My New Year’s Resolution Is To Make No Difference

I resolve, for the New Year, to not “make a difference.” I must accept what I cannot change and find the strength to change the things I can, to paraphrase a wise prayer. I will remember this year that strength is rarely measured in page views, Facebook likes, or marketing budgets. True strength is strength of character.

I resolve to neither need the status quo nor resent it, but to see it for what it is – the reality. Needing it is imprisonment and needing to change it is imprisonment. A relentless flow of news from around the world assures me that terrible things happening elsewhere are my concern. But while empathy is excellent, delusion is not. I resolve to care for the people in my vicinity on a daily basis, and for myself most of all.

I resolve to mind my own business. People say that minding your own business lets evil grow as no good people bother to stop it. People tend to forget that what makes the evil so bad in the first place is its failure to mind its own business.

I resolve to not read death tallies. Death tallies are only powerful for those who think there is something worth doing before the end. Are we alive because we’re alive, or because we happen to not yet have died?

I resolve to evaluate endeavors before I commit to them. Often, that which seems meaningful is merely a yoke. It says, “I am worth only the difference I make.” That which seems to affect no one but me in my own mind appears inferior. I will spend less time doing, or worse, worrying that I’m not doing. I will spend more time being.

I resolve to fight not just for external freedom but for internal freedom – the freedom to be alone, to think the thoughts I want to think, when I want to think them. One of the great teachers once said that the only difference between a man and a horse is the man’s ability to see a tree and think something other than “look, a tree.”

I resolve to experience wild abandon and childlike joy. They are in everything, from running wildly down the street to turning a page. I hear they can even be found in profound grief. May G-d keep me from knowing.

I resolve to appreciate the here and the now and the is, on its own terms, since it is. Existence is not a simple thing; it is bestowed. So much depends upon a red wheel barrow, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens. Not upon a metaphor or complex symbol, but upon the wheel barrow itself, a gift from G-d. I will take the time to count my wheel barrows.

I resolve to notice the color of people’s eyes when I first meet them.

I resolve to taste my food.

I resolve to understand the words I read.

I resolve to break free this year. I will find my redemption. It is not hiding behind a police barrier, a soapbox, or a ballot box. It is hiding in a place of mystery deep within my own heart, a fortress with no front entrance only vulnerable from above.

I resolve to step away from the light and into enlightenment. I will find the silent place where I can see the G-d who should disown us but is stuck with us, the one who invented the music. I will find at least one way in which He doesn’t appeal to me. I will do the same thing with his creation. By these I will set my compass.

I resolve to pursue these resolutions not with a fierce sweat-stained striving, but like a cat finds balance on a sun-mottled garden wall, proud to do what it is born to do, warm to the touch in the morning light.

 

Image from Flickr. Thanks for reminding me about the red wheel barrow, David.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Dear Society: Stop Killing; Start Murdering

Murder.

The word has a certain poetry to it, power and dark intention.

We’ve lost faith in murder.

Oh, we still  value violence. When Hamas launches rockets or a new terror stirs in Iraq and Syria, we respond. Sometimes we preempt. If it’s kill or be killed, we know where we stand. We still (on the whole) think that those who live by the sword must die by the sword.

The sword isn’t the problem. It’s the swordsman that eludes us.

Death is not murder. Neither is manslaughter. To kill in self-defense is not murder. Murder, (n): killing that’s against the law, or in other words, killing that deserves punishment.

And we don’t believe in murder.

* * *

Consider Cain and Abel, a story at the beginning of the source text of Western Civilization, the text some say we must abandon to be enlightened.

Cain and Abel, brothers who sacrifice for the creator, Abel with his flock, Cain with his crop. G-d prefers Abel’s offering. Cain gets jealous. G-d encourages Cain: “You didn’t do well this time, but you can improve.” He warns Cain: “Watch out! Your desires crouch and wait to drag you down.” Cain kills Abel. G-d punishes Cain.

G-d punishes Cain?!

What did Cain ever do to deserve punishment?

* * *

Imagine it just made headlines, 2014. What does it sound like? We don’t know how old Cain and Abel were at the time. They’re brothers. Maybe it happened at school. In America, we’re familiar with this kind of thing.

A sorrowful anchor describes the carnage at the murder scene. A reporter interviews sullen grey-faced witnesses. Back to the studio. What caused this tragedy, who’s to blame, and how might we fix it? Bring on the talking heads.

Head One: “It’s a problem of the brain chemicals, you see. If Cain were on the right meds, he wouldn’t have anger problems, and Abel would’ve lived to sire children.”

Head Two: “Property is the issue – if there had been no disparity in the brothers’ possessions, there would be no cause for jealousy and no cause for death.”

Head Three: “Wake up, sheep! It’s religion at the heart of man’s woes. This was the first religious conflict in history. Cain killed over G-d. Remove the poisonous influence of religion, and peace shall return!”

