with cheese and sauce. 2) Once you have this pizza, where are you going to bite into it from, wise guy?

It seems G-d can play an infinite symphony for Himself, but he can’t record it. The music is one thing, an expression of G-d as He truly is, what we call His Infinite Light, whereas the recording is quite another, bringing G-d somewhere that’s not Him. And “not Him” is in short supply. Even if he uses his infinite power to make that pizza, on the grounds that he can do anything, it won’t help: it would be like listening to an iPod at a concert, where the weak recording of the music is drowned out by the real thing and ceases to be audible. Besides, what use is a recording that only exists on condition that the musician continues to play? Why can’t He create something separate from Himself that exists on its own terms, without the need to bring his infinite power to bear? If the pizza can’t just be delicious without having to constantly reflect G-d’s involvement in its creation, is it pizza? Or is it still G-d’s ephemeral symphony known only to Him?

He really can’t seem to escape Himself.

 

The wax cylinder begat 78s, and 78s begat 45s, and humanity rejoiced, for a mere century after Edison’s invention they could listen to ELO whenever they desired. The technology involved in the successive generations of records was essentially identical. Edison discovered that by translating the vibrations of a diaphragm to grooves on tin foil he could later reverse the process, vibrate the diaphragm in the exact same way, and reproduce the sound. It is quite astonishing that such a crude process should work, and no one was more surprised than the great inventor when he first heard his machine say “Mary had a little lamb.” The phonograph was born, and with adjustments, the modern turntable followed a few years later. Sound was captured.

But was the whole world really singing? Sure, you had music in your living room, no multi-million dollar stage shows or spandex required. But if you wanted to hear “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” as you sat in the park, dodging occultists and penning a letter to President Carter, you were out of luck. Even at home, your records were large, fragile, and subject to decay, all concerns since the original phonograph, though mitigated in part by technological advances.

We see a general principle at work here. Any form of communication, whether by sound, light, or other means, must lose something in transmission when translated to a different time, place, or person. In other words: it is impossible for another to know something as it knows itself. This is why it takes the best of poets to fit even the wispy edges of our experience into dead, fragmented words. It is why in the ancient High Court of Jerusalem, instead of sleeping the night before a capital decision, they would stay up until dawn, debating, reviewing their opinions, lest they forget. How could they forget, asks the Talmud. The words of the judges were recorded by two stenographers, it’s true, but words on paper can never convey a full line of thought, as anyone who tries to review their notes at the end of a school term will unfortunately find. If it is thought, it cannot be expressed in words. If it is in words, it is no longer thought. If it is emotion, it cannot be put into musical notes. If it is music, it is not emotion, and only those artists at the heights of their powers can approach leveling the difference. Once the music is performed, the rule holds sway once more. A performance is not a recording, and a recording is no longer a performance. If this miscommunication principle were not true, speech wouldn’t be necessary at all; you could know my thoughts as I know my thoughts. If you could know that, what would be the difference between you and me? If there is nothing lost in transmission, we are not communicating, we are one. If we are not one, then we communicate.

Therefore, when Richard unveiled that cylinder for the first time, you were dubious. Once you heard the gramophone sing, you scoffed. It didn’t sound like music. It was noisy, tinny, reproduction “from a mile away,” as a contemporary put it. In all the excitement of hearing, say, a drum set in a drumless room, one might not notice that drums-as-cylinder are an anemic caricature of the real thing. Where was the attack, the full-bodied thwack, the full crash of the cymbals? No, a lot of work remained. Drums-without-drums were a failure, and the failure is called low fidelity; the recording was disloyal to the original. The goal ever since has been high fidelity.

 

It’s the year 2000. The world fails to end from a computer glitch, AOL acquires Time Warner, reality television first begins its long war on regular television (and regular reality), and President Clinton is off visiting Vietnam. You enter your dorm room at your prestigious University and find your friend, Richard Pritchard IV, clicking away at your PC. He turns as you enter, waves, and thumbs a knob on your expensive, powerful stereo system. The death throes of an electromechanical bull beaten to death by a six-string guitar fill the room. You shout and make to pull your stereo out of the wall socket, battered by waves of noise with every step, but your friend beats you to it by closing the audio program.

