On Tattoos

There are still those who don’t understand Judaism’s ban on tattoos, who find it to be an arbitrary, limiting thing, but I put it to you:

How many friends have you lost to a message or an idea, the person hollowed out to become a mere mouthpiece for some impersonal notion?

In the beginning, G-d creates the human body and the human soul to match, the former the necessary vessel to convey the latter out into a physical reality it must transform.

The body is gnawingly unspecific. It is, more or less, an equal vessel to a life of self-sacrifice and righteousness and a life of debauchery and sin. So even the righteous may be tempted to change that body to make it more specific to their purpose.

The problem is that our purposes are not souls themselves. When G-d creates everything but man, He speaks it into existence by name: “Let there be light!” When G-d creates Adam, on the other hand, it is from dust and the breath of life in his nostrils. As if to say, “Though you have a name, Adam, no name is at the root of your being.”

If the individual is G-d’s message to the world, the message is wordless and conveyed only by His hand. The body is its medium and the soul its meaning, but the word cannot, contrary to appearances, fully be read. The body is significant not for any of its properties we parse or might change, but for its unity with the soul we cannot fully parse and do not completely understand. Then we run it through photoshop.

Our purposes are things we name: people, places, things, ideas. We take our body and conform it to some ideal in a permanent fashion. The transhumanist ‘body modders’ remove or add limbs. Others use their body as a canvas. “No graven images,” G-d told us, and in this sense empowered us, for was He not saying that even though you, human, take a particular form, it is not an “image”? But the choice is in our hands, and some choose to depart from the natural unity of body and soul that only G-d can create to make themselves into a word spoken by some foreign purpose.

The reason Jews are therefore forbidden ever fully to shave their heads is that shaving the head was an idolatrous practice. Why did idolators shave their heads?

The Chasam Sofer gives one of the most profound insights into idol worship you will ever hear. The idolaters would form their gods in their image, giving it human features as much as possible. However, they could never get hair to look real unless they attached to it actual hair that already existed. They found themselves inadequate to the task of creation. So instead, they made their idols bald and shaved themselves to match.

What limitations are we willing to place on ourselves, how much are we ready to turn the body, the word, into our conceptions in a desperate need to match? The infinite potential with which G-d alone has created me is discomforting. It is not the solid mundane streets in which we yearn to wander and create our own little meanings in accordance with our egos. It reflects nothing of what we see to be the appropriate individuality, the thing that actually makes us special. We desperately want to be something. And by this we mean, something we can create, something we can properly understand.

So we remake ourselves in the image of an idea. Is anything more popular? All it costs is the Divine individual.

If Really You Doubt

If really you doubt
the midrashic tortoise
or the slaying banquet,
feel free to take,
my host,
mezuzah from post,
and let my friends
come pouring in.

If really you’re safe
without the wrapped gauntlet
or your plaited mail,
then blunt black corners,
let your threads flail,
and come dance with us.

If you fear nothing
but G-d alone,
then why have you pled
in words of fire?
Slip inside your head,
and meet my eyes.

If really you reject
all this worthless ritual,
then drink the water
beside your bed!
Drink to kings,
drink to nations,
and when the wolves
prowl your foundations
in a chill October,
let them know
in the crimson snow
that hey, at least you’re sober.


Originally posted on Hevria.

May G-d Rescue Us From Our Solutions

Based on my everyday experience, it makes sense that the creation of the world is incomprehensible.

What is this thing doing here? Why is it built on a system of soul and body, a painful contradiction seemingly unjustified by anything in the universe? Sure, there’s baseball and hating Michael Chabon, but no joy in this vale of tears is without its price.

Chief, in my reckoning, of all the challenges that G-d places before a soul on this earth is the challenge of doubt. Not the caricature portraying the vacillation between “blind faith” and the ability to “believe,” but the deeper doubt, the one that zigs faith and zags understanding to strike right at what I am.

The problem is that we become attached to things, and even though past pain has made us wise, we (even subconsciously) begin to define ourselves by our views, opinions, and moral judgments.

If we are souls in bodies, you see, these beliefs are bodies. They are not purely of our private selves, but rather various means by which to express those selves in a place our selves otherwise could not reach. We, you see, are like lightning or opera; our souls are not for bottling. We can want whatever we want with our entire being; we are one thing, and that one thing decides what it is. A soul wants (in a passing moment between agonies) to eat pizza, and the soul changes; that’s what it’s now about. The soul is not insecure. It is thoroughly itself, so self-inseparable that it can turn toward pizza and lose nothing.

But imagine being a Jew who believes that Judaism means the Torah is given by G-d, and then there are eighteen articles a day on the falseness of Judaism or (even worse) on how Judaism means never having to say you’re sorry and crying at Disney films.

This puts the body under a lot of stress. A soul, at its protean essence, can simply switch to a new, enlightened outlook. Nothing is stopping it. It may desire to see things today as no Rabbi on earth has evern seen it, and it can fulfill that desire. The soul is of the infinite; it can be about anything.

The only thing holding the soul back, just like a fat kid trying to finish the Presidential Fitness Test, is its body. Your stupid soul got invested in some stupid idea (about Judaism) and you can’t just drop it now for a more palatable cultural/pragmatic Yiddishkeit germane to the New Yorker subscriber’s pillow talk, no more than Eugene can get Presidential with his thighs chafing before his classmates captivated by the heaving mass of his bloated form.

But no, souls in bodies, this is the plan. Infinite dreams, sweaty underwear realities.