Head Four: “This tragedy lies at the feet of agriculture. If only Cain were a shepherd like his brother, or a hunter-gatherer…”

Head Five: “If there had been no rock[1] with which to bash in the victim’s head, this terrible act would never have happened. Our hearts go out to Adam and Eve, and they will appear on our show tomorrow to discuss a ban on rocks in the vicinity of humans.”

Head Six: “You’re all geographically illiterate. Look at a map, people. This took place in the Middle East. Cain was expressing his righteous anger over the injustice of western imperial colonialism. And Israel. It’s always Israel.”

Head Seven: “You know, I agree with my colleagues, but they lack depth. None of the above reasons would bring him to slay his brother. It’s family life that’s to blame. It is the struggle for parental affection that taught Cain jealousy. View G-d as a proxy mother and you see the source of the anger.”

To the experts, Cain’s decision was a predetermined step in a causal chain that regresses to the birth of the universe. If they believe in Cain’s free will, they don’t see how it’s different than any other step in the process that  slays Abel: (1) there is a difference in their property, (2) brain chemicals mix, (3) Cain makes a choice, (4) he picks up the murder weapon – deal with any one of them, and you’ll fix the problem. There is nothing deserving punishment here. There is simply a sequence of events, of causes and their effects. One domino hits a second hits a third and then there is not enough oxygen in Abel’s brain and the reporters come swooping in, no doubt in the throes of their own causal sequences involving the ambulance chasing gene and the economic currents that force enterprising young people into journalism school.

There is death on the news. There is no murder.

* * *

There is, of course, another opinion, not Head Eight but rather Head Zero, representing the majority view of humanity for the past two millennia, though perhaps not for the past two decades.

Head Zero: “Cain murdered Abel as an act of will. G-d told him he could either improve, or be lost to blood lust. He chose the latter, even though he had the ability to overcome it. And G-d punished him.”

Head Zero actually reads what’s written in the text – “Is it not so that if you improve, it will be forgiven you? If you do not improve, however, at the entrance, sin is lying, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it.” Simple as that. No mention of Cain’s circumstances, of weapons or family.

Why doesn’t this version make the news?

Perhaps it isn’t newsworthy, since Head Zero doesn’t give us any advice on how to solve the problem. She doesn’t explain how to rearrange society. She appears to throw up her hands and say, “Humans are evil. That’s just the way we are, and nothing can solve it.”

But that’s only a surface understanding. Though all Western religions agree with Head Zero, they do not advocate nothing. Rather, their solution is internal, and must take place within the individual.

The strangest thing: by saying humans are evil, Zero is the most uplifting of all the heads. The modern theories rob the individual of his agency by aiming at externalities. They tell him he is at the whim of powers beyond his control. Just like Cain’s bad upbringing and his low self-esteem, there is an entire matrix of causes, an extensive sociopsychobiohistorical calculus that explains why you just cut someone off on the highway, and that (we might as well say) makes it impossible for you not to cut someone off. It is not your fault. If we want to fix road rage, we must go back to first causes, etc. You are perfect, just the way you are. Until society ruins you.

Head Zero (aka Torah, aka common sense a hundred years ago) says it is your fault. Next time, exert some intellect and some will, and don’t cut him off.

Head Zero terrifies us.

She suggests that the key is education, of ourselves and of our children. Not in math or science, but in right and wrong. We need not await Utopian changes or a doctor’s prescription; we need not protest or raise awareness. We can fix it now, by fixing ourselves. The lessons of self-control and forgoing immediate gratification will solve more than a thousand political protests.

This is challenging, since we’ve been inundated with anti-Zero propaganda from childhood (why this is so is a discussion fraught with many talking heads themselves advocating external solutions to this problem). We don’t want to fix ourselves. We want the world to change. We want to have a fairer lot, a better chance, an easier job. Down with the CEOs, the white man, the black man, Coke, Apple, Microsoft, my next door neighbor, and the government. Let them change.

But the world is a closed system, and exporting responsibility has consequences, namely, the trademark of 21st-century consciousness: merciless, unyielding, abject, nihilism. By shifting obligations from ourselves onto others, we lose our sense of purpose. We feel powerless and irrelevant. We are reduced to screaming about what’s wrong, instead of quietly making ourselves right.

There are only two types of people who aren’t blown away by the meaninglessness of living in 2014:

(A) Those who don’t shift responsibility. (The elderly/old souls. See: your grandparents)

(B) Those who spend a little time every day convinced they’re fixing the external causes of their problems, i.e. everyone else. (See: Social Justice Warriors, Militant Freegans, Nazis, Communists, the guy at Shul who’s way too into politics, etc.)

Type (A) is less annoying,

* * *

Cain is not a victim of circumstance. He is a human being who makes decisions. And because he is human, he fails. And because he fails, he is human. For if he fails, that means he could have succeeded. We have the ability to not murder, not just the ability to not kill. We can fail, or we can succeed.

It is in our hands.

And that is a heartening thing.

 


[1] Head Five is a bit of an ignoramus, since the Midrash says Cain killed Abel by slitting his throat, and the Zohar says Cain bit Abel like a snake. But he’s a talking head on the news; what did you expect?

