10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 3)

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

Last time we spoke about the difference between the G-d of monotheism and the random fictitious characters no one believes in, such as the tooth fairy. Whereas the existence of the former is arrived at through deductive reason and is thus disproved through questioning the premises or logic of certain classic arguments, the existence of the latter rests on no such reasoning and is much more easily disbelieved.

This time, we will briefly examine the most famous argument for G-d’s existence as it has existed since the middle ages. We will examine it through the lens of the most common and by far the worst objection to the argument, which is:

3. “What caused G-d?”

At first glance, this argument is not an expression of ridiculous offhanded easy atheism, like the other things we are examining in this series. This argument appears in several books claiming to be serious atheist criticisms of theism. It is what people say when they hear one of the famous cosmological argument for the existence of G-d. When they hear, but not when they pay attention, because, as we shall see, this argument is not an argument at all a lazy bumper sticker dismissal of G-d, and is perfectly at home on this list.

Now, there’s a reason that the classical arguments for G-d’s existence, including the one I’m about to ridiculously briefly paraphrase, are found within the context of much broader works. An understanding of Aristotelean and scholastic metaphysics, of the way the world works according to those philosophical schools, is required to really understand the arguments they put forth. I do not claim to grasp that entire metaphysical picture, and I certainly am not getting into the bits I do know in this small space. Suffice it to say, the following paragraph is merely the tip of the iceberg of the proof for G-d in its entirety, with all caveats explored and all concepts mapped out.

In my own words, the cosmological argument, as laid out by medieval philosophers of all three major monotheistic religions, is:  Everything that is caused has an efficient cause outside of itself, because nothing can cause itself. Since the potential can only be made actual by something that is already actual, this efficient cause must itself be actual. But if this efficient cause is itself caused, then it itself needs a cause outside itself, to make it actual. This chain of efficient causes must therefore terminate in a cause that is uncaused, and that uncaused cause can be shown to have all the traits of G-d.

Now, this argument (which I hope I have done justice in my paraphrase) sometimes appears in other terms. The Rambam, for example, makes this argument not from causality but from motion (that is, anything which is in motion cannot move itself, etc.). A similar argument exists in terms of essence and existence (anything whose existence is not its essence must have its essence and existence conjoined by something outside itself, etc). But one thing this argument never, ever, ever, does, is start with, “everything has a cause,” which would then allow us to turn around, triumph writ upon our countenances, and say, “But what caused G-d?”

(That is not to say that there are no legitimate critiques of the cosmological argument, On the contrary, many great thinkers have challenged its premises, and it has been a debate among philosophers since the argument was made. I am simply pointing out that “What caused G-d” has absolutely nothing to do with what the Rambam, for example, was saying. No one ever said everything has to have a cause.)

Why, you may wonder, is this relevant to the average theist?

Because the real cosmological argument, as opposed to the caricature of “everything has a cause, nothing causes itself, so there must be a first cause which is G-d,” puts us on the right trail toward (at least a negative version of) an understanding of G-d.

You see, the false cosmological argument offered by no classical philosopher is what makes room for the deist understanding of the creator, of G-d as a divine watchmaker who at some point created or gave order to the universe but may today be totally uninvolved. After all, the place for G-d according to that argument is at the beginning of a causal change that stretches into the distant past, irrelevant except as the first step of a process that has been going on for thousands or millions of years, etc.

The true version of the cosmological argument, however, has a sense of the qualitative difference between G-d and everything else. In other words, the idea that anything which is comprised of act and potency must be caused by something other than itself, whereas pure act requires no cause, draws a sharp delineation between the causative powers of G-d and those of everything else. Ultimately, the cosmological argument is trying to say (and again, whether it succeeds is a matter of some controversy) that all causes other than the first are instrumental, that G-d is first not just in order but also in quality, that nothing can be unless G-d makes it so, at every moment.