If it is any consolation, G-d put Himself in the same stupid bind by creating this world of lies and investing Himself in it. If He wanted, He could go fractally spiral his endless wisdom through infinite dimensions while the stupid world with its ugly continents can’t even do one pull-up. Instead, He is here, in every slimy dismissal and every Hamas missile. Him, Him Him. Why? Because.

Like I said, of all things to make no sense, it makes sense it would be this one.

That’s why the dream of Moshiach is so big and so unworldly. Everyone here, with their own ideas and preconceptions, seeks to either free the soul and deny the body or recognize the body and tame the soul. Some wish to tell us the body/thought is a lie, an artifact created by brainwashing. They all vote Democratic and think they’re G-d. Others laugh at the soul’s freedom and write it off as childish mishegas. They adopt Trumpisms into their speech unexamined and don’t even think G-d is G-d.

His plan is much stranger. The soul’s freedom and the body’s cage are one; will and intellect do not contradict. The idolator says a body, by its nature, inherently conveys a certain soul. The Jew knows that body and soul are each his native tongue. Just as the Rebbe did not fear technology or vessel but demanded they be used for holiness, Moshiach will show how the body does not contradict soul but is its pure and perfect expression; nature and miracle are both G-d, are only G-d; the gufei halachos and the nishmasa d’nishmasa are one. To lose the soul or the body is to die, but to find both without contradiction is to live forever.

In the meantime, we live in this exile with Jews who think nothing is more Jewish than criticizing Jews, who think that thousands of years of Jewish parents died to raise their children to reject “inmarriage” as a ghetto. We live in times when just about a whole country of Jews define Judaism as being a wilful soul without a constraining body; they do not see how they are as incarnated as the next gilgul, how they only clash with us because they, too, have bodies; souls love and do not clash. It is not the self of the soul we doubt, but the bodies she expresses through. Where she is of limitless potential, the body is of defined actuality. Where she can infinitely agree, the body cannot occupy another body’s space.

How long must we wait for this doubt to end, this endless self-harm of the body Judaic, this terminal and interminable disunity between self and inner other?  How long must there be tension between the need to unite with brother and sister and solid impermeable realities that separate us? How long must we tolerate?

We are told that it is all one, and we work to see it. We are told He wishes to be together with us even in our bodies. But how much of this can we take?

We cannot live much longer, having to choose between Jew and Judaism, between self and self.

G-d, rescue us from doubt. Destroy Amalek, let us not need to be free of your Torah nor of the selves we see in it. Let us experience the freedom of the body and the entrapment of the soul. Rescue us from our own solutions, and give us Yours, amen.



Originally posted on Hevria.

Three Types of Baal Teshuva

I have extensive experience at both normative and late-starter Yeshivos (religious schools for Jewish men). While I find, socially, that I simply get along better with other Baalei Teshuva (Jews raised as non-religious who become religious later in life) due to shared interests and experiences, and I completely understand the tendency of Baalei Teshuva to stick together and form their own sub-communities, I have felt my share of alienation from this group as well. It is not due to any discrimination in particular or the like, but rather because our Jewish lives focus around different goals.

Based on my experiences, I would posit that the vast majority of Baalei Teshuva fall into one of two types, or, more accurately, are pursuing one of two paths toward a greater closeness with G-d. Very occasionally I meet another Jew who has come religious for the same reason I have, and we loosely form a strange, third group. None of these groups has a deeper or more correct claim to Judaism; they are three paths to the same end, and I personally have probably been part of each one at some brief point. It is only through extended social and mental sorting that I’ve come to realize I am part of group three.

The first group is what I call the religious one. Anyone who has been in Yeshiva knows this type. They are the ones who get up earliest and go to sleep latest, or at least respect the ones who do. They came to Judaism to find order and justice, not just in the personal but in the cosmic sense. They are moved by the idea that there is good and evil, that there is a reckoning in this universe and that good is rewarded and evil is punished, at the end of the day. Often their lives before they became religion involved crime or at least some sort of wild abandon, and when they throw themselves into religious practice they throw themselves into the deep end, keeping a lot of things at once and putting enormous pressure on themselves. They usually either end up being the most insanely successful Baalei Teshuva in technical terms or they burn out. The tools of their life’s craft are built out of brute, solid facts — the clear truths of unreachable G-d and their own mission. Their superpower is investiture, the ability to succeed within any bounds.

The second group is spiritual. These are the Baalei Teshuva that are not seeking curtailed, rules-based lives but rather a fling with the divine in the style of Hafiz or (l’havdil) Rebbe Nachman. They pursue G-d in nature and colorful things rather than the black and white. They smoke up before praying and have amazing protracted experiences with the creator (or so it is sincerely claimed). They often turn to some sort of art as a vessel for their passion for Judaism. They tend to focus more on the interpersonal or mystical teachings, though of course the vast majority keep Jewish law to its utmost etc. These were the ones in Yeshiva who were always reading Rav Kook or listening to Carlebach recordings and who felt drawn to Nachlaot and the Gush. They make their lives rainbow tributes to Hashem or they end up wearing robes and yelling at people in the shuk like madmen. Their tools are all communicative/relational; they make torque of the space between man and man, man and G-d. Their superpower is transcendence, finding space to operate the truth beyond any set limitations.

