Quality and Quantity in the Book of Numbers

Bamidbar, fourth of the Five Books of Moses, is correctly translated as “In the wilderness” or “In the desert.” Yet, like Deuteronomy, the English name “Numbers” has Jewish roots and reflects the nature of the work. Numbers, Sefer HaP’kudim, famously begins with a census of the Hebrew tribes and proceeds with some of the most wondrous and mysterious stories in all the Chumash. Despite its numbers, quantity is not the (sole) focus of the book of Bamidbar. Rather, the book and its stories instruct us in the sublimation of quantities, the divine quality of numbers, and how they figure into the proper worship of G-d.

That numbers matter is hardly a given. For much of history the wise have considered a focus on numbers in human affairs1 to be a concession to the coarse and unintelligent, even to the animal. Is the number of children you have more important to you than their personalities or their individual souls? If your neighbor has three kids and you have two, does that mean their kids are better?

Thousands of years ago, the only people convinced the truth of reality is deeply mathematical were mystical cultists of Pythagoras, idolators who believed salvation came through alignment with mathematical harmonies. Not until the enlightenment and the last few centuries was their belief resurrected and pursued with remarkable result by scientists. Perhaps in some sense, one fifth of the Torah, ancient and extremely non-idolatrous, sat quietly for millennia, full of stories allegedly about numbers, waiting to speak to a quantitative age…

Now, the Torah doesn’t teach that mere numbers confer importance or truth—after all, it is the book of “indeed, you are the smallest of peoples.” On the other hand, we do find in Jewish law that numbers do lend a certain reality to things. Things that are counted cannot be nullified. A minyan for prayer consists of ten Jewish men, regardless of righteousness; nine holy tzaddikim cannot replace it.2 So while quantity itself has no inherent value, a quantity of qualities can itself lend new qualities3; ten Jews become a quorum, and the tenth brings in the Shechina, presence of the Ultimate Quality. Quantity is important, but only as it reflects quality.

Quantity and quality are in fact deeply intertwined. Learn if from Parshas Nasso, the most repetitive portion in the entire Torah, a procession of quantities, each the same, and each, Rashi explains, reflecting the years of Adam’s life. The offerings count the same for each tribe, and each is based on the same essential reasoning, yet there are still twelve different intentions and so a twelvefold repetition of the words4. It is the quantity of Adam’s years that allow the multifaceted interpretation that mere quality would deny, but each of the twelve facets is imbued with the quality of each tribe and the unity of their general mission. Quantity is important, but only as it reflects quality.

We learn it again in Parshas Beha’aloscha, wherein the Torah does not flow with the qualitative passage of time. The story of Pesach Sheini actually occurred before the first two portions of the book. Just as the people rejected the rule of time and asked to celebrate Passover out of its time, so is the Torah revealed to transcend such quantifiable concerns.5 On the contrary, the way the Torah is grounded in time, in the successive days of the week or months of the year, and the consecration of certain periods, is shown to be a qualitative concern, the Torah’s choice born of G-d’s will and its divine nature rather than its subjugation to quantity. By adhering to Torah, the flow of measurable time is elevated. Quantity is important, but only as it reflects quality.

In Shlach and Korach, we see what happens if the balance of quantity and quality is disturbed. First the spies reduce quantity to quality, arguing that quantity is not important, that the desert and the holy land are not two instance of one thing (e.g. two creations, sharing the nature of all creations of subservience to G-d’s will). They rather viewed the wilderness and the land as two particular things, one that allowed for G-d’s miracles and one that didn’t.6

Korach sees the mistake of the spies and seizes on the opposite extreme, reducing quality to quantity. He insists Moshe and Aharon are one, at essence, belonging the same group as Korach, mere holier Levites. He errs in refusing to see the irreducible qualities of his cousins, that in fact they are infinitely greater, as king and high priest, than he, a gap no addition can cross and no generative divine algorithm can iterate across.

As if to emphasize the point, the portion of Chukas launches immediately into a discussion of the red heifer and the Torah’s laws of ritual purity and impurity. The laws are the most purely qualitative in the entire Torah7, rebelling against the mind’s tendency to homogenize through quantification and comparison. Touch a corpse with one finger or your whole arm, your body is just as ritually impure. Try to divide the purity from impurity in the heifer which purifies and corrupts simultaneously. The suprarational chok decree expands Korach’s lesson to all of Judaism. Never can the Torah be called a mere means to some complex or composite end.

Yet, in Balak, Bilaam saddles his talking donkey8 to ride off to curse the Israelites, attempting to pervert9 the very notion of the suprarational chok, to take advantage of the parity of qualitative reason.10 Bilaam tries to show that worship totally beyond reason can allow evil to arise, that the suprarationality of the Hebrews’ worship could in turn collapse to the irrational, for there is no standard for comparison, no ratiocinative quantitative reason that can divide evil from good in the realm of the suprarational.11 Answers G-d that Avraham beat Bilaam to the punch, that the suprarational is, itself, mysteriously and immutably Good. His curses are transformed into blessings. We thus find that quantity is important, but only as it reflects quality, and quality is important only as it reflects the will of its Creator.

