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.

G-d Is In The Pixels

We live in a world of lies. But what is the nature of those lies? Plato says they’re like a cave, sheltered from the light of truth, in which the average man watches shadows on the wall and imagines the show to be all of reality. The shadows are the world of symbols in which we languish without philosophy, the internally- and externally-constructed stories mediating between us and reality. To escape this theater we must transcend the mere reports of the senses to perceive deeper natures of things. We must (usually with the help of an already-enlightened teacher) turn around to see the actual objects casting the shadows. Ultimately, these objects will themselves draw us toward truths beyond any physical beings, and we leave the cave to bask in the initially-painful but ultimately-gratifying light of the sun, what Plato calls The Good.

But Plato had a certain advantage. He lived a long time ago, before the hollowing out of metaphysics and the philosophical alienation of man from the world. A primary aspect of that alienation is the modern tendency to nominalism. The metaphor of the cave cannot describe nominalism, because nominalism is the belief that there are no objects to be directly apprehended under the light of the sun, that to think of things is only ever to perform a self-contained operation in one’s mind, and never to actually grasp a truth outside oneself, because there are no truths outside oneself to grasp. Anything you think you know beyond the shadow theater on the cave wall is, generally speaking, all in your head. Nominalism is when you cannot say the waterfall is beautiful, but only that the way you perceive it is beautiful, and others may perceive it beautiful. Nominalism is when we say that our categorization of things is totally mind-dependent and exceptions to the rule are arbitrary, that “dogs have four legs” is an act of will, since some have three and some have five. Nominalism is when everyone can agree on the facts of the murder but whether it is evil is a matter of opinion. It’s popular nowadays.

A better metaphor for nominalism sits before your very eyes: the computer screen.

A screen is a mirage as surely as shadows on a wall, but they differ in a vital respect. Shadows on a wall, projections, are cast by real objects, and so lead back to real objects. Even in a modern movie theater (until they’re all digitized), the projection can lead us back to the film, a physical object containing the image of that which is projected, which in turn will lead us back to those who made the film and the images they used to create it, etc.

Film, like shadow puppets, is an analog medium; that is, its message is embodied in its very physical form. Another analog medium is a vinyl record, whose actual grooves record sound in miniature. From vinyl and film, we abstract sight and sound in the reverse process by which they were recorded; all we are doing is following a miniature map back around the original territory.* The artificial image and sound captured in plastic always corresponds to something; something was placed before the camera or the microphone and cast this light or moved that needle. It is essentialist, the opposite of nominalist; our sense of the waterfall’s beauty ultimately must be caused by something in the waterfall; it is possible to locate the real object casting the shadow on the cave wall and realize the shadow to be merely a shadow.

The computer screen, however, and digital sound (such as we hear on Spotify or, quaintly, CDs) are a much better metaphor for our beleaguered relationship with reality today, because they are purely constructions. The letters you see on the screen before you do not exist in themselves. They are the arrangement of thousands of atomized and independent pixels, organized by an external intelligence (yours truly, working with the makers of your phone and its software) into an image to fool your eyes. The more pixels there are, the easier your eyes are to fool, but, ironically, the more shattered and atomized the underlying reality of whatever you are seeing. The period at the end of the previous sentence is not one thing, but the cooperation of hundreds of things that, upon scrolling this page, will instantaneously be doing something else, giving the illusion of motion where none exists.

Digital mediums, an engineer would explain to you, can never, in theory, be as good as analog ones. When an old-fashioned film camera or a tape recorder capture sight and sound, they capture the entire scene before them, without gaps; a mountaintop vista hits the film just as it hits your eye; a violin vibrates a membrane in the mic just as it does in your eardrum; these are what sounds and light are. When my DSLR and my USB microphone capture the same scenes, however, they do something profoundly different. They break down what they receive into a staggering amount of small pieces, a veritable sea of binary. “I will tell you ‘on’ or ‘off’ forty-four thousand one hundred times, and that will be the sound of this cello for one second.” This is the only language a computer processor understands. But in real life, the sounds of the cello or the image of the alps doesn’t come in thousands of discrete pieces; reality is curved, shaded, continuous. The digital image or sound always has information missing by definition. It is imperfect. And we don’t care.

Digital approximations of analog realities.

We have grown to love and appreciate the possibilities of digital, where no image need ever correspond to an external reality. Just as there is something endlessly fair in saying “the waterfall strikes my mind as beautiful, but may strike other minds differently,” there is something freeing in declaring the images before our eyes to be constructed of pixels and the sounds in our ears to be discrete slices of volume and pitch, a certain distance we gain from the strictures of the things we experience. Unlike a projection, there is no real object that was placed before a camera or a mic to construct this experience; on the contrary, the only real thing is the screen of pixels on which they were projected, a hylic, protean object which can take the form of anything we imagine — and so why assume there is anything more than imagination?

Some may object that human senses are, no matter what digital media we consume, inherently analog — our eyes and ears cannot see or hear in discrete ones and zeroes; these digital representations only work because they can, in their high resolution, imitate analog realities. So shouldn’t we always recognize the digital for mere approximations? This, however, is not the direction many have taken. Indeed, against nominalist philosophy one may (and many have) raised the objection that the human mind simply cannot understand the world in any way other than with essences, and that to deny our direct apprehension of the nature of things is tantamount to a denial of the human mind per se. These objections, historically, have been met with a skepticism that seems deeply entrenched in the nominalist view: Who says these impressions are not, in themselves, constructed? If enough pixels can imitate a view of the Alps, who says enough pixels cannot imitate an impression that there are no pixels?

And thus, we reach the death of Plato’s cave.

