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?”

Norm, the Redeemer

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

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

Consider this instead:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verily, from Norm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Mystic Generation

Every year, Reb Shlomo ‘the Yellow’, the melamed of Nevel, would walk to Lubavitch to spend the Simchat Torah festival with his rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer. Even in his later years when his strength had failed him, he refused to climb onto a wagon for even a minute; every step of the way was taken on his own two feet. “In my Lubavitch,” Reb Shlomo maintained, “no horse will take part.”

ONCE UPON A CHASSID, compiled by Rabbi Yanki Tauber

 

Everyone who tries to learn Torah with a young person today must answer the question, “What do you get a Jew who has everything?”

It was not always so. The Alter Rebbe, a young genius, felt he did not know how to pray, and so exiled himself to Mezritch and discovered Chassidus. He, in turn, wrote the Tanya, as he describes in his introduction, to take the place of his private meetings with an endless stream of supplicants and seekers.

Implicit in this introduction is the non-polemical nature of the Tanya. That is, we already know, before chapter one, that the Tanya will not be working to convince us of anything. It is a work for those looking for guidance. The Rebbe is here to help if you come knocking at his door. If you are a stubborn non-believer or do not know whether it is G-d you want, you are not yet really asking the questions which Tanya answers. This, in turn, leads us to wonder: If the visitor to the Rebbe has not yet learned from the Rebbe, what brings him to come at all?

If we follow the old philosophical rule that motion fulfills a potential of the one that moves, we may assume that the Alter Rebbe’s supplicants sought him out because they lacked. The Alter Rebbe lacked, and so sought out the Maggid; the Maggid lacked, and so sought out the Baal Shem Tov.

It starts with learning. Through one’s self-awareness, one discovers how much more there is to know. One does one’s best, applies consistent effort, and realizes that one is somehow…insufficient. A teacher is needed, for one’s wisdom, for one’s soul, for something that is missing.

But if there is no initial learning, or that learning does not lead to questions, or those questions cannot be seen as arising from one’s very soul, what, then, brings a Jew to search ever deeper in the Torah? If one perceives oneself as lacking nothing, does one ever end up at the Rebbe’s door?

In the Rebbe’s last published discourse, the famous v’Atah Tetzaveh, he describes a generation full of blessings, a synthesis of the authentic lived experience of G-d and the explosive soul expression at the time of His concealment. The generation of blessing is not compelled by outside forces to worship G-d; they live in peace and plenty. The generation of blessing does not serve G-d because it sees Him, either; they have no deep understanding to render them dissatisfied with worldly existence.

Our generation of blessing, in particular, is relatively serene, and happy, and whole in its own eyes. What trouble us, especially the younger Jews reaching adulthood today, are primarily practical concerns free of any existential overtones. Even the desire to learn more Torah (for those who possess it) stems from curiosity or duty and no deep-seated want of the soul.

And yet, somehow it still works. Somehow, they keep coming to Torah, to Tzadikkim, and to G-d. They are moved, as the Rebbe says, not by circumstance internal or external, not by the yawning insufficiency of their own understanding, nor by external circumstance holding them powerless in its fist, but by their very being, by the self uniting both internal and external experience. The soul itself, the soul beyond experience, the soul even beyond death, desires G-d. It deserves Him more than it desires the experience of Him; it desires Him equally in poverty and in wealth, when it is threatened and when it is at peace. The soul does not need to feel deficient to desire G-d, but wants Him even when it lacks nothing, by its nature, because it was chosen.

Thus, we find thousands of strange creatures in our world, those who return daily to their Judaism for no reason at all. They did not choose Judaism in their wisdom; they did not seek out the depths of Torah because of any perceived deficit or shortcoming in themselves. They sought it out for no reason at all. It is a fact, yesh m’ayin, like every person in their life, like the moon.

Our generation of blessing, says the Rebbe, is a generation of mystics. Do not, when you look at their feeble minds, or small deeds, or hearts dulled by easy living, think that they are lowly. It is by these very traits that a Jew can today seek G-d without the help of horse, tragedy, or question. Our generation seeks G-d because they are Jews and He is G-d. Nothing else is needed.

