Celebrating Halloween the Chassidic Way

“Why can’t we just celebrate Halloween if it’s secular nowadays?” ought to be a self-answering question for observant Jews. Alas, our passion against paganism may still exist in at least a dormant state, but our passion against secularism does not. That the two are even related has been largely forgotten. Come, then. Let us celebrate the 31st of October in the Chassidic fashion:

The Rambam tells the whole sad story in the first chapter of his laws of idol worship, for it must be the reader’s goal to eliminate foreign worship from our minds and hearts, and our minds and hearts are where, in the story, it first got in. It was the mind and heart that first turned to idols and eventually away from G-d entirely.

No reasonable person could conclude that there is no ultimate purpose or end to the creation unless an alternate explanation presented itself. Man was formed by G-d’s own hands and spoke to Him face to face, so the alternate explanation had to be pretty good. And it was; it was based on G-d’s will itself, an interpretation of it.

First, the generation of Enosh erred in philosophy and reasoned that since G-d has placed the sun as the source of sustenance for the earth, it deserves worship, too. They applied this logic to all spiritual forces, the four elements, constellations. They valued G-d so highly as to make Him irrelevant, a watchmaker, a disinterested king.

False prophets then arose who claimed the intermediaries yearned for worship, that G-d Himself demanded it. And with the stretching out of years, the Creator, quiet and unnecessary, was then forgotten entirely.

If other beings, creations, have importance or efficacy, then they have explanatory power. So was room made for the secular, which existed in theory inherent to the nature of the sun, but needed human reason to bring it out. The realm of things having nothing to do with G-d is first created when we mistake G-d for having created it.

In the Rambam there is little separating idolatry from secularism.* One leads to the other directly; they constitute the error and its eventual consequence.

Today, for whatever reason, we have separated between the unnatural and the natural, the pagan and the secular, witchcraft and philosophy. As we have become ever-more physical even in our spiritual sensibilities, we have come to think of sun worship as something distinct from our experience even as we have come to see secularism as the natural neutral substance of life. A witch cursing an apple for Snow White is a fairy tale, but an apple as a colorless tasteless purposeless hunk of stuff that just exists is called “reality.”

We want to distinguish between sinister necromancy Halloween and cute kids asking for candy Halloween. The latter is clearly not as strange or threatening as the former. The latter could at least theoretically be diverted to G-dly ends, and that is the advantage of secularism over its idolatrous roots. Secularism wants to see things just as they are, and things as they are exist for G-dly purposes, no matter how narrowly you look at them. But if we seek no such purpose and take the secular merely for itself, we live in its lowliness, in its coarseness, in a state of idolatry to which an additional forgetting and numbing have been appended. Such was the world that our father Abraham was born into, per the Rambam, before he walked its sands and peered at its luminaries, before he rediscovered G-d and made Him an heirloom.

We shall not escape secularism through reason centered on our own benefit or perfection. Reasoning with the will of G-d as it relates to our benefit and perfection is what the generation of Enosh did. G-dliness can be found reliably only within a simple faith in Moses’s prophecy, something the Creator gives us and we cannot create. With this, a chassid celebrates the 31st of October and the 2nd of Cheshvan and all other days, past, present, and future.


*By providence, enlightenment secularism has called itself Secular Humanism, and humanity in modern Hebrew is literally Enosh-ity; perhaps we should begin calling it Secular Enosh-ism, to remember.

Does the Torah Say The World Is An Illusion?

Of Witchcraft, Cucumbers, and Reason

Every year, around my birthday, I think about whether the world is an illusion. A classic rookie mistake in the study of Chassidus and Kabbalah (egged on by the mysterious rejoinders of those who teach rookie Chassidus and Kabbalah) is the immediate and total negation of the universe’s existence—everything is G-dliness, G-dliness is everything, and if nothing seems to have received this news, that’s just the illusion, baby.

Chassidus is not a conspiracy theory, however, and there is no Shadowy One merely manipulating your perceptions, for, if your perceptions aren’t real, why should He bother with them? and if they are, then they could hardly be called “deceived.”

Deeper: Chassidus (the Chabad version, anyway) is all about G-dliness penetrating every level of the soul on its own terms, and the key to the human soul and self, what Aristotle called the rational animal, is through its mind.

Now, the mind can and does accept that some things it perceives are merely illusory. However, there is a point—we know, because we’ve crossed it—beyond which calling everything an illusion leads one to reject the mind wholesale. If we live in a mere dream theater, if we are a brain in a vat or within the Matrix, our reports of the outside world falsified, then our minds become disconnected from our environment and to think the mind embraces the truth and becomes one with it (as described, e.g., in Chapter 5 of Tanya) is untenable. Any truth could be manufactured, any unity mere self-indulgence. My mind would ultimately not be a dwelling place for G-d in metaphysical actuality, but a dwelling-place for imaginings that pass the threshold of truth-perception, so I call them true.

In other words, for Chassidus to work, our minds must be able to actually be vessels for an outside reality, must actually cross the gap and connect. There must be a difference between imagining and knowing, “And Adam knew Eve.”

Like all knowledge, our knowledge of G-d is not self-sufficient but is founded on faith and propagates through a faith-medium. Faith, like knowledge, crosses the gap and connects, but, critically, it does not connect in a piecemeal, finite fashion subject to analysis. In truth, all knowledge is really a combination of faith and knowledge, with neither one reducible to the other.

There is no rational answer to total skepticism (“How do you know the direct apperception of the Divine at Mount Sinai wasn’t a demon’s trick?”). There must first be faith, a non-negotiable, inexplicable connection between self and other not subject to analysis. Rationality begins when the supra-rational has taken root, and then every step of rational reason (“Since G-d spoke at Mount Sinai, we have an obligation not to wear wool and linen”) is caused not merely by its rational antecedent but by that initial and pervading faith. Once faith is in place, the void held at bay, our understanding must proceed on its own terms,* rather than contradicting its own efficacy by calling itself an illusion.

In short, knowledge cannot be allowed to reduce to faith or illusion. If knowledge reduces to faith, e.g. by saying every step of the reasoning process is an a priori direct soul connection rather than the work of systematized logic, then there really is no such thing as knowledge apart from the faith which founds it. Similarly, if knowledge reduces to illusion, then our knowledge comes to reject the faith that is its own necessary precondition, and neither total skepticism nor “living with contradictions” could be called knowledge, for in neither case is the mind a vessel for what’s beyond it. With only faith, one may have G-d, but one does not have G-d on one’s own finite terms, does not have G-d authentically as a rational animal. Without faith, one has nothing but oneself.

But how do we get from faith to knowledge? How do we know that the G-d we have accepted from Mount Sinai does not want us to reject the workings of reason? Perhaps the first tenet of faith is, “trust nothing is real except what I tell you”?

Indeed: G-d has told us that just as He is real, there is at least some reality to the universe. This is why G-d created such a thing as a rational mind. He has made knowledge, and a world of composite, non-infinite things for knowledge to know, and sanctify, in that order.

Where does G-d tell us this?

One old standby is that it’s in the first verse of the Torah. In the beginning G-d created, after all. G-d Himself tells us that he did something, and His Torah never departs from the straightforward meaning. On the other hand, perhaps “creation” (ex nihilo, Nachmanides would urge us to append) merely means “the generation of that which is illusory.”

So, the Rebbe Rashab memorably uses** this instead:

The Mishna (Sanhedrin 7:11) states that a sorcerer is liable for the death penalty under Jewish law, but only for an act of sorcery. If he merely creates the appearance of sorcery, he is exempt. R’Akiva tenders an example: If two known sorcerers are gathering cucumbers, but the first actually gathers them with witchcraft, whereas the second merely creates the illusion of having gathered them with witchcraft, the first is liable and the second is not.

If, asks the Rebbe, the world is merely an illusion, how could the first sorcerer be liable? They, too, have done nothing but manipulate perception!

This argument clearly has an advantage over the first verse of the Torah, establishing that what, to Torah, counts as an illusion is distinct from the reality of our physical world. We cannot merely call creation an illusion, for cucumbers actually moving is different from cucumbers only appearing to move.

Of course, it is still possible to draw arbitrary distinctions, to the effect of “gathering cucumbers” is part of a more regular, consistent, accepted illusion called (for brevity) “reality,” whereas “appearing to gather cucumbers” is an illusion within the illusion, a break from our usual perception, and this is the source of the different judgments for these sorcerers.

There are problems with this evaluation of the Mishna, however. The Torah need not have framed the matter as actual vs. illusion (lit. “performing an action” vs. “fooling the eyes”). If the law wanted merely to issue a practical ruling it could say: “if you discover the cucumbers to be ungathered after the sorcerer’s apparent gathering, the sorcerer is not liable.” Since the Mishna instead tells us to assess whether it was mere illusion, it seems to adopt a definite metaphysical position that the first sorcerer’s action was not an illusion.

Secondly, the “illusion within an illusion” interpretations reads into the Mishna a probably-untenable epistemology. The simple way to read the law is that the court assesses the difference between illusion and reality. The proposed way of reading it is that the court assesses the difference between what they’re used to and what they aren’t.