(This, incidentally, is why, as pointed out by the Rambam, the existence of G-d has nothing to do with whether the world has always existed or was created at some point in the past. According to his cosmological deduction of G-d’s existence, even an eternal universe requires G-d to sustain it at every moment. Students of chassidus will note that this sounds similar to what the Alter Rebbe is saying at the beginning of the second part of Tanya. Indeed, that work takes the Rambam’s argument and takes it further, showing the qualitative gain in an appreciation of G-d when we do, in fact, accept that the world is not only sustained by G-d at every moment but also was created ex nihilo.)

Thus, if we study the actual arguments made by the great philosophers of the monotheistic religions, we begin to realize what they have in mind when they constantly praise this “G-d” character…

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 2)

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

I must start with a confession, and that is — I’m cheating with the numbering of this list. You see, “arguments” (and I use to the term loosely) one, two, and three are all related and quite similar. Though the points discussed in each of the three sections flow from one another, it is still worth listing each of the arguments seperately, if only for the nostalgia of recognizing them, like when we saw the Millenium Falcon in the new Star Wars. “I saw my friend in grad school comment that on an unrelated Facebook post five months ago!”

It warms the heart.

Last time,  we spoke about the idea that what is at issue in monotheism is merely an incomplete form of atheism, or, as the famous quote goes, “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one less god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” This was noted to be a generally wonderful point, because it forces the monotheist to think of his god differently. We noted (very) briefly that the answer to this claim is that the monotheist G-d is very different from other “gods.” If we do not believe in Hercules or Loki, it is for very good reason, and a reason that does not apply to the One G-d of monotheism.

Not convinced? That’s why we have

2. “Believing in G-d is like believing in the tooth fairy.”

Or as Queen put it, “You say, ‘Lord,’ I say, ‘Christ, I don’t believe in Peter Pan, Frankenstein, or Super Man.'” Or Santa Clause. Or  Poseidon.  Or whatever. The point is, there are these imaginary people that they tell us about as kids, but some of us never grow out of believing in the “G-d” one. If you think that G-d exists you’re stuck in your childhood, foolish, buying into the big lie. The atheist has merely managed to stop foolishly believing in one more contrivance than the monotheist.

Now, just who exactly is supposed to be pulling the wool over whom’s eyes, or whether someone need be deceitful for someone to be fooled is an issue for a different time. What we’re dealing with here is the substance of Freddie Mercury’s point, i.e. that not believing in G-d is the same as not believing in any other character or being we have never actually seen with our eyes.

This is, unfortunately, not true, because everyone agrees that the criteria for reality does not involve actually seeing something with our eyes. Sure, if G-d were like a person, if He were a demigod like the pagan deities, who are basically like superman with less Jewish backstories, then the only way to affirm His existence would be through seeing Him or believing the testimony of those who have. This is because these beings are basically people, like anyone else. You know they’re there if you see their body, same way you know your aunt has shown up at the family reunion and it’s time for slobbery kisses.

G-d, if He doesn’t have a body (a point that, like G-d’s existence I’m sure, is still widely considered to be up for debate), would be rather hard to spot. That’s okay; there are other things that don’t have a body and have never been seen, and we believe in them. Some of these we know through their effects, like recalcitrance or love or the wind. This is unhelpful in trying to determine whether G-d exists, since His effects are just as up for debate as his existence, and this sends us down the rabbit hole of the whole “science vs religion” thing which, no matter its outcome, is utterly unnecessary.

It is unnecessary because there are other things we know to be true, but not through seeing their bodies, and not even through their effects. These we know with a more arcane, thoroughly human form of perception, that is, through logical demonstration.

Take, for example, Euclid’s magnificent proof that there are infinitely many prime numbers, still beautiful and true after 2300 years. This proof does not involve anything physical, nor does it affect anything we can observe. It is an example of deductive logic whose premises and conclusion deal in purely abstract concepts. As far as I know, very few people go around saying, “Believe in Euclid’s Theorem? I don’t believe in the tooth fairy, either.” The reason very few people go around saying this is because it’s stupid. You are comparing something that can only be known to exist through witnesses or the testimony of witnesses (the tooth fairy) to something that is said to exist because basic premises and logic itself leads us to that conclusion (Euclid’s theorem).