Why, then, do so many well-intentioned Rabbis today, trying to shake a generation of mystics from their perceived complacency, seek to sell Judaism as the answer to questions? True, Torah is a book of instruction; true, Judaism is the deepest rationality. But to place the questions first is, in our generation, the wrong order. A “rational Judaism” assumes questions are important, that things like logic or consistency bother a soul, and that Judaism best resolves these matters in the final reckoning. But why should logic and consistency bother a soul? This is the question that every twenty-year-old in every Torah class in 2018 asks. It is the question behind many of his questions. Why should anyone set aside the broad freedoms of unbridled will or self-satisfaction for the agonizing limits of reason?

We are not rational people; we have no training in reason. Reason died long before we were born, and its death was mistaken for the death of G-d.

But do not mistake our lack of reason for a deficiency, for a problem in need of solving.

Rather, our generation, irrational, wanting for nothing, does not need questions to bring them to the Rebbe’s door. Go out and teach them Tanya, says the Rebbe, and the Jew who has everything will remember who he is, come of his own accord.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Why the Rebbe Stayed in America

The Lubavitcher Rebbe is a prophet.

Time and again we ask him, respectful and pleading, “Why won’t you visit Israel? Why won’t you move to Israel? How can a leader of world Jewry avoid the Holy Land?”

Then the Rebbe’s response. He smiles, reminds us of the laws that would not permit his return if ever he goes, and speaks of his responsibility to the Jewish community here, here in the diaspora, here in America, here in New York.

We do not fully understand these answers. We accept them, or we don’t, and we leave blessed. Prophets are too rarely understood in their time, and make no mistake: The Rebbe is a prophet.

G-d does not send such men for the comprehension of the masses. To fully understand a prophet is to be a prophet. The world has yet to plumb the mourning of Yirmiyahu or scale the heights of Yeshaya’s futures. No, G-d Almighty sends prophets with instructions. The Rebbe is a prophet, and by the thousands we do as he says.

Across the land we proliferate, the Rebbe’s words clutched like gems in our chapped palms. “America is no different,” opalescent, pure, hard as sharpened diamond. “Words from the heart enter the heart,” a blood-red ruby. “Share the Mitzvot out of love,” a glittering sapphire of ten facets.

Ever faster, word begins to travel. The message operates outside conventional frameworks. We threw clumsier Judaisms, laden with baggage and ablaze with connotations, into the New York harbor. Yet the family wagons and their small, harmless gems seem to slip through, because they refuse to say Judaism is more than it is. “Light this Shabbos Candle. It is Judaism. You are a Jew.” There is nothing else. They do not explain. They are emissaries of a prophet, and there are no explanations.

Always, the Rebbe is here. Here in the diaspora, here in America, here in New York. His very person is an endless source of Judaism, and from across the country and the world, they come to see him, those who light the candles and find it has changed them. Many are members of Reform synagogues, of JCC gyms, or of nothing. They define Judaism ethically, or socially, or they don’t define it at all. It does not matter. There is a prophet in New York, and so they come.

The Jews return to Passaic, Peoria, and Pasadena with gems of their own, souls awake. Many of them devote their lives to the Rebbe’s mission. The ranks begin to swell until people are fighting each other for the right to spread the message. Wherever there are Jews, the Rebbe’s shluchim are there with Judaism, giving it over the only way possible, with love, soul to soul, one on one.

It is not exciting. Soul-to-soul-one-at-a-time is not the stuff history books are made of. Israel, a bona fide biblical miracle, somehow lands in the 20th century and becomes the heart of world Jewry, the theme of our modern story. It represents redemption from the holocaust, salvation from the nations. It is imperiled, courageous, and, some say, the beginning of the Messianic Age. It is, in short, where things are happening. The prophet sends emissaries to her, meets with her politicians and generals, fiercely defends her people. But he does not go to her.

We do not understand the prophet, because we cannot see what he sees. There is a future in which the center cannot hold and world Jewry is in danger of splitting in two. There is a future in which millions of Jews stand in danger of being unable to live with a Judaism millions of others consider essential, of declaring their fate separate from the Jewish people and disappearing into history.

The Jews of the land, focused by unifying threats and the weight of history, will, with the help of G-d, carry Judaism forward. The land of Israel is entwined with Judaism, and that will not be soon forgotten.

