Mutually Assured Destruction

I once read in an economics book that the reason Jews are successful in the diamond trade, an industry where the merchandise is portable, difficult to trace, and extremely valuable, is because of their close-knit social structure. A group of self-selecting strangers, the type of group normally comprising industry players, must slowly over time establish systems of trust and punishment to prevent fraud. But if your client is married to the tochter fun shvigger’s shvester or the like, they won’t cheat you, because they have to face you at the seder. At least, it is significantly less likely. This system of social trust gives the religious Jews a competitive advantage.

A different name for the “system of social trust” is mutually assured destruction, a theoretically macabre but practically quite peaceful state of affairs you may also recognize from the Cold War or driving a car. In these outlandish situations, what keeps the actors in line is a powerful sense that steering out of one’s lane will instantly incur upon oneself at least as much pain as it will upon others.

Mutually assured destruction may seem a necessary evil of an imperfect world where love and trust do not prevail. Then we read the Midrash:

Bar Kappara said, the soul and the Torah are compared to a lamp. The soul, as is written, “The lamp of G–d is the soul of man.” And the Torah, as is written, “For a lamp is the commandment and the Torah, light.”

G-d says to man, “My lamp is in your hand, and your lamp is in my hand; you have my Torah and I have your soul. If you preserve my lamp, I shall preserve yours, and if you extinguish my lamp, I shall extinguish yours.”

Devarim Rabbah 4

This talk of extinguishing makes us anxious, and indeed, can even read as a threat. On the other hand, it is a very poor threat that points out we can extinguish His lamp…

Mutually assured destruction is, in fact, a form of closeness deeper than love, the way politeness and decorum are deeper than camaraderie. When the love and the camaraderie run out, protocol remains, regimentation to fill the gaps in our aptitude. Just as the wood of my shelf can hold hundreds of pounds of books with shocking inanimate strength, so do the orders and duties bear the weight of experiences that would crush our more “human” faculties.

If an ideal world and an ideal relationship with G-d (but I repeat myself) lacked any uncomfortable closeness, any mutually assured destruction, would it not be a shallower world than ours? It would surely be a victory to never have any talk of extinguishing the very light and life of our beloved, but a victory at what cost? Do we want to win on a technicality, because no one ever finds a reason to extinguish the flame? Or have we been placed in this world to learn to accept the terrible entwining of our being with G-d, beyond the level of choice? Is this not the positive outcome of stuff happens (and happens for no apparent reason)?

“Diamonds are forever” has become easy to mock in recent years in light of the dirty and manipulative industry devoted to making the gems desirable. But the slogan is a perversion, not an invention, and we throw the underlying truth away at our peril. We desperately need things that are valuable for no reason, valuable like family, valuable like G-dliness.

Mutually assured destruction is necessary to teach us trust. The Rebbe, too, was in the diamond business. He said about standing and greeting people for hours at Sunday dollars that “counting diamonds one doesn’t get tired.” Just as those religious Jews need trust because they trade in objects of inherent value easily lost, so does G-d, so do we. Trust is necessary in a world of scarce reasons and true souls, and the trust is born of entanglement. We carve letters out of our very flesh, placing shapes into ourselves that become our own form and so cannot be washed away without our own dissolving.

More Like The Big Whimper

We are afraid
He did it in six days.

We are too trifling
to be created
in anything less
than an eternity.

Cats, fine, His.
But Twitter?

Never, never,
in all His majesty
and His meaning
could He do
such a thing.

He deserves
a stern reprimand
once all our plans
have wound down
and we stick our slippered feet
up on the black, shriveled eons,
and take stock of our handiwork.

We will have saved ourselves
from destroying mother Gaia,
hubris averted, thank G-d,
and will turn to our Creator,
and scold:

“How dare you claim
that in Six days,
you created
something as worthless
as us?
We have spent decades now
painting you
as a function of biology
and a pragmatic tool,
but your name still has a certain ring.