“I didn’t know you bought a Rage Against the Machine CD,” you say, unclenching your teeth.

“I didn’t buy it. There’s this new thing called Napster.”

“Isn’t that a mattress company?”

“Hardly,” he says, ever-patient. “It’s a program that lets your download music from anyone connected to it.”

“Yeah? A lot of use that is, if RATM ends up playing through my speakers. I have to sanitize them now-”

“The program has everything. Every single, every album. It’s a whole new world.”

“Isn’t it stealing to download it without buying it?” you ask.

“They have Radiohead.”

“Move over,” you suggest, and sit in front of your computer.

“I already acquired a few albums, if you’re interested.”

“Wait, how did you download ‘a few albums’ onto my hard drive? Only one gig [of the ten available. Oh, nostalgia. –Ed.] is free.”

“Each album is, like, 80 megabytes.”

“Impossible.”

“Why?”

Since you are a huge nerd (not everyone got into the prestigious University through their father’s connections like Richard) you actually know why, and pull over a pencil and a pad of paper. “It used to be,” you begin contemplatively, “that you’d listen to music with your turntable. The quality was good but the records were clunky. They were analog.”

“Analog?”

“Yeah. They recorded sound waves as curves.” You draw a sweeping hill and valley across the paper. “Nature generally behaves like a curve, and sound is no exception. CDs, however, aren’t analog.” You begin drawing more shapes, and your friend leans over to see. “CDs are digital. They don’t use waves; they use numbers that approximate waves.” A series of flat-roofed rectangles now stretch from the bottom of the page to the curve, the Manhattan skyline seen through the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. At some point of their width, the flat-topped rectangles invariably exceed the curve or fail to reach it. You point to the vertical shapes and say, “Each of these is a digital estimate of the height of the analog wave at that point, and can be expressed as a number.”

“But why wouldn’t you just use the curve itself, like they did on records?”

“They take up too much space. A series of ones and zeroes can say the same thing and take up less room doing it.”

“But it’s inexact!” your friend objects. “Rectangles can’t really imitate a curve.” He points to the wedges of space between the skyscrapers and the bridge. He is right, of course. This is the information in the sound wave that is lost when converting to digital. You begin drawing new rectangles, thinner this time. If the first set were broadswords, these are stilettoes. Though they diverge much less from the curve, the error is still there. And it always will be, “Unless you have an infinite number of rectangles,” says your friend. You raise an eyebrow. “I took calculus in high school,” he explains.

 

640px-Pcm.svg

 

“We don’t need an infinite number,” you say. “We only need 44,100 per second of sound.”

“What?”

“The guys who invented the CD figured out that’s how many you’d need, if you want the digital to duplicate the analog. To the human ear, at least. And that’s why an album can never be 80 MB.” You describe a list of numbers as you write them down. “The rectangles are called samples, because the curve is sampled as a certain number at a certain rate. Here, the rectangle is at this height, and then a second later, it’s at a different height, etc. Each sample is a number, and every number in binary is represented by a certain number of bits. If we only used one bit to store a sample, each one could only have a height of 1, or 0. Not a lot of accuracy there.”

“I hope you’re talking to yourself, because I don’t understand a word.”

“So instead of one bit they used sixteen of them, which yield 216 choices of height. Sixteen bits is two bytes per sample, with 44,100 samples per second, and all of it’s done twice, since there’s two channels in stereo audio.”

“Left and right,” Richard says.

“Correct. Now a full CD runs for 74 minutes. Times sixty seconds per minute…” You hold up your handiwork. The page reads:

2 x 44,100 x 2 x 74 x 60

“Equals,” you say, and tap some numbers into your desk calculator, “783,216,000 bytes. Or around 700 more megabytes of Rage than you claim.” Your tone says, QED.

He grabs the mouse from your hand and conjures up the properties of a CD he downloaded. The screen reads 80.3 MB. Your brow furrows.