But the Jews here in the diaspora, here in America, here in New York, must somehow find hope. Despite America’s Jewish leadership, despite the nature of the land to lend Judaism fragile, compromised definitions, there must never be a split in our people. It must never come to pass that a preponderance of American Jews defines Judaism such that they must choose between their religion and the lives of Jews in Israel.

The predictions of 2018, that the rift between the State of Israel and American Jewry will soon be unbridgeable, must not come true. It must be known from sea to shining sea that the Yiddishkeit of Israel, with its story and manifestations, and the Yiddishkeit of America, are two sides of the same coin, two versions of one thing.

So: Past the border guards, under the radar, sneaks a robust, flexible Judaism. Tied to no politics or country, bound up only with immutable soul, eternal commandment, and Almighty G-d, this iteration of Judaism is the common denominator, the core curriculum of all Jews. It is the thirteenth gate, that which is essential and simple, and no prime minister or army or worldly faction can validate or invalidate it.

The prophet gave it most personally to the Americans. It is the light that will drive away the specter of schism some will foresee in 2018, in the unimaginable case that the Moshiach has not come by then.

 

Image: The Previous Rebbe (seated) takes the oath of US citizenship, 1949. His son-in-law and future successor, the Rebbe, watches on the right.

 

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.

Richer than Donald Trump

Surely, there are benefits to a Trump presidency for any conservative. That regulations have been reduced, taxes cut, and a Conservative justice installed to the Supreme Court are all boons to the United States. However, many of us have always seen the degradation of character and, thereby, of reasoned political discourse on a national scale, as the primary cost of Mr. Trump’s presidency. This is a cost we continue to pay in fresh, unpredicted forms on a near-daily basis.

Who, after all, could have predicted that in 2018 Conservatives would be bowing to money?

It’s not that they are directly bribed, exactly. Rather, many have come to value a certain businessman over those who make meaningful sacrifices for the country. This is not even a dichotomy between wealth and principle. It is, in fact, merely an abandonment of a principled definition of wealth. There are many ways to measure how rich a man is. Many conservatives have now settled for the lowest.

Consider: President Trump has billion(s) of dollars, but what has he ever given to our society?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a progressive. I don’t despise the rich. I appreciate a businessman, a capitalist even, who invests in projects and provides goods, services, and jobs to the population. When the whale’s money goes into the bank or the stock market, this is to the benefit of thousands and millions of small fish, who can then take loans and make their smaller trades. In all of this, Mr. Trump has undoubtedly participated.

However, it is surely unfair to compare the largely self-interested machinations of the invisible hands to the sacrifices of time, autonomy, health, and sometimes life that the immigrants in our armed forces make for the American way of life.

Strangely, if one were to look not at the ledger of income or assets, but, as we are encouraged by Judaism, at what one has given away, those who should punch at a level far lower than Donald Trump have shown themselves to be far wealthier.

3% of all US veterans are foreign-born. Many Haitians and Africans, those immigrants the President doesn’t want, serve as firefighters and soldiers, policemen and airmen. They put themselves in physical danger and give years of their lives to the public service; they do not, in return, get to eat American fast food or to watch all the channels they do in the white house. They do not claim to have bone spurs. They do not discourse upon their own personal Iraqs, Afghanistans, or apartment fires.

In return, many soi-disant conservatives respect men such as Sheriff Clarke, who cover themselves in hardware for cable television, over the experience of actual Americans who happen to be African immigrants who really serve in the military.

What is happening to us? Why are believable expressions of sacrificial devotion lower in our eyes than the words of those who constantly claim them for political points?

It seems that under the Party’s new reorganization of priorities, some have decided the forms of wealth that matter are those light up the sky of even the dim inner world of the classroom bully in their passing. Mr. Trump is brilliant because he is wealthy, and he is wealthy because he, like, has a lot of money. Money is intellect is power is worth.

Such is the philosophy of people who, while constantly venerating military service, turn from the sacrifices of their fellows to judge all immigrants the way the King commands.

It is no escape, either, to claim that one respects no-one, holds no men in high regard, and is simply acting pragmatically on economic policy. For people who respect no one, those who resort to this retreat into cynicism always seem to be defending the President. They wield their lack of admiration for people who deserve it without the knowledge that it is a double-edged sword (who can respect a man who respects no men?). Finally, they continue to attribute meaningful distinctions to the President that Mr. Trump almost never makes himself, speaking as he does on immigrants as much as he is about the countries from which they happen to hail.