Please stop your bragging,
crawl back within a text,
and leave the artisanal emptiness
to us.”

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Two Places I Can Live

Every argument, every compromise, every concession to pragmatism, every demarcation and limit and definition driven into the ground seeking solid bedrock for anchoring the chains, they make me sick.

There are only two places I can actually live, sub-rational nihilism and faith.

Subrational nihilism, the power of it — this is the good stuff. Let go of all rules and restrictions, let the will unfurl. We don’t necessarily wish ill upon anyone (though who knows later?). We just don’t wish to live in their cages. We tell them whatever we wish.

Like a sinus opening to fresh air is the moment we steal away into ourselves and realize that no one else is present, that we are essentially free, and though we may be alone and life threatens to pulverize us, this is the good pain, the pain we own and author.

Until they kill us, we are kings. All pirates knew this, all brigands, all warlords, every robber baron. It’s the middle finger, sarcasm’s grease, the delicious drop of truth in the pockmarked hollow heart of cynicism. We know deep down it’s cruel, but better to be cruel and live.

And yet, even though the desire for this freedom rages like fire and presses like the sea, the structures of normal life hold. First out of sheer fear of the unknown. And second because somewhere deep there is a shard of light that once, maybe, sang in resonance.

There is a hope, somehow, carried through our caverns on some hot primordial breath stirring in gentle eddies the dust of the world, a hope that we can say what we are and not destroy ourselves in the saying, that we are free in definition, unbound in unbreakable chains.

There is a belief, a fool’s imagining, that somewhere beyond the self-annihilating fringe of the void, the universe has a curved wall folding into itself like a Klein bottle to terminate, one-sided, in my own chest, that we stand beyond all this yet see its worth.

There is a faith that we are faceted reflections of one sun, that our ability to break order and rules and patterns is itself the order of the entire world.

There is a faith that there is someone worth forgiving, and and it just might be us.

You taste it once for a second, and things are different forever.

Stuck Inside of Elul with the Tishrei Blues Again

Here we are again.

We made it. Congratulations. Last year’s Rosh Hashana can’t have been a total disaster.

Now what?

Look, I know you’re busy, and honestly, one more discussion about how profoundly meaningful it all is and I’d be spitting nails myself.

“Meaning” is overrated, seven pale splintering letters holding up the levy, preventing the flood of the world from obliterating the way of G-d and summing up what makes “having” “Him” “in” your “life” so special after all.

Might as well admit it – “Meaning” just means that the room has a sunlight, that the stupid system (all systems, including intelligence itself, are stupid) is not the end but only the beginning of a reality, a metaphor, a symbol, shadows on the cave wall.

So yes, Elul is “meaningful,” it’s not just a month but the time that we blah blah blah.

Elul is nice. it makes us happy, productive, it’s healthy and helpful and really good for getting where we’re going and doing deep things along the way with the people we love and even with our Creator. There are scales, a king, a judge, memory, music, honey, apples, joy, a field, guilt, a desert, sin. It hurts but in a good way, and we’re definitely going to change.

Okay?

Okay.

I know, I cling to my cynicism as a crutch because I’m really afraid of the bright light of God’s salvation. I don’t change because I don’t believe I can change, which I can change, by believing I can change. I’m being overly dramatic or not dramatic enough. I’m whirling in epistemological circles. I need to just get over it. I need to farbreng. I need to study. I need to daven. There are solutions.

The problem is too much I; it’s too little I. It’s not enough learning. It’s too much learning. It’s idealism, it’s pragmatism. I need to spend more time outside; I need to stop thinking I need to. The answer is street performance or street violence or street sweeping. Real men are busy making money. This is not how a business runs. Get it together. It’s insulting not to have it together. It’s insulting to have it together. Read my book. Five simple steps to fixing everything. Acquire something, lose something, follow the steps, fit the form.

I know.

I’ll figure it all out in the morning, with a structure, with a calculus. I’ll cobble something together at the last minute, find the cruse of sincerity in some un-excavated corner, make some dumb resolutions, keep half of one.

