Why Can’t A Nation Of Talmudists Write A Poem?

It’s funny that the same people that obsesses over a Tosfos can’t seem to warm up to poetry. The two forms are similar in their constrictions and have parallel goals, and both have historically been part of Judaism. What allows us to attack one with vigor, and never consider the other?

1. Talmudic Tribulations

What’s Tosfos? A Jewish religious text with multiple authors. One of the most challenging books ever written, and one of the most beautiful. A tour de force. Tosfos takes thousands of pages of Talmud – myriad opinions, legal positions, stories, practical advice, arguments, questions, answers – and dares look at the whole mess as an organized whole that ought not contradict itself. Then Tosfos plays different parts of the book against each other, searching for meaning in seeming contradictions. And what Tosfos says (and not in the easiest Rabbinic Hebrew, either) is only the beginning.

To wit: a certain Rabbi will opine in one tractate contrary to his opinion elsewhere. Tosfos will explain how it’s not really a contradiction with a dense five-line paragraph. From the beginner level of knowing basic Hebrew and Aramaic, it probably takes six months to a year of serious study to be able to understand those five lines.

But really it takes a lifetime.

Because those five lines aren’t five lines. They’re all of reality. Because Rashi, the commentary that chronologically preceded Tosfos and was available to the Tosafists, clearly has not just a different opinion, but the opposite opinion. It’s not as if Tosfos was working in a vacuum. For some reason Tosfos decides Rashi is wrong. So you dig deeper. Maybe you turn to later commentaries. Maybe you just rely on your own head. Turns out there’s a whole world here, grounded in the Gemara like an integral in its derivative, but operating at an entirely separate logical level. You find that Rashi and Tosfos disagree on this issue not just here, but in five other places spread across thousands of pages of Talmud. Not only that, but to understand their disagreements elsewhere, you must examine those tractates and dive into their flow. Now you have six different pieces of Talmud, each made of countless tiny pieces, and you have six opinions of Rashi and six of Tosfos. Tosfos doesn’t have to be internally consistent, as it has multiple authors (though of course it’s more elegant to explain it so if possible), but Rashi does. So first, you have to make all these Rashis internally consistent, and find the underlying logic that informs each of them. This is useful for the next step, because if Tosfos disagrees everywhere, their logic must be different. In the end, they have two completely different ways of reading all these sections of Talmud, internally consistent ways that fit into the exact same words of the Talmud equally well.

Tired of all this theorizing, you go to the codifiers, who take the whole mess and decide which position is more logical, and lay down the law for all generations. And there in Rambam (Maimonides), you see fell words, words that chill your blood: the great lawmaker seems to have borrowed freely from both Rashi and Tosfos; his ruling follows both of them, depending on the case. Rambam must have a way of reading the Talmud that’s completely different than both Rashi and Tosfos that allows him to mix these apparently contradictory opinions…

And so on, for the rest of your life, if you learn Torah.

The Talmudic novice often has a funny conception of Tosfos; he thinks it exists to make life more difficult. Everything was beautiful before they hacked away at it and rearranged it and insisted the whole thing had to make sense with itself. The Talmud (and with it, Judaism – in case you were thinking detachedly) is a shambles in its wake.

Of course, the student only appreciates the beauty of the Talmud at his own level. The ocean is indeed beautiful at the surface. Why is Tosfos bothering me with trenches and reefs? Who ever heard of a fish?

No, Tosfos is not here to destroy, but to lead us to deeper truth. It is only by disabusing us of the illusion of simplicity that it can then show us the light.

2. Poetic Parallels

These same Pharisees who study Talmud all day long can’t seem to appreciate a scrap of poetry. King David wrote poetry, it’s true – some of the greatest of all time, to this day, and even better in the original than in translation. King Solomon his son certainly wrote poetry. Many of Rashi and Tosfos’s contemporaries wrote poetry, religious poetry. But today, to my knowledge, very few religious Jews write poetry.