Mr. Trump builds hotels on multiple continents. Who, however, decided this is true wealth? It is, perhaps, purchasing power. In contrast, the Mishna says he is wealthy who is satisfied with his portion. A different chapter solemnly reminds us that more possessions lead to more worries. Rabbeinu Bahya writes on the ten ways in which one who trusts G-d is better-off than an alchemist who can transform dross into gold. Man’s power is exhausted trying to defend his wealth from thieves, and the more money he has, the more his exhaustion grows.

If we are to respect a man for his wealth, why must we conflate it with the material evaluation of his earnings or possessions?

Few speak, in the political context, of the ways in which wealth is a good only in combination with the intelligence to dispose of it wisely and the character to not be tempted by those purchases or investments that would turn those riches into a great burden. Few speak, in politics, of the way mismanaged or dishonest wealth can lead to one’s destruction.

Too few speak about the worth of an immigrant’s life given for this country.

Too few weigh it against all the gilded walls of the Mar-a-Lago and ask themselves whom they respect, or why.

There Is Only One Side

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

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

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

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

Why is a Nazi evil?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pox On Both Your Googleplexes

In the beginning, God created humankind with a mind to perceive the truth of the world and a soul that yearned to transcend that world and achieve love and unity beyond the bounds of reason.

These two goals are opposite goals.

The mind, by nature, affirms the existence of the world. The mind’s career is supported by perceiving the nature of things; things that do not exist do not have a nature. The mind is obsessed with what is.

The soul, by nature, denies the existence of the world. The soul is not interested in the nature of things but can find its way home to itself, to God, and to all mankind the way a bird finds the North after a long and bitter winter. The soul is obsessed with what can be, and what can be is the enemy of what is.

Of course, if a human being has competing impulses and competing purposes — and these are only the highest and most noble of our purposes. Most of the time we’re distracted by far lower ones — then there must be a higher human system to regulate and balance them. And if that higher system was to dissolve, the human being would spin apart.

Dear reader, I submit to you that one of the purposes of religion is to regulate the nature of the mind and the desire of the soul, so that they do not pull a human being apart.

I further submit to you that religion is perceived to be in the dumps right now and no one likes it, anyway.

And so, we have the fight between Google Guy and the Forces of Social Justice. And in this fight, I wish both sides success.

Take the FoSJ. This is a group of people, nay, an ideology, becoming ever-more famous for only trusting the mind as far as they can bend it. The sharing or discussion of fact, scientific or otherwise, is discouraged in face of the truest and deepest: some people are more oppressed than others, and now they deserve control.

They seem to deny that a claim, such as “there are biological differences between the sexes,” is even theoretically open to understanding or debate by all healthy adult human beings. They are not at all interested in what is, in the shared reality in which we all participate. All such preoccupations are chaff sent up by the forces of oppression to unlock our focus from what could be, that is, a world in which there is true equity for all.

Of course, in order to measure that equity in a way agreeable to all, the FoSJ must revert to reason and the mind, since reason and the mind are precisely the only means we have of meeting in some sort of objective, you know, world. But this itself is my point — no functioning human being can deny the mind indefinitely. It’s much easier to compel her with selective focus and force of conviction than to get rid of her. This is how one arrives at individuals who can purge heretics from their ranks for not believing that one’s access to the truth is determined by one’s sex, gender, skin color, orientation, etc.

I must reemphasize that I think the FoSJ ultimately come from a good place, though they are lost. They are the latest in a long tradition that seeks to break free from the chains of the human intellect in search of a better life uncompelled by worldly limitation. In this sense, they are utopian (and use science and philosophy as a rationalization for their utopianism, a trick in vogue since Marx). And the utopian stirring of the human soul, the longing, in some sense, for a messiah or a messianic age, has historically been balanced in a religious context.

That is not to say that actual religious messianic yearnings are even-tempered. On the contrary, they have historically led to disaster, in Judaism as well as in other religions. However, inasmuch as every human being has a deep desire to live without rules, and in most human beings this manifests as a longing for a more perfect world, it is remarkably rare that this desire has, in the history of world religion, led to violent or destructive messianic cult. Indeed, it is quite possible that the ability to regulate this impulse has lent longevity to some of the oldest and largest of our faiths.