For in the cave, when we are led kicking and screaming into the light to discover what is more eternal and real than what our senses tell us, we are able to look back at the shadows and see them as pale imitations of the truth. But from the screen, when we are led away into the light (perhaps after a night of binge-watching Netflix), the greater reality of actual objects is not as readily apparent. It’s not that I confuse, say, Stranger Things for real life. It’s that, if I begin to think of my field of view as an field of independent pixels working in tandem, there is nothing inherently more real about one image than the other. Stranger Things is not a shadow cast by some intricately-constructed Hollywood reality; it is another mere arrangement of things, a different configuration placed before my senses, the causal hierarchy lost, for there is no such thing as truly to see when seeing is defined as millions of sensory switches being either on or off.

We children of the screen live in an entire reality made of symbols, and there is nothing for them to symbolize but more symbols, and if this forms an infinite regress, perhaps that is a symbol as well. Indeed, one suspects at times, in the dark of night, that it is this very belief which empowers the modern intellectual with their depressed and placid yet utterly immovable detachment.

All is not lost, however. For we children of the screen possess a path to the sun (and beyond) that Plato himself couldn’t dream of, a path open only to the deepest cave dwellers, blind to all but the glow of their digital dream theater. Plato, after all, could only reach the Highest Truth by Plato being right. We can reach the Highest Truth even when Plato is wrong.

Since the world of Truth is closed to us, since we deny, by training, the underlying essences of things, we are cut off from our Creator as the Ultimate Unity, the life and soul of each thing, the light casting every shadow. But we children of the screen can know, better than any generation before us, our Creator as the Creator, the One who brings forth the universe from nothing. We have been taught to deny that there are any objects casting the shadows, that it’s shadows all the way down, and in a sense, this is truer than the Platonists who came before us, seeking the shadows’ source.

We are the first generation to find in our screens real images that are cast by no object, somethings that come forth from nothing, the paradoxical denial of the earliest philosophical axiom that testifies to the Nothing beyond all forms, what Maimonides calls the “Existence without an Existing Existence,” the nothing behind our somethings creating the illusory appearance of a non-discrete, continuous reality. He places before our eyes a world full of natures separate from Him, a world that those leaving the cave think is continuous, analog, curved. But the children of the screen suspect that in truth the world is discrete, digital, created independently, ex nihilo, in every detail, that nature itself does not have the final say, that every nature is rooted in an inexplicable individual act, a subjective choice not unlike our own perception of a waterfall.

What we have lost from the ancients, we have gained from the moderns. G-d is in the pixels.


*Even if our music and movies are heavily edited, it is the editing, in analog, that we directly grasp; contrast to the digital image, in which every edit must pass through a distancing layer of falsehood before it reaches out eyes.

The Jewish Case For Not Being Born

Two souls meet, one ascending after a long life in this world, and the other descending to be born. “What’s it like down there?” asks the descending soul.

“Well,” says the ascending soul, “have you heard of Tzitzit? Down there, Tzitzit only cost a few kopecks.”

“Only a few kopecks!” exclaims the descending soul. “Why, Tzitzit are the marvel of heaven, the praise of infinite angels!” The soul throws itself downward, hurtling toward life.

“Wait until you hear what you have to do to earn those few kopecks, though,” cries the ascending soul…

-A Chassidic Tale

The New Yorker has given a platform to the ideas of David Benatar, an anti-natalist philosopher arguing that it is better never to be born than to live and that the human race should go gently into that good night without having children first. An Indian man has already taken this philosophy so seriously as to sue his parents for the damage of creating him, an extortion tactic reminiscent of the rock star in one of Douglas Adams’s novels who spends a year dead for tax reasons.

Jews are inclined to laugh at this philosophy and the resultant antics. It is hard, in fact, to imagine a less Jewish philosophy that did not involve overt idolatry. We are the faith that brought the world the Imago Dei and the exhortation to “choose life.” G-d is the G-d of life in Judaism, and He commands humankind, before all else, to perpetuate their own presence on earth. Like all Torah laws, this commandment is binding upon the Jew whether they subscribe to trendy philosophies of despair or not.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot, however, does give a mysterious nod to not wanting to be born: “Against your will you live,” Rabbi Elazar HaKappar teaches. And then there is this passage from the Talmud:

[Source]

In this debate between Hillel and Shammai, Shammai wins; everyone agrees in the end that “it would be preferable had man not been created.” Somehow, the great sages seem to have possessed an anti-natalism of their own within the very faith that so values life. How may this be reconciled?

What is so great about life anyway? After all (and contrary to popular myth), Judaism has a rich conception of the before- and afterlife, involving among other things the cleansing of the soul, basking in the revelation of G-d, and eventual reincarnation in the Messianic Age. Our life on earth is, in some sense, merely an interlude between other forms of our soul’s existence. As we have learned before, the physical universe actualizes no potential nor has any inherent value in the eyes of its Creator. The physical universe exists only because G-d wills it needlessly, as it were.

What, then, is accomplished by being born? One old answer expressed in different ways in different places is that we are born for our own benefit, that is, to actualize some potential within our own souls. Being born allows one to be better and more perfect than is otherwise possible, and to achieve greater states of spiritual existence than are otherwise possible. True, the soul may start at a great spiritual level, but life in this world improves upon than level and brings us new perfection. Thus, being born is a gift. Call this answer the old answer.

There is also a new answer, the one that makes room for the anti-natalist position. Of course, anti-natalists don’t argue against being born because they think the alternative is the soul’s perfection before G-d, but because they think it is simply better not to be than to be at all. If we are consigned to existence regardless, whether within a body or abstracted away from one, then being born may perhaps be an opportunity to improve that existence. This is what the old answer said.

But if being born is the very act by which we exist, then how can it be said to improve upon what we were before birth? Before we were born (or conceived, or what have you) we simply did not exist, and after we die we shall not again. Rather, all of life’s benefits must be judged on life’s own terms, not by what life accomplishes for a soul that persists after death, but rather what life accomplishes per se. This is the new answer: being born accomplishes being alive. Astutely, David Benatar assesses being alive, sees a lot of suffering, and seeks a return to non-existence.