The third group is what I call existential, and it is by far the smallest. These are people who don’t demonstrate a clear reason for becoming religious. They are not religious and have a lot of trouble following rules both of Yeshiva and of Shulchan Aruch; they sometimes have trouble doing anything consistently at all, and often resent the law. On the other hand, they are not spiritual either; they don’t have great personal experiences during prayer or at the Kotel or anywhere else and come to envy and even resent those who do. Both these types of resentment spring from an inner desire for authenticity, and this is what makes them tick. They are seeking a life of elegance in the technical sense, in which a painful, meaningless existence is granted purpose and direction. They are drawn forward, kicking and screaming, through their studies and service by the need to see behind the veil, to get at the resolutions of the cruel paradox of existence. They seek to not exist. Rather than finding purpose in their limits like a religious Jew or transcending their limits by dint of their soul like the spiritual Jew, they seek to cut their bonds with the sharpened edge of their own righteous angst, the remains of something innocent and pure that seems to have died long ago. Their pursuit of authenticity either takes them far away from not just religion but society, or it attains what they were looking for all along. Their tools are forged from dead things. Their superpower is the perseverance of life; what is dead may never die.

A Rough Night For Akiva

This story takes place at the same Yeshiva as A Lesson For John On King George St. and Kalman’s Heart.


Akiva kicks the side of the dumpster for the third time and hurts his foot. He swears and staggers down the road. He is pretty drunk, and the weight of his full backpack adds dangerous momentum to his sway. A few people wander around, Jerusalem Chassidim in big fur hats and gold overcoats, hands in their belt-sashes cupping bellies swollen with Shabbos dinner, members of a nice little fraternity, like the one Akiva just left.

He came from Florida with standard expectations; his parents thought he’d benefit from time in a “real Yeshiva” in the holy land, and his brother Motti’s stories of adventure in the golden city stoked his interest. “You’ll make us proud,” his father had said, and Akiva had wanted nothing more. He flew to Israel with khaki shorts on his legs and excitement in his heart.

His first day in Yeshiva, he got in a “situation” (as his father would call it) with another student over the stupidest thing – he unknowingly sat in some else’s seat in the Beit Midrash. He arrived at the beginning of his first morning seder, found a spot, and was already deep into the first mishna of his masechta when twenty minutes later a kid his age with matted blonde hair and lightly acned cheeks approached the opposite side of the table and stood there, silent, staring at him. Akiva stopped learning, unsure what he did wrong, and just stared at the words of his sefer, which had reverted back into ink.

“I’m Yitzchak,” said Blondie nasally, and extended his hand.

“Akiva,” said Akiva. He pumped the hand once, then let go, only to find Yitzchak was a double-pumper and who still grasped Akiva’s now-limp hand and shook it like a halachically invalidated palm frond (due to the limpness, and the spread. Akiva would try to tell this joke to others later. No one would get it). The Miamian remedied the situation by resuming his own squeezing and shaking, whereupon, for the third pump, Yitzchak released his sweaty grip Akiva was left holding the shake. He let go and the cycle of violence finally broke, Yitzi’s hand dropping to his side as if he were the subject of a street hypnosis demonstration. Yitzchak smiled and nodded in agreement with nothing.

“So, you’re new here,” said Yitzchak, shooting the schnitzel.

“Yep,” said Akiva.

“Has someone given you a tour of the Beit Midrash, uh, the study hall yet?”

“No,” said Akiva.

“So,” he said, and smiled conspiratorially while wagging a Talmudic finger. “Would you like a tour of the study hall?”

“Alright,” said Akiva, and closed his gemara.

As the less new and more comfortable students filtered into the hall at more comfortable times, Yitzchak catalogued the shelves that lined the cavernous room, effusive in his appraisal of this set of Shas or that set of Ritva. Akiva trailed behind his new tour guide and wondered how many of these books he’d open in his time in Yeshiva and how many students would be so friendly as Yitzchak. They finished in a quiet corner far from the air conditioner, where heat leaked through a cracked window and the ceiling fan sliced an irregular wobbling ellipse that threatened to hurl its blades across the room at any moment. Yitzchak gestured to a bookcase.

“These gemaras don’t get used much,” he said. “So,” –with a Talmudic intonation and the return of the finger– “if you take one of these for yourself I doubt it’d be a problem with anyone. Why don’t you check them out?”

Akiva had already found three promising volumes when he realized he was alone. He turned and saw Yitzchak sit where he’d been sitting, a chevrusa waiting for him.

“Am I really the new kid?” he thought as he pulled out a wobbly seat at the quiet table and sat in it. He opened his new dusty sefer and was through the Mishna and half as much again when he heard the stray cat standing on the windowsill outside scratching on the pane, as if it longed for the warmth of the study hall.

The thought of that first day drags Akiva all the way up the steep hill outside Yeshiva, every stride a rebellion, until heaving for breath he leaned against a lamppost and took a break. Some charedi stares at him and he stares back directly, thoughts full of violence, until the man shuffles off. Imagine if I’d looked at Yitzchak like that, he thinks. It brings a wry grin to his face. No, he never could have done it. Not then.

Akiva wasn’t long in exile corner before he discovered the Yeshiva’s courtyard, shady and peaceful, chairs and shtenders and an assortment of greenery surrounded on three sides by tall walls of Jerusalem stone and on the fourth with a gated fence that bordered an alley that ran alongside Yeshiva.

It was to here that he’d bring a small plastic bowl full of cold milk from breakfast each morning. He placed it on the ground next to his feet, pulled his favorite lectern close, and sang words of G-dly wisdom into the silence. It was a benevolent silence in that small space; it didn’t mind if he stumbled on the unfamiliar words, and didn’t wonder at the small orange and grey cat that squeezed through a hole in the fence links and minced over to the bowl on the cobblestones. When she had licked it clean she leaped onto his knees and he continued his learning stroking her head. After an hour and a half, almost always just the two of them, she would jump off and he’d head off to class with a “see you later.”