Now, this doesn’t mean it is impossible to argue with deductive mathematical reasoning. What it means is that if we are to argue, we should really argue with either the premises or the logic of the demonstration. On the contrary, if you do not believe every number can be broken down into prime factors, or you are a fervent skeptic of modus ponens (having read that thoroughly disturbing Lewis Carroll story), by all means — argue these things. But comparisons to the existence of mythical figures accomplishes nothing at all.

If you haven’t yet guessed it, it’s worth saying now: I really do believe G-d is more like Euclid’s Theorem than the tooth fairy. That is, His existence is classically known through a process of demonstrative logical deduction, not through seeing Him or His effects in some way.

Very well, you may be thinking. What is the demonstration? Where is the proof? What are the premises or logic that we must criticize, rather than saying G-d is like Peter Pan?

But that’s for next time, when we’ll discuss the perennial question, “What caused G-d?” For now, for those of us who believe in G-d, it is worth meditating on the difference between Frankenstein and G-d. And rest assured: The great religious philosophers of all three major monotheistic religions have always said that the difference is sizeable indeed.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 1)

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

“The God you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.” – Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev

In between the preening self-righteousness, the fundamentalist discrimination, and patting their own backs, atheists occasionally make arguments.

These arguments, supporting their intellectually superior beliefs, generally fall into two categories. First, there are the arguments from scientific discoveries. These usually involve aspects of our modern knowledge that either contradict or make irrelevant classic religious teachings. In this category I would include both darwinism and its strange nephew, evolutionary psychology, the former an explanation of man’s origins that allegedly contradicts the bible and the latter a “scientific” attempt to explain man’s moral universe, another traditionally religious realm. These types of arguments are boring. They’ve been done to death; no one is changing their mind; many of us can predict the first thousand facebook comments on these ideas with a fair amount of accuracy.

Then there is the second category, the dumb arguments. These are the ones I want to talk about. This is when your atheist friend will say something glib that could fit on a bumper sticker that is so outlandish, strange, and wrongheaded that you are caught off-balance. I have a strange thesis about these arguments: these are actually the more intelligent ones. These intellectual haymakers deal with the realm of the a priori and the logical. They are not derived from empirical observation, nor do they claim to be. They are condensed examples of an almost folksy village wisdom; they are the type of thing the village atheist would say, and they deal not with the world but the way we see the world.

I, being a fan of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and other Chassidic masters, have a weak space in my heart for glib-sounding folksy wisdom that could fit on a bumper sticker. I love aphorisms, I love turns of phrase. I love what Kabbalists call Chachma, the flash of insight that is obviously brilliant, but whose brilliance defies explication.

I believe that in their dumb arguments, atheists are actually onto something, and that by looking at these arguments and accepting their validity we can actually improve our belief in God. In other words, I want to fearlessly follow the quote at the beginning of this post wherever it leads. I want my God to be beyond these arguments, even if pushing Him past them requires abandoning my easy preconceptions of the divine.

Who knew atheism was good for something?

1. Atheism Vs. Monotheism Is an Arithmetical Dispute

“A practitioner of Hinduism has millions of gods. A follower of Zoroaster has two. Christians, Muslims, and Jews have one. And an atheist has zero. So (the argument goes) just as a Jew fails to believe in the second god of the Zoroastrians, so the atheist fails to believe in the G-d of the Jew. An atheist is simply a monotheist who subtracted one extra god. What’s the big deal?”

I love this thought. In fact, this could be called the necessary beginning of any appreciation of monotheism. Why the hell do we only have one god? Is it important?

If we merely chose an arbitrary number, namely one, then the atheist is right. Just as monotheism is valid, so are polytheism and atheism. Of course, appeals to revelation (“the one god told me he was the one god!”) impress no one.