To see how this would affect the rest of Torah law, consider that the idea of illusion is brought up specifically in the case of sorcery. Isn’t it true that any Torah transgression that turns out not to have occurred isn’t considered a transgression? If we thought we saw Shimon murder Reuven, but Reuven turns up alive and well, we certainly no longer try Shimon for murder. Why should sorcery be any different?

What makes magic, magic, is the lack of obvious cause and effect under the rules of nature. I understand the causality involved in Shimon squeezing the trigger, which sends a bullet flying down a barrel pointed at Reuven. This rational chain of events exists in many other places, not merely in this one instance, and will, all else being equal, produce the same result every time. It is this consistent working of cause and effect, all over the world, that indicates my mind is actually understanding the various aspects, the gun and the air, etc. For this to be an illusion, some other intervening factor must come into play, and that will be the cause of Reuven remaining alive. Perhaps I was seeing the whole incident in a mirror and Shimon was, in fact, facing the other way, etc.

Compare this to sorcerers gathering cucumbers. I don’t necessarily see or understand the mechanism or chain of causes that bring the cucumbers to be gathered, or, for that matter, bring me to perceive them being gathered. Without that consistency of regular experience, it is hard to even know what I am perceiving. It is not sufficient to produce an intervening cause that allowed the cucumbers to remain ungathered…for I do not know what causes them to be gathered in the first place! The only way to distinguish the gatherer from David Copperfield is by the result, by whether the cucumbers have actually moved.

We might think that even if we find the cucumbers, after the fact, to be gathered, this itself may merely be a step in some broader illusion, an issue that never arises with murder because we understand the causal process at work. We know that if Shimon shoots at Reuven’s chest, he’s on the hook for what happens, regardless of whether Shimon was trying to shoot the bottle behind Reuven, or what have you. How do we even know what the wizard was aiming at, however? Perhaps cucumbers appearing to be gathered, then appearing to be back in their field, is only the first step of the ritual!

Therefore, the Mishna comes to tell us not to go too far, that we can evaluate sorcery on its results. It needs to tell us this about sorcery when it doesn’t need to tell it to us elsewhere; we might think there is no way to evaluate whether sorcery has taken place, while we have no such assumptions about murder.

But if the Mishna says that “gathered cucumbers” and “non-gathered cucumbers” are different only relative to our perception rather than in straightforward fact, then what differentiates sorcery from the rest of Torah law? We ought to find a question on every facet of jurisdiction, a question pertaining to the efficacy of our senses and the truth of our assumptions. For just as there is no essential difference between the sorcery and the illusion (cucumbers themselves being an illusion, just a more common, well-behaved one) so is there no essential difference between Reuven being alive and Reuven appearing to be alive, and no resort to causal processes of murder can close the gap. Guns are an illusion, the air is an illusion, and we might conclude Reuven showing up in the courtroom is just the first step of Shimon’s elaborate murder plot! The “well-behaved” nature of guns describes merely our usual perception of their behavior, rather than anything intrinsic to them we could use to convict, just as “cucumbers don’t move by themselves” is no help with the wizard. Torah law would have to explicitly tell us that the illusion of murder is not tantamount to murder itself and perpetrators of murder-illusion are not guilty.

If our case is an “illusion within an illusion,” then every case of law in the Torah is like sorcery and ought to be treated as such. The unique distinguishing nature of sorcery, i.e. that its causal process is mysterious, would hold true of every aspect of our reality. Since there is no indication in the Torah that this is a concern in all aspects of law, but merely when it comes to sorcery, we must read the Mishna in the straightforward fashion: cucumbers are real; the illusion is not.

The Rebbe Rashab takes a third, stronger tack against the “illusion within an illusion” or “perceived reality vs. perceived illusion” interpretation, in which he applies the Mishna to itself: If the cucumbers are an illusion, then the death penalty we give to the sorcerer will also be an illusion. But in such a case, there is no actual reward and punishment in the Torah system. But then one of the fundamental principles of Judaism is false, and that is impossible. So the Mishna must be read as truly distinguishing between reality and illusion and not merely using those terms to describe different perceptions of an illusion. And therefore the official source, in the Jewish faith, for the reality of the universe as we perceive it is the 11th Mishna in the 7th chapter of Sanhedrin.

We may ask: If the Mishna’s efficacy in demonstrating the reality of cucumbers (and thus the rest of the universe) depends on the reality of the Torah’s capital punishments, why do we not simply say “the universe is real because reward and punishment is real, and many rewards and punishments are carried out in the physical universe”? Why resort to the complicated matter of the sorcerers at all, if it rests on reward and punishment in the first place?

Because, again, the “reality” in question is not the reality of G-d or G-d’s actions, but the reality of the world on its own terms. If we doubt the truth of G-d or G-d’s Torah, no Mishna (and possibly no anything) can argue for the truth of the universe. Remember: All knowledge is based on faith. The question is rather, given that G-d is real on faith and revelation, to what extent is the universe real?

Since this is the question, it does no good to base the reality of the universe, as a whole, on the reality of the Torah’s rewards and punishments in that universe. The cucumbers may be a mere illusion, but the court’s punishment, prescribed in divine revelation, may, for all we know, be far more real, riding as it does on the reality of G-d in a special way. Who says that when G-d creates a cucumber it’s real, but when he orders a holy court to punish, it’s only as real as that cucumber? Perhaps such punishments rise above their apparent similarity to our other worldly experience in some way we cannot, from within that world, perceive. Perhaps the court’s punishment is real not because it shares a reality with cucumbers but because it shares a Torah with G-d. The cucumbers are only real inasmuch as they play a role in reward and punishment, inasmuch as they aren’t worldly but G-dly.

Rather, we must base the reality of the universe not on something G-dly, but rather on something unholy or mundane, on sorcery and cucumbers: Cucumbers moving is a transgression that really happened, whereas cucumbers only appearing to have moved is an illusion and no transgression has occurred. It is only when we question whether our assessment of mundane reality is merely a perceived non-illusion that we turn by necessity to reward and punishment. In short, just because reward and punishment are real does not mean the world is real on its own terms. But if the world is entirely illusory, then reward and punishment could not be real. Thus, the cucumbers cannot be entirely illusory.***

Just as in other areas, knowledge does not reduce to faith; it is not enough to know a principle of the Torah (reward and punishment); cucumbers must be met on their own terms. But faith, a supra-rational basis in G-dliness, underlies all knowledge.


*This is possible because, even though rationality is influenced by faith, the inner life and source of all rationality is faith itself. When we are bribed by worldly pleasure or our own irrational will, it effectively bends our rationality, whereas when we are pre-committed in faith, it allows our rationality to be born and forms the core of the rational process. Thus we see a true difference between the “irrational” and the “supra-rational.”

**In the discourse “Ha’umnam“, 5643

***After this initial salvo, the Rebbe Rashab spends the rest of the discourse explaining that, although the world is not an illusion, the truth of its reality is questionable, and incomparable to the truth of G-d, etc.

Why “Light”?

As many a layman knows, the term Kaballah uses for the divine expression is usually ohr, or light. What the layman may not know is why it’s called light. As we shall see, with the simple notion of light, Kaballah unties a certain persistent problem born of philosophy, or, more accurately, uses the tools of philosophy to free itself of philosophy. The Kaballistic concept of light lays the groundwork both for understanding G-d to truly be beyond our understanding, as well as for having an intimate relationship with that same G-d.

First things first: G-d is not a lamp. The light is a metaphor.

The question is, why this metaphor? Why did the great Rabbis speak of some sort of divine expression and call it light? Of what benefit, in the understanding of G-d, is this notion?

To understand this, as to understand anything, we turn, first, to Maimonides, who codifies the following as Jewish Law and basic Jewish theology, in the second chapter of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah:

[source]

In short, Maimonides here refers to a principle that will also be familiar to thinkers of other Abrahamic faiths, the notion that G-d simply is His own knowledge. Unlike a human being who has a mind, G-d IS His mind; there is no separate faculty of intellect in the Divine Being.

This idea is compelled by logic. His knowledge could be one of three things:

  1. A creation separate from Him. In this case, He doesn’t know anything (since his Knowledge is outside of him the way a tree or frog is outside of Him). How does he know His own knowledge? The only answers would be that He doesn’t, or He knows it with some higher knowledge, in which case we must ask what the nature of that higher knowledge is…
  2. A faculty additional to His being and essence, like human knowledge is to us. This leads, as Maimonides describes, to many gods—He and His knowledge exist in relation, a relation that must itself either constitute a higher being or be explained by a higher being. In either case, G-d here is not G-d, and we must continue searching for the First Simple Being. To call His knowledge a faculty thus does not solve the underlying problems of His knowledge being a separate creation that we saw in (1).
  3. His very being and essence, and part of His perfection. In this case, we must admit our own ignorance, for there is nothing in our universe that knows simply by being. On the other hand, why should the limitations of our knowledge, i.e. that we need a separate faculty in order to know, apply to Him? Is He not the ultimate perfection, possessing all the qualities of the creation, without any of its limitations? To paraphrase the Psalmist, if He forms the human mind, does He Himself not know, even though He has no mind like ours?

This third option is summarized above by Maimonides as “He is the Knower, He is the Subject of Knowledge, and He is the Knowledge itself,” even though it is “beyond the abilities of our mouths to relate or our ears to hear.” It is a conception of G-d as a being of perfect and infinite knowledge, even though we cannot even properly understand, in our minds, what a perfect and infinite knowledge is. In fact, we can only say what the perfect knowledge is not.