This mysterious transcendence beyond quality, to the One Who Lends Quality To All Qualities—a Cause of Causes, if you will—is reflected in the total dedication of Pinchas beyond the dictates of the Torah (and Moshe) itself.12 Pinchas learned not only from the repentance of the second Pesach, which pointed beyond the quantifiable, but from the failure of Bilaam, which pointed beyond the qualitative. At a moment when wisdom provided no answer, he was able to find one; his actions reflected the suprarational will of G-d.

It is first in Pinchas that the quantitative fully conveys the qualitative and is united with it.13 After all the preceding portions, Pinchas sees the root of quality lies above quality. Why, then, should he ever intend to act according to quantity or quality alone? On the contrary, quality, and the quantity to which it must speak, can only be guided by faith and total surrender of one’s will to G-d. Only when quality is appraised in terms of its source, rather than in the context of speaking to quality, is that quality then able to speak to quantity without becoming corrupted.

It is thus by living in a way of Pinchas that quality and quantity are properly balanced and united. Numbers depend on souls which depend on G-d. Only then is the mission of the Book of Numbers fulfilled: To elevate numbers and reveal their holiness. The Book of Numbers shows us, the descendants of the Hebrews who fill its stories, how to live a G-dly life in an ever-more measured world.14


1That numbers are objects of wisdom and in their relation involve eternal truths is hardly a modern idea. However, particularly through the Aristotelian influence, the primacy of the numerical in perceiving the natures of things was relegated to the outskirts of western thought for centuries.

2A law derived from the book of Numbers, specifically from the incident with the spies.

3See Likkutei Sichos, vol. II, p. 293ff.

4See Likkutei Sichos, vol. VIII, p. 41ff.

5See Likkutei Sichos, vol. XXIII, p. 62.

6See Likkutei Sichos, vol. IV, p. 1041ff.

7See Likkutei Sichos, vol. XIII, p.68ff.

8G-d warning Bilaam through a talking donkey should have tipped the sorcerer off. When the Rogatchover Gaon wants to characterize Korach’s heresy, he compares it to thinking a human being is nothing but a donkey plus some further, ‘humanizing’ traits, that a donkey’s eating and human eating are more-or-less the same. For Bilaam’s beast to suddenly leap across this divide is almost like G-d saying, “I choose which incomparable creations are actually comparable around here. Korach thought he was like Aharon, when he and Aharon were as distant as a man to a donkey. You think that by accessing the suprarational, you rise to the level of the Hebrews, but you are more different from the Hebrews than a donkey is from a man…” See footnote 10 below.

9See Likkutei Sichos, vol. XXVIII, p.157ff.

10 Unlike the spies, who focus too much on quality and ended up denying G-d’s power over certain natures, Bilaam focuses on quality to, in a sense, broaden G-d’s power, to claim the same connection to G-d for evil as for good. Quality seems to divide from quantity at two extremes, then: (a) to become estranged qualities (b) to become One. The spies abandon quantity in order to divide; Korach abandons quality in order to unite; Bilaam abandons quantity in order to unite. Of course, the unity Bilaam seeks, in irrationality, is the loneliest of all unities, in which true communication between individuals is probably impossible. The spies’ division at least maintained G-d as a principle, and where there are principles there is common ground. Bilaam unites under a G-d so dissociated that evil and good are equal, and so divides; the spies divide the wilderness from the land under a G-d who is Good, and so unite. Thus, not every medium (e.g. rationality) separates and not every immediacy (e.g. a decree of pure will) unites.

11Think, again, of the red heifer, in which pure and impure, qualities, are rationally inseparable.

12See Likkutei Sichos, vol. XVIII, p. 318ff.

13See Likkutei Sichos, vol. XXXIII, p. 164ff.

14Perhaps we could say that the unique relationship of the Jew to G-d at a totally suprarational level that in turn permeates down even through the level of basest quantity is reflected in Parshas Matos-Maasei as well. See Likkutei Sichos, vol. XXIII, p. 214ff.

Why Is the Universe So Big?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Either way, He sent us telescopes.

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

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

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

Why is the universe so big?

Nothing smaller is meaningless enough to convey its Creator.

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.

The Secular Geocentrism

The alleged “debate” between the church and Galileo is misunderstood, and not just because many get the facts wrong. Even if the scientist was locked up for saying the earth is not at the center of the universe, his statement was not religiously offensive on the grounds most people would assume.

The attempted narrative is that religion is a crutch, a fig leaf for gaps in our knowledge, and the outcome of either base fear or an evolutionary glitch (like all forbidden beliefs). This being the nature of religion, it therefore strokes our egos and tells us that humanity is central to the universe, necessary, the goal of its creation. That, apparently, is why religion sees (or, less controversially, saw) the earth as the center of the universe. Meanwhile, the light of science, banishing the benighted demons of Carl Sagan’s worst dreams, says that humanity is a purposeless accident in a very strange universe. Galileo was simply initiating the reduction in ego modern man needed.