It will be drenched in meaning. Meaning will suffuse it like a fine chai. It will be so soaked in meaning I’ll need to use three Clean & Clear cloths.

It’s probably part of the plan, one of those dastardly Jewish plots to crash the stock market or end apartheid or circumcise the lizard people.

For weeks they trot out all the lectures and the books and the explanations and the alcohol and the heartfelt sincerity, intentionally trying to goad and annoy us.

So what? So what?

The only relief from all the meaning, from the too-familiar face, is G-d, arbitrary, non-existent, the chooser.

He wants it all for no reason at all; he wants it for what it is; it means nothing.

Either clean up your pathetic act and do the damn Mitzvos, Tzvi, or don’t. If you choose the former, you just have Him. If you choose the latter, you have nothing.

There are no stories about Him, there are no words that capture Him, nothing compares in individual or species.

How do you even know it’s Him you’ve met?

You’re just going to have to trust Him.

If He is indescribable, what’s so good about Him?

Answer the question before you show up here.

We find Him either in the brute manipulation of stuff into the correct configurations, or not at all.

If the correct configurations correspond to forms emanated both necessarily and willfully in a mode of infinitely detailed inter-inclusion as a web of meaning that captures all of the creation and neatly dices each being and all of their properties into a perfectly balanced framework whose very shapes convey the Truth unknowable and permeate reality with unlimited purpose, okay.

Whatever.

It’s only because He wanted it that way for no reason.

Or didn’t.

It means nothing.

Just do the damn Mitzvos.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

On The Mysteries Of King Solomon And Koheles

I write this in my Sukkah, wearing my intellectual sleeping cap and bunny slippers, as the birds chirp all around on this glorious first morning of Chol Hamoed.

Why, oh why, would Jews choose to read Koheles, Ecclesiastes, most nihilistic of all twenty-four scriptures, during a festival of joy? Granted, it is not my custom; Chabad does not put an emphasis of reading it during Sukkos. But on the other hand, I do not cynically believe (outside of some rather good jokes) that some other Jews don’t want to be happy. On the contrary, I love Koheles, and if I won’t be reading it with attendant weeping in my airy booth of immense holiness, I will at least take a moment to reflect on its abiding mysteries and its author.

~~~

If you didn’t know, Koheles is a book about how everything is purposeless and achieves nothing. Like another of King Solomon’s works (more on that below) it came off as somewhat unreligious at the meeting to decide which holy works should become canonical Jewish scripture, and like that other work, it was rescued because of its subtle redeeming qualities. (One notes that this is often the case with great geniuses with revolutionary ideas — their perspective is so lofty and removed that it often seems they are not contributing to the thing at all but are rather out just to tear everything down, and only with time does everyone else catch up and realize how great they were. On the other hand, sometimes they are just out to tear everything down and by the time you pierce through the intellectual fog everything is already destroyed. Distinguishing, as non-geniuses, between these types is a matter of great importance, unless you believe in Koheles, in which case it’s as empty and pointless as most human endeavors.) The non-subtle theme of Koheles is laid out at the beginning – Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, etc. And its redemptive quality is its penultimate verse: At the end of the day, once everything is heard, fear G-d and keep His commandments, for this is all man is.

That last line could just be a band-aid, a one-off easy answer to the insurmountable question of the gaping void. But it could also be an aikido throw, a sudden reversal of momentum that puts the rest of Koheles on its back by grounding the multifarious emptiness of the human endeavor upon a rock-solid, eternal foundation. Which isn’t too far-fetched; indeed, all of the ancient arguments for the existence of G-d rest upon the similar recognition of the baselessness of everything we see set before us, and the need at every moment for something to blow life into all of these powerless forms.

But this, too, seems off, since Solomon was surely a religious man at the outset of Koheles just as he was at its conclusion. Why, then, does he not brandish the easy religious answers to the meaning of various worldly pursuits? Could he not stop himself halfway through and reassure us with a wink that man conquers the world at the behest of the True and Eternal G-d, that our love is a function of His? Perhaps the wisest of men knows that we need all pretense of hope stripped away before he relents and finally tosses us a life preserver.

But perhaps it’s not as dark as all that (and besides, such a rendering leaves a holy book of the Tanach as more of a one-time performance than a pillar of reality that is always true). I, for one, like to think of Koheles as Shlomo HaMelech extending us a helping hand. Rather than allowing us to languish in our preconceptions of meaning and the small words we’re convinced hold huge concepts, he allows us, any time we’re willing to accompany him, to break free of those limits and approach one step closer to the divine. What we think is worthwhile is, indeed, meaningless from a higher point of view, and there is always a higher point of view, infinite ranks of them stretching toward the unreachable creator. “At the end of the day, when all is heard, fear G-d” is not a reversal on the despair of the previous chapters, but rather its natural conclusion, the moment when we break free of the atmosphere of the burning earth and find out it’s not all there was after all.

Just as one forgoes home and creature comforts once a year, and remembers how even in the elements G-d protects his people.

Just as one trades in, yearly, the comfortable understanding that wine represents to drink the water of simple men, simple faith, of not understanding.

Just as one could find, once a year, in the Temple, the wisest of sages juggling branches before the people, having abandoned all their meanings.

If I recall correctly, the accompanying emotion of that festival was not despair.

