Everybody Poofs

“Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the edge of the Nile, taking with you the rod that turned into a snake.”

AS HE IS COMING OUT OF THE WATER to ease himself. For he claimed to be a god and asserted that because of his divine power he did not need to ease himself; and therefore he used to rise early and go to the Nile and there eased himself in secret (Midrash Tanchuma, Vaera 14; Exodus Rabbah 9:8).

Exodus 7:15 with Rashi

A Jew once spent Shabbos with the Maggid and then went on his way. En route, he decided to rest and tied his packages to a nearby tree. When he awoke, his Tallis and Tefillin were gone.

When he heard what had happened, the Maggid instructed his visitor to attend a bris milah (circumcision), in the next town. One of the poor people there, whom the Maggid carefully described, was the culprit. The victim was told to ask for his belongings back, and if the poor man denied taking them, he was to repeat his demand in the name of the Maggid.

These directives worked, but the thief agreed to return the stolen goods only in the presence of the Maggid.

When they came to Mezritch, the poor man said to the Maggid, “I see you are very perceptive, and I can’t deny your claim. But do you have nothing else to do but observe thieves at work?”

“I was in the lavatory at the time. Only there does one see such things,” the Maggid answered.

from The Life and Times of Rebbe Dov Ber The Maggid of Mezritch by Yitzchak Dorfman

Why is Pharaoh so afraid of being caught relieving himself?

Certainly, we think of expelling waste as a lowly and undignified human function. Most of us still intuit what we can no longer explain because our educations were deficient: certain bodily functions are undignified because, if seen by others, they force others to think of us in pure bodily terms. Burping at the table. Picking our nose. And most of all the top two, namely Number One and Number Two. So perhaps Pharaoh thinks it’s undignified to be caught on his morning river run.

But does it really contradict his status as a deity? This is a man who said (Ezekiel 29:3) “The river is mine and I have made it for myself.” On the contrary, many ancient paganisms attribute all bodily functions to their gods, even really unpleasant ones. Could not Pharaoh have argued that his expelling of waste was, too, an occult function, a blessing upon the land, and the like?

But there is no freedom for false gods. Like all klipot, all husks, the worshiped form is defined only by external relationship; its existence is pure superficiality. The Nile is worshiped because it provides life, but if it is also blue and runs north-to-south, these, too, are aspects of its form. These are surely mere secondary qualities, less central to the Nile being the Nile than its life-giving irrigation of the fields. But secondary qualities are still secondary, that is, in some finite relation with primary qualities.

If I worship the Nile because of one of its qualities that my mind comprehends (it gives life) then all its other qualities that my mind comprehends (its color, the direction of its flow) can be and are linked to that first, primary quality. The blueness of the Nile reflects the glory of its life-giving waters, reflecting the great cloudless sky above the Giza Plateau. It finds the great sea wherever the sea rests, just as it rushes reliably to feed our crop, etc. etc.

So if I worship Pharaoh in his kingship or his power, but Pharaoh also, it turns out, uses the bathroom…

Pharaoh’s power is inextricably linked to the rest of his form. Although he may have created the river, that creation must somehow be explained in terms of relieving himself in it. There is, to the idol, no immutable core identity, no power or majesty that exists unto itself, without a form, without a defined relationship to the context of the idol. Pharaoh is great because of his claimed relationship to the world. Any other way he relates to the world, even the way he expels waste into it, must necessarily contextualize that greatness.

Not so, the G-d of Israel. Not so, His laws and His will, concerned intimately with the process of human waste expulsion. Not so, his Tzaddikim and sages who represent Him on earth, who are unafraid to admit they have bodies.

The callsign of G-d, the one of the four-letter Name that Pharaoh does not recognize, is the way he relates to finite things: He creates them yesh mi’ayin, ex nihilo, something from nothing. This is a relationship unlike any found in our universe; it may be called a non-relationship relationship. That is, He causes things by remaining completely separate from them, completely apart. They simply POOF! into existence with no rational explanation, and the ancient philosophers understood the explanation to be the cause. G-d is not entangled in the web of the things He does or creates or affects; on the contrary, he only does or creates or affects them by remaining apart from them. He creates a bathroom and yet is utterly and entirely undefined by what He has created; let’s see Pharaoh try that.

Thinking like an idolator is to find the relationships between finite forms. Thinking like a child of Abraham is to see that no such relationship can be the ultimate truth, that the Ultimate Truth stands beyond that web.

And so, a wondrous thing: The ancient idol worshipers, from Egypt to Greece to Sumeria, are obsessed with intermediaries and hierarchies, the chain of being, causes and effects, abstract and immanent forms. They know that excrement is lowly and kingship is lofty. And yet, kingship may never be so lofty as to make excrement purely lofty, too. Reduction to the lowest is not a modern invention.