The irrationality of the human ego, at least, the Rambam would acknowledge. Though he maintains the geocentric Ptolemaic cosmology of his time (a solid four centuries before Galileo) he has no problem discoursing at length on fools who believe the universe was created for man. In fact, he maintains that there is nothing mankind accomplishes that is not accomplished better by others. In general, says the Rambam, we are not needed in the slightest. Just as the purpose of a tree is to be the best tree possible, so too man is directed toward the highest form of man, but why there should be men in general is a question on G-d’s inscrutable will, inscrutable by definition because to be based on reason is to be caused and that is notoriously problematic. Granted, other schools of Jewish thought say that man is important, though with the caveat that he is important specifically because of his lowliness, not because he is close to being the highest of all creations.

Suffice it to say, the argument between religion and science is hardly one of whether man is important or not important on a cosmic scale. We all know that before the cosmic scale we are nothing. The argument is much closer to whether we ought to use the cosmic scale all. In other words, everyone agrees (at least potentially) that man is irrelevant, whether he sits at the center of the Universe or on some rock flying through infinite space. The disagreement is on why he is irrelevant. The Rambam says we are irrelevant because of G-d’s will which is beyond understanding. “Galileo” (as represented in the narrative) says we are irrelevant in light of our vast new knowledge of cosmology.

Look at it this way: In the old philosophy of the schoolmen, G-d (and to them, there is and can be only One, “your G-d” making as much sense to them as “your physics” might to a modern physicist) is not what fills gaps in knowledge but what stands in the spot of the necessary but unknowable, the being who can end the infinite regress of causes but who is himself uncaused and thus unknowable. The universe in its being, motion, form, and telos cannot exist without a beginning (or, in the case of telos, an end); it is ever pointing to something beyond itself. In the materialist scientific understanding, the universe points to nothing but simply is.

The difference may seem academic but it in fact shakes the worldviews to their foundations. When Maimonides says man is nothing, he has coming to a conclusion that fits the stated goal of his pursuit, to understand of the infinite as much as a limited human mind is capable. Eventually he must throw up his hands and say, “I understand how vast is the universe and how tiny is man from the very fact that I cannot understand why it should be this way; G-d’s unknowable will for an irrelevant creature man truly is unknowable to that irrelevant creature.”

But when the scientist says man is nothing, he says it with the authority of a God. He will demur that he only follows the experimental observations where they lead, but this position is less humble when it is the best anyone can hope to do, even a god, who must exist within the bounds of science like anyone or anything else. When the scientist says man is a speck whirling in the void, he ceases to be a hominid whose lizard brain evolved into sentience and is instead making pronouncements on the cosmos, speaking at the highest level of all reality. There is no point when he must throw up his hands. He says, “I understand how vast is the universe and how tiny is man from my vantage point on a hill in the milky way galaxy, my biological chemistry evolved for fitness peering at the truth through massive telescopes. The universe’s production of a tiny, irrelevant creature is understood profoundly by said creature.”

Those who thought the earth was at the center of the universe were certain they were incapable of knowing the purpose of the universe. One’s ignorance needs no more explanation than a rock’s; one simply does not have the capacity to grasp G-d. Those, on the other hand, who hold that the earth is one of a billion trillion planets know their precise place in the universe, and this knowledge has no explanation other than that it is.

It is no accident that Maimonides’s passage on man’s irrelevance is written in the context of discussing theodicy and the claim that G-d does more evil than good. That G-d’s ultimate reasons for creating the universe the way it is are an outcome of his unknowable will refocuses man’s attentions away from the nature of the world’s being to what the world ought to be. There is a reason why the revolution in cosmology that places the earth at a random locus in space did not see a consequent revolution in personal humility among scientists or the public generally; the modern study of nature has not yet found its bound and is assumed by many not to have one; we spend much of our time studying forms and processes and assume that an understanding of morality or righteous action will eventually emerge.

Indeed, your average geocentrist thinks that he cannot know why G-d wanted man to be at the center of the universe, and this might make him self-effacing. He does not know why G-d tells him his own actions come first, then familial concerns, than societal ones, but it makes him truly compassionate. He does not know why G-d tells him to respect property and bodies, but he ends up respecting people. He is not quite sure how those who know the earth is a random planet could be caught up in their brilliance, or how those who care for all of society first often find their own righteousness to go by the wayside, or how those who say property is unimportant often end up treading on people, as well…

To him, these are all strange, paradoxical mysteries of a world impossibly made from nothing by an unknowable Creator.

Who is more humble, he who is nothing out of ignorance, or nothing by dint of his own wisdom?

How Transgenderism Points To G-d

Let me take just a minute and talk to my fellow religious Jews about transgenderism.

As any user of the (dangerously addictive) site TV Tropes knows, there is a certain type of plan hatched by fictional villains called the Xanatos Gambit. This is a maneuver by which the bad guy so outthinks the good guys that even when the good guys have won, they have lost.

Consider the plot of the entire first three episodes of Star Wars (if it’s not too painful). Darth Sidious creates a breakaway from the old republic that starts a huge war. This eventually causes the republic to, out of fear, 1) distrust the Jedi order, 2) trust a massive clone army left to them by a mysterious benefactor, 3) cede emergency powers to Chancellor Palpatine in the galactic senate. So when the day eventually comes that the head of that breakaway power is cut off (literally) and their forces sent running, the good guys have become the bad guys, from within, without anyone noticing, and by winning their own war they have lost it.