“Reality trumps theory,” says Richard with satisfaction.

How boorish.

 

G-d is omniscient, thank G-d. He knows that my presentation on infinity earlier was full of, well, infidelity. G-d is not infinite in the confined, logical, Aristotelian sense of the word, where “infinite” and “finite” are a contradiction. G-d is what’s called a Kol Yachol, the One who can do anything, whose boundless expression is absolute perfection. This means that if, in his infinitude, he can’t “do” finitude, then He is imperfect, limited to limitlessness. G-d has no limits.

It therefore turns out that G-d exists in some place beyond all conception, and infinitude and finitude are merely modes of his expression. One can be G-d and be non-infinite, the way that there is such a thing as music before any air vibrates or any grooves run. Music itself is ineffable, beyond, and “live” and “recorded” are just two ways of tapping into the same truth. G-d is no more infinite than He is finite, no more spiritual than He is physical, just as it’s nonsensical to say that music is, at its essence, more live than it is recorded. The thing itself is being mistaken for the way it communicates.

This seems encouraging for those of us who don’t have any money for live shows and/or live in a finite, physical, natural world where nothing interesting ever happens. Neither of these is any less “real” than going to the live show or meeting G-d face-to-face. A recording is no less music than a concert; our physical world is no less G-d than whatever existed before He created it. It’s like a game of peekaboo. I cover my face with my hands and ask you, “Where have I gone?” The answer is nowhere. My hands are me just as my face is me, and no concealment has taken place.

Is any of this truly satisfying?

Not in the least.

Are you happy to live life listening to your iPod, never seeing the artists in the flesh? How about living in this world, secure in the knowledge that it, too, is G-dly while never coming face-to-face with its creator?

Wouldn’t we prefer to see His face, and not just His hands?

Weren’t the world and iPods created in the first place for those who can’t handle the real thing?

 

Compression is one of the boons of the shift from analog to digital audio. The goal of compression is to put the lie to the miscommunication principle; we can have drums without drums. We can even have 700 MB without 700 MB; we can carry thirty thousand songs in the palms of our hands. This is the mp3 revolution.

And, as any audiophile will tell you, it’s a lie.

A lot of the music flying around in the glorious Napster days sounded almost as tinny and reduced as Edison’s wax cylinders. Since mp3 is a form of “lossy” compression, a certain amount of information goes into an mp3 encoder and significantly less comes out the other end. The encoder’s job is to decide which information is relevant and therefore worth keeping and which is not. By discarding details of the sound that (in theory) your average listener won’t miss anyway, the mp3 stuffs an enormous amount of relevant sound in a small place. The lower the bitrate of the mp3, the more information is thrown out.

To which the audiophile would say, “I didn’t realize the music was so easily divided. If the artists decided certain sections of the waveform ought to be in the recording, by what right does a fancy calculus-wielding program strip them out?”

The argument then becomes highly subjective (and violent) and focuses on whether the algorithm does a good enough job at guessing what the human ear can’t hear anyway, and at what bitrate. This often branches (and if it doesn’t it should) into a divisive ideological discussion. Does the near-miraculous process of fitting something huge into a small place deserve recognition as an outstanding intellectual achievement if it yields Beethoven’s Symphonies encoded in a near-skeletal 128 kbps, turning everyone’s music library into a collection of cell phone ring tones?

Everyone agrees, however, that the sound you get from an mp3 is not the same sound they heard at the recording studio. It is, at best, an illusion. Just because David Copperfield said the Statue of Liberty was gone, and it seemed that way to his audience’s senses, doesn’t make it true.

 

As previously mentioned, G-d can do anything. Don’t go placing any rash bets just yet (if Elvis and Tupac ever ride the Loch Ness monster through Times Square I’ll be writing my next brilliant article in the lap of luxury); He seems to prefer following the rules of logic most of the time. It’s probably related to the aforementioned slice of pizza; if everything that takes place has his fingerprints all over it, could the world ever just exist in peace as the world? If there were no logic, could pizza ever just be pizza? It’d be like a thirty-year-old whose mother still does his laundry: hard to respect.