~~~

These mysteries are not simplified by King Solomon’s other immortal works, the Song of Songs and the Book of Proverbs. The former, an erotic love poem, slipped into the Tanach only on the insistence of Rabbi Akiva that it is the holy of holies, a statement as wrapped in mystery as the specific nature of the King’s allegory. The man is G-d and the woman are the Jewish people, but what is this intimate love that exists between them, their motions of approach and retreat, the seemingly mystical nature of their union?

Proverbs, on the other hand, is neither ecstatic nor despondent but a sober series of aphorisms and snippets of advice for the man who must live practically in this world. Gone are hints of the byzantine machine-elf workings of the divine bliss and the vast void of punishing unbeing and in their place we have dating advice and business tips. On the other hand, “Proverbs” is really a bad translation of “Mishlei,” more accurately implying “Analogies,” which indicates that there’s more here than first meets the eye…

~~~

Who was the King Solomon who wrote these books? Was he the young king with many wives, powerful and wealthy and wise beyond measure? Did Solomon look around at his father’s Kingdom in his youth and sneer at the foolish pursuits of man? Perhaps he grew older and plied matters of home and kingdom with the practical wisdom we find in Proverbs, before mellowing in his dotage to focus on the love at the center of all things as enshrined in Song of Songs?

Or perhaps Koheles is the name of the old king, his Temple already built and his majesty inscribed for all time, who looked over his deeds as his sun was setting and found every avenue ending in emptiness and despair. As he wrote his sad lament of his wasted time, perhaps he remembered his industrious middle age when he wrote his Proverbs and the inflamed passions of his youth that drove him to pen the Song.

Are either of these portraits of the wisest man to have ever lived?

~~~

Perhaps the easiest lesson for us to draw from his works, without needing to approach his genius, is that King Solomon was a Jew, and that a Jew is complicated. The simplest lesson of the Lulav that all the kids learn in school is that each species represents a different type, and that we need all of them to fulfill the Mitzvah.

Perhaps for the Tanach to be complete, we needed to meet a Jew who was insanely in love with G-d, and a Jew utterly despairing of his entire life, and a Jew surmounting with practical wisdom all obstacles in his path, and to know that they are the same man, that all of these things are the way.

Even if we can’t untangle them, neither in the text nor in our own hearts, at least we are in good company. As the old chassidim said, “If we are to be crazy, it’s good to be together.”

Our species joins with three others, and together we are the will of G-d.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Stupid Tisha B’Av

There is a certain type of mourning that elevates. Just as upon observing proud triumph or awful beauty we feel ourselves wrenched from our narrow horizons and pushed upward toward a higher view, so, too, in recalling or witnessing bitter tragedy are we forced to acknowledge, by the power of a story, that the universe does not end at our eyelashes, that there are larger things afoot that we merely partake in.