He didn’t name her even as the months passed and his aptitude with the holy books grew. Mistakes in translation receded into memory, and the thrill of Rashi and the drama of Tosfos opened before him. A scrabbly black beard began to grow on his red cheeks. The Rabbis called on him in class more often, and he’d quietly offer his thoughts on their sugya. Though he had no friends among his peers in Yeshiva, he desired none, and was happy.

One day, he shared too much. They were going around the Shabbos table talking about dreams with Rabbi Morgenthal and Akiva spoke the truth, which was that he mostly dreamed about girls. In the ensuing confusion, misunderstanding built upon misunderstanding until the entire roomful of teenagers was in an uproar, and the Rabbi, white-faced, suggested Akiva go for a walk around the block. He did, after he took out the whiskey flask he kept in a ceiling tile in his room and sank into its burning depths. The way they looked at me! What they think I am!

I didn’t mean it like that, he thought as he trudged up the hill that day. It was all a big misunderstanding. When he’d flop onto his terrible Israeli mattress, parents and friends a continent away, he’d drift away into flip-flops and shorts and a holding hand on the Miami boardwalk, families laughing all around, spray on the breeze. He mulled whether he was evil. He decided he didn’t know enough to even know what was wrong. He would trust the Rabbi’s judgment. He would attack his learning with renewed vigor until the words overflowed his conscious mind and purified his dreams.

His fists ball as he lurches down what he, to himself, always called the High Road. It rings the ridge above the yeshiva, about a half-hour walk around, only a small wooded park closer to the stars. The lights of Jerusalem unfold around him in their thousands, guarded. The sight normally breaks his mind open in the most pleasant way. Now it fills him with anguish. He has a claim against every light. “Where were you when I needed you?” he wants to ask. He knows that if he approached each one he’d find humble streetlights and apartment ceiling lights and even spotlights on some nice building’s façade, and they would sit mutely, radiating as is their nature, and not feel the need to answer his questions because they’re just bulbs for goodness’ sake and what does he expect of them? But this thought merely incriminates them further to his thrashing mind: “How dare you be so beautiful and inspire such awe and be no more than a scrap of metal that cannot protect me? What atrocities have the stars witnessed and said nothing?”

He wipes his eyes with the back of his fist and carries on.

He heard them talking about him three weeks ago as he sat on the toilet. Normally he wouldn’t notice, but the words “milk” and “cat” caught his attention.

“-he’s a little odd, but he doesn’t mean any harm,” said a voice. It sounded older, maybe one of the Yeshiva Rabbis. Akiva couldn’t tell.

“But he barely speaks to anyone. He spends more time with the cats then with the bochrim,” said a different voice. “They steal food from the kitchen.”

“So do the bochrim,” said the first voice, and they both laughed.

Cats, thought Akiva. Strange.

“Part of why he’s here is to learn how to be a mensch,” insisted a third voice.

“There are many quiet people,” the older voice reflected.

“Yeah, they’re the ones that go shooting up schools-”

“G-d forbid!”

“Come on, he’s not a normal person.”

“Maybe he’s exceptional. Maybe he’s special and just hides himself from most people.”

“Why would he hide?”

“He’s hiding so someone smart, someone who’s worth it, will look for him.”

Their back-and-forth continued, but Akiva no longer listened. Happy or sad he wasn’t sure, but he used all of his strength not to make a sound.

Over the High Road and up the mountain. It’s hard to find his way in the dark, but he recognizes the tree easily enough, a tall cypress nearly at the peak. He scrabbles on a patch of bare rock and then he is on damp grass and the going is easy. Too soon, he is at the tree. He sits on the grass and wetness seeps through to his skin. He reaches out his hand and touches the freshly-turned dirt at the tree’s base.

“A chevrusa?” said Akiva that morning, dubious. He’d been learning for months without one and made impressive progress on all fronts, according to his Maggid Shiur. Yet here in his courtyard was an older student he barely knew. A shtender and chair had been dragged around next to his own.

“That’s the way it’s done,” said the stranger. “What’s your name?”

He’s friendly, thought Akiva. With a sigh, he said, “Akiva.”

“I’m Shmulik.”

Akiva still held his gemara in the crook of his arm and a bowl of milk in his hands. He said, “Go ahead and sit, please,” as he bent to place it on the ground. As he straightened he looked to the fence for her and saw that someone had finally repaired the hole in the fence.

He was struck by the odd convergence of new realities in his little space. He turned to Shmulik. “Do you know anything about them working on this fence?” he asked.

Shmulik, engrossed in the Aramaic words before his eyes, shook his head absently.

Akiva crossed the gap to where her hole used to be with two strides and knelt down to examine the spot. It was good work; nothing remained of her entrance. How did they even know about it? he thought, as he scanned the alley for her. “Cat?” he called out. He looked back at Shmulik, whose eyes shot back to his sefer.

“There you are,” he said as she detached from the shadows on the other side of the alley and approached. He knew from her eyes that something had changed, beyond simple fence repair. He reached his fingers through the links to pet her head and she hissed and retreated, looking at the fence post a few feet to his right. His brow furrowed. Another glance at Shmulik; another aversion of his eyes.