This, despite poetry being the Tosfos of reality.

Both poet and Tosfos plumb G-d’s work, and respect it. Both must find expression in small paragraphs. Both are plagued and vivified by the limitations of words and both must master these fragments of meaning if they hope to succeed. Where Tosfos sees edges of thought and logic and sharpens them against each other, the poet sees existential realms that must be interwoven – self and society, life and death, beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow. What Tosfos reaches through analysis of the brain, the poet reaches through the deep appreciation of the heart.

Their instructive forms parallel each other. Beginners at poetry don’t understand why the poet cannot say his words directly and clearly. Why the strange line breaks, the odd rhythm, words no one uses, the otherworldly metaphors that menace even in their sweetness? Surely the poet is mocking reality, creating falsehoods? The rose is pink. Just say so. No need to tell me it’s like the blush of the palms of a newborn’s feet.

No! Just as with Tosfos, the goal here is to appreciate the Truth. And just as with Tosfos, the deeper truths cannot be brought in through the mind’s front door, and must be smuggled ‘round back. Our tendency is to see a rose for a rose. But G-d “blushed” both the flower and the child, and both of them grow, and both of them are born and then wither and fade away, and both of them call to mind love and family.

A rose is not just a rose. A statement in the Talmud is not just a statement. Nothing is just anything. And that’s why poetry and Tosfos, in their own realms, lead us beyond base contingent realities, beyond that which is for no reason, to the causal truth. To the sublime.

3. A Pervasive Coldness

Why don’t exegetes appreciate a form of expression whose axiomatic foundation is that if it can be said straight out, it’s not worth saying? Why don’t we tease at the surface of reality the same way we tease our texts? Why, in a word, aren’t we poets?

It’s not just the religious who no longer appreciate poetry. The secular Tosfos, so to speak, is ascendant as well. We moderns are awash with analysis if not outright skepticism, and our tendency is to question before we appreciate. And if we question and never come to appreciation, no one loses sleep over it. Read your Facebook feed. If it’s not some throwaway piece of humor or cheap inspiration tarted up for mass consumption, it’s endless politics and debate and disagreement. (Not that everyone must agree. There is beauty in diversity, as much as that word leaves an exit wound. It’s all valid. There is nothing wrong with using our minds and having opinions.) The model of the thinking modern man is the scientist, who understands by taking apart and reassembling, by digging at what things are rather than accepting that they are.

This approach prevents us from seeing the poetry. We exercise doubt before appreciation. Better to be the hard-nosed skeptic who believes nothing than the fool who believes everything, we think (in exact contradiction, incidentally, to something Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once said). In the sense of intellectual consumption, what we cannot digest, we discard.

Tosfos and the poet both aim at the truth, but Tosfos gets there through contradiction, with the cry of how can this be true?, and we relate to that in our confusion and alienation. To write poetry, we must be in the position to say how great is this truth!

Learning Tosfos and writing poetry both demand a taste for abstraction while adhering to the facts. But for Tosfos, the facts are ultimately the limiting force on the truth behind the text. To get carried away defeats Tosfos’ purpose, and this seems logical to our empirical common sense. For the poet, the facts are merely a gateway, and oh, to be swept off one’s feet!

In terms of outlook (though perhaps not raw intellectual acuity), it takes more work to be a poet. Whether the religious with their ancient texts or the secular with their scientific understanding, the idea of Truth as a subject of appreciation rather than dissection has fallen out of fashion. Even frum Jews tend to raise shields against life, to run everything through the microscope and the chromatograph-spectrometer until the mighty, raging love that pervades reality becomes a trickle that might wet our parched hearts.

4. An Example and a Prayer

If you’re still skeptical (heh), I place before you two quotes. They both describe the same creature. They both use objective facts, though in different ways. The first is about two-hundred words long. The second is about forty. The first categorizes and dissects. The second doesn’t even name its subject. The question is simple: Which one captures the truth?

