On Cynical Chassidim

An argumentative tactic that has become a religion in our time is the reduction-to-lowest-quality. You may have heard it used to compare human beings to animals and find no difference, or Israel to Nazi Germany. The trick is not merely to focus on common denominators, which is the basis of probably all rational thought. It is to decontextualize the common denominators, to approach them as if they only lend context rather than absorb it and transform.

Take the example of man as nothing but an animal. Trivially, this is a self-refuting statement. No other animal has ever thought this about their own species; merely by considering ourselves abstractly and expressing this single consideration we pull away from all our neighbors. The reductionist knows this, and it doesn’t matter, because he decontextualizes common denominators. A chimp defecates and human beings defecate; a chimp fights over a mate and so does a man; these common denominators are meant to be determinate.* It is never that the human being’s waste disposal is different because he is able to think about it abstractly. It’s never, “Modern plumbing and meaningful ritual have elevated and transformed this common denominator so profoundly that it’s actually incomparable.” It’s always, “Modern plumbing and meaningful ritual must themselves be an iteration of something chimps do, because look, we defecate!” The common denominator is taken (on faith) to inform the difference and render it irrelevant, rather than vice versa.

This absurd devotion to the lowest in things is different from what we might call mere dispositional cynicism, that wariness attaching itself to mugging victims. These latter pessimists can easily repent, as their fear is conditional and grounded in rational reason. Reductionism, on the other hand, is a deep a priori commitment less easily repaired. The dispositional cynic is afraid of being hurt, so protects himself with distrust. The reductionist is afraid of not understanding so protects himself with willing ignorance. A regular cynic meets you without relying on you. The reductionist refuses to meet you. He fears not things being evil or detrimental, but simply things being things.

In fact, dispositional cynicism could be called a form of realism, for it is merely a certain way of reacting to negativity. A cynic, in fact, would usually argue that the non-cynic has a tendency to be reductionist toward the highest quality, leaving out parts of reality as much as his lowness-obsessed counterpart.

This explains how you can sometimes meet cynical Chassidim. Chassidus is meant to focus on and reveal the G-dliness within each person and experience, and so, in theory, the more one aligns with Chassidus the less cynical one becomes. This may be true, but not necessarily. There are some forms of dispositional cynicism that may be healthy on the Chassidic view. A Baal Teshuva, a penitent who was burned by his past mistakes may sometimes benefit from distrust and wariness toward his own inclination to evil. It does no good to overestimate our own achievement, either, to view our shortcomings as acceptable in light of mitigating factors. Nor are we to be anybody’s fool—Chassidim are meant to be clever. Perhaps, then, there is room for a Chassidic cynic by disposition. But where Chassidus is utterly transformational is in the area of the lowest-common-denominator reductionist.

Every year around this time we have an opportunity to contemplate the Chassidic rejection of reductionism because the daily Tanya has reached the fourth section, the lengthy and formidable Iggeres HaKodesh, consisting of the Alter Rebbe’s letters. These challenge the reductionist every day because so many of them are fundraising e-mails.

At least, that’s what a cynical reductionist might call them. It is vital to note that it doesn’t matter to reductionists how holy and great the Alter Rebbe is; that’s what makes them reductionists. No matter how much G-dly insight, Kabbalah, or deep moral teaching permeates every word of the Tanya Kadisha and it saintly author, the letters are in the context of soliciting money and the author wears a shirt, and that determines. You can dress it up real nice, they argue, but ultimately the Rebbe is climbing up the greasy pole, as Disraeli called it, as much as any telemarketer or politician. For a good cause, perhaps, but the action is the action.

It is the inner fire of Chassidus that burns at this conception with its every word. The Iggeres HaKodesh is, if nothing else, the utter redemption of fundraising e-mails. It teaches us, among many other things, that all greasy poles are created ex nihilo as an expression of an infinite and radically independent G-d, that worldly realities are mere vessels for a divine will, that these vessels are inert and unable to contextualize, that no human being or force of nature can shift one inch the decrees of the True Judge. It is the power of charity not merely to balance our lowest nature but to reverse it, because everything at its root is divine, not by additional context but by its essential being. “Lower” and “higher” are themselves mere means to a G-dly end, and without G-d, nothing can be a whole picture. No common denominator is so low as to escape its own nullification before G-d. What is a pragmatic concern then? How could fundraising ever outrun the G-dly root of its own being?

The Alter Rebbe fears no lowliness, not even enough to need to deny its lowliness. Pragmatic concerns are just as G-dly as the theology of Shaar haYichud v’ha’Emunah; perhaps more so. Everything, exactly as it is, shines the light of G-d. Do not despair.


