Why I’m Not Worried About Your Conspiracy Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Piece of the Torah’s Pi

Here’s a semi-obscure controversy from the Hebrew bible that you may be aware of: The Torah (in two different locations,  I Kings 7:23 and II Chronicles 4:2) gives the incorrect value for π. For those who have forgotten since math class, Pi or π is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It has the same value for every circle, and though it is impossible to calculate its precise value it approximately equals 3.14159.

Here is one of the offending verses, from I Kings: “And he made the molten sea, ten cubits from brim to brim; it (was) round all about, and the height thereof (was) five cubits; and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.” And even if you have indeed repressed every memory of math class you probably see that thirty divided by ten is exactly three, and that three does not equal 3.14159.

The Torah using 3 as π’s value is sub-par whether or not you are religious. A secular observer would (and several have) note that other civilizations at the time of the events of I Kings had already approximated Pi much more closely, had at least realized that this fundamental constant of the universe exceeds the round number of three. And a religious observer obviously has trouble squaring how the eternal truths of mathematics can contradict a verse that clearly says the Molten Sea was thirty, ten, and round.

One answer to this quandary is that Jewish law obviously is willing to approximate when demanding of human beings to construct “perfect” circles. That is, the verse is not defining Pi, but explaining that the craftsmen of the Temple vessels measured a circumference of exactly 30 cubits and approximated the diameter, rounding 9.549 upward to ten. The Talmud notes that one is permitted to make approximations in measurement in the direction of stringency. In this case, using the absolute value of Pi would decrease the diameter of the Molten Sea, perhaps making it too small. The approximation is thus called for and perhaps even legally necessary so as not to err on the too-small side of the precise 9.549. Alternatively, the Lubavitcher Rebbe argued that the workmen used the exact 9.549 value, and the Torah was simply describing the circle with approximation, with the maximum precision necessary for practical purposes.

Either way, the sages of the Talmud were clearly aware that Pi does not equal three, as is stated clearly in the ancient Mishanat Ha’Middot, as Maimonides argues in his commentary on the Mishna, and is implied in the Talmud’s complex discussion of the required size of a round Sukkah in Tractate Sukkah 7b-8a.

However, the question remains — it is good and fine that the later sages were aware of more accurate values of Pi, and that the Biblical verses are mere approximations, but ultimately, the Book that is supposed to speak the truth presents a ratio that is misleading, and not misleading merely in practical matters but in a similar eternal truth of our universe, the hard-to-calculate, definitely-not-a-round-number phenomenon that is π.

An elegant and astonishing discovery of Rabbi Max Munk provides an answer of sorts, and to understand it we must first take a moment to speak of traditional Jewish biblical exegesis. The advent of computers has seen the rise of the controversial (and possibly downright-debunked) Bible Codes, an attempt to apply massive computing power to one ancient method of deriving truth from the Tanakh, that of counting spaces between the letters. However, most Orthodox Rabbis would tell you that it was the switch to computers that indicated the project was doomed to fail; like the story of the biblical Pi itself, a demand for ever-more “precision” tends to overlook the fact that the Torah was given to humans to grasp on the scale of human understanding. Besides, the Bible Codes apply only one method of exegesis, and far from the most common or important one.

Rabbi Munk, on the other hand, applies two better-established methods, and applies them not with a broad brush entering anything he can think of into a search box but with surgical precision, to the extent that it seems almost inconceivable that the verse should give rise to the meaning he discovered by accident. But you be the judge. Here is the verse that was translated earlier into English in the original Holy Tongue:

Rabbi Munk’s first method is to observe the parenthetical statement on the last line. It is a note on the three-letter word preceding it (remember, Hebrew read right-to-left). That word, וקו, is quite important to the verse; it is the “and a line” that refers to the 30-cubit circumference of the Molten Sea. The parenthetical statement tells the reader of the verse that even though the word is to be pronounced וקו (“V’kav”) it is written וקוה, (“V’kavah”). Now, the difference in the meaning of these two words is quite slight, the difference between “and a line” and “and its line.” However, the difference between the written form and the pronounced form has exegetical significance; the tradition of the book of Kings says that there are two superimposed realities in the verse, its written form and its pronounced form. One of the ways of dealing with this bifurcation is to view the pronounced version as the “revealed truth” whereas the written version is a deeper or “inner truth” of the verse.

Rabbi Munk’s second method is to apply Gematriah, the classic Jewish numerology in which each letter of the Holy Tongue is assigned a numerical value, to this verse. In the reckoning of the Gematriah, קו, the word that means “line” in the pronunciation of the verse, has a value of 106. The word that means “line” in the verse’s written form, however, is קוה, with a value of 111.

So, to sum up the two methods, the pronounced, revealed truth of the verse for the world has a value of 106. The written, secret, deeper truth under the surface, however, has a value of 111.

Rabbi Munk reasons that if we’re looking at a verse whose revealed meaning is problematic (because its approximation of a circle’s dimensions are so far off), maybe we can fix it by applying the verse’s hidden meaning. That is, we can perform an operation a little like dimensional analysis with the verse’s numbers. One can find the number of inches in three feet by multiplying (3 feet) x (12 inches / 1 foot), with the foot units cancelling out and leaving us with 36 inches. Similarly, our verse has a possible conversion: The revealed value of Pi into the verse’s deeper, truer meaning. The formula for this is:

(3, the revealed value of pi from the verse) x (the deeper truth of the verse, 111 / the “revealed” value of the verse, 106).

This, using only numbers put into the verse when the book of Kings was written, yields 3 x (111/106) = 3 x 1.04716981132 = 3.14150943396. And that is Pi to four decimal places.