What if I told you that you are part of a Xanatos Gambit right now, namely, human history?

***

How could we know? Looking for the cataclysmic end result of the Xanatos gambit before it comes to pass doesn’t help. What if you tell the average patrician of the republic that the chancellor is really an evil dictator in disguise, that his defense force is really an imperialist power bent on domination, and that trust in your own side will lead you to great evil? Not to fulfill Godwin’s Law, but you would, in all likelihood not be taken seriously in your ramblings since no one else can see what you can see until it’s too late.

Similarly, I could tell you that the whole world will soon come to recognize the falseness of materialism and the truth of a reality beyond the empirical and quantifiable universe. I could tell you that G-d is like Xanatos, and he will win in the end. Telling you this would make me seem like a conspiracy theorist, a dreamer out of touch with the reality that G-d is dead and has been for over a century. If I insist that this is the direction in which we must move because that is the end of history according to the prophets, it falls flat. What are prophets compared to our own eyes?

***

No, the key to seeing the Xanatos Gambit is not to go around claiming the truth of its end goal. The key is to find the process as it takes place, the villain’s tells. If I could show you how a massive standing clone army is dangerous for the republic, especially if its source is untested, you may begin to doubt; if I told you how much worse it would be if the chancellor received emergency powers, you may begin to wonder. Once there are enough tells, enough examples of things which on the surface seem to be for our good but at a deeper level will be our downfall, our sense of the trap we are in becomes much more solid.

Even if we know from prophecies that history arcs toward a recognition and knowledge of G-d, it is hard to see how we are getting there. Our frustration is compounded by the niggling words of those great rabbis who insist we must be nearing the end of history, that time when the world will know G-d. How does the math work out that history is ending but we seem further from G-d, collectively, than we ever have? It would seem that to the average mind, the natural appearance of the world is winning out against any conception of a higher power.

But there is mischief afoot.

***

The first time I became aware of it is in the strange case of the big bang. You see, the whole cosmological concept of the big bang makes most religious people nervous, since they think of it as science’s G-dless understanding of the world’s origins which took place, like, billions of years ago for whatever baroque reasons Stephen Hawking told it to, and all of this doesn’t sound like the first verse of the Torah/Bible at all. This is, forgive me, a narrow, ignorant, and downright stupid understanding. Not because the Torah’s account is false and the big bang theory comprehensive. Not even because two things which are both true cannot be in contradiction.

It is a stupid understanding of the situation because the big bang theory is a huge win for the religious understanding of the world, even though very few people see it that way. You see, for the longest time, empiricists were quite comfortable in the belief that the universe has always existed. The idea that the whole thing had a beginning at all was a decidedly religious belief, one known only through prophecy; some might be surprised to learn that Maimonides fervently denies that one can logically, from observation of the world, prove that it did not always exist. Only the Torah can tell us that, he says. And so — when scientists began to study the background radiation of the universe, and came to the conclusion that the whole thing had a beginning, this was probably the single greatest concession to the religious understanding of the world since the enlightenment. And we have a bunch of religious people sitting around feeling somehow that the big bang is an anti-religious idea.

You see, the big bang is one small facet of a huge Xanatos Gambit. As G-d seems to be out of reach from the front windows, He is in fact sneaking in the back door. It is a firmly established fact in the minds of most that the universe had a beginning. That idea is not going away. And as long as the beginning doesn’t go away, there will always be intellectual access to the idea of a beginner, a creator. In a subtle way, G-d is firmly planted in science more than He ever has been before.

Okay, you might be thinking, but it’s not exactly the case that everyone that believes in the big bang believes in G-d. All of this seems rather far-fetched. Are you sure it’s a Xanatos gambit and not just a strange coincidence in an otherwise pretty G-dless culture? Furthermore, if this is actually G-d revealing himself, why would He do it in such a strange, backward way? Why not sign his name on distant stars along with the message “I created the universe, love, The Almighty”?

These questions bothered me for some time, and they even made me doubt my understanding of the big bang. That’s when I recently saw a second tell, a second glitch, a second example of the gambit: the ascendancy of transgenderism.

***

More even than the big bang, transgenderism as an idea is antithetical to the religious mind and traditional morality. A disease, some call it. A rebellion against the truth, others say. The religious people say, “How can you fight against biology and call yourself a man when you are chromosomally a woman, or vice versa?” It is interesting any time a science is called upon to defend a religious view, and this statement scratched at my mind for some time. There’s something here, I thought. Something strange. And then it hit me.

Transgenderism is an argument for the existence of the non-material person, dare I say, of the soul. Think about it: A transgendered person is arguing for the ascendancy of how they feel over what they look like and what their DNA says. They are saying, a woman is a person with the soul of a woman, and if the biology says otherwise, the biology can take a hike. “That’s not an argument for a soul,” you may be thinking. “It’s just an argument between their brain and the rest of their bodies.” But that’s simply not true. There is absolutely no reason why the random bits of biological matter that make up the brain ought to have more to say about your gender than, pardon me, the matter that makes up the genitals. If a human is a purely material being, why defer to some matter over other matter? Some random noise arising from the grey matter in the head has no priority over the chromosomes in every cell, and on the contrary — that matter is dangerous for the creature’s fitness and survival, and ought to be ignored from the much clearer and demonstrable traits of the sex organs.