At the base of the fencepost he found a small plastic box with a tiny red eye that lit up when he moved the fence. Its precise nature evaded his understanding at that moment, but he knew it scared his cat, and he knew it wasn’t there by accident.

“I need a rock or something,” Akiva announced to his new chevrusa.

“What are you talking about?”

“A rock,” he repeated. He examined his shtender, noting its iron feet with approval. He wasn’t sure if he could move it fast enough. Might be worth a try. He grabbed it by its legs and suddenly Shmulik existed, the older student’s hands on his arms.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Akiva hesitated. He thought of his father and of Rashi and Tosfos, and then shoved Shmulik hard enough to knock his chair backward to the ground. As the older student spilled to the cobblestones Akiva grabbed his shtender and lifted it above his head. He turned to the fence and saw her, staring at him, eyes slotted emeralds, waiting for him to break the dreaded device.

Then – a startled cry (Shmulik’s, or his own, he can’t remember), the blaring of an electric horn, a yowl, silence.

Akiva’s face is wet as he unzips his pack and grabs his bottle, three quarters empty. He brings his knees to his chin, clasps his hands around them, and looks out on the Judean hills. In their rollings they form the glittering edge of a pooled night sky, and a moon the color of butter floats above it all. He contemplates the edge, and the lights of man far below, imitations.

He sits and thinks for a long time in the silence, images of other lives flitting before his eyes, tempted to run into the halogen distance and throw himself upon the world’s mercy. He wonders whether he could be a dockworker in Rotterdam or a street vendor in Shanghai, if he could win his life by the hardness of his knuckles, the strength of his arm, or whether he could trap profits with his wits and drive sports cars sleek in the night.

Eventually, the wind dries his face, and he lifts his eyes upward and wonders if it is his decision.



Originally posted on Hevria.

Is Torah Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Science Fiction and Fantasy might be the two most popular narrative forms of our time, surely among thoughtful young adult readers and viewers. While they might seem to be variations within the same genre, the underlying tendencies that make these stories necessary to write and compelling to read actually emerge from two different worldviews. Science Fiction on one hand and Fantasy on the other are perpetually in conflict, two dissenting ways to tell the story of humankind. In their synthesis, however, we may discover the secret to the powerful Jewish story, past, present, and future.

Transcendence or Utopia? Two Genres

The key to understanding Fantasy is that it does not need to take place in the past. In fact, one might argue that the genre is timeless; Fantasy strives to emulate myth, and myth by definition is a story that takes place elsewhere, but whose purpose is to illuminate the here-and-now. The aim of every myth, and every Fantasy story that aspires to more than cheap entertainment, is to grasp the universal human experience that transcends (and is thus part of) every individual human life. As Chesterton wrote, “The things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men.”[i]

The adventure fraught with danger, the victory over some great challenge, the resultant self-awareness, and the return home to share the experience are themes that in one way or another play out in the life of every human being.[ii] The purpose of the trappings, the dragons and swords, is only to allow the reader to gain perspective on their own journey, the way one only sees an entire picture from a few steps back. Allegory enables the reader to stomach that which, in its pure form, may remain out of the reach of self-reflection.[iii]

Even ostensibly non-allegorical Fantasy stories like George R. R. Martin’s have the same purpose as those that are metaphors: to show us the journey every man and woman must make through life. It is no accident that the majority of Fantasy novels is set in the past, often the distant past. Those wishing to mine gold from the vast acres of human endeavor must be students of history. A person looking for what is common to all mankind must be wary of falling into the prejudices and limited range of his or her own culture. The careful study of what has come before (and even the imagining of what never was) broadens the scope of our experience the way a third point transforms a line into a plane. These new perspectives are transmitted to the reader, at least subconsciously, and they enrich by providing common ground with heroes great and small who seem so different from us, but are not.

This explains the strange phenomenon of Fantasy set in the future. Indeed, what is arguably the most famous Fantasy of our times is about an orphan farm boy who takes up his father’s fiery sword and flies off on a spaceship to confront great evil.[iv] Instead of Gandalf there is Obi-Wan, and instead of a king in exile, there is a princess, but the story remarkably parallels the seminal Fantasy works of Tolkien. To the lover of Fantasy, it is precisely that such a story could be set in the future that uplifts us, guides us, and grants us hope. The human endeavor, our endeavor, is not small, meaningless, and quick to fade away; it is something larger that will exist undiminished even in outer space when the technology catches up.

Just as Fantasy seems to be swords and sorcery but is really about the power of myth and allegory to describe everyone’s journey toward enlightenment, so Science Fiction is not about robots or aliens. It is about the power and the responsibility to change the world for the better.

The soul of Science Fiction is the utopian vision, the firm belief that the world has been entrusted to us for its betterment. This optimism for the state of the world and humanity is relatively new[v] and can only be said to have caught the popular imagination in the 19th century, or at the very earliest, the 17th. This is in comparison to the mythical structure of the Fantasy story, which has enthralled humanity since history began. The late 19th century that produced H.G. Wells and Jules Verne was also the age of the industrial revolution, when a scientific renaissance was starting to divert the flow of history. Most Science fiction speaks of technology’s potential to bring the world to a state of perfection and the struggle to actualize it.

Though full of compelling characters, the best-selling Science Fiction novel of all time, Dune, is about the messianic implications of the Kwisatz Haderach[vi] on the galactic empire. It is a tale of social engineering, harsh landscapes, political intrigue, and jihad, all focused around the question of whether one can become a redeemer by technological means. Herbert once said that “The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.”[vii] In this, Herbert subverts Fantasy’s treatment of the mythical hero.