The way religion regulates the utopian or transcendent impulse within man is through redirecting it toward the world as it is, right in front of us. God (or the realm of spirit, or the higher reality, or whatever) does not keep the imperfect physical world around for no reason; it somehow fits into the plan. The world is not a lie in the sense of something abhorrent to be burned down or ignored or fled, but rather a lie in the sense of something incorrect to be confronted, loved, hated, understood, fixed.

This willingness to engage the imperfect is an earmark of a system of thought that values the truth beyond mere success. If the transcendent messianic impulses of the soul are forced to confront some form of tradition, some logical calculus, or even a mere creation narrative, those impulses cannot maintain their own satisfaction as their end. The utopian vision must explain itself in terms of the past, as an outgrowth of it; the perfect world must “fit” the imperfect one as the conclusion of the plot must fit the rest of the novel. The desire to “burn it all down” or “leave it all behind” must explain why, if it’s worth all burning down, it’s there in the first place, why its apparent qualities are purely evil, why its joys are lies. It must, in short, explain something. And that means the mind has tied it down.

Of course, if there is no agreed-upon tradition, logical calculus, or creation narrative, things become dicier. People reach for some means to constrain the transformative, power-seeking forces of utopia, some shared reality with which to bind them, and in 2017 they land on, of all things, biology and evolutionary psychology.

I feel for Google Guy. The FoSJ are quite powerful in mid-2017, and they have little mercy nor patience for dissenting opinion. I would not want the witch hunt to come after me, and since it was inevitable, I suppose it took some sort of courage to publish his memo.

On the other hand, Google Guy is at least as wrong as the FoSJ, though for opposite reasons. I don’t blame him personally; like them, he is a product of his times; like them, he is one half of an old dialectic, continuing to clash and hash itself out.

Google Guy, of course, represents the mind in the current contretemps, and the mind is just as central to the human reality as the transcendent yearnings of the soul. Whereas the latter seeks to escape reality and its governing principles to achieve perfection, the former is by nature attuned to reality and its governing principles. The mind’s entire purpose is to see what fits and what does not. When someone tells Google Guy that there are no non-social differences between men and women (because that’s what we deeply wish were so) he raises both eyebrows (because he has studied the matter, and no).

He then begins putting together charts and diagrams and weaves the words of science!

But science is not synonymous with the mind, not really. Just as the FoSJ express the deepest yearnings of the human spirit unmoored from any system or past to guide them, so does the Ev. Psych. expert adhere to the principles of logic and intellect undirected toward any higher or transcendent end.

I speak not only of performing science for the sake of science, not only of the continued insistence of scientists that teleology does not exist, but most pertinently of the absolute refusal to consider human beings as more than purely physical, the way a rock is physical.

In 2017, some scientists are barely willing to countenance that there is perhaps more to a man than there is to a mollusk. And when they do countenance it, the difference is explained in purely evolutionary, and therefore material, terms. This is the role of Evolutionary Psychology, the study of how to excuse the meaningful, purposive, mental, and spiritual in terms of the material. It is a realm of knowledge geared toward It is a field born of a fierce faith that putting stuff together can somehow create a private subjective mind and that this then-nonexistent subjective consciousness was selected for survival purposes.

Whether or not this faith is justified, evolutionary psychology now plays the role of marriage counselor, trying to reconcile our biological knowledge with the obviously spiritual nature of our experience, which has been estranged from modern science since modern science was invented. It purports to achieve this unity by explaining how the spiritual nature of our experience is purely biological. Of course, the real trick lies in explaining how explaining itself can be purely biological, and it is again an article of faith that one day neuroscience will do just that.

If this sounds vaguely messianic, that’s because it is. Just as, ironically, the FoSJ must at least superficially kowtow to the mind to argue for their anti-intellectual position, so must the scientists contradict themselves by using their inexplicable subjective private experience to argue that such things are mere “emergent phenomena” of neurons or the like. And just as the FoSJ wave away any actual reason that might slow down their quest for utopia, so do social scientists refuse to acknowledge that human beings exist and will always exist beyond the grasp of quantifiable theories.

Traditionally, religion regulates the tendencies of the human mind to categorize, quantify, and understand. Though approaches to God are usually characterized by rules, a defined path, or a limited way, ultimately the human being exists beyond any of these constraints (thereby allowing for repentance, further growth, and forgiveness in the pursuit of said way).