G-d and G-dliness, however, fears nothing and embraces everything, because none of its relationships are defining relationships. Everything may move relative to G-d, but G-d does not move relative to them. And not as Aristotle would limit Him, to being an unmoved mover, an uninvolved abstraction, a non-creator. On the contrary, the mystery of something from nothing is that He is intimately involved, constantly creating, constantly “moving”, and yet he still does not move. Constantly burning, never consuming. Creating the dregs, yet ever remaining their Creator.

The fact that the king has to visit the river in the morning makes him less a king. The fact that the Maggid sat in an outhouse does not make him less the Maggid. It makes the outhouse a G-dly place.

The same way the Jew is not called to practice Judaism as some aspect of his or her life, but as an all-consuming full-time occupation. This does not call us to a monastery or a mountain, but to everywhere the non-Jew is called. Because G-d creates it all from nothing, all of it is part of being a Jew.

The same way even those of us who are, alas, imperfect, who have strayed from the righteous path, are undefined by our sins even as we commit them. Because G-d creates it all from nothing, none of it can deny Him. None of it raises a single echo when He declares, “I am the Lord Your G-d who has brought you out from Egypt.”

Korach and the Spies Open a Holocaust Museum

“Right through here please,” says Gadiel ben Sodi. It’s all prepared: cement floors and exposed brick and a real cattle car through which all the museumgoers will pass. Monitors big as billboards show the faces of the holy, fading placidly in and especially out. Thirteen men stand with the pride of builders whose private toil is finally ready for others’ eyes. A fourteenth, a teacher, law-giver, and famous mountain climber with a thick white beard is the first outsider to step through their exhibits. There are nerves in the air—he has also commissioned it.

They show him through the process of history, the special Kristallnacht diorama, the personal artifacts, the solemn crimes. “A stone would weep,” he remarks quietly, and the thirteen try to show no sign of their deep inner satisfaction. They pass the mini-treatment of the European fronts. They conclude with the liberation, the documentation, the arrows reaching like vines seeking sunlight across oceans and to a well-known land in the East Mediterranean.

“Where is the rest of it?” asks the visitor. The thirteen are dumbfounded. One of them, the one with burns, begins to smirk as the other twelve shuffle their sandals. He too-casually walks off to check on something.

“What do you mean, the rest?” asks Shaphat ben Hori, after what feels like forty years.

“Where is the lesson of this museum? What are we to learn?” Tittering among the twelve. Two begin to nod as if this is what they were wondering all along. Ten look merely dumbfounded.

“The whole question doesn’t start, really,” says one of them quickly, as if trying to sneak the words in under a falling blade. “Because the Holocaust isn’t like anything else, so no lessons are really applicable. That’s what ‘holiness’ is, and you chose us for our holiness and its holiness, didn’t you? We are leaders for a reason, and you are our inspiration (there are none like Moses after all) and the Holocaust is incomparably holy and were we to seek lessons or applications elsewhere it would just dilute the particulars of the event itself that we are meant to be commemorating. Other things simply aren’t the holocaust so why do they belong here?” He pauses to take a breath, and before he can continue Moses holds up a single finger. Our Holy Teacher’s eyes move briefly to the thirteenth man, who is dusting off a display case full of Soviet art and whistling to himself.

Moses looks back at the twelve, who in turn are studying the floor. “I am not G-d,” says Moses. Absolute silence reigns. He waits. No one has anything to say. “The Holocaust is not G-d.”

“Well—”

“Since it is not G-d, it is created by G-d. So, the Holocaust has that in common with other things. Doesn’t it?”

“Well, yes,” someone, probably from Yehuda or Shimon, gathers the courage to respond. “but G-d has created things totally differently. I mean, if you say it’s all just the same you’ll get ‘Auschwitz stubbed toes’ and ‘Hitler poor aesthetics taking advantage of populist bad taste’—”

“Just as G-d created the land and the wilderness differently?” asks Moses. The spies wince. “You seem to think that the natures of things somehow overpower the One G-d to produce an insurmountable diversity tantamount to idolatry,” he notes with gently, infinite patience. They catch a flash of gold in his eyes and shudder.

“Ahem.” They turn as one to find the thirteenth man raising his hand.

“This guy,” says Amiel ben G’mali.

“Me,” says Korach.

“He’s gonna show you his slideshow now,” groans a spy.

Korach already has the projector out and gives a glare to the spy that would crack open the earth. He turns to Moses, manages a smile, and launches into his presentation. NEVER AGAIN lights the nearest wall. Korach clicks through trigger warnings and into disturbing images from Rwanda, Syria, China, and other, closer places. A somber Eastern European fiddle accompanies the diagrams for a well-designed #NeverAgain Genocide Exhibit, including booths where visitors can sign up to volunteer with or donate to contemporary aid organizations. The music ends and Korach awaits Moshe’s response with rubbing hands.

Moshe looks disappointed. Korach’s eye begins to twitch. “You don’t like it, do you?” Moshe shakes his head.

“This is all politics,” Korach enunciates through gritted teeth. “You’re only saying this because if the Holocaust isn’t special, you aren’t special either.” The spies gasp.