Other Science Fiction approaches the question of how to better the world through technology from the opposite direction. Dystopian novels such as Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Brave New World all examine how utopian visions for society have gone awry, leaving the human population downtrodden. As opposed to the Fantasist, who is not concerned with the transformation and perfection of the outer world at all, but rather with the sublimation of the individual, the Science Fictionist tends to warn against pitfalls on the way to progress. The authors of these works are not concerned so much with a hostile world’s impact on man but rather man’s effect on the world; “we must not destroy the world in attempts to save it.” In this, the dystopian novel remains Science Fiction through and through.

While Fantasy is ever a move toward the inner self, SF dwells in the ever-changing present. To the SF mind, it is irrelevant whether one can connect to an ancient, pervasive reality. What matter are the pressing issues of the moment. How, indeed, is it possible to meditate on the meaning of life when there are some who are too ill to eat or cannot afford food? The SF lover demands that limited human resources go to a better world rather than the perpetuation of the same old story.

Jewish Visions in Conflict

The difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy fundamentally affects a Jew’s idea of the Jewish story and thus his or her practice of Judaism.

Here is where everyone agrees: The Jews are a chosen people, sanctified by G-d to carry out a mission in this world. The mission requires not just good intentions but practical actions. To fulfill G-d’s will, there must be a transformation, because the status quo is unacceptable. But – what must change? And how is the Jew to effect that change? There are two opposing views: Those who think Judaism is past-based or historical and those who believe Judaism is progressive and future-oriented. In other words, is the story of Judaism a real-Fantasy, or a Science non-Fiction?

Or is it both?

No one could argue the firm roots of Judaism in the past as the world’s oldest surviving religion. With its ancient wisdom and grand history, Judaism exists to some Jews as a refuge from temporal existence. These past-focused Jews seek out the infinite dimensionless place within each individual where all people are one, and their G-d is He who says, “I shall be that I shall be.” To them, the struggles and triumphs of life’s journey are transparent metaphors for transcendent realities. This transcendence of both self and world is what it means to be a Jew.

Equally dominant in Jewish thought, however, is the focus on what the future holds and how it needs to be shaped, culminating in the Jewish vision of the utopian Messianic Era. Jews of this bent see Judaism as a guide to self-actualization and the fulfillment of one’s potential. The G-d they worship is He who creates heaven and earth, and their mission as his chosen people is Tikkun Olam, the fixing-up of the world. These are what we might call the Science Fiction Jews.

If we were to observe a soul on fire with the ideas of Fantasy, that soul would be an introspective one. Given that the human endeavor extends beyond our petty struggles to the life we all share, the accidental facts of our own situation (cultural, historical, personal)  don’t direct our purpose. Fantasy says it is the analogue, the inner life affected by our journey, that matters, and not the world around us.

True, there are dragons, there are evil empires, but the story is about the soul of the hero who must prevail against (and thereby rise above) them. Goliath must indeed fall, but King David’s story continues. The challenges of his kingship and family life produced a rich inner world whose poetic output, the Psalms, has affected the world and uplifted the disheartened for millennia. The giant has been dead for thousands of years but David’s prayers for success in battle lived on to become our prayers, and that is the important part of the story if it is a Fantasy.

To the SF Jew, however, to call the story of David and Goliath some mere iteration of a transcendent framework is to cheapen it. What comfort is it to the Israelites slain in battle that they have a place in some larger tale? And what victory in another challenge surmounted by the universal “hero”? Rather, we must go back to that time, understand the social and political issues surrounding the battle, and how David’s victory changed the course of history forever. This is to actually honor the biblical story if it is read as Science Fiction.

The importance of time and place and the actual specific events of life correspond with a theological commitment to G-d as the ruler of the world whose expectations devolve upon each individual according to their situation. More important than an abstract divine ideal is the G-d who demands and imposes justice, who is concerned with the state of the world and is dissatisfied every moment the Messiah has not yet come. Man’s responsibility is not to break out of the limits of his own existence but, to work with those limits and to transform them.

A Unified Story: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Judaism

It is only logical that in the two-horned paradox of a transcendent G-d’s involvement in a limited world, the Fantasist appreciates the transcendent, removed aspect of the Creator. The G-d of the forefathers is my G-d, unchanged by changing times. His directives are equal upon all people, regardless of when or where they live. Just as what it meant to be human in the middle ages is essentially the same as what it means now, so, too, the Torah of Moses is my Torah. I must strive to break free of my limitations and connect to the imminent divine within my soul and the transcendent G-dliness above.

That is the ideal. Practically, the Transcendent approach presents challenges. I must extract universal truth from the parts of G-d’s directive that on the surface seem irrelevant to my modern life, such as animal sacrifice. Let us say, as King David does in the Psalms, that prayer is equivalent to the sacrifices. I am to spiritually offer myself up to my Creator, then, as part of my journey. But, of course, just as the consecrated animal of the past was a significant portion of the Jew’s wealth, I too need a considerable amount of time and effort to devote to prayer. And the refusal to manipulate these resources is the Fantasist’s greatest weakness.

The simple solution, one might think, is to rearrange one’s life to allow time to think and pray and attend to all the other machinations of transcendence. But this solution is no solution at all to the Fantasist. A Jew with this vision struggles to acknowledge the reality of his particular life while still connecting to the universal. A businessman (for example) who strives all day to manipulate his business so mornings he can pray and find the Truth is just a businessman. Or in other words, even as he asserts that only a higher Truth is true, his actions declare that his worldly limitations have their own reality. If a sin is a claim that some other reality supersedes G-d, then to the Fantasy Jew, worldliness is sinful.