Instead of direct involvement, so to speak, He uses a system of interlocking translations of His Truth. The physical world, what we call “natural,” is for Him the end result of a long process. He begins with his Truth, his song. We now know that, by definition, only He can hear it; in fact, if you know it like He knows it, congratulations, you must be Him. He then taps into his powers of finitude to capture the same song in a limited form; He wants to put himself into the smallest possible space, which by definition means somewhere utterly removed from Himself. It’s hopeless, you might think. There is a fidelity/space tradeoff. If He wants someone to get the music as-is, he should play them the supernal equivalent of a vinyl record, or a non-compressed CD. This is like saying that if you want to meet G-d, you have to meditate in a monastery for at least eighty years. He can reach as low as the monastery, where the physical touches the spiritual, but he can go no further. If he were to express himself any lower, it could only be as an illusion. His Truth would not be there; some lookalike substitute would have to suffice. He is not portable. If I find him on the subway in Brooklyn, or, Lord help us, Manhattan, it’s not really Him I’ve found. It’s His mp3.

Is there a solution to this quandary?

Humans have found one. It’s called FLAC, the Free Lossless Audio Codec. You read that right. Lossless. That means the files are not going to be as small as MP3s, so it’s a little bit harder to fit them onto your hard drive or your phone. But the files are half the size of the original recordings, and they’re perfect. Drums that can’t fit in your hand go in one end. Drums that can come out the other. For the first time since that wax cylinder was upended on the table, if I play you a song, and then hand you a string of ones and zeroes that make up a FLAC file, I am actually giving you two of the exact same thing. As long as you have a good recording microphone, and the right software, the two are indistinguishable. And the FLAC can take the train.

G-d looks at Himself, and sees: Himself. He looks at the world and sees Himself, too. One is a compressed form of the other, a FLAC inside a .zip inside a .rar inside a .7z. He has all the software He needs to hear the music (his programming ability is world-renowned). He doesn’t even need the infinite, “live performance” version anymore. He has this lossless file. They are the same thing. It’s not just an illusion. If we can make FLACs, then so can He. And so He does.

What’s the point of it, you may be wondering. Why go through the trouble? If to Him the world is merely a reflection of Himself, why create it? It really does seem to be a bad move, if only in its pointlessness. He can see right through his own deception, the same way a really jacked up iTunes could play the 7z[rar[zip[FLAC]]].

The point is that there are those who can’t see through the illusion. Not easily anyway. They are stuck right at the point where they have the file, but not the necessary software. There are those that can’t hear the music.

There are 7 billion of them, actually.

naturesgramophone

As you look down at your breakfast (eggs fried lovingly; salad), Richard takes the spot next you on the bench in the Yeshiva dining room. “Spend a year in Israel, they said. It’s a man’s life, they said,” he complains.

“Just buy some Cocoa Rice Krispies already,” you suggest, taking a swig of filtered water. The tap water in Jerusalem hurts your stomach.

“Do I look like I’m made of money? Twelve shekels!” He takes a bit of egg and shudders. Richard (he prefers Yerachmiel now) never adapted well to new places. You’d never tell anyone, but you feel a little homesick as well, and you frown as you chew.

“Why the long face?” asks a kind voice. You look up to find one of the rabbis sitting across from you, eating granola cereal. His huge salt-and-pepper beard fans across his neat black sweater vest below a cantankerous moustache. Floating above it all are sparkling brown eyes staring at you through oblong glasses.

“Missing home, I guess,” you answer, shy. You heard he sometimes yells at people.

“You know, G-d is with you more in the difficult times than the easy ones.”

“Ah, sure,” you say, and push some tomato cubes around your plate. The rabbi’s words remind you of some e-mail you deleted once about footsteps in the sand. Richard elbows you in the ribs and you look up to find the rabbi glaring at you.

“It’s true,” he insists, his voice climbing an octave. “Why are we here in this world?”

You shrug. He looks at you like your stern uncle Ezra.