If everything in our universe derives from Him, He must possess it in some way, and in fact, in the most perfect and highest way. So He knows everything by knowing Himself, that is, simply by being. He and His knowledge are the same thing.

Therefore, when we say He knows, what we are really saying is that He is perfectly lacking in ignorance, misunderstanding, etc., not that He actually possesses a separate faculty of knowledge as we do. This approach of defining G-d by what he isn’t is known as apophatic, or negative, theology.

This very same method of knowing G-d by ascribing to Him all perfection and negating from him all privations, limitations, or lacks—this negative theology—is taken one step further by Kaballah, and applied to his emanation or light as well.

How would G-d express Himself?

To answer this question, we first look at how things express themselves within our knowable universe. There are generally two ways. This is important because the second is often missed (and understandably so, for as we shall see, it is rare-to-nonexistent in human self-expression).

The first way is what we recognize from nearly all human expression. When I speak or teach or dance or type or even wear certain clothes —call this influence or wilful expression. I am not naturally writing this essay. I was not born typing words like these. I choose to do this.

If it was natural (like, say, my heartbeat, or how many bones I have in my right hand) I wouldn’t choose it wilfully, and since I am choosing to express myself in this way specifically (rather than using different words or writing an essay about cute cats) it is clearly not a natural expression. And since it’s not natural, it denotes a change in my own state. An hour ago, I was not writing—not thinking of how to arrange these words, or how to move my fingers to put them into this machine. Now, I am doing these things. I am personally involved in doing this.

Contrast this with the second form of self-expression. Call it light.

Consider the sun. The sun does not choose to emanate its light, but does so naturally. It does not shine for another to understand, or recognize, or accept. It shines regardless. If everything but the sun were to disappear in an instant, it would continue to shine exactly as before. The sun is not invested, emotionally or causally, in what happens to its light. The sun shines naturally, without any change to its own state, constantly, and without choice.

Now, let us apply the principle of negative theology, in which we define His perfection by what He isn’t, by the limitations he does not possess. G-d has the qualities of both of these means of expression, but the limitations of neither. This means He expresses Himself both wilfully (like influence) and naturally (like light).

In other words, if He were to express Himself, He could do it by choice, but without the self-investment and -change that choice would imply if a human being made it in this world. He could do it naturally, like the sun, but without the limitation of the sun’s nature; He is not compelled to shine.

This combination of qualities, of the wilful and the natural, is beyond human understanding. In our realm of understanding, things are either automatic or done wilfully, either natural or a choice. It is only the Creator, who is beyond all limitations, who can have both together.

With this capacity of Divine expression to be both natural and wilful in mind, let us return to our three-way choice when it comes to the Divine Knowledge.

When we revisit Maimonides’s three-way choice, we find that something has changed. True, His knowledge still would not make sense as an entirely separate creation, the first choice. True, it still makes sense as the third choice, as identical with His being and essence.

But what about the second choice? What about knowledge as a faculty secondary to His essence? Before, we rejected this option, because we assumed knowledge would be related to Him like our knowledge is related to us, as an influence, as an act or expression that changes us and in which we’re invested. It was only with the third choice, when we saw His knowledge as identical with His essence, that we applied the principle of negative theology, and admitted His mind is perfect in ways we cannot comprehend.

But what if we apply negative theology to the second choice as well? What if we view His faculty of knowledge not as an influence, but, because He is not limited to expressing Himself in this way, as a willed light?

If He had a faculty of knowledge separate from His essence that was an expressed light, we would not have the problem of many gods, for light, as a natural expression, is totally united with, secondary to, and expressive of, its source. The sun’s light cannot be mistaken for a second sun. It’s purely a function of the sun’s being. In other words, natural light cannot even really be said to exist in the sense that its source exists. If the entire universe was filled with the sun, we would recognize that in truth, light is nothing but the sun’s shining — its natural way of being. Therefore, if His knowledge is a faculty (option (2)), that is, an emanation, it is not a separate being in the same sense as a frog or a tree. Option (2) is truly advantageous to option (1) when we consider a faculty to be natural like a light rather than willed like an influence.

On the other hand, since His is a wilful expression of light (unlike the sun’s), He is also separate from, and not compelled or defined by, this expression. On the contrary, it is just as apart from His being and essence as a creation, in the sense that He chooses to emanate it. In this, light has the advantage not just over option (1) but also over option (3). That is, if we conceive of His knowledge as a wilful emanation, it accomplishes something that conceiving of His knowledge as identical with His essence does not.

If G-d’s knowledge is a Divine Light rather than identical with His essence, then G-d can be truly beyond understanding. Not just in the sense that He is the perfection of knowledge and knows by knowing Himself in a way totally alien to us, but in the sense that His Essence is not that which is even the source of our understanding. In other words, when we apply apophasis to our knowledge and say He is the perfection of this imperfect earthly trait, it is not even to Him we refer, but merely to His emanation. And experiencing or recognizing the sun’s rays gives us no sense of the sun at all, especially if these are only those rays the sun chooses to emanate.

What is not known is not merely the way of His knowledge. What is not known is how He would express anything, and therefore, with a little more thought, what He is beyond His knowledge. He a complete mystery undefined in any worldly terms.

Therefore, divine light is advantageous both to a created knowledge (1) and knowledge through identity (3) — a middle road. It is more united with Him than a creation, yet it does not define G-d in terms of his own knowledge.

On a practical level, the divine light forms a basis for the proper relationship with G-d: On the one hand, we never demean His essence by saying it is some infinite form of our knowledge. On the other, we can endeavor to closely know His knowledge, which is His authentic willed emanation.

The very possibility of a willed divine light frees G-d Himself from the bounds of worldly comparison and definition, and has, for generations of students of the Inner Torah, thrown open doors of possibility their minds had previously thought shut…

Based on Chapters 4-5 of the Tzemach Tzedek’s Derech Mitzvosecha, Mitzvas Haamanas Elokus.

The Cruel, the Less Cruel, and the Kind

They say the opposite of cruelty is kindness, and that the opposite of hate is love, but it is rare to find a man of unalloyed cruelty and hatred. A man of pure hatred is like a man without legs, a tragedy, but an exception that proves the rule.

Most of us are cruel and hateful only in the service of kindness and love. We hate strangers because we love our people; we hate ideas because we love our minds as they are. “Those who love G-d hate evil,” the Psalmist says, extending this emotional dichotomy up to the rarefied reaches of the soul and the better angels of our nature.

No, in a healthy human being, love and hate are often concurrent, two sides of the same coin. The question is how to regulate these tendencies, balance them, and remain a genuinely good person despite our healthy, deeply human capacity for cruelty. Since love can generate hatred, it is not the means by which to balance our emotions. Rather, this role must fall to the mind. It is in this sense of an actual outside power not in dialectic with hatred, and able to control it, that the opposite of hate is not love, but truth.

Look at what in the world is truly cruel: those areas untouched by reason. This why we call some of the worst murders senseless. A man decides his country or religion or tribe is under attack. Out of protective love, he has their back and sallies forth to destroy their (perceived) enemies.

There are several ways to prevent this tragedy, and each failure to prevent it is a failure of reason. First, the mind of this killer has been set adrift from the internal moral law that says murder is wrong. his love, and this his hatred, broke through that barrier, placed there by G-d and education. Second, his mind failed to use its powers of abstraction to impart sympathy to the killer. Love of one’s own tribe is natural to the heart. Love of others through analogy requires moral education; the idea that they are also mothers, children, lovers of country, etc. must be taught to the heart. Third, the last line of defense of the forces of reason failed, namely, externalized reason, also known as justice. Without justice, the emotion of love terminates in dissolution, discord, and difference. To that extent, the emotion itself is self-destructive, a consuming flame without stabilizing wick or fuel that quickly gutters out in chaos.

Less cruel is reason, which ties the self-consuming love to earth and allows it to exist in stasis. The emotion of love is the individual inhabiting their inherent relationships with self and other. When a child loves her parent, she is literally enacting her relationship, actualizing a connection fixed in time; you are my parent by what has already happened, by my birth, and by loving you, I allow that set state of affairs to affect the present. If someone hurts my parents, I am caught in the web of their action; hurting those I love swiftly establishes another relationship that arouses hate in my heart.

The mind circumvents this causal chain, as if by magic. Like the difference between a man and an ox is the difference between love under reason to love untouched by the mind. An ox looks at food and thinks food. It looks at a tree and thinks about a tree. Its mind is merely an expansion of its senses. Reason, though, is seeing food and thinking thankfulness, seeing a tree and perceiving growth. The very power of abstraction places us a handbreadth higher than inevitability. Someone may attack me, but in their attack I may see only their desperation, and in my own rage I see an emotion to be weighed. There is suddenly room for right and wrong; I may separate good from evil on principle since every particular occurrence also falls in some general category. Revenge can be wrong, even if I saw with my own eyes the crime for which my enemy is indebted. This is the very soul of the law.

It is not even a particular principle that is so vital to justice, but rather having principles itself. Approaches on when to reward and when to punish may vary in details, but the law’s abstract nature always keeps more balance than lawlessness. Reason puts love and hate in a context; that is the most important thing. They gain an aspect of what-we-do, where before they sounded like what-we-are. Thereby, we are preserved from cruel chaos.