 

Sample A:

Eagles are large, powerfully built birds of prey, with a heavy head and beak. Even the smallest eagles, like the Booted Eagle (Aquila pennata) (which is comparable in size to a Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) or Red-tailed Hawk (B. jamaicensis)), have relatively longer and more evenly broad wings, and more direct, faster flight – despite the reduced size of aerodynamic feathers. Most eagles are larger than any other raptors apart from some vultures. The smallest species of eagle is the South Nicobar Serpent Eagle (Spilornis klossi), at 450 g (1 lb) and 40 cm (16 in). The largest species are discussed below. Like all birds of prey, eagles have very large hooked beaks for tearing flesh from their prey, strong muscular legs, and powerful talons. The beak is typically heavier than that of most other birds of prey. Eagles’ eyes are extremely powerful, having up to 3.6 times human acuity for the martial eagle, which enables them to spot potential prey from a very long distance. This keen eyesight is primarily attributed to their extremely large pupils which ensure minimal diffraction (scattering) of the incoming light. The female of all known species of eagle is larger than the male.

Sample B:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

 

Tosfos is beautiful, and it’s G-dly, and it’s perfect. Our scientific minds can discover plenty. But, G-d: If there’s no poetry between us, if I can’t learn to appreciate you as much as you appreciate me, if I can’t learn to love all the gifts you give me, chiefest among them life itself and your presence which are one, then how will we ever bring this long story to its sweet conclusion?

 

Image from Flickr.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

I’m Tzvi… Wait… Who Am I?

I’m not an atheist; that’s the first thing. Though I certainly don’t (or, at most, don’t certainly) believe in G-d. I’m not religious, but try finding a non-white shirt in my closet. 

I’m not culturally Jewish; I can’t stand kugel, herring, or kishke, Israel bothers me, and I do not live every day with the inheritance of the holocaust like a millstone around my neck.

I’m not South African, though that’s where I was born; I’m not American since they haven’t heard of Asterix and, in a display of new-world savagery, they drink their tea milkless. My accent adapts to its surroundings. 

I’m not cool; I cry at movies. Scratch that, I’ve cried at comedies. I can’t be uncool either; when I see sincere people my eyes roll so hard I almost lose my balance; when I see people rolling their eyes at sincere people I want to deck them.

I’m not funny; I never shot a moose.

I’m not an introvert if the number of times I’ve been told to shut up is any measure, but being social makes me feel hollow as an empty school building.

I’m not a good person; instead of driving someone to the airport I’ll tell them I’m busy and then take a nap. Then for that casual acquaintance’s birthday I’ll take them to Disney World.

“I touch no one and no one touches me.”

I’m not even properly overweight.

Who am I?

I don’t know, but something is left over, and from there, the words emerge.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

He’s A Human Being

Depression cannot kill Robin Williams, because Robin Williams is life. Put on a frenzied recording. Watch his jittery action. Feel the energy and listen to its message. It tells you the world is poetry, that there’s magic in this box of rain, that our lives can be tender and hilarious and full of wonder.

Depression cannot kill Robin Williams because depression is a stone. Depression is like a juice box, or a cotton swab, and can do nothing. Some might get upset at this point and say, no, depression is like cancer. Fine, say it’s like cancer. But, know: cancer cannot kill Robin Williams.

Depression cannot kill Robin Williams because Robin Williams is a person, and a person is a king or a queen, and lives and dies with honor. So when you say depression kills, know that you explain one thing while destroying another.

Depression cannot kill Robin Williams because it is neither G-d nor Robin Williams. If that kind man decided he would rather die, perhaps we would stand in his way. Perhaps we would say he’s selfish. Perhaps he is; people do selfish things all the time. But with all the gravity and the glory and the hot disgust that is our proud lot, he acted.

But if he had no choice in the matter, compelled by forces beyond his frail limits, then let it be known that depression did not kill him; a belt did not kill him; drugs did not kill him. These are dumb rocks and deserve not the praise. G-d took his life, because it was his time, and though we don’t like it or understand it, someone did it, not something, and that is dignified.