 

Image from Flickr.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Enlightenment: Crude. Unsanitary. Ultra-Orthodox.

As every Jew knows, the religious ones are the rude ones. They jostle and shove and step on you and they’re not apologizing anytime soon. The first thing I ever saw in Meron on Lag Ba’omer, almost five years ago: a father slapped his son’s face so hard he pirouetted a full circle before bursting into tears.  There was no time to reflect, because the river of thousands pushed me forward. We entered the food tent and drank a lot of alcohol. Then, into the cave-building that houses Rashbi’s grave marker. The masses plucked me into their hot flow and my lungs drew at burning air as I said Tehillim into the back of the man in front of me. Some people panicked and clawed their way out. Others fainted, and a path opened in the full room for the paramedics and it was no longer my words but my entire face in the shoulder of a stranger’s silk frock. When I couldn’t stand it anymore I fought for the exit and the crowd spat me into the cool night, my entire body turned to sweat.

At sunrise, we returned to Jerusalem and my Rosh Yeshiva found me beaten and empty. He smiled a knowing smile.

He asked, “Tzvi, did you push?”

I hated it. As the cat says, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” Why can’t the religious life be like an Israeli salad course, cool and colorful, varied and healthy and delicious? Why must they make a brown oily cholent out of everything?

But I kept participating. Push. For years, I convinced myself that this way of life is more meaningful, that it could all be explained, bit by bit, from the battered black New Balances up through the sheitels. Push. I told myself that only family can trample on one another with impunity. Push. I tried to ignore my discomfort on the High Holidays in packed shuls and graveyards. Push. I told myself that when Moshiach comes and gathers the exiles to the Holy Land, there will be crowds. My struggles are practice for that day. Push. I reminded myself how important it was to love my fellow Jew, to appreciate their souls –

What a bunch of garbage. His soul? His elbow! That’s what I felt in my stomach as he pushed me aside. No more, I decided. I’m not attending. I’ll take my dead American high holidays in the nice synagogue in my hometown, where I have a seat and no one bothers me and my prayers float on the Rabbi’s beautiful words. I’ll spend Shabbos in a deserted Yeshiva alone, but no one will step on me. Of course, my Chassidic training made this decision difficult. There are several teachings that come to mind in objection to my new behavior. Rest assured that, in general, whatever lessons a two-hundred-year-old story may hold, they are easily ignored. Until…

This morning, I davened at Zichron Moshe. A synagogue. A neighborhood center. An institution. Its sacred, profound mission: a minyan, day or night, seven days a week, three hundred and fifty-four days a year. When no one is praying anywhere, someone is praying in Zichron Moshe. The synagogue is smelly and loud and the Ebola virus might originate from the ever-damp towels by the sinks.

Why would anyone go there? Some, as tourists – though after a visit or two you’ve seen nearly everything. For others, it’s simply the closest shul.

Today I realized: I go there to forget.

I want to wrap myself in my Tefilin where no one knows me. I want to pray slowly and sob, or so fast that the straps don’t mark my arms. I want to be the stranger who uplifts downcast spirits and who steps on feet in crowded crannies and I want it not to matter which, because we’re all just bits of white and black cloth caught in currents beyond our control with our voices crashing in holy counterpoint, “Amen! Baruch Hu uVaruch Shmo! Amen!”

I’m in the middle of talking to G-d (at least, that’s the official story) but the beggars stick their hands in my face with audacity bordering on inevitability, as if they claim to be the answer to my whispered prayer. They don’t take and I don’t give, because Zichron Moshe is all there is and the coins changing hands (or not, as I give the slightest shake of my head) are only small moments in a riot. I hope the performance means something to Someone, but it doesn’t mean anything to me, and it doesn’t have to, and that is freedom. It is inauthentic and impersonal and it leaves me giddy and thirsty for more.

For a moment, I forget my physical discomfort and I forget to be insulted. These are pennies I exchange for gold. I am entangled in a system that doesn’t know me and doesn’t want to be known. I am gone, and I’m alive. I remember I’m part of something.

I push.

 

Image from Flickr.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

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.

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

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

A Sublime Tune

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

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

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

Finding this overly Sinaitic, you stare.

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

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

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

“New machine?” you ask.

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

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

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

“Who ever heard of a machine reading?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What divide?”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

He really can’t seem to escape Himself.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“Isn’t that a mattress company?”

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

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

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

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

“They have Radiohead.”

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

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

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

“Each album is, like, 80 megabytes.”

“Impossible.”

“Why?”

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

“Analog?”

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

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

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

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

 

640px-Pcm.svg

 

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“Left and right,” Richard says.

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

2 x 44,100 x 2 x 74 x 60

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

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

“Reality trumps theory,” says Richard with satisfaction.

How boorish.

 

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

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

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

Is any of this truly satisfying?

Not in the least.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Is there a solution to this quandary?

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

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

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

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

There are 7 billion of them, actually.

naturesgramophone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” you and Richard ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

There is so much more to say.

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

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

I thought you would appreciate why by now.

Hebrew without Hebrew is so much better.

Wouldn’t you agree?