And so, on the contrary, the monotheist’s god must be different than another Shiva or Zeus. The conception of the one god as some sort of demigod or mythical superhero is indeed open to a play from other religions. Too often, monotheists have no answer as to why their god is different.

Which is sad, because different He is. According to the greatest philosophers of each of the three major montheistic religions, G-d is different from absolutely everything else. Everything else (and any other god we can possibly conceive of) is a contingent reality, the effect of a cause. The G-d of monotheism is uncaused, infinite, and the very essence of being. He is, for various reasons these philosophers demonstrate, not one of many possible gods, but the first cause that must maintain the existence of the universe.

The point is not whether we know those arguments for the Necessary G-d. The point is that theists and atheists should know that the being they do or do not believe in is indeed a very different deity than those of the pagan polytheists. Not arithmetically different, but categorically different.

Until we engage with these deeper conceptions of monotheism’s god, we are supporting or criticizing something else entirely, something which, in Western countries at least, very few people believe.

We’ll continue on the difference between the monotheistic and polythesistic gods in the next installment when we’ll compare G-d and the toothfairy.

When A Non-Jew Asked What I Believe

A friend who is not Jewish recently asked me, “What are your metaphysical beliefs?” This was the best answer I could give him:

What do I believe?

Well, I’m an ordained rabbi, so that should tell you something. By most outside evaluations, I am what would be called “orthodox jewish,” or even the semi-derogatory “ultra-orthodox.” But I believe these terms are shallow, and the question “what do I believe” remains an interesting one with no simple answer.

It is both harder and easier for me to answer this question than it has been in the past. It’s harder, because distinctive beliefs that are easily delineated seem more beyond my grasp the more I learn about Judaism and particularly the mystical Chassidic teachings that are my passion. It’s easier because the answer, “I believe whatever I’m supposed to” seems more legitimate to me every day.

I once would have said simply that I believe what Maimonides lays out in his thirteen principles of faith. Now I tell myself what I tell 90% of people who say things about Judaism. “It’s not so simple…”

I believe there is a G-d. Who is G-d? By definition, impossible to answer. I once would have said He is the creator of the universe. But He is not just that; maybe not even primarily that. He is transcendent yet imminent, everything yet nothing, beyond yet within. He is at the vertex of every paradox and in both sides of every argument. He is the fulcrum; He is gravity; He is the weights.

I believe in Torah, that G-d revealed and reveals His will and wisdom to mortal man. What does the Torah say? Everything, in some context or other. There are few statements that could authoritatively be said to be in contradiction to Torah, and the threads of its net seem to sweep up every corner, every trailing edge of human existence. The Torah is like a wedge driven through history, a system of rules whose emergent properties are little-understood even after thousands of geniuses’ lifetime study, a mind virus whose propagation has altered the world in ways immeasurable and will continue to do so.

I believe in Judaism. What is Judaism? Judaism is a way that is ultimately not rationally explainable. It is a religion, but it is also decidedly not a religion. At times it seems to be all about following rules and living a moral life. At other times it seems to run black like nihilism in dark veins, to embrace wild chaotic beauty. It is the custom of a small tribe that has survived against all odds, a family that has never sought out new members yet has utterly transformed the world just by existing, and being a family.

These few ephemeral, ill-defined things are the only things I believe in without qualification. Everything else is a discussion, an exploration of shades. I believe in human evil and human good, in systematic imperatives and personal authenticity, in meaning and meaninglessness, in great sages and in simple peasants, in heaven and in death, in happiness and in angst, in the soul and in the body…

The one thing I can say is that I trust in my family, in our traditions, in the age-old story of my people and all we have learned in our travails. My ultimate faith is in the process, in the idea that our tribe is not here for nothing but for a purpose. But I am willing to follow this way and this system wherever it leads, and it has led to wild jungles of antinomianism, chaos, and other areas not considered the normal stomping grounds of religion. It has led to the essence of things, and to particulars, and everywhere in between…

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Judaism Is Crazy And That’s A Good Thing

“Jumbo Shrimp.” “Honest Politician.” “Middle Initial.”