Why, then, is reason only less cruel?

Reason is a dictator.

Reason says the right thing is right only relative to other things. Nothing is right just because it is right, except, rather unreasonably, reason itself. G-d Himself, by reason, is reason’s recognition that something it can’t explain must be the ultimate context for what’s right; the first ground, an ur-context, is the uncreated Creator. Reason’s highest principle is that even the Almighty Contextless is defined in the context of context.

Reason, but its very chaos-ending powers, by its abstraction and contextualization—in other words, but its very ability to allow opposites to coexist peacefully—keeps us ever apart. Reason tells us a thing is never just itself, but rather exists in a context. Reason tells us that principles are higher than our love, that ideas must be more important than people in order to save people from themselves. It lets us love with a small love, a love influenced by reason that is a pale shadow. We love never the things themselves purely, but also what they mean.

Reason implies that if we come together without third-party mediation, we will destroy each other. If I don’t want chaos, I will meet you only on reason’s property. Yes, that’s a threat.

Can we say we’re together at all? My mind says our love is a good love. Is it so lacking in reality that my mind controls it? My mind cannot even control a brick wall. Is there no love undying? Perhaps only G-d’s, and He Himself is only real as mind, as real as the way things fit together!

The kind is something else. Call it faith. For love to survive, justice must tame it. But for justice to live, faith must direct it.

For the rules not to chafe, for abstractions not to hurt, for principle to be more than a forfeiture of self, we must rediscover a higher love. Not the love of emotions, not the actualization of a relation to an object, but a love rooted in self-definition. Emotive love says, “I love you.” Faith love does not speak, for speech is the sound of communication, and we only must communicate if we are not one. Emotive love is the search for you as me. Reason says the search for you cannot be everything, must ever be a mere action, a mere part of me. Faith says that the search for you is a search for me, when we remember we have never been apart.

Faith says that just as we are one with our own principles, we are one with our Creator and each other.

Faith says we reason not because we have to but because we can, because it is how we draw our self-contained love into canvasses of other.

Faith says chaos, in its basic motions, in people moving apart and coming together because of their fixed structures, captures a deep truth of us. Chaos is faith in the negative polarity. If we wish to fix it, we control it with reason, and then control reason. The opposite of hate is truth, but not intellectual truth. The opposite of hate is love-truth and being-truth.

By faith, reason’s context is given context. The “it depends” is told it depends. We are not defined by strictures or relationships; they are defined by us, in our very being.

And it is at this point when we reach faith, on the lip of this greatest and most profound freedom, that G-d tells us what we can do for Him.

Originally posted on Hevria.

Why Is the Universe So Big?

The argument is well-known: It is difficult to believe in the cosmic significance of human life in a universe as vast as ours. If the universe is created by G-d with human beings in mind, why is there so much of it? How, in light of the billions of galaxies, can we tell ourselves human action matters in the big picture? This question deserves an answer, but first we must question the question, religiously, scientifically, and philosophically, to find out what we’re really asking.

Neil deGrasse Tyson asks this question in the name of science, I assume as part of the quest to banish the ignorance of the masses. And when scientists ask the question, they do it as if it’s new, as if the vastness of the universe were a modern proposition.

In truth, ancient sources such as the Talmud (based on Job 25:3) refer to infinite angels, denizens of spiritual realms beyond reckoning, in comparison to which the entire human race is like a drop in the ocean. Now, these endless ranks of spiritual beings are said to often care about and in many ways to exist for the purposes of humanity. Therefore, the difference between the universe as conceived by modern astronomy and the spiritual realms described by the Talmud is not in quantity but rather in quality. Infinite angels created by a G-d who cares about individual human beings is one thing. A vast multiverse totally indifferent to our presence is quite another.

(Besides the Talmud’s sheer statement of fact, there are moral lesson to be learned from endless realms of G-d’s dominion. As the religious sources imply, man’s smallness is a trait religion has tried to impart, not avoid. What makes a human being important in the eyes of G-d is not their size, beauty, or perfection, but their lowliness and potential for failure. Free choice, the ability to rebel against His will, is unique to humanity. We are special because we have the capacity not to serve. And if the sinner is the lowest of all possible creatures, why shouldn’t there be more gnats than sinners, and more galaxies than our own?

So the real thrust of the question here, to a religious Jew, anyway, is not why should the universe be so big, but why should G-d care about man? Or, to put it slightly differently, why would G-d need vast galaxies to demonstrate man’s insignifcance when gnats and angels would do?)

We shall return to the universe’s indifference in a moment, but first we must question not just how innovative the question is but the apparent scientific grounds of the question itself. Although a huge universe does not represent an innovation to the religious mind, are we even so sure the physical universe is so huge? Contemporary science is notoriously bound up with observers and frames of reference. In 1983, Mostafa A. Abdelkader formulated a totally unfalsifiable mathematical model of  the universe in which we all live on the inside of a hollow earth and Pluto is the size of a bacterium. It is still irritating philosophers of science. I do not think his paper accurately models reality, but it is difficult to prove that it does not. Perhaps the way the question of the universe’s size is posed, with so much self-assuredness, is really just a relic of the centuries when science considered itself something like G-d’s truth.

Even if we are (1) primarily concerned with the universe’s indifference and (2) certain that it is vast, we must then turn to the thicket of philosophical assumptions underlying the question.

Do we assume, for example, that all creations are equally important in G-d’s eyes, or might distant galaxies be byproducts of some process, with G-d’s true concern touching only our local blue-green marble? Even if we insist that G-d is truly omnipotent in the sense that He has no byproducts and everything He creates is with direct intent, how do we know that there is a reason underlying everything He does? Certainly, there may be some divine purpose behind the untold galaxies, but can we even confidently explain why G-d wishes to create a certain hydrogen atom here on earth? And if not, how can we ultimately hope to plumb the divine intention behind more complex creations? Perhaps it is only possible to understand what He Himself reveals as his reasons, and beyond that we have little hope. What man can claim on the basis of worldly inference and deduction why the Creator made light and the atmosphere such that the sky is blue?

But fine. Assuming we are asking why G-d would create a universe we assert is vast and recognize as indifferent when what He truly cares about is the moral decisions of human beings, and assuming He made it this way intentionally, and that we are meant to comprehend it—nu, why is the universe so big?

To make man humble? The men most obsessed with huge hunks of dead matter utterly beyond our reach hardly seem to have a diminished sense of superiority. And besides, we always knew about the angels. How many are your works, and even more so in transcendence and variation, more than just another rock or ice or fire.

To give man choice? True, a universe containing only the earth may make men feel the presence of G-d, since we may to obviously be the center of it and so have no choice but to serve Him.

This reason is, in a way, question begging, since whether the large and indifferent universe causes a sense of distance from G-d is what’s at issue here. A good explanation for distant galaxies may cause us to feel close to G-d. In fact, paradoxically, even the free-choice explanation of the universe’s size can have this effect, since G-d went through so much “effort” only to make us feel distant from Him, an expression of great love and devotion! Besides, even without a large and indifferent universe, there are other ways G-d conceals Himself from us, through the world’s materiality, corporeality, etc.

No, the only way the vast indifferent universe makes sense is as an end unto itself. It is not here to facilitate a human need per se but rather to fulfill a G-dly need, so to speak. In other words, the huge reaches of space are not a means to a human end but are themselves a desirable end before G-d.

As we are taught, G-d desires a dwelling place in the lower worlds, to be fully present in a place that completely denies His presence. In other words, He wishes to conceal Himself in a place that has the capactiy to eventually reveal Him. He does not want this because it grants human beings free choce but, on the contrary, grants us free choce in order to facilitate this unity between the unG-dly and the divine.

In such a universe, there should be an infinite number of things that make no sense.

The ancient universe, before we learned of its true size, could reveal some aspects of G-d, but not the Creator Himself. A universe of immense magnitude full of inaninmate matter is the type of universe that conceals Him but can actually truly reveal Him.

In the beginning, the universe conceals Him, as all brute matter does. It conceals Him the way marble conceals the sculptor. “Just marble here,” the block of marble says. Matter speaks only about matter.

But matter, you may be objecting, is tamed by form, by spirit. A block of marble may not tell us about a sculptor, but a statue certainly does. The statue is given a form in which arist invests their power. The marble, through its shape, now points toward something beyond itself; the matter is given both content (in itself) and context (in the human world). Raw matter may not tell us anything about the nature of the Creator, but all matter in our universe is formed—color, shape, mass, and various other properties mean that G-d hides in the universe only unitl we plumb the depths of his palate, his molds, his storehouses. A single “dead” pebble, grasped by its form in the human mind, can and does reveal four fundemental physical forces as well as an uncreated Creator, and much else besides.

This is where we were around five hundred years ago, when we thought the physical universe was much smaller, and G-d decided something must change. He set aside his Michelangelo persona and became a modern artist.

You can interperet this change in two ways. Either His presence was too obvious and He wished to hide further, allowing the generations to descend from ancient heights. Or just maybe He thought He was too hidden, the One G-d mistaken for an artist of relatively human caliber. (No one mistakes creation ex nihilo or the divine infinite for human. The error, of course, was mistaken what we could know of forms, qualities, and souls as commensurate with Him. And  so—) Either way, the time of matter had come.