*Evolution as presented is not merely that man’s origin as a species lie in animals, but that these common denominators are deeper and truer in him than what makes him a man, not unlike how hydrogen and oxygen are presented as deeper and truer to water than water’s own properties. These reductions ought always to be questioned.

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.

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?”

Does the Torah Say The World Is An Illusion?

Of Witchcraft, Cucumbers, and Reason

Every year, around my birthday, I think about whether the world is an illusion. A classic rookie mistake in the study of Chassidus and Kabbalah (egged on by the mysterious rejoinders of those who teach rookie Chassidus and Kabbalah) is the immediate and total negation of the universe’s existence—everything is G-dliness, G-dliness is everything, and if nothing seems to have received this news, that’s just the illusion, baby.

Chassidus is not a conspiracy theory, however, and there is no Shadowy One merely manipulating your perceptions, for, if your perceptions aren’t real, why should He bother with them? and if they are, then they could hardly be called “deceived.”

Deeper: Chassidus (the Chabad version, anyway) is all about G-dliness penetrating every level of the soul on its own terms, and the key to the human soul and self, what Aristotle called the rational animal, is through its mind.

Now, the mind can and does accept that some things it perceives are merely illusory. However, there is a point—we know, because we’ve crossed it—beyond which calling everything an illusion leads one to reject the mind wholesale. If we live in a mere dream theater, if we are a brain in a vat or within the Matrix, our reports of the outside world falsified, then our minds become disconnected from our environment and to think the mind embraces the truth and becomes one with it (as described, e.g., in Chapter 5 of Tanya) is untenable. Any truth could be manufactured, any unity mere self-indulgence. My mind would ultimately not be a dwelling place for G-d in metaphysical actuality, but a dwelling-place for imaginings that pass the threshold of truth-perception, so I call them true.

In other words, for Chassidus to work, our minds must be able to actually be vessels for an outside reality, must actually cross the gap and connect. There must be a difference between imagining and knowing, “And Adam knew Eve.”

Like all knowledge, our knowledge of G-d is not self-sufficient but is founded on faith and propagates through a faith-medium. Faith, like knowledge, crosses the gap and connects, but, critically, it does not connect in a piecemeal, finite fashion subject to analysis. In truth, all knowledge is really a combination of faith and knowledge, with neither one reducible to the other.

There is no rational answer to total skepticism (“How do you know the direct apperception of the Divine at Mount Sinai wasn’t a demon’s trick?”). There must first be faith, a non-negotiable, inexplicable connection between self and other not subject to analysis. Rationality begins when the supra-rational has taken root, and then every step of rational reason (“Since G-d spoke at Mount Sinai, we have an obligation not to wear wool and linen”) is caused not merely by its rational antecedent but by that initial and pervading faith. Once faith is in place, the void held at bay, our understanding must proceed on its own terms,* rather than contradicting its own efficacy by calling itself an illusion.

In short, knowledge cannot be allowed to reduce to faith or illusion. If knowledge reduces to faith, e.g. by saying every step of the reasoning process is an a priori direct soul connection rather than the work of systematized logic, then there really is no such thing as knowledge apart from the faith which founds it. Similarly, if knowledge reduces to illusion, then our knowledge comes to reject the faith that is its own necessary precondition, and neither total skepticism nor “living with contradictions” could be called knowledge, for in neither case is the mind a vessel for what’s beyond it. With only faith, one may have G-d, but one does not have G-d on one’s own finite terms, does not have G-d authentically as a rational animal. Without faith, one has nothing but oneself.

But how do we get from faith to knowledge? How do we know that the G-d we have accepted from Mount Sinai does not want us to reject the workings of reason? Perhaps the first tenet of faith is, “trust nothing is real except what I tell you”?

Indeed: G-d has told us that just as He is real, there is at least some reality to the universe. This is why G-d created such a thing as a rational mind. He has made knowledge, and a world of composite, non-infinite things for knowledge to know, and sanctify, in that order.

Where does G-d tell us this?

One old standby is that it’s in the first verse of the Torah. In the beginning G-d created, after all. G-d Himself tells us that he did something, and His Torah never departs from the straightforward meaning. On the other hand, perhaps “creation” (ex nihilo, Nachmanides would urge us to append) merely means “the generation of that which is illusory.”