Let him live.

 

Image from Flickr. CCBY2.0.

News of the World

There’s a subreddit called “Uplifting News” that annoys me. It’s supposed to be an escape from the humdrum litany of murders, wars, etc. that is the news cycle; “There are still good, honest, compassionate people in this world and this is a place to share their stories,” says its description.

Have some headlines from the front page on July 4, 2014:

9 yo forgoes presents for his birthday, asks for dogs to be saved from kill shelters instead

Starbucks Praises Barista Who Defended Breastfeeding Mom

16-year-old with 3 college degrees gets perfect SAT score

US Navy gets its first four-star female admiral

Okay, I get it. Great things are happening to some people, and other people are doing great things. It’s not uplifting, though, because it doesn’t deal with the source of the sadness. I doubt anyone rational listening to the evening news ever thought, “Wow, everyone on planet earth is either suffering or causing others to suffer.” In fact, the suffering is newsworthy precisely because it’s different and new, a bright light illuminating the grey, benign mediocrity in which, thank G-d, most of us get to live.

I am downcast (assuming, for a moment, that I’m not a masochist looking for misery) because good news happens to exist, and in an ideal world, good news must exist.

Great things only exist in some ways and from some perspectives. The nine-year-old is kind, but not necessarily all dogs should be saved from kill shelters, and one wonders if forgoing one’s own gifts at such an age is even healthy and what his motivations are. Starbucks praised behavior that is controversial and whose righteousness is up for debate; the sixteen-year-old’s smarts are good only for him until put to some altruistic use; people are happy that the navy has four-star admirals, and happy that it has a female one, but generally not both. If the news meets some arbitrary standard or perspective, it inspires us. It can just as easily not meet that standard, leaving us just as cynical as before.

Suppose you’ve never seen or heard of a triangle, and I show you some examples of all different sizes, angles, colors, and materials. The more examples you see, the more you’re certain that triangles have three sides. But you can’t know for sure. Perhaps what I’m showing you are atypical triangles, a particular subset that happen to all have three sides, but the next triangle in the series will have four sides. It is only when you decide from the beginning that “all shapes I’ll see that have three sides I’ll call triangles” that a triangle must, by definition, have three sides. Without this a priori determination, the most you can ever say is “all triangles I have seen have three sides.” This is much what science says about all physical realities, even incredibly consistent ones like gravity, e.g. “all unsupported objects I’ve seen around here fall toward the earth, and not away from it.” This is consistent enough to be relied upon, but never makes the leap to becoming a must, a Truth (perhaps all we are experiencing is an incredibly long run in a random process, like getting a hundred heads in a row when flipping a coin, especially since we’re prone to underestimating how common long runs are). It seems the world is not a good place because we see good things happen. If you look up “news” in the dictionary, the definition doesn’t say “good.”

By the way, it’s not that some bad news ruins whatever good we find. Even if all headlines were uplifting headlines, I suspect we wouldn’t be happy, for the reason that all human attempts at utopia end in disaster and our representations of a peaceful, happy world (e.g. Disney World) come off as sort of creepy. You don’t get mugged in the street in the Disney world, but you do feel trapped, because you have a potential for selfishness and evil, a potential unmoved by bright colors that festers under the watchful eyes of park security, enforcers of an inhuman order.

No, until it must be good, it isn’t. Until we must be righteous, we aren’t. The next piece of news could always be bad, and if it isn’t, we might feel driven to make it so. Just as one who says a triangle has four sides is a madman, so must be he who says there is evil in the world. We don’t just need more good things to happen; we need to see everything differently.

Tanya, over two hundred years old, says we need to be happy. Or, more accurately, that depression is evil, and one ought to embrace its alternatives, joy and something called merirus (lit. bitterness). Depression is lethargy, whereas joy and bitterness are mirror images, positive and negative energy fueling improvement with hope or regret.