Either way, He sent us telescopes.

We were shown that the universe is vast and full of stuff, more stuff than we can begin to imagine, not angels full of purpose and obsessed with humanity but rocks and ice and emptiness, and endless unfathomable indifference. We have learned that the Creator is not pocket-sized, nor can He even fit comfortaply in a museum or between a pair of ears. He has broken free and rampaging through the city. He knows trillions of dead planets, holds them in motion, maintains them in existence, all without our perception, without our consent, without our boxes.

There is no soul or story that can lend all of this context or make it mean something. There is no way to look at it as a sculpture. The sheer unending incomprehensible particularity of its members breaks our categories and even our imaginations. We poke and prod at the universe with numbers indicating units of time and space, and the universe does not even shift in its sleep.

“Reveal me in this,” G-d says, “and it is Me you reveal. Not the structures of your own mind. Not the limitations of your understanding. In this endless empty formless thing, I will be what I will be.”

Why is the universe so big?

Nothing smaller is meaningless enough to convey its Creator.

Objective Reality Is For Meeting G-d

“Facts don’t care about your feelings,” some Jews say. I do wonder, though. If facts don’t care about your feelings, why is Rosh Hashana called the “day of the beginning of your action”?

In many other words: Once upon a time, centuries ago, few would have recognized a real facts/feelings distinction, if “facts” mean shared objective reality in the world and “feelings” refer to the private subjective experience of each conscious being. Like other forms of innocence, the unity between the person and the world (through mind) was considered close and true. When I thought well about furniture, the form of the wood and the form of my mind were the very same thing; if they weren’t, I was simply imagining, or my senses were faulty, or I was somehow otherwise malfunctioning. There was no notion of thinking ideas. I was not considered to think of the idea of furniture, but about the furniture itself. There was no idea of a table, produced in my mind and separate from the world, intervening between the facts and my soul.

More recently, men such as John Locke introduced the idea of the idea, and with it, the fact/feeling distinction. The facts may be one way, but my thinking about the facts could be different. Everyone has their own point of view, since everyone conjures their own ideas even about objective, shared reality. As modernity progresses, the mind is found to be ever-more limited by the imperfect body, to be vulnerable to deception and influence on the most basic of levels. At some point, some of us even began to suspect the mind is just a part of the body, anyway.

Nowadays, fans of truth are stuck between a rock and a soft place. The rock is the near-impossibility of returning to our ancient innocence. The challenge is to recapture our confidence in our own understanding, to reverse modern skepticism and believe once more that our minds grasp reality directly. We would need to return to a conception of the world being partially made of mind itself, to reconcile ourselves to an actually intelligible universe (our narrative role as evolved apes on a spinning rock notwithstanding). Perhaps most painful to the modern mind, we would have to undo our sunny skeptical pluralism and commit ourselves to pursuing the single, correct, capital-T Truth, to the exclusion of the many mistaken notions of those who cannot see it. We must forfeit the individual’s freedom to navigate around the truth, for the sake of finding any truth at all.

In contrast is the soft place, the attempt to maintain the fact/feeling shared/private objective/subjective distinctions without falling into relativism and ultimately the annihilation of all meaning. To do this, we must arbitrarily assign some fact/feeling amalgam the status of pure fact, and pretend it is solid ground, when in fact the entire edifice of our reason is built on quicksand.

Take, for example, those who wish to draw the line at science and empiricism, to say these are fact while all else is feeling. The problem is that there is no such statement of fact, not even “the sky is blue,” which is truly devoid of faith-based justification from the realm of “feelings.” Who is seeing the sky in this scenario, and with what tools? How do these tools bring about the subjective experience of this “fact” such that we should believe it to be true? If ultimately we do experience this fact privately, why is the “fact” that the sky is blue really different from the hypothetical “fact” that it’s purple?

Further discourse upon wavelengths or photons just add more such questions, the theory demanding even further justification in subjective experience; throwing more “facts” at the situation does not negate the interpretive frame that allows those facts to exist. All this is before we even get to the question of how we can define the sky as a thing, how we can share our observations with others, how we are so sure these facts “work” at a pragmatic level when we cannot even explain how we know the facts themselves, etc.

Given the rock of reversing five hundred years of history and the soft place of arbitrarily declaring certain feelings to be fact, most people simply don’t think (too hard) about these questions and generally live their lives as if the truth doesn’t matter.

They ignore Rosh Hashana, a day with a solution.

On the 1st of Tishrei, man is created. It is the sixth day, but it’s called the beginning of his work. The previous five days of creation certainly occur; G-d knows of them, and records them in His Torah. But when is it solidified into “action,” work, actuality, objective external reality as we (want to) know it? Only when Adam’s subjective and solitudinous soul is blown into his nostrils.

In other words, there were no facts until there were feelings.

Before creating man, there was no need for objective reality. Man, once created, is a creature full of feeling, an imperfect fact finder, commanded in G-d’s own Torah to assess even narrow legal truths under only the strictest limited conditions. The Torah’s standards for judges are exceptional. The average man on the street is not able to assess the objective truth of things even enough to provide a ruling, never mind to delve their depths.

But if G-d is a subjective being without objective action until Rosh Hashana, and human beings have been subjective since Rosh Hashana, then why is there an objective reality at all?

It can only be to bring subjectivities together.

Facts are not, contra the ancient view, an absolute standard inexorably governing existence. Facts are not, contra modernity, an illusion, nor are they feelings-based propositions chosen for arbitrary promotion. Facts are a place for subjectivities to touch, for man and G-d, and man and man, to find each other.

There is not direct joining of two private souls, which would necessitate becoming only one self. One self is what G-d had before He created the universe, after all. What He seeks from the world is an opportunity to find Himself in other selves. To do this, we must perceive ourselves as separate, and arrive at each other through some sort of external communication. Every detail of His work is tailored toward this end. He creates facts.

Every year on Rosh Hashana, we spend two days trying to awaken ourselves to this reality, that all we perceive as real is merely divine communication, the Creator seeking us out. On Rosh Hashana, we crown G-d king, which is another way of saying, “The world is not here for itself, and we are not here for it. The world is here for us and G-d to rendezvous.”

We choose, on the day when all truth was created from the one truth that we are meant to be together, to become his subjective subjects once more. This year, nothing will stop us. This year, we will find Him, fact and feeling, in Jerusalem, rebuilt.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

If You’re Hungry, Eat Yourself

The truest things cannot be understood, because they themselves understand, and what understands cannot be understood.

Take a man or woman. We peel off their star chart or Spotify most-listened tracks of 2017 and we see them for what they are in their complexity, and we tell them, “In this, I think I see you.”

We try to understand by encompassing, by bringing the object within ourselves and analyzing it, feeling out its soul. Within, within. Deeper, deeper.

But there is no object, no fine prism so bewitched with their soul-light, that they cannot say, “It is not I, who is now speaking, that you hold in your hands.”

This is true even in our beloved’s arms.

“That is my IQ, my funniest joke, the content of my bedside table. It’s the color of my eyes. It’s not me.”

We give up on all these physical things, and, in a stroke of inspiration, ask, “What about your words? In fact, what about your very protests that you cannot be understood? In the ‘it is not I,’ do we not hear the speaker, negated but present?”

But every time, at every train station and at every wedding, they’ll say, “That’s not I, which is not I.”

So we set out to gather up all the not I in the world, the alarm clocks, the sand, fruit flies, and the reefs, every non-straight line and every non-black non-raven, but the realization dawns that it’s not enough.

Through this method we will never know what it is to sit square on the hypotenuse or fly on black wings.

We cannot, through negation, understand one who understands.

“I” is a lonely thing, which probably has something to do with why so many of us hurry to define ourselves this way and that and pretend that they can be understood, when really they can only understand, and turning that faculty in upon themselves yields no data.

The dissatisfaction of trying to understand the “I” rankles.

There’s seemingly no recourse; they are as real as we are, and so cannot be contextualized, systematized, and made to cohere.

These processes only begin with the understander as a given.

How, then, are we even aware of an “I”?

We can see them.

Sight is the wrapper of things so profound it takes generations to speak their name. Though I cannot understand the understander, I can see the seer.

It is not something I try to do; trying can be understood.

It is something that falls upon me, that take me by surprise.

Where once we struggled to understand, the “I” is suddenly present in his totality; but as we attempt to approach, it disappears.

Before the image fragments, we see him framed, in his wholeness, in his resisting presence. His soul is, just for a moment, present within us. Our reality does not encompass his. It gives way before his, allows him to float in the negative space we’d collapse by our slightest breath.

This is what it means to eat and grow more hungry.

Understanding is filling; the good becomes our own flesh. Things stitch together in our minds like reconstituted proteins.

But the understander, the other soul, is not found in chemicals, cannot be described by logic, even though those are the tools he uses, the letters and words for his meaning.

We take him for food but he cannot be digested. He can be seen but not touched. he can be known only at a distance.

We see, and give way to his reality, and remain empty. We cannot eat it; we can only see it.

We see in the depths of their eyes another soul, another understander, and know we will never be satisfied, that we will never be one.

And, despite what you may have heard, there are options open to us other than eating.

Because, though we cannot prove it nor convey it nor properly understand it ourselves, the “I” is the same as our “I”.