So, the Rebbe Rashab memorably uses** this instead:

The Mishna (Sanhedrin 7:11) states that a sorcerer is liable for the death penalty under Jewish law, but only for an act of sorcery. If he merely creates the appearance of sorcery, he is exempt. R’Akiva tenders an example: If two known sorcerers are gathering cucumbers, but the first actually gathers them with witchcraft, whereas the second merely creates the illusion of having gathered them with witchcraft, the first is liable and the second is not.

If, asks the Rebbe, the world is merely an illusion, how could the first sorcerer be liable? They, too, have done nothing but manipulate perception!

This argument clearly has an advantage over the first verse of the Torah, establishing that what, to Torah, counts as an illusion is distinct from the reality of our physical world. We cannot merely call creation an illusion, for cucumbers actually moving is different from cucumbers only appearing to move.

Of course, it is still possible to draw arbitrary distinctions, to the effect of “gathering cucumbers” is part of a more regular, consistent, accepted illusion called (for brevity) “reality,” whereas “appearing to gather cucumbers” is an illusion within the illusion, a break from our usual perception, and this is the source of the different judgments for these sorcerers.

There are problems with this evaluation of the Mishna, however. The Torah need not have framed the matter as actual vs. illusion (lit. “performing an action” vs. “fooling the eyes”). If the law wanted merely to issue a practical ruling it could say: “if you discover the cucumbers to be ungathered after the sorcerer’s apparent gathering, the sorcerer is not liable.” Since the Mishna instead tells us to assess whether it was mere illusion, it seems to adopt a definite metaphysical position that the first sorcerer’s action was not an illusion.

Secondly, the “illusion within an illusion” interpretations reads into the Mishna a probably-untenable epistemology. The simple way to read the law is that the court assesses the difference between illusion and reality. The proposed way of reading it is that the court assesses the difference between what they’re used to and what they aren’t.

To see how this would affect the rest of Torah law, consider that the idea of illusion is brought up specifically in the case of sorcery. Isn’t it true that any Torah transgression that turns out not to have occurred isn’t considered a transgression? If we thought we saw Shimon murder Reuven, but Reuven turns up alive and well, we certainly no longer try Shimon for murder. Why should sorcery be any different?

What makes magic, magic, is the lack of obvious cause and effect under the rules of nature. I understand the causality involved in Shimon squeezing the trigger, which sends a bullet flying down a barrel pointed at Reuven. This rational chain of events exists in many other places, not merely in this one instance, and will, all else being equal, produce the same result every time. It is this consistent working of cause and effect, all over the world, that indicates my mind is actually understanding the various aspects, the gun and the air, etc. For this to be an illusion, some other intervening factor must come into play, and that will be the cause of Reuven remaining alive. Perhaps I was seeing the whole incident in a mirror and Shimon was, in fact, facing the other way, etc.

Compare this to sorcerers gathering cucumbers. I don’t necessarily see or understand the mechanism or chain of causes that bring the cucumbers to be gathered, or, for that matter, bring me to perceive them being gathered. Without that consistency of regular experience, it is hard to even know what I am perceiving. It is not sufficient to produce an intervening cause that allowed the cucumbers to remain ungathered…for I do not know what causes them to be gathered in the first place! The only way to distinguish the gatherer from David Copperfield is by the result, by whether the cucumbers have actually moved.

We might think that even if we find the cucumbers, after the fact, to be gathered, this itself may merely be a step in some broader illusion, an issue that never arises with murder because we understand the causal process at work. We know that if Shimon shoots at Reuven’s chest, he’s on the hook for what happens, regardless of whether Shimon was trying to shoot the bottle behind Reuven, or what have you. How do we even know what the wizard was aiming at, however? Perhaps cucumbers appearing to be gathered, then appearing to be back in their field, is only the first step of the ritual!

Therefore, the Mishna comes to tell us not to go too far, that we can evaluate sorcery on its results. It needs to tell us this about sorcery when it doesn’t need to tell it to us elsewhere; we might think there is no way to evaluate whether sorcery has taken place, while we have no such assumptions about murder.

But if the Mishna says that “gathered cucumbers” and “non-gathered cucumbers” are different only relative to our perception rather than in straightforward fact, then what differentiates sorcery from the rest of Torah law? We ought to find a question on every facet of jurisdiction, a question pertaining to the efficacy of our senses and the truth of our assumptions. For just as there is no essential difference between the sorcery and the illusion (cucumbers themselves being an illusion, just a more common, well-behaved one) so is there no essential difference between Reuven being alive and Reuven appearing to be alive, and no resort to causal processes of murder can close the gap. Guns are an illusion, the air is an illusion, and we might conclude Reuven showing up in the courtroom is just the first step of Shimon’s elaborate murder plot! The “well-behaved” nature of guns describes merely our usual perception of their behavior, rather than anything intrinsic to them we could use to convict, just as “cucumbers don’t move by themselves” is no help with the wizard. Torah law would have to explicitly tell us that the illusion of murder is not tantamount to murder itself and perpetrators of murder-illusion are not guilty.