“G-d wants to be revealed even and specifically in the lowest places. He wants to be seen in His infinitude in a place that seems utterly separate from him. It’s like a FLAC file.”

“What?” you and Richard ask.

“Never mind,” he snaps. “Suffice it to say that from His point of view, nothing ever changed. Before a world was created He was alone, and now that it was created He is alone. The difference is all on our end.”

“I prefer after the world was created, since I exist,” your friend pronounces. The rabbi’s beard twitches as if it might fly off and attack the student on its own.

“Since the illusion of an existence separate from G-d is made for us, it’s designed so that we constantly teeter at the point of discovering Him. He is always waiting, just beyond our reach. We are handed code, and told to understand.” The rabbi eats a spoonful of oats and waits for your response, his head cocked to the side.

“What does that have to do with difficult times?” you ask.

“Anything that you can easily see as a blessing, for example those delicious eggs, or my granola, or a good day where everything seems to go your way, is G-d giving you Himself, directly, because you can appreciate it from your perspective. And if you can appreciate it, how great can it be? How much of His Truth is left in it?”

“That’s uplifting,” your friend chimes in.

The Rabbi stabs one of Richard’s eggs with a fork, transfers it to his plate, and begins to eat it. In between bites he says, “You don’t get it. In fact, not only do you not get it, if you were to truly understand, you’d be Him. It’s the miscommunication principle. The only aspects of the Truth you can appreciate are the trifles He can hand you without you totally losing yourself. He lets you hear a whisper of a whisper of His music.”

“Isn’t this like how G-d conceals Himself to give man free choice? Because if He was revealed no one in their right mind would ever choose to do evil?”

“It’s so much more than that,” the Rabbi says, drawing his plate close and thereby thwarting Richard’s attempts at reclamation. “To say He hides Himself to give us free choice is to chalk up our deaf, dumb, blind, G-dless state to an infuriating technicality. What I’m proposing is that we should rejoice in His concealment, because it is the purpose of our existence. We are to look the illusion of His absence straight in the eye and tell it that we don’t believe in it, that no matter what our senses tell us, the world is G-dly. And G-d is good. We must demand to see it from His perspective. His endless symphony plays all around us.”

“What happens once we do that?” asks Richard.

“When G-d realizes that He doesn’t see the illusion, and that we aren’t fooled by it, it no longer serves any purpose. So He takes it away.”

 

There once was a great sage who asked a young child why he was crying. “My friends and I were playing hide and seek,” replied the child. “But I hid myself so well that they gave up looking for me.” Said the sage, “This is how G-d feels about His creation.” Our world is so much more than the two-bit manipulation of the material. If we use the right software, the right perspective, we’ll see that G-d Himself has been here all along, waiting impatiently to be found.

 

There is so much more to say.

We could talk about how the difference between a data stream and a live music show is really the difference between the natural and the miraculous, how nature itself is a lie. We could talk about how withstanding the great tests that G-d places before us, like the forefather Abraham did, is the ultimate purpose of the illusion and, therefore, of life, since it is the crucible where nature clashes most strongly with our will and duty, and passing a test literally creates miracles because it itself is in violation of nature. We could talk about the Big Lie, how we’re told by our world in a million different ways that it’s the ones and zeroes that are important, that whoever manipulates the data best will achieve happiness, that there is no underlying music and the search for it will fail, and that if you must search for G-d don’t G-d forbid let it get in the way of your success in the field of binary manipulation. We could talk about the incredible strength and joy that the G-dly perspective lends to one’s life, since there are no setbacks, there is no darkness, and He not only runs the world but the world in fact has no existence apart from His truth. Maybe in the future we will talk about all of these things, but for now, this long screed has come to an end.

All of what I just told you has been sitting in holy books written in Hebrew for over a hundred years, by the way. You might wonder – why not just have you read the original sources? Why write so many words? Why bother with tortured examples from the world of music and with whimsical multi-generational fiction?

I thought you would appreciate why by now.

Hebrew without Hebrew is so much better.

Wouldn’t you agree?