Imagine if all you could eat was yourself. You are starving and start at your feet. You work your way up into the torso, past the navel, and are struck by a strange notion.

You realize before you reach your own stomach that it already resides where you would send it by eating it. This cannot be. You will never be full this way; eating this way will undo your eating.

But maybe your mistake is in your approach. Perhaps you’ve had it all backward.

Who says your stomach is more “I” than an apple just because it’s on one side of your skin?

Perhaps the world is all you, all within you, and your skin is not a sleeve holding you together but a mobius strip, a membrane with only one side.

If an “I” cannot be a brain or a stomach or an apple or anything negotiable, what, then, is it?

G-d is everything other, and also our deepest self, and our skin only has one side.

There is one G-d; we are, in our inscrutability, as real as Him, and He is all that’s real.

The One who understands is, at the deepest place, the only One who understands, behind every pair of eyes, at the deepest reach.

He is different everywhere because His Torah is true and He is One with it.

The Torah is the decryptor finding in the encyphered essence of every rock and rock song the Rock of Ages.

And if all souls are one as they spring from the Divine Truth, then we not only eat or see, but inhabit the same verbs from the inside.

It is G-d, and therefore ourselves, and therefore G-d, whom we are trying to assimilate.

Between the one who sees and the seer who is seen lies only a perfect prism casting illusions, and our mission is to unmake it by seeing through it, to show it what it is and therefore that it isn’t.

We hunger deeply for that which we already possess but cannot, in our striving, see.

It will not do, either, to cleave to inertia and hope it will fall into our laps, for if this were the expectation, why do we exist at all?

We are “I”s who are meant to understand, in the end.

So, we must confront the layered complexity with which we’re entangled and settle not for food that satisfies nor hungry visions.

We must delve into these modes, find the non-being that delineates their fences, and push through to the seeing Seer, the knowing Knower, the Truth at the heart of and above everything, the One G-d.

The world is ours if we eat ourselves; G-d is in our own hearts.

The subsumer, in turning his being upon himself, is subsumed; the understander gives up on understanding, and attains, in his nothingness, freedom.

This is religion.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

There Is Only One Side

It is hard to figure out where the truth lies in political controversies, at least if the truth is one’s goal. As Jews, we look to the Torah for guidance, but the Torah is famously complex and multi-faceted, allowing for many perspectives and opinions to partially participate in the truth.

The word “partially” is important, there. If any political or worldly philosophy was to completely agree with the Torah, it simply would be Torah, and of course, few political movements advocate bringing about a perfect world through not wearing wool and linen together or, for that matter, loving the King of Kings. All philosophies conceived by man, political or otherwise, are as imperfect and limited as man himself, whereas Torah simply is the infinite and perfect divine intellect.

While the knowledge that all politics is human and imperfect may not directly help us choose whether to vote Democrat or Republican (and, as the Rebbe Rayatz points out, the good in each side has its source in Torah), it does help us understand a new and popular idea called “There Is Only One Side.”

“There is only one side,” we are told with a straight face, “in the fight against injustice/fascists/leftists/Nazis/Trump/SJWs/etc.” This violates not only centuries of Jewish taste (“Every stick has two ends” is a Yiddish saying for a reason) and millennia of Jewish scholarship (“Oh,” cries Shammai, “there’s only one side! What a fool I’ve been!”), but also one of the deep, sacred truths of Judaism. “There’s only one side” is a reserved parking space, and it’s not reserved for us.

Why is a Nazi evil?

Let me ask a different question. Why is Amalek evil? Perhaps the Torah gives some reasons. But do those reasons apply to their women and children? The whole nation was our enemy and deserved to be wiped out. Is this based on some rational calculus? What rationale is there for killing children?

No, that’s not how it works. They had to be destroyed because G-d their creator commanded it. Amalek is “evil” because the Torah says so; in fact, that’s all that’s meant in this case by the word “evil”; no other definition of the term could sentence the entire tribe to death.

This makes me uncomfortable. Does this make you uncomfortable? Does it challenge your sense of Justice?

Good. Because declaring an entire tribe evil at essence as an unquestionable absolute is a grave moral undertaking even when the command comes from G-d Himself.

So why is a Nazi evil? Why is [insert group] evil?

Some seem to think a Nazi is evil because they practice Nazism, and Nazism is evil because Nazis practice it. They gesture toward historical atrocities without naming them and allow those stories to simplify and foreshorten and shrink into a single point. They become angry that they should even have to answer the question. No explanations are needed. Nazis are just evil because they are, like Amalek. There is, we are assured, only one side – with the evil, or against it.

But of course, there is no divine authority that says anyone who throws a Nazis salute is simply pure evil. Divine authority says more that murder of innocents is evil, that theft is evil, that ruling without courts or law is evil, that chaos and barbarism is wrong. We are to love our fellow as ourselves and know that we will one day have to explain our actions before our Creator. We are to pursue truth, justice, and peace. We are to be magnanimous toward defeated enemies, we are to be humble before G-d, we are to view man as created in the image of G-d. All of this, and much more makes the Nazis evil.

But if there are reasons the Nazis are evil, we now have three problems.

The first is that the emotional weight of the story of their evil seems much more important and powerful to us than any pathetic words about right and wrong. This indicates that we have contemplated the story of the Nazis and their victims, but not the story of G-d, righteousness, and reason, which, if told correctly, should lend emotional ballast to good and evil.

The second problem is that if Nazis are evil for a reason, people can be proportionately or relatively evil in comparison for participating in the same crimes and horrors. This necessarily entails that rather than being purely wicked through-and-through as a group, individual Nazis are really only evil inasmuch as they are responsible for the reasons Nazis are evil. (Of course, being part of the group is itself participation in the Nazi evil to some extent; morality is complicated.)

The third problem is that the path to the Manichaean contrast of good vs. evil is now much more difficult. If Nazis aren’t evil by definition but only evil by performing, participating in, and representing evil, then anti-Nazism is not good by definition but only good by performing, participating in, and representing countervailing goods. “Good Guys vs. Bad Guys” is an appropriate and perhaps necessary narrative assessment to make, but of course cannot be the foundation of determining who the good guys and bad guys actually are, or, even more maturely, to what extent they are actually good or bad.

These aren’t really problems for me. I’m a Jew, and so, for me, there is only one side – the Torah. It is the only thing in this world that is infinitely true without context or qualification. I think this makes sense; the Torah does come from G-d, after all.

But to apply the same logic to your own political position – what’s your excuse?

Wisdom, By Accident

Like many curious kids, I considered the metaphor of the inkwell with both passion and suspicion.

Passion, because in the fresh dawn of my young mind’s awakening, proof, and even better, proof of big things, captured my imagination. Suspicion, because with a mind comes the awareness that big claims demand big proof, and that our fathers can be our indoctrinators, and maybe the people from the Internet are right.

Like many curious kids, I felt I was in a position to judge the inkwell, to weigh the truth of it with the tools I owned and decide what to believe.

In deciding, the course of my life philosophy would be set.

I would never have to wander.

***

Confession of a recovering debater: In the surety of my youth, when I could still answer questions, I was deaf to nearly all the inkwell had to offer.

I can still remember one of the first arguments I ever had on the Internet, when small, homey forums were the norm, before Reddit or persistent identity or the rule of the common denominator. I could not yet have been fourteen years old. Middle school was garbage, the Internet more interesting. But these strange people with their foreign gods came and dented with their adolescent antagonisms the words of the work that remains the foundation to my entire life, The Little Midrash Says. So I looked to argue with their teenaged Darwinism, seeking to settle the matter forever, for the entire Internet, once and for all. I would never so glibly produce the metaphor in argument again. I learned it only in order to teach, studied only to break my enemies’ hubris. This was unwise. But looking back on my younger self, I cannot stop him; he did what he thought was right.

I slapped the inkwell down upon the proverbial table.

The inkwell can be summed up in one sentence: “If a letter or a poem cannot be created by an inkwell spilling, how can the world come about with G-d?”

If there is one thing that characterizes the cruel hopes of our youth, it is the assumption that the world, so used to crushing others with indifference, will yield to us. I was taken with this hope, and therefore nothing appealed to my thinking quite like science. And it was by science that I thought I’d won the argument.

***

Here is how a voracious reader of children’s encyclopedias understood the inkwell: It is a statistical argument stemming from the nature of structure and design. What are the chances that ink spills and forms words on a page? Astronomically low. How do we then look at the massive complexity of the world and arrive at the conclusion it likely has no designer?

The first of my Internet interlocutors demanded I produce the credentials of a scientist who found this argument to be valid – a clear win for me, as any rookie Facebook scrapper knows. But the second guy told me if one rolls the dice a trillion trillion times, it shouldn’t surprise us that they come up correctly once. I had no response to this; it makes sense.

In the years since, I’ve realized this is the argument of the multiverse theory, and that it gained popularity largely because it’s good at answering this question. Licking my wounds, turning his response over and over, I’ve composed my perfect riposte, wherein I first get him to concede the importance of evidence and then press hard for evidence of this alleged vast cosmic lottery which violates not just Occam’s Razor but, in its unsurpassed inelegance, Occam’s blunt club as well. In bedrooms, dorm rooms, and classrooms I worked out how to save the inkwell from his attack, but never until adulthood did I once consider it was my perspective that needed rescuing.