“The holocaust is not G-d,” says Moshe again.

“It’s not even holy!” Korach nods.

“Since it’s not G-d,” continues Moses, “it is created by G-d. Since creation is ex nihilo, from nothing, the Holocaust has nothing inherently in common with those other things.”

“You can’t be serious,” says Korach. “You just told the spies in last week’s parsha that One G-d means one inherent nature underlying everything. It’s the same G-d in Israel as in the wilderness; that was their mistake. Now you want me to ignore the obvious essential similarities between Dachau, North Korea, and Texas, between me and you?”

“We have nothing in common,” Moshe says, full of sorrow.

“We’re speaking the same language!” cries Korach.

“It’s hard to say,” says Moshe diplomatically.

“But wait,” objects a spy, “What are we meant to do? How do we finish the museum? Is the holocaust comparable to other things, or incomparable?”

“Good question,” says Moses. “May I suggest learning lessons from the Holocaust not through direct qualitative comparison but through the principle of divine providence whereby every incomparable ex nihilo particular your soul encounters is itself a communication of G-d to be understood and used in His service?”

“But then all inherent natures are just like miracles!” cried a shocked spy.

“But then my mind’s ability to compare has to depend on a higher supra-rational logic!” complains Korach.

“I’m hungry,” says Moshe. “Is there falafel nearby?”

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.

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.

If Antiochus Was My Rebbe

If Antiochus was my Rebbe (and such a thing is thoroughly impossible) he’d tell me how beautiful Judaism is.

Antiochus looks at his men, at his enemies, at his deities, and sees a sublime order. Each of them is part of a story, which is another way of saying they each want something that they do not have. Once the harmful and contradictory desires and false wants are recognized through self-reflection, they may be swept aside, and ordered wants true to the essence of every being will remain. This is called purpose. This is called vitality. This is called perfection.

Some view the whole story, the victory of the Maccabees and the long-burning oil, as miracles performed by the will of an omnipotent G-d. To Antiochus, all such tales are inelegant to the point of cruelty. In a world where four must be the sum of two and two, what beauty, what joy lies in such arbitrary whims?

If Antiochus was my Rebbe (a nightmare) I might ask him why G-d created the universe. He would gently, with his large hands made for twisting Jewish necks, waggle a knurled and scolding finger. “Only a madman could ask such a question expecting an answer,” he’d say. He is not an atheist. He simply wishes to teach you that G-d has a place in the story.

Antiochus rejects the weakness of transcendence. He has no patience for uncertainty, for the illusion of unlimited personal freedom. Antiochus tells his Chassidim (?!) to embrace their limitations, the obvious ends to which they have been created and set aside from beasts. Antiochus preaches restraint, clarity of thought, the conquering of emotions, and the courage to face the truth of our own limitations.

Why should every question be permitted and every answer sought? Can a bird ask whether to fly? Can a fish question the water? Man is the being who sees how things fit together, who has the unique ability to recognize the patterns of the story and find the soul of a thing. The soul of man is made to discover souls. We are built for self-discovery. And our highest selves and deepest motivations, our loftiest aspirations and our unifying dreams—these are G-d.

This is our Creator, Antiochus would teach: Our deepest truth, highest pleasure, and most basic cause. This is what we can know; it is whom the human mind is meant to find. It is infinitely greater than inhuman specters looming beyond the edge of space or the beginning of time. Such large propositions are redolent with the stink of the unknowable, and the unknowable is tantamount to torture. A man who does not know his set place in the world, who does not recognize his G-d, will face the terror of freedom even in victory. A man who knows his place as inferior and subservient can be happy even with Antiochus’s boot on his throat. So dream not of free-floating deities who may choose any course of action. G-d the Creator is merely the largest, oldest, and greatest actor playing his role in a script. And to a human being, the story is truer than anything.

And what is Judaism, says Antiochus, beyond a beautiful story, perhaps even the most beautiful?

G-d is in His place, man in his. There is a Torah which serves the role of G-d’s wisdom, explaining like an instruction manual where everything goes. Then there are the commandments, which serve to bring out the potential of every body and every soul.

“What potential do the laws of purity and impurity help us actualize, Antiochus?” we might ask.

“Fool!” he would comment. “Do not suppose a human being is simple. We have many hidden needs and subtle accomplishments. Sometimes the thing a human being needs most is a ‘meaningless’ ritual, something unquestionable or unchangeable to tie a community together, to add stabilizing ballast to a life, to distinguish us from our heathen enemies. G-d was wise not to convey the reasons for these commandments. They make the most sense as ‘senseless’ decrees.”

So, he’s obsessed with oil.

It’s not that he happens to capture the temple’s oil supply. Things that just happen are an insult to the beauty of Antiochus’s Judaism. The temple oil is the goal of all his yearnings. It is his lowest place, the location where G-d must be revealed, precisely because it most opposes His Truth. The oil is carefully guarded from an impurity no one can see, use, or understand. Antiochus rescues it from this meaninglessness, from its lonely sacredness. He brings purity and impurity into the realm of understanding and into the fold of beauty. He renders the Temple meaningful and magnificent.

At his farbrengen, Antiochus teaches: Truth is what works, and what works is beautiful, and beauty is truth. Since there are many systems and paths that work, there are many truths. As long as they are all consistent with reason, as long as the stories make sense, there is no reason not to keep them. Do not wonder why this involves statues of Zeus or Dionysus. They are archetypes, metaphors, members of a pantheon that the Hebrew G-d may join. They weave together in their interlocking domains of authority, and in their net are caught the essential rhythms of the story. They are not unique deities, but facets of the story, signposts along the way.

Let the Judaeans join the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Seleucids at the games, and let us learn from one another. What is sacred is not what separates us, but the pursuit of human perfection according to human reason that we share.

The only ugly thing in this whole plan is a Maccabee.

A Maccabee (Antiochus assures us with the confidence of a man who understands his enemy) wars against the very essence of Judaism. He has no respect for who is more powerful, who is greater, which story is more logical. A Maccabee does not consult the meaningful texts or the wise sages on whether he may pointlessly die for an illogical principle. These zealots do not seek their own perfection.

The Maccabees are like children throwing a tantrum, demanding they get their way without even understanding the necessity of what they reject.

The Maccabees, by their own choice, cannot fully define what they believe. They are for G-d as an individual, unique and unknowable, sacred and undefined. They have never heard of a single refined aesthetic principle. They do not sing in tune. They demand a knobbly, uneven Judaism, full of strange, hideous protuberances.

The Maccabees are the sort of people who, even possessing every excuse to use “impure” oil, even when lighting a false iron Menorah, even when they are already consigned to fulfilling the commandments in a compromised fashion, will wait for eight days to kindle the holy flames. They do not care that they are permitted to do less. They are not reasonable men. They cannot be convinced the Menorah is still wonderfully symbolic even with Greek oil.

The Maccabees, in their backward, exclusionary ways, in their condescension toward the stories that unite us all, and in their insistence that the ritual only means something if it means nothing, force Antiochus’s hand. The might of his armies cannot be turned aside; the conclusion is foreshadowed in the first moment of Matisyahu’s rashness.

I must, Antiochus tells his followers, eradicate them from the face of the earth.

It may not be pleasant.

But it is beautiful.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Objective Reality Is For Meeting G-d

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They ignore Rosh Hashana, a day with a solution.

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

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

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

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

It can only be to bring subjectivities together.

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

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

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

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

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Why History’s Greatest Philosopher Lived in Liadi

I am only a beginner student of philosophy, so when I say the Alter Rebbe is the greatest thinker to ever live, it has nothing of the authority of Yitro, who chose G-d after worshipping all idols on the face of the earth. Really, I am giving a considered opinion that may be wrong but nevertheless may have the charm of consistency. I think Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi is a great thinker, indeed, singularly great, for the same reason I think Bach was a great composer and Michelangelo a great artist and Die Hard a great action movie.

This is not to say that the Alter Rebbe is like any of the aforementioned examples, in truth. Bach composed music and Die Hard is undoubtedly a film with explosions, but the Alter Rebbe is not, primarily, a philosopher; to call him a philosopher is to do him a disservice. His philosophy, Chassidus Chabad, may be the form of Jewish mysticism most interested in discursive reason, rational understanding, and systematic thoroughness, but it is (as the Alter Rebbe and his successors emphasize repeatedly) a Chassidus first and a philosophy second. The Alter Rebbe’s modus operandi was to connect Jews with their own souls and with G-d; wisdom, understanding, and knowledge were his means to achieving this end. The Alter Rebbe would likely judge his philosophy not on its own merits but on its ability to unite Jews with G-d.

Thus, the greatest thinker is not even primarily a thinker. This makes a strange sort of sense, since part of his greatness as a philosopher is his constant awareness of the limits of philosophy. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Suffice it to say that if one wishes to put aside the holiness and true purpose of the Alter Rebbe’s leadership and focus solely on his thought as a more-or-less self-contained philosophy, one must have a standard by which to judge. Now, it is commonly asserted that there is no true standard for great art, but I have found one that works for me. Great art is complex but elegant.

That is, great art is as complicated, as detailed, as differentiated in the particulars as it needs to be. If it is too complex, this indicates either pretentiousness, in which a good idea is dressed up as a fantastic idea, or shallowness, a state of all style but no meat. If the art is, on the other hand, not complex enough for its purposes, this indicates a lack of skill (the artist cannot manipulate their medium well enough) or a block of some sort (the artist cannot express their inner reality from the start). The trick to great art, in other words, is to have something to say and then to say entirely it but only it, to perfectly convey something through the complex prism of formed matter, sculpted medium, words, images, sound.

Take Bach, for example. Bach is not truly great because he is innovative (though he is) or due to, G-d forbid, external “chance circumstance” (he happened to know the King of Prussia). True innovation, worthy of the name, is good only inasmuch as the new is superior to the old on merits. Bach was perhaps both innovative and better than those who came before, and perhaps less innovative and better than those who came after. He is not (or ought not to be) respected because he came along at a certain time and fulfilled a certain role; those who so respect him have never really met him.

Bach is great and respected because the Brandenburg Concertos (for example) are wonderfully complex, but their complexity never escapes Bach’s absolute control. He has something to convey and the medium suits the message. Genius-level music theory somehow becomes simultaneously more itself through his composition while also melting away to leave only the soaring and cascading beauty of the music. Nothing is extraneous, everything is necessary, and the music seems to partially transcend time and space in that perfection.

Not to compare even the thought of the Alter Rebbe to these mundane concertos – but how else can I clearly convey the weight of a complete systematic philosophy that seems to touch on, use, and transform every major thought in human history, yet somehow manages to always yield 613 familiar commandments as its bottom line?

In the world of ideas, the Alter Rebbe is a master composer who uses every tool of his craft. The Alter Rebbe has something to say to Aristotelian causality, Nietzschean power, Platonic forms, neo-platonic emanations, Humean skepticism, Kantian ethics, Newtonian mechanics, Jungian archetypes, Wittgensteinian poetry, Cantorian infinitudes, modern radicalism, postmodern negation and meta-negation, and nearly everything in between.

Of course, since he is the holy Alter Rebbe, he never mentions almost any of this by name, nor was any of it necessarily his intention. He engages true ideas, and all truth is in Torah. The Alter Rebbe converses with and synthesizes Talmudic sources and Rashi, Midrash, the Shelah, the Maharal, the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch, the Ari Zal, the Rambam, the Ramak, the Ikkarim, the Recanati, R’Saadiah Gaon, the Ma’areches, the Haggadah, Sefer Yetzira, the Siddur, Avodas HaKodesh, scripture, and much else besides.

Furthermore, as a philosophy/mysticism hybrid[i], Chassidus Chabad not only deals with concerns of discursive reason but everything in the human experience that lies outside of reason as well. The philosophy of the Alter Rebbe touches on ritual, music, ethics, aesthetics, faith, love, fear, devotion, lust, sin, repentance, and joy. It speaks of them not only as simple goals of thought or as barriers to thought that must be circumvented, but as human realities in complex interplay with our conscious minds.

In addition, the Alter Rebbe’s way contains a thorough and consistent metaphilosophy; we learn when philosophy begins and when it ends, where it applies and where it doesn’t. This includes an extensive treatment of the psychology of thinking and the relationship within us between our faith, reason, emotion, thought, speech, and action – distinctions not the arbitrary possessions of limited man to be transcended but rather ultimately reflecting G-dly truths.

The entire structure of reason itself is thereby circumscribed and purposive in the Alter Rebbe’s philosophy, as we would expect from the integration of faith and mysticism into a rational system. What greater testament to the balance struck by Rabbi Shneur Zalman than the historical fact that Chabad Chassidus was, in its early days, rejected in equal part by the misnagdic opponents of Chassidus and by many Chassidic Rebbes. The former rejected it for being too mystical, the latter for it being too intellectual. In the rich dialectical complexity of unifying the Baal Shem Tov’s fiery faith with the intellectual Judaism that was ostensibly the subject of the Besht’s rebellion, the Alter Rebbe embraces rationality and mysticism in affirmation and negation in an organic and systematic fashion – everything in its right place.

It must be emphasized that despite the sheer scope and breadth of the Alter Rebbe’s project, none of these components are integrated into his vision inauthentically, that is, without justification in every other part of his vision. On the contrary, the Alter Rebbe’s comprehensive worldview arises as if organically with its own internal logic. This logic derives (as in any system of philosophy) from certain bedrock truths. These truths are both the cause and the organizing purpose of the entire corpus of Chassidus Chabad, and the initial seed from which the erudite synthesis springs.

For all the disparate elements of his system, each pulling in its own direction, the Alter Rebbe’s message is never lost. Every single piece of the kaleidoscopic and (at times) seemingly-contradictory worldview exists to achieve and convey a singular purpose. Never does the Alter Rebbe seem lost in philosophy for philosophy’s sake; the technicality of his astounding mind never becomes opaque; the music is never boring or heartless. The structure is balanced logically and precisely and concludes, both inevitably and automatically, in the commandments of the Torah. No idea manages to spin off into its own form of worship, or arrive at a conclusion contrary to the dictates of Torah. Every single idea is directed toward the fulfillment of an action for G-d, with its correct theoretical, spiritual, and intellectual intention.

Of all the sources from which the Alter Rebbe draws and of all the thinkers both before and after him with whom he converses, it is hard for me to conceive of one that is as broadly-embracing while being as disciplined and thorough as Rabbi Shneur Zalman. The rare confluence of breadth, intricacy, structure, and authenticity can be called elegance. And before we even arrive at his profound holiness, his music, his leadership, his selfless devotion to his fellow Jews, or even his Shulchan Aruch, the Alter Rebbe’s elegance sets him apart.

It is fitting that his philosophy should be elegant above all. This sort of unity between matter and form, soul and body, is the hallmark not only of the style of Chabad Chassidus but of its substance as well, which makes no compromises on the unity between G-d and the world.

The Alter Rebbe’s own teaching is thereby a demonstration of everything he teaches. Between the lone infinite Creator before the creation, and His coming full expression in the lowest of worlds known as Moshiach, lies all of history and the entire human experience as we know it. If there ever lived on this earth one soul who could see how it is all one, my money says it was Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.


[i] In the sense meant here, philosophy refers to what can be known through the senses and logical reasoning, whereas mysticism denotes an experiential or phenomenological experience of the divine usually achieved through circumventing the senses and logical reasoning.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Reckoning With Kabbalah

If G-d is any, He is One. Not the one of counting or one of many, but the One and Only, alone. He has no parts, no aspects, no faculties, no cause. His one is truly infinite. He is not the unit for addition; there is no room for a second; nothing additional can exist.

G-d then creates another, a universe. It could be a universe consisting of an atom or full of fish or our own frustrating cosmos, but no matter which it is, it is Two. The creation is separate, composite, and inherently bifurcated, since however lofty it may be, it always has at least two aspects – itself and its relationship to its Creator. This is the split of all splits, not a big bang but a big crack. Imagine! Something composite, something dependent, something that could exist but doesn’t have to exist.

Two radically reverses our understanding of one. The original one and only, of course, contained no potential for a second. Now that there is two, we must say it came from one. There is now a one-implicit-in-the-two, in addition to the original one-and-only.

The two can be iterated or multiplied to produce as many things as one wants. The first atom can become the one-implicit-in-the-second atom, and the second atom may in turns become the implicit cause to yet a third. In this way, the one-implicit-in-two, cause of causes, and the two, the template for all effects, are the two needles with which all things are sewn.

If the counting ended with two, however, then every further creation would only be a further two – a two-and-a-half, a two-and-a-quarter, an infinity of twos. A world of twos is a sad place indeed. It would call out to us, each two aspiring to be our one, our cause, almighty. They all say, “Trust me, for mine is the way, to escape the pain of two and become one.”

There is no such thing, of course, as our forefather Avraham realized. A caused being is ever a two, and one is beyond us. Avraham was as close to the one as ever walked this earth, but he resigned himself to life in a world of twos.

Then the One gave us three, the Torah of Truth, one and two united. Three contains two – it has a source and it speaks to the world. But three also contains one – it is the mind of G-d, infinite and inscrutable. Three takes one and the other and unites them. When two argues with two, each saying they are superior, they may each turn to three. Three exists beyond their struggle and division. It is the light at their feet that helps them find each other, for it speaks to them from an unassailable place beyond them.

Every two has a place in three; the trick is finding the right place. Generally, the more a two recognizes it is not a one, the more it may coexist with one through the three.

Four is a thing. One, two, and three are the Creator, the creation, and their unity, but even two, close as it is to (at least the implicit) one, is an awareness of being created. “I am after one,” it says when it’s thinking clearly. In fact, “thinking clearly” can be defined as one, two, and three in their right places.

Four is not thinking at all, clearly or otherwise. Four counts not the world as opposed to G-d, but each thing simply as it is. Three helps one and two past their duality, and four is the result. Four is stable being, a thing in itself. It does not need to consider its source; three sorted that out. And three naturally leads to the static realm of four. Four is so much the nature of each thing as it is, that even ten reduces to the tetragrammaton.

But if four is being, five is its limit. Five says that a four only reaches so far, that things have their edges. Five is a number that counts non-being then, the partner of four just as two is the partner of one. Even though four does not think and therefore has no room for others inherent in its nature, there is still a point beyond which it does not extend and a reality to which it is not relevant. That reality, following naturally from four, is five.

Four and five are very different from one and two, however. One and two exist in obvious mathematical dichotomy in a way that four and five do not; one is the number beyond numbers, whereas two begins to actually count limited things. Four and five are not obviously so different. That the difference is concealed, even though four and five are opposites, is itself indicative of the simple, “non-declarative” nature of these higher numbers. They are exactly the non-descript pair for counting “just a thing” and “where the thing ends.”

Now, five, as four’s limit, is still more than four, the way the negative space at the page’s margins is bigger than the image sketched at the center. That negation is more than affirmation is a consequence of the ancient Jewish belief in counting from one instead of from zero.[i] If zero is the first number, if nothing is the ultimate reality, then taking away from four would result in a smaller number. The negative space would be cut out from the page, rather than extend as its margin. Since we start from one, and one is the greatest and the most perfect, when we delineate the limits of four, the end of each thing, we do it by adding one. When we see “not four,” it says to us, “but maybe one.” Negation, the not-four, thus naturally yields five.

Six contains both four and five in one unity. Whereas four is a thing and five it its end, six is the elegant balance between the two.

The Torah dictates the balance of all things, what they are and what they aren’t, and ensures that neither being nor non-being transgresses on the territory of the other. Six is that aspect of all things by which they are neither entirely limited to being what they are not entirely defined by what they are not. G-d, in His mercy, has implanted in each creation the ability to transcend this dichotomy. Four can be even where it is negated; its negation is shown to be part of its definition. The nothingness of five prevails even where something abides, for it, too, is an expression of something, and a deep one, the quintessence.

If the thing and its negation are united in one higher unity containing both, are not the numbers exhausted? What else is there to count?

In truth, there exists in each creation not only its source and interplay with G-d almighty, nor its self-contained being and limitations alone. There is also the result of the balance of being and negation, the way a thing affects others beyond its borders, the way every creation is, in its own way, a father to other creations.

This is not the same way that two can endlessly cause further twos. Three through six have rendered the cause of new creations no longer a single number, but a complex balance of unified contradictions. This is what allows a creation to give of itself without losing itself, to continue even as it ends, to carry on in its children, not as a solitudinous clone but as the soul to the next generation.

Seven, the count of nature, to make the world a certain way. Where one is the source, and four is the self, seven is the remnant, the bullet point remaining after the lecture. One was simple by being beyond complexity; seven is simple because complexity has come and gone. Rather than the interaction of something and nothing, self and other, unity and diversity, seven simply tells the world “this is how I am, and this is how you should be.”

Eight, the supernatural, is the negation of mundane seven. Eight counts secrets and illusions. It says, “Do not take the story of seven at face value.” It is not the stark apartness of two, nor the radical denial of five, but a humble villager telling seven, “You, too, are a number.” In eight we see non-being in the world, that the evaluation of self + world can equal only world. When seven gives a gift to G-d or humanity, eight thanks them for gifts already received.

Nine is the unity unifying all unities. Three weds G-d to universe, six weds being to non-being. Nine shows the other to both exist and not exist, to stand in relation to us and not affect us at all. Nine says that we can become the other and remain ourselves, can separate from each other yet remain untied. Nine, in other words, says that we can have children and our solitude can be shared.

In a way, there is no ten. One through nine, in combination, reckon where everything comes from, what everything is, and where everything is going. They accommodate the negations of source, self, and other. They count the unities and paradoxes of G-d and world, being and non-being, other and none other. There is nothing about anything, including nothingness itself, that is not described in one through nine.

Ten is really the nine in a different place. Just as the nine derive from the One, so does ten derive from the nine. Ten takes the prismatic web of their interaction and communicates it. Ten is the nine in transit and therefore in context, the complete whole repeating, source, self, and effect. Ten reflects the decimal nature of reality. After nine, the One is carried to a new column, and the digits count up again. Ten reveals that the nine are not self-contained, even counting the implicit one. Ten shows that the nine are a message, a signal in the night.

Ten is us, who hear the numbers, add them up, and turn our eyes toward the heavens and our own hearts, looking, always looking, for more.


[i] Incidentally, if you count to ten starting from zero, it yields eleven numbers. Eleven is a rough number in kabbalah, and better avoided.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Perhaps the Earth is Flat

Of all the fresh hells we face in our long, chaotic slide into civilizational decay, the rise of the flat-earthers is the most encouraging.

Take a moment to appreciate that a whole small demographic has united with the power of the Internet to rebel against the curvature of the earth. This initial blow alone sometimes knocks unsuspecting members of the public to the mat. Your writer, however, has explored the dripping Reddit caverns and felt the heat wash over the pockmarked Twitter-field, and is long past feeling shock at Internet cults.

The flat-earthers are simply here. They’re around. And they have something to teach us.

Google them if you dare. They have slideshows, they have diagrams, they have hours and days and weeks of YouTube videos. They are far more organized than the recently infamous “incel” community, but rather than directing their anger at women and at G-d, they fight against the machinations of Big Astronomy.

Of course, we have known that the earth is round since the times of the Ancient Greeks. In a typical display of dazzling low-tech genius, they realized that the earth’s shadow on the moon during eclipses is round but does not distort as the sun changes angles, indicating that a proper sphere and not merely a disk is blocking the light. This does not matter one whit to the flat-earthers. I am certain that there is a YouTuber hiding behind a NASA-proof voice scrambler who has debunked this evidence.

Our most pressing question for the flat-earthers, once we get past our scoffing, snark, and virginity-shaming, is why they think anyone would care enough about the earth’s shape to create a vast conspiracy obscuring it?

There are, I think, a number of factors. It piggybacks off the faked moon landing conspiracy, since those who believe in one conspiracy tend to believe in a few.[i] Furthermore, to believe the earth is flat has become a modern idiom for a backwards fool, so naturally those who see themselves as intellectual outsiders would wish to make that king bleed. The idiom itself almost certainly derives from the myth that Columbus disproved a widely-held belief in a flat earth.

Where, however, does the myth come from? Why should anyone care what shape the earth is?

Perhaps they sense, deep down, that it’s a flat earth under the vaulted sky that denies the G-dless emptiness of the modern worldview we are fed as children.

After all, the party line on the universe is that space extends more or less uniformly in every direction. We occupy some node on an endless Cartesian grid. None of our intuitive directions map onto that grid. Also, the grid is imaginary. There is no true up and down in space, because the baseline of reality is emptiness. Emptiness is the rule. Emptiness is the canvas of reality. Where something exists, there is an exception to the rule, a blot on the canvas.

According to the party line, the universe is open, it surrounds us in every direction, but it is not open to anything. The emptiness does not give way at universe’s edge to a giant cardboard box stenciled with THIS SIDE UP. There is no context to the open universe. The universe is meant to be the ultimate context. You, on the surface of the earth, are put in your place by the vast void.

If this universe has a god, it is an impersonal god, a cold god. When you can see the earth and every one on it as whizzing through space at hundreds of thousands of miles an hour, who says you also see a leaf drift from branch to gnarled roots, sunk peacefully put firmly into the loam? The loam is a speck in violent whirling motion, and we only don’t see it because we cannot see the space beyond us, the space where the god presides over his grid, true space.

If the earth is flat, however, and we live beneath the vaulted firmament, everything snaps into a startling directionality. The earth is not an object in space; it becomes our space. What lies beyond the firmament is irrelevant, as it does not extend equally in all directions.

In this universe, there is an above and there is a below. These directions correspond with my intuitive sense of above and below, toward my head and toward my feet. No matter how the earth may move, these definitions remain fixed; the firmament remains beyond the brow of every human alive.

This fixed, consistent, shared directionality moves the mind toward the inner space of the earth’s atmosphere, and away from the wonders of the void beyond. If there is such a planet as Saturn (who knows what the flat-earthers think about the solar system), it is not another rock on the grid like our rock. Saturn always appears, when we can see her, in the firmament, in the sky above. Saturn is always up and the people watching Saturn are always down. How, then, could the watchers be just another thing up in space? How could we not matter?

No, the god of the flat earth is surely a god who shares our perspective; even though he may dwell somewhere beyond the sky or in a different dimension, when he sees us he sees the men who walk upon the earth below. He has created our universe in such a way that we stand apart from all we see, from every other planet and star.

It doesn’t sound all that bad when we put it this way, does it?

I wonder if deep down, I, too, yearn for the earth to be flat. The stress of being an ape at a random locus in an endless emptiness does eventually take its toll.

Thirsting for something more than intellectual proof can provide, yearning for more than the mathematical curves and the masses that move along them, I try to recall the last time I felt or perceived myself to be surrounded by G-d. When was the last time I thought of myself as a being embedded in the immanentized truth of the Creator, rather than a creature adrift on a cosmic life raft?

I find my mind has come to observe itself as yet another being, a pebble spat out by the furious gyrations of the cosmos, possessing no inherent direction, no settled orientation. My up may be G-d’s down or G-d’s sideways, and there is no way of knowing, since there is nothing about me that can tell me about G-d. He is outside the endless motion, with His own plans. My imagination is not broad enough to picture G-d beyond the edge of infinite space.

Is the mind of G-d indifferent to my mind? Why would He create a reality of such painful estrangement? Why is my up not His up, my down not His down? How could he send me on a mission deep into the bowels of a cold and lonely mechanism, and keep the true compass for Himself?

Okay, I tell myself, but is it actually true? The earth isn’t actually flat, is it?

I don’t think that’s really the correct line of inquiry. It’s a little question-begging, after all, to assume that the question of the earth’s shape is just a fact, a fact adrift on the grid. To categorically associate “actual flatness” with the mere material accident of the earth’s shape is to, in a sense, already assume the earth is round.

Thus, the question of the flat-earther is ultimately not astronomical but epistemic. We are not discussing the mere facts of earth’s nature, but whether earth’s nature is composed of mere facts at all.

Really, the question is, what is truth?

Is truth an absolute, a net in which I am caught?

Or is truth something that radiates from my own eyes?

These questions, I think, move in the secret hearts of those who would challenge the curving horizon.

They are not children, the flat-earthers. They do not represent some long-abandoned rung on evolution’s ladder. They are not afraid in the clichéd way we assume, as barbarians facing a new world.[ii] They are atomized and alienated and lost, but these things don’t scare them.

They feel only that most human fear. They fear themselves. They seek, quietly but persistently, with their clothes-pegged voiceovers and their awful bible camp photoshops, beneath the wash of the public’s irony, the answer to our deepest question—who are we?


[i] And to eventually hate the Jews, though this is neither here nor there; everyone seems to hate the Jews regardless, and obviously as Jews the justifications for this hatred are known to be false. Jews, largely immune from believing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, seem to fall for all the other ones at alarming rates.

[ii] The best very short story about barbarians’ fear of technology is this one.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.