If our case is an “illusion within an illusion,” then every case of law in the Torah is like sorcery and ought to be treated as such. The unique distinguishing nature of sorcery, i.e. that its causal process is mysterious, would hold true of every aspect of our reality. Since there is no indication in the Torah that this is a concern in all aspects of law, but merely when it comes to sorcery, we must read the Mishna in the straightforward fashion: cucumbers are real; the illusion is not.

The Rebbe Rashab takes a third, stronger tack against the “illusion within an illusion” or “perceived reality vs. perceived illusion” interpretation, in which he applies the Mishna to itself: If the cucumbers are an illusion, then the death penalty we give to the sorcerer will also be an illusion. But in such a case, there is no actual reward and punishment in the Torah system. But then one of the fundamental principles of Judaism is false, and that is impossible. So the Mishna must be read as truly distinguishing between reality and illusion and not merely using those terms to describe different perceptions of an illusion. And therefore the official source, in the Jewish faith, for the reality of the universe as we perceive it is the 11th Mishna in the 7th chapter of Sanhedrin.

We may ask: If the Mishna’s efficacy in demonstrating the reality of cucumbers (and thus the rest of the universe) depends on the reality of the Torah’s capital punishments, why do we not simply say “the universe is real because reward and punishment is real, and many rewards and punishments are carried out in the physical universe”? Why resort to the complicated matter of the sorcerers at all, if it rests on reward and punishment in the first place?

Because, again, the “reality” in question is not the reality of G-d or G-d’s actions, but the reality of the world on its own terms. If we doubt the truth of G-d or G-d’s Torah, no Mishna (and possibly no anything) can argue for the truth of the universe. Remember: All knowledge is based on faith. The question is rather, given that G-d is real on faith and revelation, to what extent is the universe real?

Since this is the question, it does no good to base the reality of the universe, as a whole, on the reality of the Torah’s rewards and punishments in that universe. The cucumbers may be a mere illusion, but the court’s punishment, prescribed in divine revelation, may, for all we know, be far more real, riding as it does on the reality of G-d in a special way. Who says that when G-d creates a cucumber it’s real, but when he orders a holy court to punish, it’s only as real as that cucumber? Perhaps such punishments rise above their apparent similarity to our other worldly experience in some way we cannot, from within that world, perceive. Perhaps the court’s punishment is real not because it shares a reality with cucumbers but because it shares a Torah with G-d. The cucumbers are only real inasmuch as they play a role in reward and punishment, inasmuch as they aren’t worldly but G-dly.

Rather, we must base the reality of the universe not on something G-dly, but rather on something unholy or mundane, on sorcery and cucumbers: Cucumbers moving is a transgression that really happened, whereas cucumbers only appearing to have moved is an illusion and no transgression has occurred. It is only when we question whether our assessment of mundane reality is merely a perceived non-illusion that we turn by necessity to reward and punishment. In short, just because reward and punishment are real does not mean the world is real on its own terms. But if the world is entirely illusory, then reward and punishment could not be real. Thus, the cucumbers cannot be entirely illusory.***

Just as in other areas, knowledge does not reduce to faith; it is not enough to know a principle of the Torah (reward and punishment); cucumbers must be met on their own terms. But faith, a supra-rational basis in G-dliness, underlies all knowledge.


*This is possible because, even though rationality is influenced by faith, the inner life and source of all rationality is faith itself. When we are bribed by worldly pleasure or our own irrational will, it effectively bends our rationality, whereas when we are pre-committed in faith, it allows our rationality to be born and forms the core of the rational process. Thus we see a true difference between the “irrational” and the “supra-rational.”

**In the discourse “Ha’umnam“, 5643

***After this initial salvo, the Rebbe Rashab spends the rest of the discourse explaining that, although the world is not an illusion, the truth of its reality is questionable, and incomparable to the truth of G-d, etc.

G-d Is In The Pixels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital approximations of analog realities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Jewish Case For Not Being Born

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

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

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

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

-A Chassidic Tale

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

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

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

[Source]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Messianic Skepticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In this sense is the Rebbe the ultimate skeptical scientist.