The only reason to listen to Bruce Jenner when he says he wants to be Caitlyn Jenner is if you believe that he, that is, the subjective individual speaking to you from within the meat and bones you see with your eyes, ought to be able to decide what he is for himself. There is a person in there beyond the body’s matter; there is a soul.

How strange, I think, as I read the various posts about this issue on the Internet, that no one sees it this way. All the people who are supposed to advocate for the soul’s presence are too busy being shocked that our society has reached these lowly depths, etc. etc.

***

Hold on a minute, though. I don’t actually mean to suggest that a belief in the validity of transgenderism equates with a belief in the soul, do I? It’s like the big bang all over again. A lot of cosmologists don’t believe in G-d; a lot of transgender people don’t believe in the soul. It seems hard to say that this is an example of religious beliefs sneaking into the popular consciousness; on the contrary, it seems more an example of the inability even of enlightened secular thinking to shake off all of its religious trappings. If we are really reaching some divinely ordained end of times in which He will be revealed, why not just, you know, reveal Himself? Why would these ideas be sneaking into the collective consciousness?

For the same reason any villain needs to run a Xanatos Gambit. To assure victory, and to express one’s complete dominance. You see, G-d did reveal himself. The villain made a straightforward attack. There was a time, now enshrouded in the mists of history, when G-d was known. The problem was, the world didn’t really get it. Victory was incomplete, technical. G-d was such a powerful idea that the world became religious, but G-d did not want religiosity per se; He wanted to be known everywhere, and there were always people, societies, and ideas who were turned off by religiosity and the religious way of life. And so, a stalemate, with most of the world becoming religious but total victory out of reach.

The only option was to circumvent the dichotomy, to slowly work the dialectic back-and-forth between the religious and non-religious until the lines became blurred and the two sides could intertwine, and that unity itself would be the knowledge of G-d, that religion and antireligion could work on and sharpen each other until the dichotomy breaks and they each give way to their higher grounding.

***

There is so much more to say. We could talk about how the dialectic of the Xanatos Gambit, in which both sides are really in accordance with G-d’s plan and even when religion “loses” G-d wins, effects both religious and non-religious ideas. The traditional moral understanding of “gender roles” gave way to feminism and feminism in a very real sense is giving way to transgenderism, and all three of these steps are part of a process pointing toward to true G-dly identity of the individual.

There will come a time when even the desires and feelings of the individual become secondary to their G-dly purpose. The groundwork for that time has already been laid. And the next time we, as the religious people, hear a new idea that makes us cringe, that goes against everything we know to be true, we should take a second look at it.

We should take a second look, and await the springing of the trap.

 

Image from Flickr.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Deus Ex Machina

Statements, in general, are dangerous. A statement claims and at once denies; if the sky is blue it cannot be green. When the statement in question is susceptible to disproof, yet is essential to a worldview that would not survive its falsification, only a brave man or a foolish one would dare to speak. The dinosaur issue, for example, is arguably non-essential to Judaism. The Torah has an opinion on the matter (as with all matters) but the age of the world and the conditions of its existence in the distant past are not central tenets of our religion; on the contrary, there are many orthodox Jews who for whatever reason do not see a contradiction between Torah’s six-day creation and science’s billions-of-years formation. Equally as harmless are a priori axiomatic assertions, such as G-d’s existence; there is (practically) no way to put the lie to it and thus those of us who otherwise just eat popcorn and watch reruns of The Office may proclaim it loudly and without fear. The purpose of mankind, on the other hand, is a different pot of cholent. Torah, and (as we’ll see) specifically Chassidic teachings, takes a gamble and decrees why we’re here. Is it right, even in unfamiliar times?

On the agenda: Humans make gods in their image. It’s all over fiction, from Suarez’s Daemon novels to popular TV shows like Person of Interest. A genius billionaire creates a computer/software that can see/manipulate/do anything, and it proceeds to see/manipulate/do just that. The implications are terrifying; Suarez’s intelligent program adapts itself to news stories it reads on the Internet, runs weapon factories, and enslaves humans by force. To gain loyalty it reads brainwaves with MRIs, detects the basest desires of its followers, and provides them. In PoI, the machine predicts crimes before they take place, has access to every security camera in the world, and communicates through a Delphi-style avatar named Root who openly worships “her” as a deity.

While our stories scout over the horizon, computing power continues to grow next door. Moore’s law says that computer processing speed doubles roughly every year; the Singularity, a kind of technopocalypse when artificial intelligence will exceed human intelligence, may only be fifteen to thirty years away. It may also not happen at all; it’s hard to take any predictions of futuristic radical upheavals too seriously while I still don’t have my jetpack. Interesting nevertheless is Ray Kurzweil’s characterization of that future time as a move away from the biological and toward the spiritual as the mind is uploaded from the confines of the body.