The Talmud agrees with neither the old answer nor the new one. As in so many areas, the new answer is right to judge things (in this case, life) on their own terms, but the more superficial ancient reasoning (that life is justified by the perfection of our broader existence) is correct in its conclusion — to choose life!

The houses of Hillel and Shammai argue all over the thousands of pages of the Talmud, and most of their debates share a common denominator[i]: The disciples of Hillel follow the actual, whereas the disciples of Shammai follow the potential. The classic example is in the laws of Chanukah. Hillel says we light one candle on the first night (and this is the law we follow) whereas Shammai says to light eight candles on the first night. The former wants always to act on what has already come to pass, whereas the latter wishes to act on what remains to be done.

So, too, in their argument over whether it is good for man to have been created. Both houses agree that man’s creation, like the rest of the physical universe, brings no perfection to G-d. Their disagreement is whether the soul is G-d-like in this regard, whether the human being benefits from being created.[ii]

The House of Shammai says it is not good for man to have been created, for there is nothing gained for the soul in this world that the soul does not already possess in potential. Their position is more closely aligned with the new answer (unsurprisingly, as Shammai’s way of thinking is described as messianically progressive) — that a human life on its own terms adds no absolute value to the soul. True, the disciples of Shammai do not believe this because they deny the afterlife[iii], but they nevertheless agree that life is not meaningful for purposes of self-perfection. Because we judge things according to their potential, and the soul already in its potential has attained all that being born might accomplish, there is no reason to actually be born. In other words: The atheist’s denial of the spirit and the Rabbis’ utter exaltation of the spirit both lend no meaning to being born.

Hillel, on the other hand, argue it is better for man to be created, that the soul benefits from being embodied, that actualization has inherent value over potential, and we should look at life as an opportunity to raise ourselves higher in ever-greater perfection. This roughly parallels the old answer, which says that embodied creation serves our broader existence beyond the body.

Both Hillel and Shammai, however, believe in being born, as Judaism necessitates, for neither position is ultimately beholden to what is good for a human being. Even though Shammai win and the Talmud expresses a form of “anti-natalism,” never are we directed to pursue merely what is good for us when we are born. The entire debate of Hillel and Shammai concerns only what is “preferable” for man, in man’s own terms, in terms of human self-betterment, and that is why Shammai wins.

Or: If Judaism reduces to a question of self-perfection and self-benefit, there is room to argue for nihilism, to turn to the “Utter futility! All is futile!”, for G-d’s ways are inscrutable and His Torah concludes that we will never in our lives compare to the spiritual state of our souls before we are born.

Or: The “meaning” in a meaningful Jewish life does not necessarily mean very much if that life is a self-actualizing or -fulfilling existence taken on its own terms.

The only matter on which there is no debate is that it is good to be born and to cause others to be born because G-d wills it. It is only when life is for Him that life becomes inescapably meaningful. “Now that he is created, he should examine his actions” — for it is only by acting in service to G-d, our sages knew, that being born is justified beyond the question of potential and actual.

Perhaps most powerful of all, once we see ourselves as existing merely to serve our Creator, we can even admit that the House of Shammai is right, that there is wisdom in David Benatar’s argument. To live life merely for an afterlife is to define life away, and life purely on its own terms may be full of suffering. Perhaps even the House of Hillel came to realize admitting this truth is a step on the path toward a G-d who is beyond potential and outside our contrived “meanings” and is, therefore, the only one who may justify our blood’s warmth.


[i] For all of the following on Hillel and Shammai’s debate, and much more, see Likkutei Sichos vol. XXII, second Sicha of Shmini.

[ii] By “creation” we here refer to the verb used in the above-quoted passage in the Talmud implying creation ex nihilo, existing apart from G-d as an ostensibly separate being. The human being is thus “created” when the soul is embodied, prior to which the soul exists in a state of (at least relative) nullification before G-d. This understanding of “creation” is consonant with the view that, generally speaking, man is a soul in a body. Thus, what exists beyond the body is neither “created” nor “man.”

[iii] i.e. the existence of the soul apart from the body, including the beforelife and the world to come, etc.

Messianic Skepticism

One impression that emerges from reading the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s letters on matters of faith is that deep skepticism and profound belief are not opposites, but rather belong together in a healthy soul. You can see this in the way the Rebbe describes the historical giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, taking a Kuzari-like tack of questioning which other historical events we ought to believe in if not the giving of the Torah. You can see it in his revealing response about fossils. And so, too, in one of his famous lessons “proving” the existence of G-d, when the Rebbe calls for consistency in our skepticism — if you don’t believe in G-d, you must, to be consistent, also deny many things you do believe.

Since skepticism is both useful and in consonance with his deep belief in the Torah, the nature of the Rebbe’s proofs and demonstrations is not really to move the recipient of the letter from skepticism to belief. Rather, the Rebbe moves us from doubt to certainty, to a point where we are still skeptical but it doesn’t matter. In fact, the Rebbe reveals our skepticism to be merely the other half of our soul’s desire to know the truth, no less a tool for finding G-d than our capacity to commit and believe.

It is a transformative and uplifting view of skepticism, which finds the light in the darkness, allowing the darkness to remain in its place and yet somehow shine. This is one sense in which the Rebbe’s skepticism has a quality of the messianic age when flesh shall behold G-d.

In truth, the connection runs even deeper, for it is not just faith in general, but faith in Moshiach itself, that inspires this holy skepticism. All who are not yet skeptics have not yet fully considered what Moshiach means.

After all, even the Tzaddikim, the perfectly righteous, shall repent when Moshiach comes. Those familiar with the inner Torah recognize that the Tzaddik is the very embodiment of perfection, eternity, and consistency. If there is one thing in this entire world on which, from a G-dly perspective, we can rely, it is the Tzaddik. Yet, in the coming age, even the Tzaddikim will change and become something unimaginably greater than what they are now. What applies to the Tzaddik applies infinitely more to anything that now conceals even an iota of G-d’s light, from a Beinoni down to frogs and rocks and mollusks. So: Everything will change when Moshiach comes.

But because the change is a change of repentance, of Teshuva, and the highest form of repentance at that, it is not a change that will occur only from the Moshiach’s arrival and onward. On the contrary, like all such Teshuva, it will be a change that propagates backward in time as well. Or, to put it more simply, when Moshiach comes we will see how the way everything existed before Moshiach was a totally necessary part of bringing about its existence under Moshiach. Sins will be seen as the road to a deeper relationship with G-d. Skepticism will be seen as the road to deep faith. Pre-Messianic rocks will be seen as a preface to Infinite Revelation. In other words: Not only do we not know, now, what a rock will be when Moshiach comes, we also, because we believe in Moshiach, don’t know what the rock is at this moment. Moshiach will recontextualize each and every being in our current reality into its own story; everything will one day be about Moshiach.

Therefore, if, today, we don’t see how each thing is about Moshiach, how a frog or a sarcastic remark is about (in the deepest sense of the word) the perfect and infinite revelation of G-d within the world, we have never met these things; we know only the most superficial aspects of their being.

On the contrary, a simple curiosity to know things as they are right now, to explore the world around us in light of the knowledge that some moment soon everything will be deeply retroactively transformed, would express as an obsession with the Messianic age. If we were fully cognizant of the imminent permanent transformation of reality, our curiosity about things would mainly concern the spark of Moshiach we could find within them.

In this sense is the Rebbe the ultimate skeptical scientist.

Ethical Reason — A Crash Course

In connection with Michtav M’Eliyahu (“Strive for TRUTH!” vol. I, THE ROOTS OF MUSSAR).

 

Reason maintains coherence through being a self-contained process, or, in other words, pursuing the truth for its own sake because it is true.

Any external reason to care about the conclusion of your thoughts is called a bribe.

A bribe influences the conclusion of a line of thought away from the truth.

An animal cares about its thoughts because they help it preserve its body.

Man is thus least an animal — least bribed by his temporal/spatial body — when he thinks but is totally indifferent to the conclusion of his thoughts, i.e. when he thinks abstractly.

Thought is therefore less bribed and more likely to be true the fewer bodily needs we feel and satisfy.

However, once we think with total detachment, we no longer feel ethically compelled to act by the conclusions of our thoughts, for we are detached from them.

In a state of pure, detached reason, the only ethic is the internal coherence of the truth. Without a state of pure, detached reason, the only ethic is the bribery of the body.

Or:
In the state of total intellectual detachment, there is no ethics.
But only in a state of total intellectual detachment can there be ethics.

The solution to this contradiction is faith, which through identity provides an ultimate reason to care about the conclusion of our thoughts.

“This is wrong,” they tell Aristotle, and he may always reply that he is not, at the moment, Aristotle, because he is not thinking abstractly, and no abstract thought can ever, on its own, compel him to act differently.

“This is wrong,” they tell a Jew, and he can never not be a Jew, for he is compelled not by his own understanding but the G-d who creates him and makes him what he is from the inside.

Therefore, “If someone tells you there is wisdom among the nations, believe them. If they tell you there is Torah among the nations, don’t believe them.

So: One can only really think if one is a mensch, a human being in the fullest sense. But reason and judgement are themselves limited and cannot form the basis of our ethics.

It’s not that we must be menschen in order to think (though this is also true), but that the entire purpose of thought is simply to internalize and unite with our (axiomatic, faith-based) menschlichkeit, which is part of who we are, as the chosen people of G-d, one with His holy Torah.

 

Abraham the Murderer

Abraham is just some cisgender white male kid kicking cans in Silver Springs. He watches YouTube and plays Fortnite religiously but he is still not right. There’s something off about the way he looks at you. He sees too much. His skull can’t hold it all and ugly truths pour from his mouth.

Abraham wants to make his mother proud but never quite manages. Abraham’s father hits him sometimes, so when his dad is out Abraham burns the family business to the ground. Abraham’s father explains what power truly means with the back of his hand and the dull retreat of his mother’s eyes.

Abraham regrets nothing. Abraham’s heart is a coal wreathed in blue flame. Abraham decides it all must die. Abraham’s father stops paying for Wi-Fi and shoots a truancy officer.

Abraham dreams of ways to destroy his father. The moon could smash him, but then it would only come at night. The sun could scorch him, but only by day. The mountain, until it eroded; the cloud, until it dispersed. None of it is enough, he thinks, lying in his own reek, flies trailing lazy arcs across the thatched ceiling. I will kill him myself. That is what a man would do.

But his heart spasms brighter and his mind snaps shut. No. I can hate him only as long as I live. Death must not defeat my hatred. I will find something that endures forever, and etch my father’s punishment in its skin.

In this way, Abraham discovers the One G-d.


Abraham goes through puberty and meets a girl who can love an idea. They move to New Mexico.

“The One G-d is the best idea anyone has ever had,” Abraham tells his clan over Discord. “Even at their best, people will disappoint. People will always leave you doubting yourself. But ideas are sweet and dependable, and the Idea that people can’t understand is the sweetest of all. The Idea is the only indiscriminate and unyielding benevolence.” He takes a pull from his Mountain Dew. “Markets, the news, Odin, whatever your parents worship, it’s rotten with people. The idea never hints that nothing its children do is ever good enough. It is never so starving as to bash in a skull.” Abraham calls everything rank with human sweat an idol.

“How do you know,” asks Jason-who-went-to-college, “that the Idea (over which you seem to have perspired quite a bit) is not just Abraham’s idol?”

Abraham is angry, but he sees the point. People might think G-d is for smashing his enemies alone. Perhaps they would be right. Abraham thinks and thinks during his long walks along the Rio Grande. He decides that, because G-d created Abraham, G-d is not Abraham’s idol. “You are the proof,” he begins telling the nerds who visit his four-doored house. “The Idea cannot be mine any more than The Idea can be yours; that’s how we know It is not an idol. An idol has allegiances. The Idea is yours only like the light is the mirror’s. We reflect.”

On Facebook, Jason marks Abraham as his father, a declaration of fealty.


Abraham grows old nursing his Idea and spreading it. Every night in he dreams of men and women across the States, but they are no longer people. They are abstractions meandering among the squares and triangles, cavorting with loyalty and intransigence, free of selves, free of others. Their faces turn upward toward one light, away from the darkness of cruel arbitrary whim.

One morning, on a whim, G-d says to Abraham, “Hi there.”

Abraham, who has been waxing his Trans Am, about dies. He is angry. He is sad. He is ashamed. The idea, it seems, is suicidal. Abraham turns off the buffer and says, “Did you say something?”

The Idea says, “Don’t be rude, son.”

Abraham thinks for a moment, strokes his tangled beard, sighs. He did say that G-d created Abraham. What you create, you can destroy.

“What do you want me to do?” he asks, and steps into history.


“People are not so bad,” Abraham says, lying in bed on night, but what he is thinking is, a son, a son, a son, a son!

Sarah finishes that evening’s prayer, closes Twitter, and places her tablet upon the nightstand. “No,” she says, removing her glasses, thinking, a son, a son! “They aren’t.”

Abraham can barely believe, after so long. But he trusts. G-d has never let him astray. “Are we too old?” he asks bemusedly.

“Let’s find out,” Sarah suggests.


“Do they really deserve it?” Abraham asks the One. Death hangs suspended in the red heavens above the mesas. Sodom seethes below.

“Deserve?” G-d thinks aloud. “Am I some magistrate, bound by ordinances? Am I not the Creator of heaven and earth?”

Abe thinks on this a bit, sweats, and musters the platonic form of all chutzpah. “You are the Creator. That’s why you ought to act justly. Justice is the mortar of your creation. Are you our true Creator, or not? Spare them.”

G-d is pleased as He wipes Sodom clean.

Abraham turns his face and weeps.


Isaac is worth more than an endless eternity of abstractions.

In the curve of his cheek and the spread of his shoulders, Isaac embodies his father every hope. Abraham knows that he himself is not an idea and will someday die. But in his son, the knowledge of G-d on earth will live on.

“Kill him,” G-d says.

We can imagine a different multiverse, in which Abraham is not Abraham. We can imagine a reality in which Abraham is paralyzed, at this moment, by his dreams, but in our universe Abraham is neither a child not a philosopher. His knees are scabbed from prayer and his palms cracked from devotion. G-d is his love, his light, his master, and his sole possession.

His idol.

Abraham gave up people for a dream, and a dream for a Voice in the wilderness. He can give up one more thing.

It’s a long three days, sitting on his ass.

We do not know what he thinks as he rides, but every grain of sand, every streetlight and rented scooter probably seems a mocking agony as he contemplates justice. He demanded justice for sinners, why not for his son? But then, Sodom never trusted.

He probably thinks about his mind, how it wants to rebel, to cry that worship of G-d on earth only survives if Isaac does. He doesn’t let it.

Mostly, I think, he considers his father, and how his own destiny was written, and how nothing changes.

Abraham binds his beautiful son with firm cords upon a lonely altar and prepares for the second murder of the day.

Abraham discovers, there, on the mountain, that G-d is not an idea, nor a person, but something more.

Abraham finds, with a waxing, trumpeting joy, that so is he.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

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.

On Doubt

I. Does It Make Sense To Write About Doubt?
If I still struggled as I have in the worst nights, I would never arrive at these sentences, nor will those truly doubting care to read them. Doubt garbs herself with midnight veils woven from her own hair beyond which our powers of certainty cannot peer. “Doubt this!” she cries to anyone who would understand her true nature. And yet, this is her downfall; her own garments eat at her. Doubt may always fairly be doubted. Therefore, let me write.

II. Doubt’s Superpower
Most of our demons melt in the light. Doubt eats the light for lunch.

III. How Doubt Reproduces Within Us, Eats Us From The Inside, And Leaves a Husk
I doubt my doubts are important.

IV. The Wonderful Phenomenon of Doubt in a Social Context
Small doubts are social creatures; doubt’s spawn flock to dorm rooms and coffee shops. Like moths, they are drawn to the light. Better: Like cannons, they are drawn to ships. The small vessels keeping us afloat on the inky depths of unknowing (and make no mistake, even the Hebrews needed dry land in order to walk and to breathe) are ruptured and sunk by the shot of other ships.

“There is no one to pray to,” they aim at your bow. “Your father doesn’t love you,” they snipe at your mast. You can try defending yourself with an argument, but the underlying message is, wouldn’t you prefer to be on a ship whose sky remains clear of iron? Shouldn’t you sail to a more defensible position?

The only response to this that ever works is to undercut their own certainty, to put a hole through their hull, to question their assumptions. You may sink them before they sink you. You may drown in the attempt.

Either way, it’s the sea that wins.

V. Can Philosophy Rescue Us From Our Doubt?
You can doubt that A=A, or that 1=1, or that Truth=Truth. You cannot, however, rationally doubt I=I, that you are yourself, for if you are not yourself, who is doubting? On the other hand, rationality is, itself, an A, not an I. Doubt everything.

VI. Why We Should Be Happy That Reason Is Powerless in the Face of Doubt
Doubt is abhorrent to nature. To frame the sun coming up tomorrow only as a probability is to ignore the sun’s nature and to reject reason, which exists to understand it. “Maybe the sun won’t rise” is technically true, and also calls into question whether there is a sun that has risen every morning for all of recorded history. If the sun’s nature is not responsible for this phenomenon, what is?

I, too, am like the sun. No matter how many times I’ve sinned, day in, day out, always the same, I might stop today. Inductive reason cannot tell me my nature; what I am (and thus, what I will do) is not determined by what I’ve done.

To repent is to doubt.

VII. Where does doubt come from?
The source of doubt is a Truth too great to be known.

VIII. Why We Should Be Sad That Reason Is Powerless in the Face of Doubt
Doubt does not feel like repentance when you have no sight of the G-dly revelation and your faith seems to have died and to believe you can rekindle something real in your creased and blackened heart is harder in your eyes than willing eleven billion dollars into your bank account in the next thirty seconds.

IX. On the Beliefs of Skeptics
“You can never be objective since you doubt only in the context of truths you’ve already assumed,” they say. They complain that doubt is only allowed, in certain schools of thought, in the context of faith. They never complain that their school of thought only accepts faith in the context of doubt. Sanitation workers should not be purists.

X. Since All Connection Depends on Faith
Doubt is to be alone.

XI. Is Doubt a Disease?
Doubt is both better and worse than an airborne virus.

It’s worse because the typical virus doesn’t demand your help to spread, doesn’t have you measuring your friends to determine who is ready for infection. It’s better because a good friend may not only remain a good friend despite infection, but their infection may be the cure for your own.

XII. Is It Rude to Ignore My Doubts?
Like the local branch of the KKK, there’s a big difference between having doubts around and entertaining them.

XIII. Doubt As a Tool
Doubt is a sharpening stone for the blade of faith. Perhaps the sword cannot cut through the stone. Hacking away at the rock will only blunt your faith. But the practiced warrior learns the art of attacking the stone with the right motion at the correct angle. The sword gets sharper.

Perhaps even sharp enough to cut stone.

XIV. Can Amalek Be Defeated?
The Rebbe teaches that Amalek grows with you. At the beginning of your journey, there is one kind of Amalek. Years later, when you have vanquished those doubts, their more refined children still rise against you. In a way, this is freeing, since you will not demand that any one answer vanquish Amalek forever.

Amalek’s ultimate downfall comes only with the answer of Moshiach, which is not really a single answer, but the totality of an unending motion of growth, the classroom of the unknowable Truth.

XV. Who Should Doubt?
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” The first line is a problem, true, but can we really say, after the 20th century especially, that it’s worse than the second?

XVI. A Lie
“If He would just reveal Himself to me, I would no longer doubt.”

XVII. Faith Is A Match for Doubt
Just as Haman is special for knowing the truth and yet rebelling against it anyway, a Jew is special for doubting the truth and devoting themselves anyway.

XVIII. Trust
There is no human social system that can survive a pervasive breach of trust. Consider the Beit Din and its laws of testimony. If witnesses cannot be believed, nothing can be believed. Doubt’s last refuge is, therefore, paranoia. Even Haman didn’t try it.

This is why when the Tzemach Tzedek told the chassid, “Believe in G-d because you believe in me, and I’ve seen Him,” it is a good answer. The day it becomes a bad answer is a very bad day.

XIX. A Summary of Everything New We’ve Learned About Doubt the Past 500 Years
Proof is useless because the soul wants certainty, which proof cannot provide.

Certainty, like doubt, will meet you where you are.

XX. The Doubt of Purim
“There is no joy like in the world like the loosening of doubts.”

Purim was not an otherworldly miracle, lighting striking Haman on the point of his triangular hat. That would not remove doubt.

Purim was having no sign of G-d, living within His utter concealment, Haman ascendant, until the moment Haman was destroyed.

Apparently, doubt, too, is His domain…

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

 

Norm, the Redeemer

It sometimes seems as if all our discourse is mediated through humor. Comedians write multiple news shows, your survivalist uncle today shares political memes with all family members as he used to only with his fishing buddies, and it often feels like every viral political tweet must express either some form of comedy or outright vitriol, with no middle ground. Our time does not seem to favor the sincere, the simple, or the earnest, traits we have exported to children and cute animals. All of this can change, however, if we but heed the words of prophet. His name is Norm MacDonald.

Comedy is, at essence, a subversion of expectation. This explains why human beings are particularly good at it. Even the most intelligent animals, the chimp laughing uproariously at sleight of hand, have only a sense of physical continuity. An object is in hand, and ought to stay there barring some visible intervention, and then, presto, it’s gone.

Consider this instead:

Q: Why did the Elephant fall off the swing?
A: It was shot in the face.

This joke is a human artifact with complex inner workings. It relies on the juxtaposition of elephant to swing, a mismatch demanding release which the dénouement refuses to provide, instead denying the elephant’s significance altogether. A chimpanzee, or a friend who refuses to open his mind to the beauty of the anti-joke, may reply with a straight face that anything falls off a swing if it’s shot. This fact is what subverts our expectations, and thus we laugh, or at least recognize, regrettably, that we are meant to laugh.

It is only because we have minds meant to perceive the nature of elephant and swing that we have senses of humor. Therefore, it’s according to our understanding that our senses of humor mature, grow more refined, and expand. Just as many adults prefer beer to Kool-Aid, adults (can) prefer Doonesbury to the Family Circus. The strange power of comedy is that the more educated, insightful, and confident we are, the more we see into the workings of the world, the more effect a good joke has on us. The structure of our minds forms the majority of the actual set-up for a good bit of humor. The comedian or joke-teller or humorist builds slightly upon the entire body of our experience and then shakes us with a punch-line, a judo-like reversal of our own momentum. The best way to render a punch-line ineffective is, therefore, to cling to ignorance. If we somehow had no knowledge of what a Donald Trump is, half the attempted comedy in the world right now would simply fail to reach us.

Few, however, would willfully choose ignorance to escape the jokes. Why should they? Comedy is like political power, in that there are many who in theory would like to give it up but practically wish rather to wrest it from their enemies and use it for good. The easiest way to do this is realizing that last week’s jokes, having passed from the present, are now simply the uppermost stratum of set-up. We can build on those jokes by subverting them.

This method, now so common even among non-comedians as to be practically subconscious, is dangerous to meaning itself. Comedy works best as a flying buttress, hanging off the side of sincere meaning and supporting its weight. A structure built entirely out of flying buttresses is no structure at all. Punchlines work as well as turtles when they go all the way down.

If we wish to imagine a theoretical sincere, non-humorous definition of “Donald Trump”, we must now not only undo today’s joke but yesterday’s meme and last week’s neologism. If we want to tell a new joke about him, we become like an artist who must paint roses but has only ever seen paintings of roses. How is the artist meant to “show the real in the light of the ideal” (in the words of Sir Roger Scruton) when the real has been denied him? As we collectively continue to build joke upon joke, comedy grows ever more debased, no longer an art but a mere pursuit of sentiment. Many traditions on teach that those hungers which only grow hungrier when they are fed are dangerous. The hunger for humor is no different. We do not become addicted to things of actual substance. Those forced to pursue the joke-within-the-joke, like those seeking an ever-greater high, must stray ever-outward from reality, that is, the underlying non-humorous set-up. A certain linguistic construct is funny, which becomes the context for its subversion, which in turn may only be kept funny in context of this other thing, and then only if the sentimentality of the set-up is enhanced and the hyperbole of the next punch-line is ramped up.

In philosophical terms, to build joke upon joke constitutes an abandonment of post-Socratic complexity. We desire malleability, to discover infinite potential in the inert set-up presented to our senses, but in this we deny the limiting actuality inherent to all things by their nature; no being with a defined form contains the infinite. We are therefore intellectually forced into Parmenidean stasis (nothing is funny—so does it exist?) or the Heraclitean flux (everything is funny—so is anything funny?).

This inflationary humor, this laugh escalation, slowly works at the web of relationship between all things called “meaning” and dilutes it, always redefining nodes into branches, reference and meta-reference forming a vast edifice of jokes slowly drowning ever-more-slender islands of sincerity.

Laugh escalation is nearly unavoidable in the age of social media, since if we have the option to tweet the straightforward idea disagreeing with our interlocutor or to couch our reply in snark, meme, or clapback, the choice is barely a choice. Straightforward notions feel almost naked, only able to form tribe around shared intellect or direct sincere experience. Set-up not only gets fewer shares, but also does not seem to sufficiently subvert the opponent’s position, to adequately demarcate between us and them. Then the other individual or tribe jokes about our joke, and we are off to the races.

This is why the comedy news shows struggle to be funny—their jokes were first-level work (perhaps second, counting Letterman) when John Stewart made them a decade ago, and every news item in the twenty-four-hour cycle has already been ransacked for comedy on Twitter or even, lord help us, Facebook long before the cameras have a chance to roll.

It is not their fault, for, as noted earlier, the only other option is not to joke, and so not to promulgate, and so not to be. We are consigned, in the age of humor, to either the death of set-up or the eternal rootless becoming, the never-ending quest to mediate communication through novelty.

Reactionaries who don’t play the game are not heard and so are powerless to stop it, while those who would try to stop the game from the inside are consumed by it, as we see by the most popular figures in conservative media today, whose principles are so intertwined with their memes that to dispose of either is to dispose of both. No one is a better example than Ben Shapiro, who in his effort to speak to the young audiences that have been educated in this game since childhood has found even his “serious” points couched in the language of the owner, the liberal-destroyer, the savage comeback, whose Breitbart roots show through in his joy when the President shares his memes. We are winning the game, he seems to think, and he is, in the sense that Ahab was winning against the whale.

Of course, this loss of seriousness has turned in upon itself with the advent of the new puritanism, as it must. If to be funny is to be real, then “that’s not funny” is how to remove the enemy from power. What is special about Louis C.K. or Kevin Hart that they deserve a pass? We have all followed them into the chuckle house, making them our trailbreakers and wise-men, and they cannot complain that we now take humor very, very seriously. Whereas the original puritans and their spiritual successors were merely trying to guard the border between the serious and the unserious very seriously, the new wet blanket guards the border between social life and death.

If the reasonable adults are not part of the culture at all, and the kids live somewhere on the spectrum between the corrupted and the purity police, from whence shall our salvation come?

Verily, from Norm.

Many have written about Norm Macdonald. They call him an iconoclast, a gambler, a genius, and secretly the funniest man alive. Norm traffics in a unique form of anti-humor that subverts the tropes of 21st-century Am

erican comedy itself. Where his colleagues zig, Norm zags. Most comedians listen to pop or rock or hip-hop; Norm listens to outlaw country. When comics work hard to dunk on each other in the most shocking way possible, Norm calls Bob Saget a cauliflower. The comedy news shows strive to squeeze “clapter” from the headlines, while Norm shoots the breeze with a grab bag of (pseudo-)celebrities. They seem to search endlessly for the next punchline. Even though Norm does stand-up, he has, for years, searched for the perfect joke whose set-up just is its punchline. As a comedian subverting not jokes but comedy itself, Macdonald can teach us how to fix comedy from the inside.

Why does Norm search for this mythical form of humor, the set-up-as-punchline? I think he is tired of our comedic status quo. I think he sees the way other place themselves above the ever-expanding setup, seeking to manipulate it, and desires to place himself within the set-up, in order to understand it. The point is not to extract a shock of joy from experience, to impose one’s will upon what one sees in order to build upon it. If this was the goal, a regular punchline would suffice. Norm yearns to make art.

This explains the quaint feeling you still get watching Norm’s old Weekend Update clips. The goal was not to work the news, to find its problems, to resolve its contradictions, but simply to peer at the contradictions as they are. He wishes to consider the reality before him, to move it hither and tither in the light, and to see its inner beauty, its internal contradictions, its truth unfolding before him. He knows that to make a joke is an act of moral heft. He wants not to add but enter, to partake. The true comedian doesn’t need to do dunny. It is the world that is funny, and he merely reflects it, and in the reflection makes it beautiful. And hilarious.

Norm makes our other comedians look like teenage metal heads in search of the fastest guitar shredder of all time. They are junkies looking for an arbitrary fix, never aware that there are limits, that there is a highest boundary on how fast (or how loud, Nigel) one can play. Beyond that point, there is no growth, no greater speed, and the journey is over. Norm is like a flamenco fan. In abandoning the quest for speed or volume and pursuing beauty instead, he finds not only a well of near-limitless depth but also some of the fastest fingers around.

“Norm is not funny,” my friend Hollee insists. In a way, she’s right. He’s not funny in the sense that Paco de Lucía didn’t rock. His goal is not a temporary subversion of expectations while working within the stale boundaries of his medium. Norm wants to transform the conventions themselves into freedom, to stop running from the old as if we fear it but to transform and elevate the set-up on its own terms. When he tells his famous moth joke on Conan, he does not worry that it’s an old joke in the joke books, which is meant to be the kiss of death for comedians, a sign of deficient creativity. He doesn’t change the punch-line. He makes it hilarious, on his own, by dwelling within the set-up, by turning it into a dark somehow-Russian tale of sorrow, by allowing the old joke to write itself upon the medium of his sensibility. The joke is not his product; the joke is his form. The humor inheres in his delivery, his limitations, his self.

If we wish to joke like Norm, we must not give in to the pressure to escalate comedy. We must practice looking at the seemingly-unfunny and allowing its humor to shine. If we seek to converse like Norm, we must not seek to add to the humor of our guest, but to let their humor shine free naturally, through charming active listening and engagement. If we want to comment on the news like Norm, we must be unbound by it, to find what’s truly funny in it according to its nature, rather than desperately needing to make something out of the headlines.

He can be our guide, our leader out of the darkness and back to meaning. He can show us how to escape our childish escalations and rediscover set-up, the funniest thing of all.

On “Knowledge is Power”

If knowledge is power, then Kaballah is idolatry.

There is a reason we were discouraged from studying the holy sefirot, the arrangements of the divine lights, the permutations of the divine speech in their infinitely intricate manifestations. Upon meeting a system, there is an all-too-human tendency to conquer it, to bend it to one’s will, to direct it toward one’s ends. If that system undergirds our very reality, all the better.

Thankfully, knowledge isn’t power, because knowledge isn’t knowledge, any more than light is light.

G-d says “Let there be light,” and there is light, but no distinction is made between the word “light” and actual light. The Torah is made of words, but is also the Torah of Truth. To distinguish between the light of “let there be light” and the light of earthly reality would introduce a distinction both absent in the text and contrary to its nature, since the nature of the text is to be the source of nature, and its words are inseparable from the meaning they convey.

In other words, light is really the word “light,” just as fish are “fish” and man is “man.” The physical manifestation, the light, is merely “light” as He dissociates it from itself. The physical may be defined by its concealment, by the way it distracts from, though does not cover over (as the material does) the truth of its own creation. The physical is, at essence, a change of subject rather than a lie; the physical gives the impression of a result where only process, the speaking of “light,” truly exists. It is thus the bias of an embodied mind to assume that the divine word “light” is about anything other than itself, that its semantic content and its form arrive independently, that light somehow precedes “light,” at least conceptually.

Kaballah, which traffics in the divine speech, is therefore rendered idolatrous in the eyes of those in the grip of this worldly bias. One hears of sefirot, of ten divine emanations, modalities, tools, building blocks, and the natural inclination of one’s mind is to make of these emanations into mind things, members of categories, words describing things. Indeed, the mind is a creature within time and space, two entities most simply defined as “those by which other things are defined in multiplicity”; no single thing within time and space is self-defined; they necessitate a lexical-semantic split. It is this very quality of the mind, the way it parses structures and sees the connections between things, that turns knowledge into power, that leverages familiarity into mastery. So when this space/time mind encounters the divine speech, it cannot help but provide a purpose for the speech, a light for the “light” to be directed toward in creation.

The mind tends to see that “light” not only produces light, but vice-versa, that the causality runs both ways, and light is the ultimate purpose of “light”, in a way that it’s not the ultimate purpose of “fish”. This is all that’s required to render Kaballah pragmatic and subject to human needs; through manipulating light I can manipulate “light”; we alter and shape the divine speech by altering its physical manifestation, and we can even create new manifestations by deeper and cleverer manipulations.  There emerges a new system, a nature behind nature, the world of divine speech, no less real or useful for being spiritual, no less bound by rules and correspondences the mind can manipulate.

Knowledge is power.

Kaballah is just another system.

Knowledge only is not power where knowledge isn’t knowledge. But this, Kaballah cannot do, even without the biases of the mind. Kaballah shows fish to be “fish.” By the same token, it shows knowledge to be “knowledge” and mind to be “mind.” Even if we were to escape time and space, we would still find divine parsing of structures, the divine word He speaks to unite words and their meanings, the G-dly expression that itself necessitates the systematic nature of words and their meanings.

Ironically, for knowledge to not be knowledge, we must seek the place where the connection between mind and “mind” falls apart, where even the divine speech is nothing other than itself, where even “mind” is empty of meaning.

This is the uniquely Jewish idea that everything before Him is as nothing.

It is the higher unity, where even knowledge is powerless before its Creator.