Ethical Reason — A Crash Course

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Abraham the Murderer

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Idea says, “Don’t be rude, son.”

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

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


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

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

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

“Let’s find out,” Sarah suggests.


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

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

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

G-d is pleased as He wipes Sodom clean.

Abraham turns his face and weeps.


Isaac is worth more than an endless eternity of abstractions.

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

“Kill him,” G-d says.

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

His idol.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Why “Light”?

As many a layman knows, the term Kaballah uses for the divine expression is usually ohr, or light. What the layman may not know is why it’s called light. As we shall see, with the simple notion of light, Kaballah unties a certain persistent problem born of philosophy, or, more accurately, uses the tools of philosophy to free itself of philosophy. The Kaballistic concept of light lays the groundwork both for understanding G-d to truly be beyond our understanding, as well as for having an intimate relationship with that same G-d.

First things first: G-d is not a lamp. The light is a metaphor.

The question is, why this metaphor? Why did the great Rabbis speak of some sort of divine expression and call it light? Of what benefit, in the understanding of G-d, is this notion?

To understand this, as to understand anything, we turn, first, to Maimonides, who codifies the following as Jewish Law and basic Jewish theology, in the second chapter of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah:

[source]

In short, Maimonides here refers to a principle that will also be familiar to thinkers of other Abrahamic faiths, the notion that G-d simply is His own knowledge. Unlike a human being who has a mind, G-d IS His mind; there is no separate faculty of intellect in the Divine Being.

This idea is compelled by logic. His knowledge could be one of three things:

  1. A creation separate from Him. In this case, He doesn’t know anything (since his Knowledge is outside of him the way a tree or frog is outside of Him). How does he know His own knowledge? The only answers would be that He doesn’t, or He knows it with some higher knowledge, in which case we must ask what the nature of that higher knowledge is…
  2. A faculty additional to His being and essence, like human knowledge is to us. This leads, as Maimonides describes, to many gods—He and His knowledge exist in relation, a relation that must itself either constitute a higher being or be explained by a higher being. In either case, G-d here is not G-d, and we must continue searching for the First Simple Being. To call His knowledge a faculty thus does not solve the underlying problems of His knowledge being a separate creation that we saw in (1).
  3. His very being and essence, and part of His perfection. In this case, we must admit our own ignorance, for there is nothing in our universe that knows simply by being. On the other hand, why should the limitations of our knowledge, i.e. that we need a separate faculty in order to know, apply to Him? Is He not the ultimate perfection, possessing all the qualities of the creation, without any of its limitations? To paraphrase the Psalmist, if He forms the human mind, does He Himself not know, even though He has no mind like ours?

This third option is summarized above by Maimonides as “He is the Knower, He is the Subject of Knowledge, and He is the Knowledge itself,” even though it is “beyond the abilities of our mouths to relate or our ears to hear.” It is a conception of G-d as a being of perfect and infinite knowledge, even though we cannot even properly understand, in our minds, what a perfect and infinite knowledge is. In fact, we can only say what the perfect knowledge is not.

If everything in our universe derives from Him, He must possess it in some way, and in fact, in the most perfect and highest way. So He knows everything by knowing Himself, that is, simply by being. He and His knowledge are the same thing.

Therefore, when we say He knows, what we are really saying is that He is perfectly lacking in ignorance, misunderstanding, etc., not that He actually possesses a separate faculty of knowledge as we do. This approach of defining G-d by what he isn’t is known as apophatic, or negative, theology.

This very same method of knowing G-d by ascribing to Him all perfection and negating from him all privations, limitations, or lacks—this negative theology—is taken one step further by Kaballah, and applied to his emanation or light as well.

How would G-d express Himself?

To answer this question, we first look at how things express themselves within our knowable universe. There are generally two ways. This is important because the second is often missed (and understandably so, for as we shall see, it is rare-to-nonexistent in human self-expression).

The first way is what we recognize from nearly all human expression. When I speak or teach or dance or type or even wear certain clothes —call this influence or wilful expression. I am not naturally writing this essay. I was not born typing words like these. I choose to do this.

If it was natural (like, say, my heartbeat, or how many bones I have in my right hand) I wouldn’t choose it wilfully, and since I am choosing to express myself in this way specifically (rather than using different words or writing an essay about cute cats) it is clearly not a natural expression. And since it’s not natural, it denotes a change in my own state. An hour ago, I was not writing—not thinking of how to arrange these words, or how to move my fingers to put them into this machine. Now, I am doing these things. I am personally involved in doing this.