***

The god of the probability inkwell has all the metaphysical weight of the purported planet Vulcan that was once assumed to intervene between Mercury and the sun. Vulcan was never observed, but Mercury moved strangely, and so scientists proposed, in order to rescue their own understanding, the existence of an extra planet we happened to not yet have seen.[i]

So, too, did I, a curious boy, march proudly onto the world stage with my adolescent intellect and declare, arms akimbo, that G-d must exist because if He doesn’t, I don’t understand the universe.

And that, make no mistake, is the nature of the probable god. He is the conclusion to a thought process that begins with materialistic axioms. He is the “god of the gaps,” who exists only to explain holes in my understanding that may tomorrow be plugged, rendering him irrelevant.

Therefore, it’s only natural for his worshippers to turn from theists to deists, who believe that G-d if he exists, is irrelevant. They say G-d gave the universe over to nature[ii], a comforting position different from atheism but not to the extent that G-d can actually do anything, change the world, or disrupt our enlightened conquest of nature.

And if deism is functionally atheism, its only god is a once-upon-a-time watchmaker who introduced order and design and naught else. Why blame the actual atheist for calling everyone’s bluff and declaring he has no use for a statistically probably deity? Who can blame him for finding likely scientific explanations, such as Darwinian evolution, for design, and thereby stop up the gaps?

If the process that arrives at the creator absolutely assumes and uses empiricism and statistics, who is my highest deity, really? With gods like these, who needs gods?

***

It was only later, walking near the elegant curve of Jerusalem’s white bridge, mind split between the sidewalk and my headphones, that I first heard the goal of knowledge is to not know.

My life was then steeped in transformation. The official Deeper Mysteries of the Universe seemed to pour from mouths and inky pages in my Yeshiva, my Hebrew quickly improving with my thirst to grasp the next class, the next page, something with an answer. And slowly, not all-at-once, but with the sometimes-painful rearrangement of my inner architecture, it began to occur to me that the search for questions should precede the search for answers.

It seemed implicit in the order of the intellectual sefiros, for example. Chachma precedes Binah; the rigorous analysis is birthed and informed by the ineffable flash of insight; it is only through knowing what the thing is that we can understand anything true about it. It was also hidden in the structure of the Chassidic discourses, which used their questions precisely, like spiking a spigot into a barrel, to break through to deeper comprehension. Most of all, the question’s advantage over the answer cried out to me when I reviewed something I first learned months or years earlier, when my initial understanding blew away like chaff, because I did not in the first round understand the question the information came to answer.

A boy seeks a better teacher, flashier arguments, new information. A man, I learned, seeks to listen to the first teacher properly, revels in “boring” technicality, and learns the old discourse again. A man puts deeper before further. It is a pleasant thing for one to grasp in one’s early twenties, because trying to go further has its limits and they are our limits, the ones we are just beginning to learn. As a sage once said, nothing is going to hit harder than life. The cult of further, of which I was an initiate when I first met the inkwell, is an attempt to launch a counterattack on life. All you get for it is bruised knuckles and a bruised ego.  The way of depth is the way of accepting the blow and changing oneself.

***

The inkwell, it turns out, is not about the statistical likelihood of a designer god. Such an interpretation would probably have sounded heretical to Rabbeinu Bachya, who deploys it in Chovos HaLevavos. Again: To say the world has no creator is to accept that a knocked-over bottle of ink can write a poem or a letter. However, this, I assure you, has nothing to do with statistics, and only a little to do with design. This is about meaning, purpose, and unity.

My mistake as a boy lay in not considering what makes a letter or poem significant. It is not the chances of ink landing in the shape of words or sentences. It is the fact that we can distinguish them from a random spill at all. What is the poem, that my heart leaps up when I behold those words upon a page? Why are they meaningful? How can marks of ink on dead-tree membrane cohere into “The Tiger”? Only, a good philosopher would tell you, through telos, the final cause, tachlis. What makes the poem is not merely its matter, which is only ink and paper, nor its form, which is its arrangement, nor even the hand that writes it, which brings the arrangement to the ink and paper. What makes the poem the poem is purpose. Matter is incoherent, form does not alone provide a discrete existence; a hand bereft of purpose produces nothing. Give each of them an ordering purpose, a unifying cause, and the stanzas flow like wine.[iii]

When the inkwell is overturned and the ink forms a poem (and not merely ink in the shape of a poem), we are observing unity and purpose without an intelligence to make it so, order and directedness simply arising on its own, and this is impossible. It is not impossible that knocked-over ink could form something in the shape of a poem without an ordering intelligence, merely highly improbable. But it is impossible for knocked-over ink to form a poem, because a poem is inherently purposive.

If things which have an effect exist, they are not mindless accidents, for if they were, what precise effect could they be said to have? Don’t believe the rumors; vodka makes you drunker rather than more handsome, every time. There is an inherent, consistent order to it. And what is order if not intelligence?[iv]

In other words, a poem, by nature, being a thing directed toward an end (say, making your girlfriend cry), must be created that way by the presence of a unifying and purposive mind. The very notion that we recognize the running ink of the accidentally overturned well as a poem, rather than stationery, or a Rorschach test, or a handwriting test for children to trace, indicates that we are judging it not merely by its matter or form but by its purpose as well. What is preposterous is not that ink should coincidentally attain the form of what is materially indistinguishable from a poem, but that the coincidence could cause a poem.[v]

So, too, the universe, which coheres in an orderly fashion. This coherence is explicable only in terms of intelligence – and we know where that leads. The matter and its form are in a sense created by the question that they answer.

***

I realized in Yeshiva that the question is more important than the answer, that our purposes define the information they try to teach us.

But it was not enough.

The devotion to going deeper rather than further alleviates some of our coarsest problems, but raises new questions of its own.

The world is, it seems, not as logical as even the wisest sage can possibly understand it to be. The highest knowledge, to not know, is a call to further learning draped in a shroud; it has an air of tragedy about it. Philosophy only goes so far. It, too, begins with axioms. For example: We can know the truth; we do not live in an illusion. This seems true, but limits us, ultimately, to the world as it appears and our minds as they seem to work. There is no way to prove it, no other solid thing on which to base itself.

As many Yeshiva students have learned, the world of appearance is not enough. One does not break free from exile by affirming with absolute certainty the reality of the pharaoh as he appears. The exodus does not begin with believing only our eyes. One only escapes Egypt with a little wilderness at the edges of one’s brow, with a dream, with openness to seeming-stupid sentiment, like a child. “The way everything is,” said the one in five Hebrews who followed Moses across the sea, “is not how it must be. Water can be blood. The waves can be dry land. A slave can be free.”

It’s possible, if G-d wills it. Anything is.

***

If the world has no creator, a knocked over bottle of ink can write a poem or a letter.

I came to wonder, later, driving down a wintry road, radically divorced from all assumptions, from all I thought I knew:

Who knocked over the bottle?

 

[i] It turned out that Newton’s physics was wrong and therefore predicted the motions of Mercury incorrectly. Once Einstein’s General Relativity was accepted, there was no longer any need to stipulate an unobserved planet between Mercury and the sun. It should be emphasized that the existence of Vulcan was not an illogical stipulation, given that Newtonian physics was thought at the time to explain everything and was not going to be abandoned as untrue without a better alternative. The Vulcan affair does, however, provide an example of how empirical data can contradict a theory and yet not falsify the theory – making Karl Popper sad.
[ii] Almost certainly a form of idol worship in the Jewish tradition.
[iii] A Yeshiva student has the same causal needs. His matter is flesh and bone, derived from bad food and too much caffeine. His form is either a pleasant plumpness or a drawn, gaunt skinniness. Flesh and bones without that form could just as easily be a banker. But the form of a Yeshiva student only attaches itself to him because something else puts it there, say, the Rosh Yeshiva. But when the Rosh Yeshiva sits down and teaches Torah to someone, he strangely does not create a Torah scroll, though he might be a scribe in his spare time. He makes people into Yeshiva students, and parchment into a Torah scroll, and he knows which one he’s doing because he is intelligent and acts with purpose. It is only the end-goal of creating a gezunte bocher’l that allows him to connect matter with form and create the guy you see walking on the street with his towel in the morning. And it is only G-d who, even once the Rosh Yeshiva is long gone, lends the whole package unity.
[iv] Related question: Where does this property of a bottle of vodka, that it will make people drunk, reside if no one ever comes along and drinks it? We seem to know that it would nevertheless make someone drunk if they come along; this is part of what we mean that there’s an inherent order to these matters. But doesn’t this imply that in some sense making someone drunk (which might never actually happen with this bottle) causes the vodka to be vodka? Isn’t this nothing causing something, which is impossible? This led some intelligent people to conclude that rather than being nowhere, the final effect of the vodka is present in the mind that understands the vodka to be vodka, and thus makes it what it is. Call the mind the vodka maker. This is all well-and-good when the Vodka maker is some well-paid Muscovite (although of course, we’d have to explain where the Muscovite’s effects hang out before they’re actualized). Now do it with a seed producing a tree, and figure out where the tree is hiding the whole time – making David Hume sad. (You — hey, you! — if you made it to the end of this footnote, you should probably know the kabbalists probably say the tree is ‘hiding’ in Atzilus. This is not a reason to panic.)
[v] Or, to declare what is materially indistinguishable from a poem to be a poem is to refuse to explain the inherent telos, or ends, of reality – essentially to deny true cause and effect, as Hume did.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Is Jewish Religious Tolerance Condescending?