“Rational Judaism.”

It’s not that we shouldn’t engage our minds in Judaism. It’s not that we shouldn’t struggle to make sense of the tradition of our fathers and thereby (and only thereby) make it our own. But to pretend this is anything more than the subjective struggle of Jews, to say that our understanding and our rationalizations and the arguments we throw out in Internet debates are the entirety, or even the main part, of Judaism — this is sacrilege of the highest order.

The strange desire to make Judaism make sense is, I admit, partially Judaism’s fault: it seems such a sensible religion, with many laws and texts and codes and numbered principles, etc. But while these are part of Judaism, they do not get to the core of what Judaism is or ought to be. They are, in fact, tangential, a facade, almost in the category of a necessary evil, and the motivations of those who seek to force Judaism to make sense are suspect.

But that’s not the place to begin. The place to begin is with a fundamental mistake you may remember from your high school English class.

***

Everyone who took English in high school was forced to read Shakespeare (I hope). Most people didn’t come away with a positive impression. The Bard is more than just boring, they’d tell you. The Bard is enciphered. He speaks in a strange English from a distant time and we just don’t see the point in working hard to understand what he says.[i] What (and I honestly couldn’t answer this question) is the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What happens in the story? Why should I keep turning the pages? How are iambic pentameter and blank verse relevant to my life or anyone’s life?

I know these questions because I had them myself. I could tell there was more to the matter than met the eye (he is after all pretty much the most famous and lauded writer in my language, and it’s been like four hundred years) but this only compounded my frustration.

I didn’t “get it” until, perhaps in desperation, they took us to see a play. I think it was The Tempest. It blew me away. Even though there was so much I didn’t understand, it was beautiful. There was a certain grace, a cadence, a subtle rhythmic power to the words. I sensed, in a word, the poetry.

Why did it work on the stage when it did not work in the classroom?

Because Shakespeare wrote plays. He never intended for his words to be endlessly picked apart and for their first reading to take weeks or months. By the time we got to the good stuff in the classroom, the stuff that Dumas described as “Adam’s first sight of Eden,” the play already lay cut open on the surgeon’s table, dead in dissection.

Crazy that Shakespeare could be appreciated in play form without academic study, right? As simple as it sounds, we often forget it. We have a strange tendency to use the wrong parts of our minds and souls on the wrong material. We get mathematical with Shakespeare; we get scientific with philosophy; we get rational about Judaism.

***

Many Jews take a little time each year to, er, swing chickens. Most of us find this pretty weird.

If it’s too weird, if it’s beyond your threshold, if you just can’t do it — I think most of us could appreciate that, too. Don’t do it.

But imagine for a moment there were people who wished to change the tradition, to abolish it from Judaism, to uproot it retroactively by somehow proving that it’s inauthentic or some strange imposition on true Judaism by outside parties or circumstances. Let’s call them the rebels.

These people would eventually become very frustrated, because the hard-hearted traditionalists would ignore their outcry and their protest and for the most part not argue with them. The standard position would be: ignore the haters. Who are the real chickens here? the rebels would wonder, feeling superior in their ability to at least put the idea in the open, to debate it, to confront it.

They don’t realize that the reason the flesh-and-blood human beings who love to argue (seriously) don’t feel like arguing with them is because no one believes their contentions are rooted in purely rational arguments and a desire to find the truth. The traditionalist feels intuitively that the motivation of the average rebel is simply “this is weird.” And the traditionalists have already decided that they don’t care.

The rebel, reassured and seeing and opening, would point out that this is the purest sort of logical fallacy, that the traditionalists aren’t meeting the challenge to their ideas honestly, that they are willfully ignoring logical alternatives and, so blinded, will discern neither the best course of action nor the truth.

“We don’t decide the course of our own actions early in the morning the day before Yom Kippur,” answer the traditionalists, “and ain’t that the truth.”