So instead, the Jew must retreat into what Isaiah Berlin calls[viii] the “Inner Citadel,” a state in which one is entirely free because perfectly removed. Berlin compares it to amputation. One seeks inside for a place of perfect apathy, of equanimity, where one needs nothing from the world and is self-sustained by oneself and one’s truth. “Perhaps my job gets in the way of my prayer, but this doesn’t bother me; I can make do with my inner worth, with my essential connection to G-d. The world can do whatever it likes; I don’t need it.”

The problem with this ascetic approach is clear. Though it’s poetical and profound not to care about the world, it is also a retreat. The Fantasist is unable to change the world and so decides not to care and turns his face upward to heaven. One has lost the battle with worldly troubles, or, more accurately, has forfeited. The world remains unchanged, full of problems, and the Jew retreats to a state resembling the soul before it enters the body – removed from the troubles of creation and in communion with the Creator.

There is, however, another type of Jew who will reject this approach, the SF Jew.

The concern with the SF Jew’s approach is not that it might fail; failure is its usual motivation. After all, what is an imperfect world if not a failure on some level? This only goads the Jew further. No, the danger is that the SF Jew might succeed. Visions of the future out of touch with the broader human story inevitably aim at the wrong type of perfection. The Jew technically knows all the rules (“Love your fellow as yourself;” “Thou shalt not covet;”), the means with which to change the world. But his or her own vision of the end is narrow; they have only their own experience to draw on. It is clear how the world must not be; it must not be like it is now. But what it should be like is a mystery they cannot know. They have only their own view to impose, and an imposition it shall be, a tyranny, ignorant of human commonality or any sublime truth. Indeed, this was the fate of every attempted utopia in the history of mankind, fodder for dystopian novels. Just as the Fantasy Jew is stuck within, cut off from the world, the SF Jew is mired without, never able to escape his own surroundings and influences to reach a point of perfect selflessness within.

But there is perhaps a way to unite the two opinions. It was described by the Maggid of Mezritch, over two centuries ago.

A wealthy Jew once became a follower of the Maggid. He began to notice that the more passionate he grew in his pursuit of his Rebbe’s spiritual ideals, the less money he seemed to have. At the point where he began to worry about his family living in poverty, he cried out to the Maggid, asking, “How can it be? How can it be that doing the right thing and living a G-dly life is making me poor? It should be making me more wealthy!”

Replied the Maggid, “It all depends on the direction you pray. In the times of Temple of old, one would pray facing north if they desired riches, and facing south if they wanted wisdom. This corresponded with the vessel for all physical sustenance, the Show, Bread on the north side of the temple sanctuary, and the enlightening Menorah on the south side. You, too, must choose in which direction you wish to pray.”

Protested the Jew, “But you have many followers who are both wealthy and holy.”

Said the Maggid, “Ah. That is what you want? Then you must be like the Ark in the Holy of Holies, which took up no space and united all the directions. Once you, too, take up no space – then you can have both the things you desire.”

There is a point at which our two conceptions of the Jewish story are one. When the story is still G-d’s story, it exists in unity, all opposites brought together in a single G-dly reality, the pursuit of this world and the quest for transcendence two expressions of the same thing. If both types of Jew realize that the story is not about them but about G-d, they can reach a synthesis with the opposite view.

This is clear in the sources. After all, the Midrash says that the standard Hero of every Jewish tale, Moshe, was the first redeemer and will be the last Redeemer. On the other hand, the Zohar talks of the wellsprings above and below of the 19th century being the key to the future redemption — the holy wellsprings of G-dly knowledge and the wellsprings of worldly knowledge that made the Science Fiction worldview possible. According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, it is modern scientific advances and the revelation of the inner aspect of Torah that will together prepare the world for perfection. The Fantasy Jew is justified according to Torah in seeing the Redeemer as someone who has always existed; the SF Jew is justified in seeing him as an outcome of the modern improvement of the world. And both are correct.

The Fantasy Jew must realize in moments of transcendence that the entire story of humanity is directed at a better world, for that is even the transcendent G-d’s desire. The SF Jew must realize that world-altering actions are only the practical manifestations of a deeper G-dly truth, the emancipation of a transcendent reality into the lower planes. All the Jew’s toil has been for the end of the general human story.

May it happen soon.—

[i] “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 4.

[ii] See Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces” for an academic distillation of many cultural myths into what Campbell calls the “monomyth,” the structure that many myths have in common. Campbell studied real myths of ancient cultures, and then his work was in turn read by several fantasy authors seeking to more authentically convey their stories.

[iii] See the discourse V’yadaata 5657

[iv] In fact, the author of said story intentionally based it off of Campbell’s monomyth. See note 2.

[v] See the detailed history of proto-SF in the Wikipedia article “History of Science Fiction.”

[vi] A term Frank Herbert took from the Kabbalistic term for “teleportation” or super-speed  (lit. “leaping of the road”)

[vii] Wikipedia, “Dune”

[viii] “Two Concepts of Liberty”


Originally posted on Hevria.

The Video Game Rabbi?

I’m considering it.

Elul is coming, you see, and the high holiday spirit is in the air. But all I can care about is video games.