Famously, Judaism does not want everyone to be Jewish. Our vision of a perfect world includes other religions and we even discourage conversion. But more and more lately, perhaps in consonance with a rise in introspection regarding “tolerance” in general, I have seen non-Jews view this open-mindedness with suspicion and even outright contempt. “Surely,” they insist, “you don’t believe those other religions to be as true as Judaism, or you’d convert.”

Good point. A Jew obviously values Judaism, and if he or she takes it seriously, they clearly don’t hold Christianity, say, to be as correct, even if they do hold it to be valid. To an outsider (and even to a Jew who has not really thought about it) this seems like confusion at best or PR sophistry at worst, a dishonest and condescending “pat on the head” to non-Jews.

There are several ways to square seeing other religions as “valid” but not as true as Judaism, and some are more honest than others.

Many today would, I suspect, instinctually reach for the pluralist panic button, that very Jewish invention that declares (through a bullhorn, protest sign, or bumper sticker) that society is better when we allow the mutually-exclusive claims of various faiths to coexist. Pluralism is quite the leviathan to fry, and to properly dismiss it we’d need to deal with relativism[i], perennialism[ii], interfaith relations[iii], the role of Judaism in a diverse and/or secular society[iv]…suffice it to say that the issues are complex and would require in-depth discussion. However, most of that discussion would miss the point entirely. Our question is in the main religious and philosophical, a matter of truth that could reasonably exist in a world consisting of a single human being trying to choose the right path. The more practical concerns of pluralism are of secondary importance if truth is our priority. If at all possible, we must try to find an internal solution that prioritizes the truths within Judaism and hope that correct social results will follow.

Another approach that misses the mark is to double down on the practical, rather than ideological, essence of Judaism. Clearly, our religion is more one of orthopraxy, correct action, than orthodoxy, correct thinking, what with the Rabbinical disagreement over even the very foundations of Jewish belief. If, indeed, “the action is the main thing,” what does it matter if other religions believe in different prophets or (in our view) false messiahs? Actions are what matter! Unfortunately, aside from not really solving the problem—we still believe it’s “better” to put on Tefillin than (l’havdil!) taking the eucharist—this approach ignores what few orthodoxies are fundamental to Judaism. For example, the first two of the Ten Commandments seem rather important, and though we may riotously disagree on the precise nature of G-d there is no question it’s important that Tefillin are for, or at the bare minimum signify, Him.

The best answer, instead, stems from an acknowledgment that Jews do believe in certain truths, and that we believe in them to the exclusion of others. In what sense, then, are other religions “correct”?

The first clue lies in the Seven Noahide Laws, which Judaism holds apply to all of humanity. The difference between these seven and the Jewish 613 is not quantitative but qualitative as well. Though some, such as David Hazony and Dennis Prager, see the Ten Commandments as the recipe for a successful civilization, the Rebbe sees that as the role of the Noahide Laws[v]. After all, the Ten Commandments and the experience at Sinai are the birth of Judaism, where G-d refers to Himself specifically as the redeemer from Egypt. Morality and G-d’s moral law, on the other hand, predate the Sinaitic event by the Torah’s account. The Noahide Laws serve as the rules that make order out of human chaos, that transform the jungle of homo homini lupus into a sustainable civilization and, as such, constitute Judaism’s clearest statement of universal human morality.

And the first of the Noahide Laws is the belief in G-d.

How, one wonders, can the non-Jewish code begin with a decidedly religious command? If the entire world is meant to believe in the G-d of the Jews, how “tolerant” of other religions are we, really? And if this god they must believe in is not our god, how do we really attribute validity to their religions?

This brings us to the second clue, which is that Judaism is not a religion in the typical sense of the word. We have already mentioned how we value orthopraxy over orthodoxy. But in fact even orthopraxy is secondary to the Jewish identity, as is race, nationality, and even theism itself. While there is a defined Jewish religion, Jews can be atheists, non-practicing, or even, in some respects, converts to other faiths, while still remaining Jewish. Judaism is not just a set of actions or beliefs but an essential state acquired by inheritance; I am Jewish because my mother is Jewish. More broadly, we are all Jewish because we or our parents converted, at Sinai or later, and the Jewish conversion process is a merging of stories, the joining of fates within the Jewish mission and the Jewish narrative. To be Jewish is an immutable identity because things that have already happened are immutable; the past is immutable. You cannot undo being born to your mother or taking an oath at the foot of the mountain.[vi]

The Noahide Laws and the intrinsic nature of Judaism bring each other into clear focus. Judaism holds that our G-d, creator of heaven and earth, belongs to all mankind, but that the Jews have a special relationship with him based on the covenant made at the mountain. In turn, this means that the covenant at the mountain, if it introduces a new truth, introduces it not universally but particularly as part of the Jewish story.

More simply: There are two truths about the one G-d. He is both the Creator of heaven and earth and He who took us out from Egypt, and these are different not only contextually but to their very core.

The G-d who creates heaven and earth is, in the eyes of Judaism, a fundamental pillar of creating a lasting civilization, Jewish or otherwise. He is the G-d that the Rambam says we can know, the first existence who needs no others but upon whom all others depend. This G-d can be reached by logic and is the possession of all humankind; He can be presented in argument, puzzled over, contemplated through positive or negative theology. When we say we respect other religions, we respect them inasmuch as they grasp this widely-available truth, at it could be argued the majority of them do.[vii]

On the other hand, the G-d of the exodus from Egypt is He who made a personal covenant with a certain group of people, that unchangeable covenant of the past. The G-d accessed through the covenant is personally bound to us and us to him beyond his involvement in the world’s creation. Our relationship with him is based on faith, forged in the crucible of Egypt by great miracles and hardened at Sinai by a G-dly choice from beyond the veil. The circumstances transcended reason and the laws of nature, and it formed the foundation for all time of our tribe’s relationship with G-d.

So, do Jews believe our religion is “more true” than other religions? Yes, and we would never forfeit our unique relationship with G-d, on pain of no longer being Jewish. Is it therefore false and condescending to say we value other religions?

Not at all. Because the unique truths of Judaism are not something we’re in a position to share. Reason can be shared; faith cannot.[viii] I believe Tefillin are true, but they’re true because they reflect a choice of G-d to care about them conveyed to us through a prophet thousands of years ago. You can possibly doubt that occurrence; you can certainly doubt what it meant; you are not part of the tribe that witnessed it. Our experiences are fundamentally our own, and, beyond what is the common inheritance of all minds, we cannot expect the world the understand them. It is in the shared collective present that we all participate. Heaven and earth were made for all men, and their G-d can be argued for rationally, experienced universally, and shared. Ultimately, we have a subjective and objective relationship with the creator, and the latter belongs to everyone. It is this common ground that we value, and beyond it we have no hopes of convincing others anyway.

True, we do believe that the G-d of the Jews is also the G-d of the universe, but we cannot argue it and we cannot share it. Like all matters of faith, it is a digital switch; it is either on or off, a 1 or a 0, something that happened or did not. It is simple and therefore ineffable and it is not created by us but has happened to us by no personal merit of our own.

Ultimately, much of the truth of Judaism is intimately tied up with being Jewish, which is not a choice we make[ix]. And being Jewish is itself a mysterious matter that precedes our choice, something that happened in the moment between exile and redemption. If billions of G-d’s human beings have not yet hung still in that moment, devoid of all velocity, alone with the creator, we can still celebrate with them the impossible creation, the something from nothing we all call home.

 


[i] That no one’s more correct than anyone else, which I’d be willing to bet a shiny quarter no one has ever believed.

[ii] That deep down we all believe the same thing, a rather lazy assumption powerfully tested by every major religion and way of life. For a short and (from the Jewish perspective at least) perceptive book on the subject, try God Is Not One.

[iii] When we find out that a Jew not acting like a Jew, a Christian not acting like a Christian, and a Muslim not acting like a Muslim turn out to all be exactly alike.

[iv] Other than works of genius like the New York bagel or the script for Annie Hall.

[v] For one of many times the Rebbe applied this approach, see this exchange about the Arab birthrate in Israel.

[vi] And metaphysically, it is these experiences (and also those of the forefathers) that convey to us the Pintele Yid, the Jewish spark that constitutes the deepest and most permanent part of the Jewish soul.

[vii] There is even a laxer standard for the gentile’s affirmation of G-d’s unity, as shittuf, the attribution of causative agency to intermediaries or emissaries, is permitted to the non-Jew. For a treatment of the shared G-d of many Eastern and Western religions, you cannot beat the excellent The Experience of God.

[viii] This is, on the view of the Kabbalah, why G-d bothers to create reason at all, an unchanging objective reality beyond subjective experience. Without an objective reality (accessed by the intentional mind through reason) G-d would forever be separate from his creation; it is specifically the objective reality that is shared. This is also why few aspects of Judaism are purely subjective and most are at least in some way accessible for understanding to the non-Jew; it is through the objective aspects of Judaism that we meet G-d outside of ourselves, as is his deepest desire.

[ix] We even say this is true of converts, who are retroactively revealed to be lost Jewish souls.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.