There is literally nothing the rebel can say to this, except that they refuse to partake in something that does not make sense to them. It is sad, they think, that some people will forfeit their G-d-given intellects. Just sad.

But sad is not the word. The only word to describe the actions of those immovable traditionalists that will not even sit at the debating table and their forays over the edge of rationality is “essential.”

***

It is a well-known phenomenon to those who work with Baalei Teshuva, Jews who come to Judaism later in life, that they lack a certain klugkeit. Klugkeit, n. (Yiddish) – cleverness; smarts.

The old saying goes: To be religious is to be a priest (read with negative connotations), to be happy is to be a clown (same), and to be klug is to be a heretic (play along). To be all three together is to be a Jew.

In other words, cleverness is the magic preservative that lets religiousness and happiness coexist (no easy feat, many will testify). It is what allows a human being of flesh and blood with a flawed personality and a beating heart full of love and fear live under the rule of an inanimate system of laws without going insane. It is the skeleton key that transforms cages into parlors, prisons into homes. And it is problematic.

The problem with klugkeit is that it’s by definition ephemeral. It’s not written down anywhere, and cannot be written down anywhere. Being klug is antithetical to being orderly and intellectual. A Jew could sit down with holy texts for eighty years and personally build up Judaism from the Chumash and from first principles, and never run into klugkeit. It is what’s written between the lines; it is what’s written on the blank page at the front of all the books. Klugkeit is the mortar that takes millions of  inky letters and turns them into a window illuminated by G-dliness.

Klugkeit is anathema to the Shulchan Aruch Jew, the purist whose Judaism begins and ends with the Code of Jewish Law. The Rav back in the shtetl (and nowadays) finds a heter, a dispensation, a “way around” the law, because he’s klug[ii]. The beautiful rainbow of Jewish customs that bend and warp Jewish laws are functions of klugkeit. A lesser form of klugkeit is what makes religious Jews freak out if their children watch movies and not freak out if their children speak gossip or slander, even though some movies may not strictly be an issue at all in Jewish law and slander is as bad as the three cardinal sins combined. If you ask the parents about this inherent contradiction, they’ll have a very hard time explaining it.

It gets worse. Though it makes some heads explode, the Gra broke Shulchan Aruch. The Alter Rebbe, first Rebbe of Chabad, broke his own Shulchan Aruch, the version he wrote. Chassidim break Shulchan Aruch when they daven late; Litvishers break Shulchan Aruch when they don’t do the full repetition of Shemoneh Esrei. Now understand, these changes are justified; there is room for them, there are explanations for them. These explanations are very good explanations. I certainly wouldn’t want to argue with the Vilna Gaon or the Alter Rebbe, and neither would you. Nevertheless, one needs klugkeit for this to work, for the brain to tolerate the tension between The Rules and the reality of the Jewish religion. Why, one wonders, would the Alter Rebbe not sleep in his Sukkah, but write in his Code that one must sleep in the Sukkah? There are ways of understanding it. But the fact that there is a real Yiddishkeit that wasn’t put in the Code is telling.

Judaism is ultimately a religion of people, not of books, and can often make as much sense as people do. Judaism is more than a book, and, more importantly, it’s more than what can be in a book.

***

Why can’t Judaism be systemized and written down?

Because systemization is death. Literally.

At first, there was no logic and no system. There was only the Truth, the Holy One, Life of Life, Blessed be He. A system could not exist. By definition a system is impersonal, rules created to deal with discrepancies because dealing with things in an ad hoc fashion costs too much time or resources. This is not a problem for the Deity, who is quite capable of dealing with everything personally. A system would mean separation from the Creator, inherent death. It is the death contained in every untruth, in every smothering system that knows no living being, in every sad story you have ever read, in every cubicle.

The downside of the non-systematic personal mode is that there is no way to escape its intimacy, no privacy, no true individuality. An invasiveness that prevented all finitude was the norm, before.

After, G-d created the systems. First, he made logic itself, then the system we call the laws of nature. Both of these were based off of a uniquely divine system called the Torah, which was later brought into the world in the form of 613 general directives which in turn contained zillions of sub-rules.