The author’s descendent and successor says that merirus is not for our generation, and that we must focus only on joy and the positive. It’s not, G-d forbid, that Tanya’s advice is less true now; we have changed. When men were men, contrition was sobering and drove one to the right path. Today, remorse is more likely to build and build until it drowns us in fear and self-absorption.

The Rebbe could have stopped there, and left us with another uplifting headline – Jewish Leader: “Life To Be Lived Focusing On Positive Future” – and the departure from merirus would based on non-uplifting technicality, i.e. we happen to be weaker than previous generations; another piece of surface-level good news generated at random.

But the Rebbe doesn’t stop at the first reason. In the system by which the seven millennia of human existence correspond to the spiritual rhythms of the seven-day week, we live in Friday afternoon, a time to prepare for the cosmic Shabbos, the coming of Moshiach; traditionally, the time for stock-taking and regret is Thursday night, as far into the week as possible without interrupting Friday’s royal preparations. Since we live after Thursday, so close to the time of redemption, we ought to prepare for the future, to taste of it by living joyously in the present. Because when that day comes, the world will express only G-dliness, true perfection, and death will be swallowed up forever.

In other words, the Rebbe defines the triangle from the get-go. What is a world? A perfect place, a place without evil. That is the Truth, as absolute as the infinite G-d it reflects. And since our knowledge of G-d and His plan allows us this a priori definition of reality, the uplifting news can actually serve its purpose; every three-sided triangle aligns with what we know to be true.

The headlines of /r/UpliftingNews are not random breaks in a fierce story; they are the true intention of the Storyteller finally coming through to his audience because they must, because that is the point of all His trillions of words. The child’s altruism, the company’s praise, the teen’s brilliance, and the navy’s appointment pierce the illusion of randomness and technicality: in the world’s perfect state, people will be selfless, empathetic, and brilliant; femininity, with its greater inherent spirituality, will supplant masculinity as the main mode of existence.

All these things were recorded as the true definition of our world thousands of years ago. Pick up a holy book, and read all about it.

Image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0

Again

I don’t even really like my job. It’s tedious and annoying. I live and work in a Jewish academy in the middle of nowhere (it used to be a monastery), and my job is to record exactly who is in the study hall when learning is in session. The students range from seventeen to twenty and from immature to not-quite-mature.

So why am I in so much pain, leaving?

Life itself is the greatest of all pleasures. While it’s unchallenged, we don’t even realize we enjoy it. But try to take someone’s life away…

 

They’re sitting at a picnic table near the parking lot, this afternoon. One guy’s a free spirit, so free he resents the concept of punctuality and punctuality’s patron saint (at least in northern New Jersey), me. Another is quiet; we’ve probably shared three scattered words since the year began. One is studious, a perfect student, never late, too perfect for antics. There’s a guy who’s just “one of the guys,” the guys I was never part of.

I never disliked them, or liked them either. They were simply the faces (so many faces) who’d pass by in the hall, who’d eat in the lunch room, who’d play Frisbee or soccer during lunch breaks. We’d complain together constantly – there was a lot to complain about. Terrible school, badly run. The food – isn’t. Can you believe who’s in trouble? And for what? Why can’t they see what the problem actually is? We can’t wait to just get out of here…

I sit watching these guys at the table and, out of nowhere, I feel it. It’s the end of a good novel or TV show. It’s the open lockers and papers everywhere on a summer afternoon in high school. It’s the buses lined up faithfully on the last day of camp. And today, it’s the luggage rolling down the passage outside my room and the loaned books returned to my shelf by people who I realize I love, not because of anything they did but because they were there for a time, a part of my life, another long day washed under the bridge.

It’s not even the end of the year; they’re leaving for the holiday of Shavuos, the day we received G-d’s Torah on Mount Sinai. But after that it’s just two weeks, and then no matter what I do or where I go, it will be after, beyond, the rest.