But when the mind is not regulated by an appreciation for the limitations of rules or analysis, the human being, as a unique creation with infinite individual worth, is ultimately lost in favor of making things fit. And the dystopian potential of ideologies that makes people fit need no further elaboration.

Though Google Guy himself may not call for anything of the sort, the social and scientific analysis of human beings without constraint inevitably leads to things like valuing people for their IQ or market value, tendencies already present in the hyper-quantified world of Silicon Valley and spreading to other areas of our society.

The FoSJ and Google Guy are not really so different from one another, in the end. They are half-responses to the deficiencies of each other’s position, deficiencies that developed with the death of an overarching and unifying understanding of the human condition. The FoSJ see what a world ruled purely by “reason” with no room for the transcendent human being looks like, and are horrified. Google Guy sees what world ruled without any reason looks like, and is horrified. And they respond to each other with the opposite extremes, with syntheses that do not truly acknowledge at a fundamental level the existence of the opposite point.

But it does not have to be this way.

Rather than trying to synthesize the broken pieces of the enlightenment project, we could tap into ancient springs and revive ourselves with the old wisdom. For if we turn to the old understanding of God and man and their relationship with one another, we will find that the mind necessitates the transcend human spirit, and that the spirit exists only for the purpose of the mind, and that these two things are really one thing, a complete human being, who exists for unifying purposes.

Or we could continue to argue politics.

It is becoming increasingly common that politics in the United States is split along new lines that leave no good choices to a conservative, traditionalist, or adherent to an Abrahamic religion. I am speaking not only (I say, as the excitement of the same old battle rises within us) of the 2016 election, with its famously bad candidates, but also of the underlying culture war of which that election was in many ways symptomatic.

The culture war is itself no longer a fight about which principles ought to limit the pursuit of political power, but rather simply a struggle for power between two sides that share no common reality. There barely remains in our discourse any philosophical framework in which to argue.

Ultimately, these sides have spun away from each other with the weakening of any overarching system that can find a balance between our analytical minds and our transcendent, dreaming souls.

If our only options are an abandonment of all reason or subjugating ourselves to the dictates of biology and evolutionary psychology, I choose neither. Until we can find something that splits the difference, a pox on both your houses.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

My Question For The Modern American Jew

These are hard times we live in. The West fights the East, and no one knows who will triumph.

On the one hand, the West. The West brings freedom to the world. The West is the civilization of philosophy and science, of democracy and tolerance. They fight because the world is benighted, enslaved, and backward. They are confident that if the world but knew the way of the West, it would benefit thousands of lives. They fight not to spread their territory but to spread their culture. This is why, when a sports stadium opens in distant lands, it warms the Western heart. Not because sports are important, but because if there’s time for sport there is little time for oppression and backwardness.

Then, there is the East. The East tires of hearing it is backward. The East is a place of unity — some would say, totalitarianism. They have one god, and  there is no room for others. And where the West would see moral weakness, they see fortitude. In the East, they know what they believe; they are who they are. There is nothing to debate. They fight for their G-d, for His kingdom on earth. They want to tear down the stadiums and build worship houses. Where there is an altar to G-d, they are certain, there is civilization.

In the West, there is no doubt that the West will prevail. This is not just because the West believes it is correct, but because they have a far superior army and better technology of war, and are not afraid of a small band of sand-encrusted hoodlums. The only reason they have not crushed the East like an insect is because they prefer to spread democracy and prevent unnecessary deaths.

In the East, for those who fight, there is no doubt the East will win. They may have the smaller army, but they have conviction, and they know they have G-d on their side. And after all, if the Creator fights with you, then of what relevance is technology or the size of your host? Just as the West can be trusted to look at the facts of the situation, the East can be trusted to look for some Truth beyond the situation.

To the West, there is no greater evil than intolerance. “You can serve your G-d in the West,” they insist. “But others can serve theirs.” It is not G-d that they take issue with, but rather theocracy, totalitarian religion, the idea that the deity is an absolute that cannot be crossed, argued with, mocked, disobeyed. In the West, the rights of man are absolute, and if G-d says to violate those rights, it is G-d who must lose.