The goal of Torah was not to teach people how to behave in a G-dly fashion; this was achieved long before Sinai, and practically to perfection. In fact, if the point were merely to have something G-dly, perhaps the Torah would come unwritten and uncodified, without rules, for the system with its numbered laws seem to be artifacts of G-d’s concealment, of his personal aloofness from creation.

Rather, the goal of Torah was/is to smuggle G-dliness into the system, and teach the system how to be G-dly at every level, on its own terms. The idea was to take the infinite, free, personal G-d and show Him to be the defining truth of this limited, bound, rules-driven, systemized, dead rock we call home. And like all smugglers, the Torah must be a master of disguise, a disguise that doesn’t break the system.

But can the person ever be reduced to the mask they wear?

What do we stand to lose, if we forget there is anything under the mask at all?

And so we must be discerning. We must look for the little signs that show there is more to the Torah and to Judaism than its codified disguise.

We have to be just a little clever.

***

So, a Jew makes an error, forgets his klugkeit, and mistakes Judaism for something that makes sense. What’s the prognosis?

At first glance, the patient appears healthy. A rational Judaism is, in fact, a very close approximation of the real thing, not just a caricature but a lifelike sculpture that is hard to distinguish from the living, breathing original for some time.

The reality, however, is that the life has been strained out of the religion of his forefathers, and only clay remains. The demand for rationality is a subtle and pernicious selfishness. It brings one to petulantly hack at tradition; that which makes sense stays, that which does not, falls. This is done, of course, in the name of objectivity; he is trying to fix what he’s received, to preserve it in perfection for posterity. But instead of improving it, he unknowingly forms it in his own image, to his own needs.

This itself is not so bad at first. He will argue (correctly) that this is the Judaism that works for him and that speaks to him, which is infinitely better than the irrational things foisted on him by the irrational Jews of the past without rhyme or reason[iii]. All of this is well and good; it is the picture of a Jew struggling with his Judaism. Lovely.

But he is in danger, a danger that has shown itself to be empirically real. As I mentioned at the beginning, it is the danger of thinking that what you have done with Judaism reflects the Truth. One runs the danger of thinking one’s own preferences or logic contain some sort of objectivity, an obligating objectivity that will convince those crazy Ashkenazim to embrace their leguminous desires for one week a year. If enough things don’t go one’s way, this stress between the person’s understanding of what Judaism ought to be and what Judaism is can culminate in dropping the whole thing entirely, for one’s devotion to any higher truth has been replaced with self-importance; one has become the very arbiter of truth who decides whether those “higher” things conform to oneself.

Worst of all is the heaviness, the burden he must bear if he demands rationality from his Judaism. There are, after all, certain responsibilities that come with this approach. Firstly, whenever anyone is arguing or challenging your way, you must participate, you need to fight or suffer feelings of doubt and inadequacy. And if there is no disagreement (what universe are you from and how do I move there?) there is still a need for polemic, to teach the world, to help them reach enlightenment as you have.

Ultimately, when Judaism will cease making sense (which will happen), when there are hiccups – Judaism will in effect cease to exist. After all, it is only the constant explaining and striving to understand that generate it in the first place, and only its intellectual elegance that sustains its worth. If you stopped thinking about it, it would cease to be. You would literally have taken on the role of the creator. Life as any sort of private citizen enjoying the boons of your beliefs is over; there is no time to enjoy the poetry of G-d’s creation. You are too busy creating heaven and earth.

***

But what about the actual rational foundations of Jewish law? At some point, all of these rules were put forth with arguments, and had to make sense to those who established them. In fact, they have to still make sense to us today. Is not Judaism predicated on Jews being able to understand its laws and mandates? If most Jews can’t keep something, or the Rabbis of the generation can’t understand something, isn’t Judaism subject to change?

The answer is yes, with a caveat – we must remain klug, as all the great Rabbis in history were. One must be sure of one’s devotion to the unwritten human tradition of one’s father before one dares change a word.