Contrast this with the second form of self-expression. Call it light.

Consider the sun. The sun does not choose to emanate its light, but does so naturally. It does not shine for another to understand, or recognize, or accept. It shines regardless. If everything but the sun were to disappear in an instant, it would continue to shine exactly as before. The sun is not invested, emotionally or causally, in what happens to its light. The sun shines naturally, without any change to its own state, constantly, and without choice.

Now, let us apply the principle of negative theology, in which we define His perfection by what He isn’t, by the limitations he does not possess. G-d has the qualities of both of these means of expression, but the limitations of neither. This means He expresses Himself both wilfully (like influence) and naturally (like light).

In other words, if He were to express Himself, He could do it by choice, but without the self-investment and -change that choice would imply if a human being made it in this world. He could do it naturally, like the sun, but without the limitation of the sun’s nature; He is not compelled to shine.

This combination of qualities, of the wilful and the natural, is beyond human understanding. In our realm of understanding, things are either automatic or done wilfully, either natural or a choice. It is only the Creator, who is beyond all limitations, who can have both together.

With this capacity of Divine expression to be both natural and wilful in mind, let us return to our three-way choice when it comes to the Divine Knowledge.

When we revisit Maimonides’s three-way choice, we find that something has changed. True, His knowledge still would not make sense as an entirely separate creation, the first choice. True, it still makes sense as the third choice, as identical with His being and essence.

But what about the second choice? What about knowledge as a faculty secondary to His essence? Before, we rejected this option, because we assumed knowledge would be related to Him like our knowledge is related to us, as an influence, as an act or expression that changes us and in which we’re invested. It was only with the third choice, when we saw His knowledge as identical with His essence, that we applied the principle of negative theology, and admitted His mind is perfect in ways we cannot comprehend.

But what if we apply negative theology to the second choice as well? What if we view His faculty of knowledge not as an influence, but, because He is not limited to expressing Himself in this way, as a willed light?

If He had a faculty of knowledge separate from His essence that was an expressed light, we would not have the problem of many gods, for light, as a natural expression, is totally united with, secondary to, and expressive of, its source. The sun’s light cannot be mistaken for a second sun. It’s purely a function of the sun’s being. In other words, natural light cannot even really be said to exist in the sense that its source exists. If the entire universe was filled with the sun, we would recognize that in truth, light is nothing but the sun’s shining — its natural way of being. Therefore, if His knowledge is a faculty (option (2)), that is, an emanation, it is not a separate being in the same sense as a frog or a tree. Option (2) is truly advantageous to option (1) when we consider a faculty to be natural like a light rather than willed like an influence.

On the other hand, since His is a wilful expression of light (unlike the sun’s), He is also separate from, and not compelled or defined by, this expression. On the contrary, it is just as apart from His being and essence as a creation, in the sense that He chooses to emanate it. In this, light has the advantage not just over option (1) but also over option (3). That is, if we conceive of His knowledge as a wilful emanation, it accomplishes something that conceiving of His knowledge as identical with His essence does not.

If G-d’s knowledge is a Divine Light rather than identical with His essence, then G-d can be truly beyond understanding. Not just in the sense that He is the perfection of knowledge and knows by knowing Himself in a way totally alien to us, but in the sense that His Essence is not that which is even the source of our understanding. In other words, when we apply apophasis to our knowledge and say He is the perfection of this imperfect earthly trait, it is not even to Him we refer, but merely to His emanation. And experiencing or recognizing the sun’s rays gives us no sense of the sun at all, especially if these are only those rays the sun chooses to emanate.

What is not known is not merely the way of His knowledge. What is not known is how He would express anything, and therefore, with a little more thought, what He is beyond His knowledge. He a complete mystery undefined in any worldly terms.

Therefore, divine light is advantageous both to a created knowledge (1) and knowledge through identity (3) — a middle road. It is more united with Him than a creation, yet it does not define G-d in terms of his own knowledge.

On a practical level, the divine light forms a basis for the proper relationship with G-d: On the one hand, we never demean His essence by saying it is some infinite form of our knowledge. On the other, we can endeavor to closely know His knowledge, which is His authentic willed emanation.

The very possibility of a willed divine light frees G-d Himself from the bounds of worldly comparison and definition, and has, for generations of students of the Inner Torah, thrown open doors of possibility their minds had previously thought shut…

Based on Chapters 4-5 of the Tzemach Tzedek’s Derech Mitzvosecha, Mitzvas Haamanas Elokus.