To the East, tolerance is an affront to the truth. “We allow life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” they say. “But the way G-d, creator of the world, intended.” They have no problem with secular pursuits. But they will not deify this world; they will not let men act as G-d and declare what is ultimately right. The master must be served, and if that means the worship of other gods need be outlawed, so be it.

The Western battle cry is, “Liberty and justice for all.”

The Eastern battle cry is, “In the name of G-d.”

Both East and West claim to deplore violence. Both of them will use it to further their ideals. But due to their ideals, they see violence differently.

When the West slaughters pigs on an Eastern altar, when it exercises freedom of speech and mocks the Eastern G-d, they call it peaceful. To the East, it deserves violence in kind.

When the East responds to words with violence, they believe they are legitimately defending their honor. To the West, this is the baldest savagery.

This is the conflict. There may be some third option, some middle path, but it is hard to see. East and West are East and West because there is no easy compromise.

And so, the question:

If the East miraculously wins the war, and returns home tired and bloodied, will they find hiding in the wreckage a small cruze of untainted oil? Will its light burn for eight days? Will they remember, every year, to celebrate?

Will their children and grandchildren honor their legacy forever? Will they find their voice?

If they won’t, the light unto the nations will dim, lost to the Western cacophony. Their people will be an interesting footnote in history, and their grandchildren will remember the name “Maccabi” as a Hellenistic sports tournament.

But if they find their voice, if they own who they are, they will fulfill their destiny.

If they listen to the message of the Chanukah candles, darkness will be banished from the earth.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

The Mission Continues

We danced this week in the synagogues and in the streets. In Oregon and in Jerusalem we pulled aside pretty veils and dug into our boxes and took out our scrolls cloaked in majesty. Between the Jordan and the Pacific we danced our dance ’round the bimah, waging peace, raging joy.

We danced in Oregon, with its evergreen trees and ever-kind people. Just a few days ago, someone stepped over a bitter edge. He sought to make himself known to an indifferent universe. He acted. And now we sit, once again in shock, once again searching for reasons. But I think the truth is simpler. He had no reason. He believed in the mounting voices that we all sometimes hear, the ones that say that life is a spray thrown up by the crash of static waves on a chaotic shore, that we are small in a vast universe and that our actions mean nothing and so, if you’re angry, go shooting…

Thus, we dance. We dance, hoping to drum into the floor and shake into the air just a few words of the holy book. Simcha heals Umpqua. In the bullet-sliced atmosphere now rings melody, which is structure, which is purpose. We will suture these wounds. We will sew G-d and Oregon and ourselves back into one, by the power of the souls that burn in our chests and the mantled words of the holy tongue that dance their furious circles.

We also danced in our precious, proud, Israel, where the parents slain before their children were only the beginning. This week, we clutched the royal scrolls we’ve carried through fire and death. They are brothers to the ruined parchments at Yad Vashem, sisters to the letters of G-d’s name lost to the flames or covered in filth in our long exile. We danced with wrath; we exalted in sorrow. We danced on ground soaked in Jewish blood and Jewish tears.

We danced to disturb our cousins’ complacency. They pull triggers and come with knives, and if the world isn’t silent, the world refuses to face the obvious. The attacks are the products of a society oversaturated with meaning, where the human spirit is subjugated to cruel law and cold religion, where blood is cheap but prayer is valuable. They are so entangled in their way of thought they cannot hear the cries of children, neither ours nor theirs. They are so full of purpose that their actions are senseless.

And so, we dance, and we cry, and as we wind around in coils, we unravel the hold of evil ideas over our cousins’ hearts. We drill the Torah into the earth, a declaration and a hope.

We dance the world over. We dance because we are still here, because the mission continues, and just as we preserve it, it preserves us. We dance because a Jewish soul in a Jewish body for one more moment is a victory for G-d. We dance because the world needs us to. We dance because our job is not yet over, and we will dance when it is finished. We press on with full hearts and the truth in our hands, and though this sad, imperfect world may not know it yet, we won before we entered this exile, before a Hebrew sandal imprinted itself on the bed of the Sea of Reeds, before Abraham smashed his father’s idols, before Adam named the lion.

Our dance is with Him and Him alone, and when we meet Him next, we will present a gift, a green and blue marble, balanced and at peace, and we will study the war no more.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.