Am I in fact telling you that there are principles of and influences on all our great Rabbis that aren’t really written anywhere as if in some great conspiracy? Yes. Is this mad? I think the alternative is madder. The alternative is that the Rabbis worked only off what it says in the books yet themselves contradicted what is written therein and the entire millennia-old religion is a hypocritical joke played on the miserable Jews. It is hard to imagine even the greatest cynic backing such a proposition. Besides, the oral law is called the oral law for a reason.

***

As with most of the truly tricky issues, the problem is one of balance. The question of whether to approach Judaism as something that must make sense to me reduces to the broader question of whether to think of myself as the reason for the entire world’s creation, or to think of myself as dust and ashes. Is the world intended for my manipulation and my conquering, or am I player with a bit part?

The answer is obviously both, and you must learn when each approach is required from you by G-d. It’s another annoying trait of these tricky issues that the answer in the end is, “Do what G-d wants; it is what it is.”

Could there be more ad-hoc answer, a more personal answer, a less systematic answer?

Could anything be more frustrating to the blanket rationalist?

***

Yiddishkeit/Judaism is meshugge. There is no fully rational version of it, and there never has been. Jews use intellect for G-d’s purposes, rather than use G-d for intellect’s purposes. We are not the drivers, arbiters, or creators of truth, and that is a wonderful thing.

One might argue that this cheapens the great intellectual achievements of our glorious tradition – geniuses fighting geniuses in verdant Babylon, the sparks cast by their sabers illuminating minds unto eternity. One might argue that Judaism may not be rational, but I’ll never surrender my intellect; I will never relate to G-d like an animal; I shall cling to the human dignities of cognition and discernment.

There is one answer to these two objections, in the form of a question: What is man, and why does he walk this earth? If your answer is that the highest good is rationality and intellect and this ought he pursue, you are in good company. But this is not the ultimate truth.

The ultimate truth is expressed as a story[iv]. Once upon a time, there was a people called the Jewish people. They were and are chosen for a mission by G-d. You were born into this people. Everything you possess has been gifted to you for the purpose of that mission. To use your abilities, no matter how great, for other ends, is to waste them. And that includes your intellect.

In other words, the question is (once again) whether you are in charge of your fate or whether you are in fact the last chapter of a very old tale nearing its completion.

Now, the story doesn’t make sense. The story doesn’t have to make sense, since it’s a story. It’s ultimately just a tale of what happened to Him and what happened to us, and how we dealt with it, and how we grew, and things got better.

The story is what it is. If it is mad, so be it. If Life is mad, Judaism can be mad. After all, the former flows from the latter.

Yiddishkeit is also wonderful. It is wonderful on its own terms, as simply the greatest story ever told. And it is wonderful for us specifically, who get to step onto the stage right near the end, and bring the waiting audience and the eager Playwright the glorious conclusion they have so patiently awaited.

One thing is certain: You won’t need to understand the plot when you hear the applause.

***

Note: There is a deeper way of framing this issue whereby a lot of what I’m saying in this essay isn’t technically true. From that point of view, though Torah doesn’t need to make sense, it in fact always does. In other words, there is a level at which a conscious abandonment of one’s own rationality actually brings one to see everything in Torah, klugkeit included, as the greatest and truest rationality. Though it is alluded to above, it is ultimately beyond the scope of this essay.

For another (shorter) piece I wrote on the role of intellect in Judaism, check out “The Rebbe, The Chief Rabbi, And The Fossils.”

***

[i] And we can’t even use the normal motivation of appreciating a different culture, ethnicity, or gender; he is the dreaded white male; he is even Anglo-Saxon; he is the very evil we hope to escape.

[ii] Only in the right situation, of course. How do you know which situation is right? Because you’re klug.

[iii] Kitniyot on Pesach is a great example I’ve heard people gripe about recently.

[iv] Or, as we modern people call them probably because they terrify us on some deep level, narratives.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

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