One day a year we are supposed to take millennia of things not working out and jam them through our eyes into our skulls and remember that in this way, too, we are Jewish, chosen by G-d, His people, ballast of history, purposeful. The national day of mourning is supposed to be cathartic, a time when we tell G-d that we’re sorry and we’re hurt and you’re still with us and we’re still with you and we have regrets and you have regrets but we can still do this, right? We can finish the mission, together, and all the missteps and dead ends of these desert wanderings will have been our path to some sort of stability.

But for me the day is not release but a laborious ingathering of exiled woe, and I can’t get over my headache.

Tisha B’Av is a punishment stacked atop the historical ones. It is a day of caring that reminds me how little I care. It is a lens bringing into a grating hot focus the post-modern abyss of my religious feeling.

The real punishments of Jewish history were the destruction of the Temple and the Inquisition and Khmelnitsky. But the real punishment is living in a time when we suffer no existential threats and benefit from no miracles of the spirit, when we are addled by not just informational but philosophical overload and we have no great leaders to talk us through it.

The sad thing about Tisha B’Av is my fellow Yeshiva student and I at the Kotel a few years ago where there’s a sort of pillow party, only slightly less festive for lack of food, three dozen voices trying the keening kinot and recanting Jeremiah’s lament. My friend’s angry because no one is really sad and I’m angry that he wants them to be. He’d rather a maudlin show in solidarity with the endless suffering of our forebears, whose pain came coupled with purpose or reason or direction or at least the indestructible knowing, that hard untarnished bone of Jewish identity that cannot be stabbed or burned or suffocated. I’d rather a counting of our blessings, that we get to live long, fat lives unmarred by the discomfort of a real G-d who draws all faces and matters upturned to Him. He wants us to be trivially sad and I want us to be meaninglessly happy, and it is not our fault.

Nothing is our fault. We don’t ask to live and don’t ask to die, and the minuscule range of even our furthest rebellion is decided by the time which is chosen for us. We have been chosen for the tail end of an interminable exile, an exile which colors even our highest dreams of redemption and leaves them hopelessly off-mark.

Tisha B’Av is the reminder that the exile is our G-d, that our happiness and sadness, our triumph and sorrow, are mere variations. Exile had us pinned, and calling it exile changes nothing; it is the beginning and the end, and there is nothing other than it. All enlightenment and escape is just another mode of its expression. There is the infinitude of the exile and its finitude, which interwoven produce the form and matter of this endless unconsummated trudge of a world. The exile exists; it does not exist; our opinions don’t matter. It is still what swaddles us as we drift off to sleep under our LED lamps and what greets us when we open our eyes to (yet) another day. We worship it either with millennia of traditions or rituals or we worship it merely by breathing. We worship it with rebellion and with apathy. Not a blade of grass turns in the wind without it being decreed by the exile, signed by the exile, generated from nothing by the endless bitter exile, for the plan that only the exile knows.

Some say the exile is not a being in and of itself, that it exists only in our minds. G-d is all that’s real, they say; the exile is an illusion. But they ignore common sense, the preponderance of the evidence. They are short-sighted; they do not see how their G-d is just a subcategory of this interminable, intolerable wasteland. If they could see only as far as their faces they would sanctify their noses and declare their nostrils two halves of a sacred olfactory dualism.

No, in exile, exile is all there is, and this is what Tisha B’Av teaches us. From exile we come, and to exile we shall return. We are sad, we are happy, we are good, we are bad, we are enlightened, we are benighted, we pet the dog, we kick the dog, we filter our Internet, we go wild, we curse the truth in our hearts or we denounce lies in public, it doesn’t matter. We’re still in this stupid world with its stubbed toes and terrorist attacks, and we understand our G-d in that context. Stupid Tisha B’Av.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.