Now the problem: If in fifty years’ time humanity is no longer the dominant life form on this planet and we exist only as pawns of superintelligent Google bots, what will remain of our central role in the creation, of our unique ability to carry out G-d’s will? It is clear that, say, a caterpillar cannot fulfill G-d’s commandments, since it is an unintelligent creature that cannot understand those commands and desires as they have been expressed to humans. They aren’t smart enough for free will. Is it possible that in the near future there will be robots smarter than any human? Why have Jews if a robot can learn the entire Torah in an instant with an infallible memory, weigh the different sides of a halachic question using fuzzy logic, be bothered by the plight of the Jewish poor, and write novel, extensively annotated responsa on the topic?

In case this is all too abstract or ridiculous, consider that in a way we already suffer from this existential threat all the time. You arrive at a new job and a coworker is…perfect. He can do everything you can do and everything your friends can do, and he’s happier doing it. You know that he must have terrible taste in music and crippling self-absorption and dead people in his basement but it turns out he has deep original insight into your favorite band, feeds the hungry in his spare time, and built an indoor waterfall in his basement with his bare hands during breaks from cooking chicken soup for his ailing aunt whom he supports singlehandedly. It can make you wonder what, if anything, you bring to the world other than your oh-so-special brand of mediocrity.

Torah gives several reasons why we’re here. The answers vary in content and their effect on the human experience. One source it says the world is here that He may be known. Another says the world exists to actualize His potential, for a potential is incomplete without expression. A third place says G-d created heaven and earth so that he may eventually express himself fully in the reality furthest removed from his truth, and Chassidus champions this answer over all others, for reasons simple to any student of Kabbalah.

Our world is not the only one G-d created. There are spiritual realities, populated by spiritual beings. There are an infinite number of angels (Chassidus recognizes this as a logical contradiction that only omnipotence could tolerate), for example, spiritual beings who exist only to serve their Creator, conduits for an ever-falling cascade of G-dly energy. Since there are other worlds, and assuming that G-d does nothing without purpose (a safe assumption only because that’s what He himself tells us through his Torah), it stands to reason that humans exist because we can do something that, say, angels, cannot. If the purpose of creation is that G-d may be known, there is no reason for a human to exist; we cannot know Him like the lowest angel knows him and certainly not as he is known in Atzilus, highest of spiritual creations. It also seems odd that with all that infinite spirituality up there the expression of His potential should be in the physical, philosophically low, as if until Einstein teaches second grade math he is not a genius.

No, G-d likes mediocrity.

In other words: If you think G-d created anything for the reason I create a bowl of cereal & milk, i.e. it adds something to His life, you’re living in delusion. There is no “adding” to G-d. It’s in his job description. He is absolute, everything else is conditional. He is real, and everything else is pathetically fake. He doesn’t need; (unless he chooses to, in which case) He wants. What does He want? Something new. To Him, everything is Him; he wants “not Him.” He creates the material, stuff so dumb its existence at face value demands no explanation or antecedent, stuff that takes up space and therefore exists on technicality. Then, he creates the impossible, little reproductions of himself that operate autonomously, which would be impossible for any spiritual being aware that to fight the divine will is to commit suicide. What if, He wonders, these little things actually chose to be G-dly even though they didn’t have to? Who ever heard of such a thing?

Our excellence doesn’t make us interesting. Our choices in the face of adversity make us interesting. And human adversity is miraculously fine-tuned: constant, enough to hurt, generally not too much to destroy. Personal adversity is the same, a divine constant, tailor-made for the individual and his abilities. “According to the camel is the load.”

No matter how stupid we feel compared to the guy at work or the computer on our desk, we are created with our own challenges and limitations and our own part of this “not Him” to fix. We can’t know anyone else’s challenges. We don’t have to be supermen; we don’t have to be the best. We only have to be the best us.

I’ll take my jetpack now.

Image of BRAAAIIIINS from Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

 

The Rebbe, The Chief Rabbi, and The Fossils

In the fall of 1987, the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits of blessed memory, engaged in a short correspondence about something the Lubavitcher Rebbe once wrote. The Chief Rabbi’s position was that, though well-stated and perfectly above-board, the Rebbe’s argument was “simplistic” (which Rabbi Jakobovits claimed is not at all in the pejorative; he used the Rebbe’s argument before he ever read the Rebbe’s words on the matter).

What is the simple argument in question?

The Rebbe wrote a famous letter in December 1961 on the much-hyped Torah/Science clash, specifically about evolution and the age of the universe. In it, he mentions the issue of fossils, dinosaur bones, etc. which seem to be, uh, slightly past their six thousandth birthdays. The Rebbe makes two points. The first: It is conceivable that dinosaurs and the like existed a few thousand years ago, and the earth’s past “atmospheric pressures, temperatures, radioactivity, unknown catalyzers, etc., etc.” could have created fossils in a much shorter time than is normally considered possible.

This answer is common in the Torah/Science dialogue. It’s the second part which earned the Chief Rabbi’s attention:

“(b) Even assuming that the period of time which the Torah allows for the age of the world is definitely too short for fossilization (although I do not see how one can be so categorical), we can still readily accept the possibility that G-d created ready fossils, bones or skeletons (for reasons best known to him), just as he could create ready living organisms, a complete man, and such ready products as oil, coal or diamonds, without any evolutionary process.