Obviously, this is unusual for a Rabbi. I ought to be preparing practically and spiritually for that time of year when Jew and G-d renew their connection. And now, when our feet aren’t meant to touch the ground, my head is in a world that doesn’t exist. After years in Yeshiva and having received my ordination, I am still as involved in this youthful hobby as I have ever been.

At one point in my journey I would have just dumped the games and thrown myself into holy pursuits for a month. But that approach if now beyond me. I suffer no delusions of having firm self-control or willpower, nor of having been fundamentally changed by a few years of Torah study in a holy environment.

On the other hand, before I began my journey to Yeshiva, I would have just whiled the month away playing games without a second thought. This is now unthinkable. Elul! Tishrei! The greatest months of the year, temporal gifts unwasteable, fountains of blessing, heart of the Jewish always.

So, as seems to be my lot more and more, I am stuck between worldly and G-dly passions. Let’s face it: this is the Jewish lot in general.

I won’t try to explain here why video games are an excellent pursuit for humanistic reasons as many have argued in the past (As Shigeru Miyamoto famously said, “Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock-n-roll!”). I don’t know whether video games are good for you as a human being, but I know they are good for you as a soul.

In fact, the two biggest mistakes people make in approaching the high holiday seasons are averted in appreciating this unique form of entertainment.

The first mistake is when you take the whole Day of Judgement and Day of Atonement thing too seriously. More accurately, they take their role in these things too seriously. One gets it in their head that the holidays won’t happen unless one makes them happen and that the whole thing is centered around them and (worse) their behavior. Some people spend a lot of time carefully considering their past wrongdoing. Some people even spend ten days crying about their sins, and whatnot.

These are all good things, surely. They are even necessary. One must never think that they are real, however. They are as real as anything we do, which is to say, not real at all. Jewish action or inaction are part of a system, rules to be upheld or violated; the Torah’s commands are a framework that, based on our participation, lead us to a certain end goal. They are, in a word, a game.

The thing about a game is that it is, by definition, situational. The statement “everything is a game” is nonsensical; if everything were a game, then who are the players (who must exist outside the game), to what end did they begin playing, and when will they stop? A game is, in essence, a subset of reality, a smaller world with its own rules that one enters and leaves at will. The simple rules of the game allow for simple victory conditions, which are (usually) the reason one plays.

(All of this is true for chess, poker, and football. What makes video games so special is their immersive nature, their ability to recreate the experience of the subject in an entirely new reality; “you” don’t “go somewhere” when you play chess, but you do when you play Call of Duty, Minecraft, or Civilization.)

The nice thing about realizing that systems of rules directing us to certain goals are games is that it existentially “frees up” our higher reality. In other words, yes, we’re sinners. We’re terrible people. We didn’t do a tiny part of what we were meant to do. In fact, we don’t even do a tiny part of the feeling bad for all the other stuff we miss. We can feel bad about not feeling bad, and then feel bad about that, and then feel bad about that, all the way to Sukkot, where we get drunk just to forget our inadequacy. Or: We can realize that there is a reality beyond the game we play with our actions, that these holidays were before we came into being and will be once we have melted away, and that they will be happening this year just fine without our help or participation. We are perfect and infinitely desirable to the infinite G-d, and always will be, no matter what we do.

Once we see our high holiday scorecard and indeed the entire Jewish scorecard as a game, then we are free to participate in them without needing them; our existence or the existence of the game itself does not need our actions; it is our choice where, when, and how to participate, and even if, G-d forbid, we do not, we are still us, and He is still Him, and the world does not end.

It’s all just a game; if you’re too busy thinking it depends on you, you don’t have time to enjoy it.

The second mistake everyone makes in approaching the holidays and Judaism is a lot less common. It is the phenomenon, known to all players of multiplayer video games, of people who choose to play the game and then don’t take it seriously.

You see, once you realize that the system of rules laid out in the Torah is a game, you may think that participation becomes arbitrary and the whole thing loses any of its power. If I am not defined by my actions, if I do not need them, then what is to keep me on the straight and narrow?

If you can honestly think deeply about that question and still have it, you are probably the type of person, despised in my circles, who abandons a game of Dota at the beginning (it is hard to explain how infuriating this is without explaining the entire game, but suffice it to say, it’s evil.)

Why, you must keep on the straight and narrow because once you have agreed to play the game, you have agreed to play by its rules. The game does not define you and there is always room to go outside it, to reset, to start over, to simply exist. The chess pieces can always be put back in the starting position; this does not mean you should quit every game after a bad opening or that you should let your opponent win.

When you do play, you need to be in it to win, and that will keep you following the rules.

Though learning about Rosh Hashanah is not my entire existence, and the holiday will get on quite well without me, and, dare I say, I might get along quite well without participating in it, I choose to be involved because I understand what great things I gain for my participation. I am not defined by it, but once I choose it, I also choose to do it on its own terms.

There is a narrow path that leads away from self-centeredness, with a chasm on either side. To the left is the danger of becoming so absorbed in the thing outside of me that it and I are one and the same, and I am no longer for it any more than I am for myself. To the right one is at risk of writing off the outside as irrelevant and non-binding. The path in the middle is the path of the involving game. This is how both video games and Judaism prevent self-absorption.

So, the Video Game Rabbi? Is it possible? Is the world ready? I’m not sure. But I think so. After all, the world’s not ready for Rosh Hashanah either, but it happens every year. If we can find a positive, soulful way to partake in something so beyond us, a little digital entertainment shouldn’t prove too difficult.

Let the games begin.


Image from Flickr.



Originally posted on Hevria.