I will not return to my home of three years. I’m not truly happy here, not anymore. I can accomplish things elsewhere and I need change and there’s a whole life to live outside these four walls, but this afternoon, when they were on those benches, I wanted to keep Shavuos in place and cling to this mediocrity with iron fingers, because it’s my mediocrity and I live here and not again, not again, not again. Not the parting, the endless beyond, the unbearable future without them and these hallways painted hospital white and the deer in the woods and late night 7-11 runs and the guy at the gas station whose stomach hangs out of his T-shirt and the boiled eggs and my mail in the back office and the long winters. Why must I do this again? Why do I have to taste the warming wind, watch these rooms drain of people, blood from a limb, and then gather my things and move once more?

I sometimes think that G-d is the pack you put on your shoulders as you must, again, walk down the road.

 

Van from my phone; Van Gogh from Wikipedia.

Deus Ex Machina

Statements, in general, are dangerous. A statement claims and at once denies; if the sky is blue it cannot be green. When the statement in question is susceptible to disproof, yet is essential to a worldview that would not survive its falsification, only a brave man or a foolish one would dare to speak. The dinosaur issue, for example, is arguably non-essential to Judaism. The Torah has an opinion on the matter (as with all matters) but the age of the world and the conditions of its existence in the distant past are not central tenets of our religion; on the contrary, there are many orthodox Jews who for whatever reason do not see a contradiction between Torah’s six-day creation and science’s billions-of-years formation. Equally as harmless are a priori axiomatic assertions, such as G-d’s existence; there is (practically) no way to put the lie to it and thus those of us who otherwise just eat popcorn and watch reruns of The Office may proclaim it loudly and without fear. The purpose of mankind, on the other hand, is a different pot of cholent. Torah, and (as we’ll see) specifically Chassidic teachings, takes a gamble and decrees why we’re here. Is it right, even in unfamiliar times?

On the agenda: Humans make gods in their image. It’s all over fiction, from Suarez’s Daemon novels to popular TV shows like Person of Interest. A genius billionaire creates a computer/software that can see/manipulate/do anything, and it proceeds to see/manipulate/do just that. The implications are terrifying; Suarez’s intelligent program adapts itself to news stories it reads on the Internet, runs weapon factories, and enslaves humans by force. To gain loyalty it reads brainwaves with MRIs, detects the basest desires of its followers, and provides them. In PoI, the machine predicts crimes before they take place, has access to every security camera in the world, and communicates through a Delphi-style avatar named Root who openly worships “her” as a deity.

While our stories scout over the horizon, computing power continues to grow next door. Moore’s law says that computer processing speed doubles roughly every year; the Singularity, a kind of technopocalypse when artificial intelligence will exceed human intelligence, may only be fifteen to thirty years away. It may also not happen at all; it’s hard to take any predictions of futuristic radical upheavals too seriously while I still don’t have my jetpack. Interesting nevertheless is Ray Kurzweil’s characterization of that future time as a move away from the biological and toward the spiritual as the mind is uploaded from the confines of the body.

Now the problem: If in fifty years’ time humanity is no longer the dominant life form on this planet and we exist only as pawns of superintelligent Google bots, what will remain of our central role in the creation, of our unique ability to carry out G-d’s will? It is clear that, say, a caterpillar cannot fulfill G-d’s commandments, since it is an unintelligent creature that cannot understand those commands and desires as they have been expressed to humans. They aren’t smart enough for free will. Is it possible that in the near future there will be robots smarter than any human? Why have Jews if a robot can learn the entire Torah in an instant with an infallible memory, weigh the different sides of a halachic question using fuzzy logic, be bothered by the plight of the Jewish poor, and write novel, extensively annotated responsa on the topic?

In case this is all too abstract or ridiculous, consider that in a way we already suffer from this existential threat all the time. You arrive at a new job and a coworker is…perfect. He can do everything you can do and everything your friends can do, and he’s happier doing it. You know that he must have terrible taste in music and crippling self-absorption and dead people in his basement but it turns out he has deep original insight into your favorite band, feeds the hungry in his spare time, and built an indoor waterfall in his basement with his bare hands during breaks from cooking chicken soup for his ailing aunt whom he supports singlehandedly. It can make you wonder what, if anything, you bring to the world other than your oh-so-special brand of mediocrity.

Torah gives several reasons why we’re here. The answers vary in content and their effect on the human experience. One source it says the world is here that He may be known. Another says the world exists to actualize His potential, for a potential is incomplete without expression. A third place says G-d created heaven and earth so that he may eventually express himself fully in the reality furthest removed from his truth, and Chassidus champions this answer over all others, for reasons simple to any student of Kabbalah.

Our world is not the only one G-d created. There are spiritual realities, populated by spiritual beings. There are an infinite number of angels (Chassidus recognizes this as a logical contradiction that only omnipotence could tolerate), for example, spiritual beings who exist only to serve their Creator, conduits for an ever-falling cascade of G-dly energy. Since there are other worlds, and assuming that G-d does nothing without purpose (a safe assumption only because that’s what He himself tells us through his Torah), it stands to reason that humans exist because we can do something that, say, angels, cannot. If the purpose of creation is that G-d may be known, there is no reason for a human to exist; we cannot know Him like the lowest angel knows him and certainly not as he is known in Atzilus, highest of spiritual creations. It also seems odd that with all that infinite spirituality up there the expression of His potential should be in the physical, philosophically low, as if until Einstein teaches second grade math he is not a genius.

No, G-d likes mediocrity.

In other words: If you think G-d created anything for the reason I create a bowl of cereal & milk, i.e. it adds something to His life, you’re living in delusion. There is no “adding” to G-d. It’s in his job description. He is absolute, everything else is conditional. He is real, and everything else is pathetically fake. He doesn’t need; (unless he chooses to, in which case) He wants. What does He want? Something new. To Him, everything is Him; he wants “not Him.” He creates the material, stuff so dumb its existence at face value demands no explanation or antecedent, stuff that takes up space and therefore exists on technicality. Then, he creates the impossible, little reproductions of himself that operate autonomously, which would be impossible for any spiritual being aware that to fight the divine will is to commit suicide. What if, He wonders, these little things actually chose to be G-dly even though they didn’t have to? Who ever heard of such a thing?

Our excellence doesn’t make us interesting. Our choices in the face of adversity make us interesting. And human adversity is miraculously fine-tuned: constant, enough to hurt, generally not too much to destroy. Personal adversity is the same, a divine constant, tailor-made for the individual and his abilities. “According to the camel is the load.”

No matter how stupid we feel compared to the guy at work or the computer on our desk, we are created with our own challenges and limitations and our own part of this “not Him” to fix. We can’t know anyone else’s challenges. We don’t have to be supermen; we don’t have to be the best. We only have to be the best us.

I’ll take my jetpack now.

Image of BRAAAIIIINS from Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

 

Control

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

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

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

It struck me that their feelings meshed with mine.

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

It came to me all at once:

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

We’re all addicts.

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

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

Addiction = Control.

What at that Massachusetts inlet freed us?

A sense of the miraculous.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

 

The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place

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

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

That’s all.

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

There was less Xbox than I expected.

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

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

It still hasn’t.

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

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

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

shluchim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do I believe him, when I do?

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

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

I really should call that Russian guy.

 

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

The Rebbe, The Chief Rabbi, and The Fossils

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

What is the simple argument in question?

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

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

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

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

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

Seems like a fundamental misstep, pun intended.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Why are we here on this earth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

No bones about it.

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

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

What is a Rebbe?

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

We can learn how to see, if we choose.

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Does it make sense to you? No? Good.

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

The Rebbe’s response, to paraphrase:

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

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

 

Image courtesy of Flickr.