As for the question, if it be true as above (b), why did G-d have to create fossils in the first place? The answer is simple: We cannot know the reason why G-d chose this manner of creation in preference to another, and whatever theory of creation is accepted, the question will remain unanswered. The question, Why create a fossil? is no more valid than the question, Why create an atom? Certainly, such a question cannot serve as a sound argument, much less as a logical basis, for the evolutionary theory.” 

As previously mentioned, the Chief Rabbi does not argue with this point, but calls it simplistic; he resorted to using it because it was effective, but on its own it leaves him uncomfortable. This raises the question: If there are intellectual explanations for evolution and the age of the universe that fit with Torah, and in fact the Rebbe himself brings such an explanation for fossils as his “Point A”, what does the Rebbe gain with this second point? The explanation seems tacked on for those backed against the wall by science and have no other way out but to say “He just made fossils. So there.” The Rebbe confirms everyone’s worst suspicions about religious fundamentalism by ignoring evidence of an ancient universe with an argument that could be applied to any scientific fact we don’t like: G-d just made it look that way. Why would he do that? No idea, and how dare you ask.

Seems like a fundamental misstep, pun intended.

 

 

Now, the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Lubavitch, or Chabad, is known for a specific, well-defined, vast theology/philosophy concerned with every aspect of life. Therefore, if we hope to understand the Rebbe’s position on any given matter, it would pay to examine the general perspective of Chabad philosophy.

Perspective is important because even if everyone agrees on empirical fact, where each person stands influences the interpretation of those facts. An example that’s near and dear to my heart is the endlessly-repeated back-and-forth on the relative evils of religion and atheism that I get to meet quite often thanks to the Internet (imagine the effort one used to have to exert to find idiots arguing. Now the entertainment is right in your bedroom). Archie the Atheist will say, “Grr, the religions. Crusades, terrorists.  Source of all evil. If only we all listened to the science.”

Davros the Devout will respond, “Bah! Humbug! You are wrong, because Hitler/Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot/Dawkins!”

Archie will smile and say, “How do you know that those people weren’t evil because of the little bit of influence religion had on them?”

Davros will reply, “For that price, perhaps the evils of the religious are only due to not being religious enough. It’s too much G-dlessness that made them that way.”

You get the idea. Obviously the issue is more complicated than that, but it is clear one cannot deduce anything about the nature of evil from the examples of evil men alone, but must always fall back on one’s general vision of reality. This particular debate can be reduced to a fundamental disagreement about man’s true, “uncivilized” nature, i.e. whether man is naturally evil or naturally good. Whichever way one hypothesizes, one’s theory is untestable, as any debate on the Internet (despite all appearances) takes place from within the boundaries of civilization; no one arguing today can claim to be free of the influences of religion or atheism. Who can say whether thousands of years of religion has refined man or cast him into the depths, if a controlled test cannot be performed? Pure empiricism is not enough. When it comes to how one feels about the facts, living with the facts, perspective is everything.

 

 

Why are we here on this earth?

1) The nonreligious answer ultimately negates the question; to assume an absolute answer is to assume an absolute reality outside of any individual perspective which simply doesn’t exist, and no amount of scientific discovery and observation will answer the question. The universe simply is, we simply are, and we might as well live a satisfying existence while we’re here.

2) The religious answer is that we’re here to do what G-d wants. Life involves making the right choice between the gross and physical and the G-dly. We are only given so much time here, and we are responsible for our actions, words, and thoughts. “I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil…choose life!”

3) Chassidus’s answer is that we’re not here at all, at least not in the usual sense of the word. It’s not that we exist, i.e. that we walk this earth, eat of its fruit, sleep, work, love, and raise children, and G-d expects us to do all the aforementioned in a G-dly way. He is all there is, was, and will be, a Necessary Existence, and everything that’s not Him is either false or an expression of Him. We don’t exist. Oh, it seems that we do exist? So G-d must need us for some great purpose. We’d do well to fulfill it.

The difference between the religious answer and the Chassidic one is only in our perspective; both advocate fulfilling G-d’s commandments and learning his wisdom. They are nevertheless profoundly different.

The religious and nonreligious answers both have human experience as the ultimate baseline of reality; the question is merely whether there is any higher cause which humanity can serve other than itself. For example, the nonreligious say that human intellect is an end unto itself, and thus any and all thought and inquiry needs no justification, the same way a basketball needs no justification. It takes up space; it exists. No more explanation is needed. The religious say that the human intellect is a means to an end; think kind thoughts and holy thoughts, and protect yourself from falsehood and blasphemy. Thoughts of illicit pleasure or of violence towards one’s fellow are contrary to G-d’s wishes.

Chassidus says that there is no intellect, there is only G-d, and if you seem to have thoughts, they’re only here to play some role in G-d’s plan. In other words, it’s not that intellect (or the world for that matter) is neutral, and we must use it according to G-d’s will; everything that exists is a claim against G-d’s singularity and must argue for its own right to exist. Guilty until proven useful.

 

 

At first, there was just G-d. He then created a world. The world is here for a specific purpose, and nothing exists without being part of that purpose; there is nothing here on technicality or by chance. This includes the human intellect. In fact, human intellect is the crowning glory of His purpose; He wants to fully express Himself in a place that denies Him, and there is only one entity in the entire creation that can go against his will, a human being. What makes a human, human, is the intellect. The mind can do one of two things: deny its Creator entry and thereby lose all justification for its own existence, or emancipate Him by thinking G-dly thoughts and thereby actualize the greatest potential in all of creation.

What, by the way, is a G-dly thought? This is a contradictory phrase. Is there any reason to suppose that the infinite being that created everything falls within the limits of rational thought? The most logical assumption is that an infinite divide separates G-d from us and our conception. Only one side of the relationship can initiate a connection, and it’s not the limited, physical side. If G-d decides for some strange reason that He wants to be known by the hunks of flesh that walk on two legs, it’s a different jar of gefilte fish. This odd desire of His gives genesis to the vast wisdom known as the Kabbalah. The Zohar and other works describe an intricate spiritual system of interlocking worlds, lights, vessels, contractions, and creations that span the vast distance between our physical world and G-d’s infinite light, a system that is utterly unnecessary. If G-d wills, physicality can arise with no spiritual antecedents, from true nothingness; He instead created logic, the System that must underlie anything that hopes to hide Him. Then He acted according to his own arbitrary rules as much as possible, and revealed his actions to the sages, all that we might be able to relate to Him, so that there could be a G-dly thought.

The practical upshot here is that knowledge is a dependent creation and a tremendous lowness in G-d’s eyes that one ought to use only to fulfill its purpose. Knowledge, as an end unto itself, does not exist, and that’s why the Rebbe added his second answer. The question, Why create a fossil? is no more valid than the question, Why create an atom?

The more one comprehends, the more it seems everything must be comprehensible. The scientific worldview assumes that everything follows rules and patterns. If there’s something that seems to not make sense, it’s only because we haven’t yet invented a tool, physical or theoretical, that’s accurate or powerful enough to plumb the thing’s depths. A phenomenon that cannot be apprehended by the intellect in some way is by definition beyond the reach of science, and since science has never met such a phenomenon, it must not exist; a new discovery comes along that seems to contradict Torah, and if we cannot understand how the two can coexist, it bothers us. We demand answers. And the Rebbe spends much of his letter dispensing the answers: interpolation vs. extrapolation, dating methods, untestable assumptions, etc. But there is another aspect of reality that cannot be left out. As “simplistic” as it sounds, as much as we may have to leave our comfortable thrones as the arbiters of truth, there are some things that cannot be grasped by reason. He is the basis of reality, and intellect is a means to an end, not the other way around. It is more surprising that we comprehend anything than that we fail to comprehend something. The Rebbe’s second argument is not the desperate gamble of a harried believer, but the contextualization of the intellect, without which G-d remains divorced from reality, even for the religious.

 

 

This is why it makes sense to reach out to other Jews and get them to do things like wrap Tefilin or light Shabbos candles. Emphasis, to do things. The Rebbe advised people never to get into debates or intellectual arguments about Judaism on the street; get the commandment performed, that’s all that matters, that’s what will get people in touch with their heritage and their G-d. What of the marketplace of ideas, of weighing Judaism against other systems of thought? How could leather or a palm frond ever bolster confidence in Judaism as a way of life? Shouldn’t we be rational and only do that which totally makes sense to us?

Every Jew has a special Jewish soul, indestructible and united with G-d. Doing a mitzvah, one of His commandments, awakens that connection. One who serves G-d because it make sense really serves themselves, like a spouse who gets married because their mate is “just perfect” and get divorced when reality ousts the dream. This logical misstep of the religious, trimming G-d to fit their tastes instead of the other way around, transforms the whims of an individual into moral absolutes that must bind all of humanity. It changes an individual trying to do the right thing into an aggressor who campaigns against the heretic and apostate. They are the driver and G-d is the vehicle. Only the non-rational reaction to the warm glow of the Shabbos candles or the taste of the Matzah, the feeling that somehow the Mitzvah is right, is home, is G-dly, is a healthy foundation for lasting religious observance, and, for a method that banks on an empirically ridiculous claim to a soul, works well.

 

 

Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century and in the words of Freeman Dyson, “[A] famous joker and a famous genius, [but] also a wise human being whose answers to serious questions made sense,” understood this view of intellect. He related the following:

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

At first blush it’s a grounded rebuff of artistic fancy by a levelheaded scientist. Not really, though. Implicit is the appreciation of artistic sentiment, that the flower is beautiful not only as a source of knowledge, a specimen to be dissected, but as a mystery, something that exists beyond us that we are allowed to see. And in the end, what is the point of science’s analytical microscope? To bring one to a greater appreciation of the ineffable. The scientist need not dictate terms to reality; on the contrary, through his discoveries, he allows reality to blow his mind. With his peerless grasp of the workings of the body, he touches the exaltation of the spirit. In the words of R’ Saadiah Gaon, the goal of knowledge is to know that He cannot be known.

No bones about it.

Featured Image of Anisopodidae in Amber By EvaK (EvaK) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons