Judaism is a religion and a people liable to split upon serious disagreement. At least, this is the sense of Judaism you may get from Jonathan Weisman’s New York Times report on the upcoming “Great Schism” between American Jews and Israeli Jews. The term is Christian, referring to the permanent rupture between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in the 11th century, which is fitting, since in Judaism there has never truly been a Schism, nor is one just around the corner.
Weisman’s primary concern is political. Israeli Jews are moving ever-rightward and toward Trump, while American Jews aren’t. Israeli Jews are ever-less apologetic about the West Bank settlements, while increasing numbers of American Jews, especially young ones, feel alienated by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
None of this indicates an upcoming permanent split in world Jewry, however. A Schism would entail a split in the Jewish identity itself. American Jews would declare Israelis to not truly be Jewish, and vice versa. But will disagreement over Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu be sufficient grounds for this separation?
The question of whether certain rulers are “good for the Jews” has rarely been a matter of consensus in the past. It would shock Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon, for example, to hear that Judaism was about to split in two, though one praised and the other was harshly critical of the Romans. Nor was their disagreement without consequences; Rabbi Yehuda became the head of the sages, while Rabbi Shimon was sought for execution. In modern times, Russian Jewry was divided over whether to support Napoleon or the Czar. Yet, in neither of these cases did Jewish identity itself rupture.
Of course, Jews not only disagree over gentile rulers but also over the actions and allegiances of other Jews. Weisman writes of ongoing Reform and Conservative struggle for legitimacy in Israel, where their movements are in the extreme minority. Although it is difficult to see how the tensions between the Orthodox establishment and these groups may be resolved, Jewish history is full of just this sort of irreconcilable difference.
The biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah uncomfortably dwelled in the land together, yet did not see themselves as two peoples. Why would they, since their forebears united even twelve tribes? In Mishnaic times, so opposed were the houses of Hillel and Shammai that marriage between them verged on impossible. The works of Maimonides, now central to normative Judaism of every persuasion, were denounced by Rabbis to the Catholic authorities in France and burned. Jews died in the early conflicts between Hassidim and the Mitnagdic students of the Vilna Gaon. Nonetheless, these disagreements failed to bifurcate world Jewry. They were usually resolved through a tragedy that reminded the participants of their shared identity.
When groups have split from Judaism—Karaites, Christians, Sabbateans—it has been over things like whether Moses is the greatest prophet, or whether the Oral Law is a legitimate part of the Torah. Today, it is on these central issues that Jews have never been more united.
At this late point in our history, a Jew in Los Angeles and a Jew in Tel Aviv share millennia of history, a rich culture grounded in the Torah, and a language. Neither questions if the Talmud is Jewish or whether Jesus is the Messiah. Whereas a hundred years ago one may have spoken worriedly about the Ottomans while the other paid off a Polish duke, today they mostly speak the same languages about the same liberal democratic problems and usually the same politicians on the same Shabbat. Though one is Sephardic and the other Ashkenazi, they each know the same teaching from the Rambam. They may have different opinions about Israeli security, but the walls of their echo chambers are thinner than the seas separating an Egyptian and a Ukrainian Jew in the 19th or the 9th century.
There will only be two Judaisms if we choose to make it so. A Great Schism is impossible unless we set aside as irrelevant all we hold in common. An American/Israeli Jewish split would be a child of our interpretation, rather than of fact. We would have to willfully declare Judaism itself—religion, history, identity, tribe—to be synonymous with politics. We would then need to make our politics synonymous with saving lives. We would finally have to subscribe to a policy of Jewish non-death, rather than one of Jewish life, for any description of Jewish life shows that what we share is more lasting and profound than what divides us.
If we don’t choose schism, we will realize that Chief Rabbi Lau did not refuse to call The Tree of Life congregation a synagogue and that Rabbi Jeffrey Myers welcomed the President to visit. Mr. Weisman has chosen to interpret the Israeli Ambassador’s presence as the sole public official to greet Trump on that visit as a sign of division between American Jews and Israeli Jews (because we disagree about Trump). In other words, Israeli Jews feel attacked by the synagogue shooter and share American Jews’ grief, to the extent that they send the Ambassador to Pittsburgh. This is somehow read as a sign that the global Jewish community is splitting in two.
In truth, American Jews and Israeli Jews argue over our shared situation because we feel we share a destiny. Few Jews feel left out of North Korean politics.
The pain of disagreeing with other Jews is itself one of our hallowed traditions. It means we are not two people but one people. Our common ground does not necessarily lie between Eilat and the Golan. It is the shared history and shared future of every Jewish soul.
They asked wisdom: “How may a sinning soul achieve atonement?”
Wisdom said, “The sinning soul shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4)
They asked prophecy.
Prophecy said, “Misfortune pursues sinners.” (Proverbs 13:21)
They asked Torah.
Torah said, “Let him bring a guilt offering, and he will be atoned for.”
They asked G-d.
G-d said, “Let him repent, and he will be atoned for.”
This is the meaning of the verse (Psalms 25:8), “Good and upright is the Lord, for He shows sinners the way.”
—Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Makkot 7a
(version of the Vavei HeAmudim,
son to the holy SheLaH)
The Talmud describes four answers to the problem of sin, each more lenient than the one which precedes it. Whereas wisdom says the only way to be cleansed of the blemish of transgression is through death, prophecy, from a higher perch, sees that suffering can achieve the same. Torah provides atonement through a sacrifice, whereas G-d Himself says it’s possible without death, suffering, or even a sacrifice if one merely performs the spiritual act of Teshuvah, repentance or return to one’s creator.
There is actually an implicit fifth member, the least sympathetic of the lot, the one who has no advice for the sinner. One might call this unsympathetic friend “worldliness” or “nature.” Nature may be defined (in extreme summary) as that G-dly expression which conforms to the need of the result, rather than the Creator. For example, when G-d speaks light into being (Genesis 1:3), it is in the mode of nature, and therefore the divine act creates an independent entity, a light which has properties and exists by taking up space at certain times, etc.
Now, the problem nature has with sin is that the deepest property of every created being, its first nature, is the role it plays in the Divine Will. Before light’s color and its illuminating properties and its speed is its purpose, the role it plays in G-d’s design for the universe generally, whether that purpose is to have a dwelling place in the lowest realms (as explained in Tanya Chapter 36) or any other.* The role of the divine commandments is to reveal this G-dly truth in the object of the commandment, leather for Tefillin, wool for Tzitzis. Sin conversely denies this inner truth and reinforces only the superficial reality of the creation, creating a rift between the inner directed purpose of a being and its apparent independence, between the result of the Divine act and the Divine act itself.
Since sin is an affront to nature’s very soul, nature’s connection to its source in the Almighty, nature by definition cannot absolve us of sin. Just as an amputated arm cannot sew itself back onto the torso, a nature rendered independent and metaphysically inert cannot undo the destruction wrought by transgression. Sin truly creates nature, in the sense that amputation creates the arm, so this now-independent nature cannot uncreate sin. “Dear universe,” writes the thief, “I am sorry for stealing the money. Please forgive me.” The universe cannot respond, because the theft has killed some of her children.
So we must turn at least to wisdom. Wisdom is able to see nature in context, which is itself proof that wisdom is greater than nature and comes from beyond nature. If wisdom is the very power to see inner truths, then it is the opposite of sin, which severs the inner truth from its effects. Indeed, Reish Lakish says (Sotah 3a) that “a man commits a transgression only if a spirit of folly enters him,” or in other words, that wisdom and sin cannot dwell in the same place. Where nature in our grisly example is the amputated arm, wisdom is that which connects arms with bodies. However, where the arm does not survive sin, this connective power merely goes into hiding. It, itself, will always have a solution for severed arms; this is its entire being. So wisdom tells us, “The sinning soul shall die.”
Why death? Why not death! The fulfillment of G-d’s will draws the Divine into the world, the infinite into the finite, the living soul into an arm. Sin is death, for death is nothing but the separation of soul and body. Wisdom, sin’s opposite, provides the technical solution. If one has brought death to the world, that dirt washes off only one way. When death finds you, and your soul and body are separated, your debt will be paid. The punishment fits the crime.
But wisdom is the lowest of four, and therefore the least kind. Kindness, in terms of forgiving sin, is proportional to the height of perspective. To the arm that gets cut off, the cutting off is vitally important. Arm-severing is the arch-rival to the power that holds arms to bodies. But prophecy is not nature, nor even the inner truth of nature. Prophecy stands fully above nature and nature’s truth. Prophecy is to creation as the body itself is to the arm that is severed.
The body feels pain at the removal of extremities, yet the body continues to survive. To have sinned is to have harmed nature, but not the Divine act which produces nature. The divine act is only harmed inasmuch as it cannot be fully expressed in the lowest place. This is not death to the divine act, which retains its connection to G-d and remains divine. How, then, is the sinning soul cleansed? Death is not necessary, for sin does not bring death. Rather, misfortunes pursue sinners—transgression is cleansed by pain and suffering, and this is enough to pay the debt.
Torah is something different entirely.
Torah is G-d’s wisdom.
As a form of wisdom, one might assume it is similar to the wisdom of the first answer, the inner truth of each creation that offers death as the only atonement for sin. But Torah is not the truth of creation but rather Truth itself. It is not the purpose of nature, but rather the purpose of all purposes, and it cannot be derived from nature.
There is no way to know what Torah will tell the sinner, except by Torah telling us. Or in other words, we do not know what a sin truly is to Torah merely by looking at the spiritual effects of the sin, for all the sin’s perceivable effects reach only up to the Divine act of creation. The Torah is not a creation at all, but rather the source of creation, the knowledge that precedes that G-dly act.
We know how the arm feels about its amputation, how the force connecting the arm to the body feels, and how the body feels. But do we know the mind’s reaction?
The mind propely understood** is not fixed in any causal chain or natural reaction to anything in the person below itself. The mind may choose how to react to any stimulus. If my arm is cut off in a freak accident, I will mourn the loss of the limb. But if the arm is cut off to save my very life, perhaps I will view it with some relief. If I am offered seventy billion dollars to cut off my arm and I will be able to afford the best prosthetics, perhaps I even make this choice willingly and see it as an improvement to my condition. The arm when it is cut off is unaware of this calculus; the pro-attached-arm force has never heard of it; it does not stop the body’s physical pain of losing a limb. The only way to find out what the mind thinks is to ask it.
The Torah says, “Let him bring a guilt offering.” In the eyes of the Torah, the divine mind, inscrutable from below, this is the proper balance; pain and death are unnecessary, and only the Torah could tell us so. We first regret our actions and resolve never to transgress again, which turns intentional sins into unintentional ones before G-d. We then bring a specific animal sacrifice to the temple in Jerusalem, and this atones for our unintentional actions.
Why, in the Torah’s approach, must we first transform our sins into unintentional actions before we can atone for them through a sacrifice? Because no matter which conceptual framing the mind lends to the loss of the arm, there are still facts about the amputation that are unavoidable, that cannot be reframed. Even to the divine mind, which in its Truth is an expression of G-d Himself, things still have their essential natures. The Torah is able to see how losing the arm is not so bad a thing that it’s equivalent to death or suffering, but no amount of broadmindedness can view the arm as more a part of the body than it was before. Similarly, the Torah, in the context of repentance and sacrifice, can see the transgression as a misadventure that is balanced and “justified.” But the Torah, ultimately limited to being wisdom, cannot see the transgression as a positive.
G-d says, Repent and be atoned.
Don’t contextualize and then balance the transgression.
Rather, de-transgress the transgression. Transform the intentional sins into merits (as described in Tanya Chapter 7). Beyond even the mind there is a soul incorruptible possessing infinite power. Its power stems from being totally beyond nature—not nature itself, nor the act that creates it, nor the source of that act in the divine wisdom, but a simple indivisible self that stands in relation to nothing, that is defined by nothing. A self before whom all constructs, even that of “having an arm” and “not having an arm” are interchangeable.
G-d, because He is G-d, because he stands beyond all realities, even the reality of His own wisdom, is able to not just balance or forgive the transgression. He is able to reverse the valence of the debt. He is able to transform an act of violence, of death, of pain against Him into an act for which He will willingly dispense reward.
All that is required is repentance***, and to repent is just to acknowledge G-d beyond all realities. This itself is the act that repairs the soul, and that cleans it. The highest atonement, the painless atonement, is not a balancing or a transacting but a shift of our being itself. The sinner realizes that the sinner’s own soul comes from a G-d who is truly beyond his petty concerns, beyond any folly or lust or evil that caused him to sin, beyond even the distinction between sin and non-sin. Authentically realizing this to be his true nature, it becomes so. G-d forgives him not by letting his sins slide, but by an in-dwelling presence that literally transforms the sinner into a servant of G-d and the sins into merits, by standing the sinner himself in that position of needing nothing, being defined by nothing, but simply being, which is being one with G-d.
As the verse says, G-d is good—so good, He does not reckon with the reality of the sin at all, but truly transcends it, and so can offer atonement to all. And G-d is upright—His goodness is not confined to Him alone, but can hold true at every level, can be given to the sinner and be real to the sinner.
This, even the Torah cannot understand.****
Based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s “v’Chol Adam,” Shabbos Haazinu, Shabbos Teshuva, 5723/1962
*Sometimes this divine purpose is in line with the teleological end of the creation in the ancient sense, its greatest perfection, but often is not—many things are created to be destroyed, whether literally or through a process of nullification, in which we reveal the inner ayin, the subsuming of the creation in the divine reality such that it has no independent existence whatsoever. An earthly ox is more perfect the more it instantiates the divine ox, but the divine ox is itself utterly nullified to the G-dly emanation. It is therefore good for an ox to be healthy, and it is even better for an ox to move up a teleological level by correctly serving human purposes in the fields or as food, and it is categorically better to use the Ox’s skin for making Tefillin, in which (in Tefillin’s highest form) the Ox serves no earthly purpose, neither for the betterment of the Ox nor for the betterment of man.
**Rather than how it’s commonly understood today.
***The truest expression of the uniquely G-dly atonement is on Yom Kippur. The rest of the year, we can attain it, but only through atonement. On Yom Kippur, the day itself atones; we do not have to do anything, and why should we, if our very souls are beyond the distinction between sin and non-sin? The only reason we also repent on Yom Kippur is so that the mind, the body, the attachment of the arm to the body, and the arm are also aware, at their own levels, that the arm has regrown.
****The fact that this advice of G-d is actually recorded as part of Torah, in the Jerusalem Talmud, is because the Torah, in its source, is absolutely one with G-d Himself, just as the mind in its source is one with the soul itself. The Torah’s advice of bringing the sacrifice is the Torah describing its own perspective (Torah is in the center line of sefirot, which connects all levels highest to lowest); G-d’s advice of repenting and transforming sins into merits is the Torah’s description of its source’s perspective (Torah in its source, beyond even being the center line).
Faith is to stand in relation with the creator, and know my sins require punishment. Trust is to stand beyond relation with the creator, and therefore have an unreckoned future of goodness.
Foolishness is not to know Him, wisdom is to relate to Him through intermediaries, and faith is to relate to Him directly through your self. Trust is the self deciding there is no self.
The fool thinks a video on the Internet cannot separate Him from G-d. The wise know it can. The faithful know they can repent. The trusting know they cannot be separate from Him again. They are repentance.
Faith is to accept an infinite G-d beyond my understanding runs the world. Trust is to so deeply associate with G-d as to know that what’s best from my perspective is what will happen.
Faith is the fire unstoppable; vinegar will burn, ice will burn. Trust is never arriving at the need for the fire unstoppable.
Faith is to pray for the miracle. Trust is to perform the miracle.
Faith is to know that sometimes, for my own good, G-d must cover His face. Trust is to know that this cannot happen.
Faith is to never lose sight of the light. Trust is to know one is as totally helpless at the dawn as at midnight.
Faith is to know that everything in the past was ultimately for the good. Trust is to know that everything in the future will be for the immediate good.
Faith is to believe with perfect faith that the redeemer will come, and to await it every day. Faith is that Moshiach is certain as sunrise. Faith is that, regarding your certainty at least, Moshiach has come.
But trust is to know with perfect trust that this morning the chickens will lay their eggs and the traffic will clear on I-75, whether Moshiach comes or not. Trust is that everything simply reveals the good of G-d. So why do we need Moshiach?
If a single individual knew that Moshiach, rather than the chickens or the traffic, was their own personal greatest good, and that individual trusted in G-d, Moshiach would already be here.
Faith is to know the Rebbe.
Trust is to be the Rebbe.
We know that Torah is compared to food, but have we ever stopped to consider the simplest of culinary considerations pertaining thereto, namely, what pairs with it? Don’t start naming wines; wine is also Torah, and this isn’t one of those weird gastropubs where everything is made from the same ingredient.
The fact is, Torah is a difficult food to pair since it comes in so many variations. Some teachers serve Torah juicy, some serve it dry. Some Torah is sweet, some bitter. The Torah is prepared on some days to suit the tastes of children and on others the preferences of old men. Which food goes with gematria spice as well as with pshat crackers? What does kitchen science avail us when complex Talmud proteins need to be broken down and letters of the Aleph Bet need to cohere?
Perhaps Torah is like the manna from heaven, acquiring every taste the eater desires. This shall make Torah pairings very simple, to wit: everything pairs with anything! But experimentation in the metaphysical kitchen has shown this approach to be a disaster. Rabbis pair Torah with quantum physics and the meal has a soporific effect, like smarmy sermons drizzled with just a dabbling of unprepared intellectualism. Other Jews serve Torah with politics, and it smells like aggressive narcissism imbued with biting aftertaste of regret. These are not flavors unique to Torah; we can get them for free on Facebook every day.
It’s not that the Torah doesn’t go with these things. The Torah doesn’t seem to make much difference to them. It’s strange; you bite into, say, the Torah’s teachings about animal cruelty, and are greeted with a rush of tastes, a wash of tangy lime rushing through the registers to the keening burn of peppermint, filling every corner of your gut. But take those teachings and grind them over an activist website, and all you taste is activism, worldly, sincere, simple, like a hearty bowl of cornflakes. The Torah is an anti-spice. It only seems to have a taste on its own.
So maybe the Torah shouldn’t be paired with anything else at all? But the Torah itself says the Torah is a condiment! It calls for other foods as peanut butter calls to jelly. The Torah is meant to render the evil inclination edible, somehow, like salting a stone or peppering cyanide.
I think it’s the anti-spice the job calls for. The evil inclination, after all, tastes like the fruit of a certain tree that mixed good and evil; it is a taste of freedom that sours to nihilism on the human tongue. Our goal is to centrifuge the mix, separate good from evil, to see the evil inclination for what it is. We are in need of a spice that turns the mirror on things, makes them taste ever more like themselves…
“But quantum mechanics really is related to Torah. I don’t just want to see my political goals for what they are now. I want to show they’re part of Torah!”
Oh. For that, you’ll need bittul, the same mixing method that helped King David and Hillel House make the thoughts of their earthly brains a part of the eternal word of G-d. Otherwise, the oil will float, your opinions will sink, and the absolute best-case scenario is we remember you on holidays with a named food like “hamantashen” or “maror”. Study with humility, mix only a sixtieth of what you think into things you learn from sages, and, whatever you do, don’t forget the blessing beforehand.
They say the opposite of cruelty is kindness, and that the opposite of hate is love, but it is rare to find a man of unalloyed cruelty and hatred. A man of pure hatred is like a man without legs, a tragedy, but an exception that proves the rule.
Most of us are cruel and hateful only in the service of kindness and love. We hate strangers because we love our people; we hate ideas because we love our minds as they are. “Those who love G-d hate evil,” the Psalmist says, extending this emotional dichotomy up to the rarefied reaches of the soul and the better angels of our nature.
No, in a healthy human being, love and hate are often concurrent, two sides of the same coin. The question is how to regulate these tendencies, balance them, and remain a genuinely good person despite our healthy, deeply human capacity for cruelty. Since love can generate hatred, it is not the means by which to balance our emotions. Rather, this role must fall to the mind. It is in this sense of an actual outside power not in dialectic with hatred, and able to control it, that the opposite of hate is not love, but truth.
Look at what in the world is truly cruel: those areas untouched by reason. This why we call some of the worst murders senseless. A man decides his country or religion or tribe is under attack. Out of protective love, he has their back and sallies forth to destroy their (perceived) enemies.
There are several ways to prevent this tragedy, and each failure to prevent it is a failure of reason. First, the mind of this killer has been set adrift from the internal moral law that says murder is wrong. his love, and this his hatred, broke through that barrier, placed there by G-d and education. Second, his mind failed to use its powers of abstraction to impart sympathy to the killer. Love of one’s own tribe is natural to the heart. Love of others through analogy requires moral education; the idea that they are also mothers, children, lovers of country, etc. must be taught to the heart. Third, the last line of defense of the forces of reason failed, namely, externalized reason, also known as justice. Without justice, the emotion of love terminates in dissolution, discord, and difference. To that extent, the emotion itself is self-destructive, a consuming flame without stabilizing wick or fuel that quickly gutters out in chaos.
Less cruel is reason, which ties the self-consuming love to earth and allows it to exist in stasis. The emotion of love is the individual inhabiting their inherent relationships with self and other. When a child loves her parent, she is literally enacting her relationship, actualizing a connection fixed in time; you are my parent by what has already happened, by my birth, and by loving you, I allow that set state of affairs to affect the present. If someone hurts my parents, I am caught in the web of their action; hurting those I love swiftly establishes another relationship that arouses hate in my heart.
The mind circumvents this causal chain, as if by magic. Like the difference between a man and an ox is the difference between love under reason to love untouched by the mind. An ox looks at food and thinks food. It looks at a tree and thinks about a tree. Its mind is merely an expansion of its senses. Reason, though, is seeing food and thinking thankfulness, seeing a tree and perceiving growth. The very power of abstraction places us a handbreadth higher than inevitability. Someone may attack me, but in their attack I may see only their desperation, and in my own rage I see an emotion to be weighed. There is suddenly room for right and wrong; I may separate good from evil on principle since every particular occurrence also falls in some general category. Revenge can be wrong, even if I saw with my own eyes the crime for which my enemy is indebted. This is the very soul of the law.
It is not even a particular principle that is so vital to justice, but rather having principles itself. Approaches on when to reward and when to punish may vary in details, but the law’s abstract nature always keeps more balance than lawlessness. Reason puts love and hate in a context; that is the most important thing. They gain an aspect of what-we-do, where before they sounded like what-we-are. Thereby, we are preserved from cruel chaos.
Why, then, is reason only less cruel?
Reason is a dictator.
Reason says the right thing is right only relative to other things. Nothing is right just because it is right, except, rather unreasonably, reason itself. G-d Himself, by reason, is reason’s recognition that something it can’t explain must be the ultimate context for what’s right; the first ground, an ur-context, is the uncreated Creator. Reason’s highest principle is that even the Almighty Contextless is defined in the context of context.
Reason, but its very chaos-ending powers, by its abstraction and contextualization—in other words, but its very ability to allow opposites to coexist peacefully—keeps us ever apart. Reason tells us a thing is never just itself, but rather exists in a context. Reason tells us that principles are higher than our love, that ideas must be more important than people in order to save people from themselves. It lets us love with a small love, a love influenced by reason that is a pale shadow. We love never the things themselves purely, but also what they mean.
Reason implies that if we come together without third-party mediation, we will destroy each other. If I don’t want chaos, I will meet you only on reason’s property. Yes, that’s a threat.
Can we say we’re together at all? My mind says our love is a good love. Is it so lacking in reality that my mind controls it? My mind cannot even control a brick wall. Is there no love undying? Perhaps only G-d’s, and He Himself is only real as mind, as real as the way things fit together!
The kind is something else. Call it faith. For love to survive, justice must tame it. But for justice to live, faith must direct it.
For the rules not to chafe, for abstractions not to hurt, for principle to be more than a forfeiture of self, we must rediscover a higher love. Not the love of emotions, not the actualization of a relation to an object, but a love rooted in self-definition. Emotive love says, “I love you.” Faith love does not speak, for speech is the sound of communication, and we only must communicate if we are not one. Emotive love is the search for you as me. Reason says the search for you cannot be everything, must ever be a mere action, a mere part of me. Faith says that the search for you is a search for me, when we remember we have never been apart.
Faith says that just as we are one with our own principles, we are one with our Creator and each other.
Faith says we reason not because we have to but because we can, because it is how we draw our self-contained love into canvasses of other.
Faith says chaos, in its basic motions, in people moving apart and coming together because of their fixed structures, captures a deep truth of us. Chaos is faith in the negative polarity. If we wish to fix it, we control it with reason, and then control reason. The opposite of hate is truth, but not intellectual truth. The opposite of hate is love-truth and being-truth.
By faith, reason’s context is given context. The “it depends” is told it depends. We are not defined by strictures or relationships; they are defined by us, in our very being.
And it is at this point when we reach faith, on the lip of this greatest and most profound freedom, that G-d tells us what we can do for Him.
Originally posted on Hevria.
If Antiochus was my Rebbe (and such a thing is thoroughly impossible) he’d tell me how beautiful Judaism is.
Antiochus looks at his men, at his enemies, at his deities, and sees a sublime order. Each of them is part of a story, which is another way of saying they each want something that they do not have. Once the harmful and contradictory desires and false wants are recognized through self-reflection, they may be swept aside, and ordered wants true to the essence of every being will remain. This is called purpose. This is called vitality. This is called perfection.
Some view the whole story, the victory of the Maccabees and the long-burning oil, as miracles performed by the will of an omnipotent G-d. To Antiochus, all such tales are inelegant to the point of cruelty. In a world where four must be the sum of two and two, what beauty, what joy lies in such arbitrary whims?
If Antiochus was my Rebbe (a nightmare) I might ask him why G-d created the universe. He would gently, with his large hands made for twisting Jewish necks, waggle a knurled and scolding finger. “Only a madman could ask such a question expecting an answer,” he’d say. He is not an atheist. He simply wishes to teach you that G-d has a place in the story.
Antiochus rejects the weakness of transcendence. He has no patience for uncertainty, for the illusion of unlimited personal freedom. Antiochus tells his Chassidim (?!) to embrace their limitations, the obvious ends to which they have been created and set aside from beasts. Antiochus preaches restraint, clarity of thought, the conquering of emotions, and the courage to face the truth of our own limitations.
Why should every question be permitted and every answer sought? Can a bird ask whether to fly? Can a fish question the water? Man is the being who sees how things fit together, who has the unique ability to recognize the patterns of the story and find the soul of a thing. The soul of man is made to discover souls. We are built for self-discovery. And our highest selves and deepest motivations, our loftiest aspirations and our unifying dreams—these are G-d.
This is our Creator, Antiochus would teach: Our deepest truth, highest pleasure, and most basic cause. This is what we can know; it is whom the human mind is meant to find. It is infinitely greater than inhuman specters looming beyond the edge of space or the beginning of time. Such large propositions are redolent with the stink of the unknowable, and the unknowable is tantamount to torture. A man who does not know his set place in the world, who does not recognize his G-d, will face the terror of freedom even in victory. A man who knows his place as inferior and subservient can be happy even with Antiochus’s boot on his throat. So dream not of free-floating deities who may choose any course of action. G-d the Creator is merely the largest, oldest, and greatest actor playing his role in a script. And to a human being, the story is truer than anything.
And what is Judaism, says Antiochus, beyond a beautiful story, perhaps even the most beautiful?
G-d is in His place, man in his. There is a Torah which serves the role of G-d’s wisdom, explaining like an instruction manual where everything goes. Then there are the commandments, which serve to bring out the potential of every body and every soul.
“What potential do the laws of purity and impurity help us actualize, Antiochus?” we might ask.
“Fool!” he would comment. “Do not suppose a human being is simple. We have many hidden needs and subtle accomplishments. Sometimes the thing a human being needs most is a ‘meaningless’ ritual, something unquestionable or unchangeable to tie a community together, to add stabilizing ballast to a life, to distinguish us from our heathen enemies. G-d was wise not to convey the reasons for these commandments. They make the most sense as ‘senseless’ decrees.”
So, he’s obsessed with oil.
It’s not that he happens to capture the temple’s oil supply. Things that just happen are an insult to the beauty of Antiochus’s Judaism. The temple oil is the goal of all his yearnings. It is his lowest place, the location where G-d must be revealed, precisely because it most opposes His Truth. The oil is carefully guarded from an impurity no one can see, use, or understand. Antiochus rescues it from this meaninglessness, from its lonely sacredness. He brings purity and impurity into the realm of understanding and into the fold of beauty. He renders the Temple meaningful and magnificent.
At his farbrengen, Antiochus teaches: Truth is what works, and what works is beautiful, and beauty is truth. Since there are many systems and paths that work, there are many truths. As long as they are all consistent with reason, as long as the stories make sense, there is no reason not to keep them. Do not wonder why this involves statues of Zeus or Dionysus. They are archetypes, metaphors, members of a pantheon that the Hebrew G-d may join. They weave together in their interlocking domains of authority, and in their net are caught the essential rhythms of the story. They are not unique deities, but facets of the story, signposts along the way.
Let the Judaeans join the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Seleucids at the games, and let us learn from one another. What is sacred is not what separates us, but the pursuit of human perfection according to human reason that we share.
The only ugly thing in this whole plan is a Maccabee.
A Maccabee (Antiochus assures us with the confidence of a man who understands his enemy) wars against the very essence of Judaism. He has no respect for who is more powerful, who is greater, which story is more logical. A Maccabee does not consult the meaningful texts or the wise sages on whether he may pointlessly die for an illogical principle. These zealots do not seek their own perfection.
The Maccabees are like children throwing a tantrum, demanding they get their way without even understanding the necessity of what they reject.
The Maccabees, by their own choice, cannot fully define what they believe. They are for G-d as an individual, unique and unknowable, sacred and undefined. They have never heard of a single refined aesthetic principle. They do not sing in tune. They demand a knobbly, uneven Judaism, full of strange, hideous protuberances.
The Maccabees are the sort of people who, even possessing every excuse to use “impure” oil, even when lighting a false iron Menorah, even when they are already consigned to fulfilling the commandments in a compromised fashion, will wait for eight days to kindle the holy flames. They do not care that they are permitted to do less. They are not reasonable men. They cannot be convinced the Menorah is still wonderfully symbolic even with Greek oil.
The Maccabees, in their backward, exclusionary ways, in their condescension toward the stories that unite us all, and in their insistence that the ritual only means something if it means nothing, force Antiochus’s hand. The might of his armies cannot be turned aside; the conclusion is foreshadowed in the first moment of Matisyahu’s rashness.
I must, Antiochus tells his followers, eradicate them from the face of the earth.
It may not be pleasant.
But it is beautiful.
Originally posted on Hevria.
Sometimes, when I’m bored, I imagine something truly preposterous—a man of space and time.
Such a man would not see the world the way we do. I like to think he’d divide things neatly into cubic meters, or perhaps (with a nod to the issue of establishing an absolute frame of reference for such a grid) take a square meter at ground level and extend it down to the center of the earth and outward indefinitely to capture a slice of the universe. His whole reality would have a fixed population of around 510 trillion such square-meter-based slices, and they would be the objects of all his explanations.
Take this slice, here. The way we’d describe it, it bursts forth from the surface of the earth, capturing within its square meter steel girders, pockets of air, human beings and many of their artifacts (thousands of pieces of plastic), millions of insects, billions of bacteria, miles of ever-thinner atmosphere, empty space, then maybe a chunk of the moon, and so on. This square meter happens to slice through a Manhattan office building, but it has cousins that extend through the ocean and the planets, nightstands and nebulae.
Of course, we are not men of space and time. We see only what we have been taught to see in a world long-trained in souls and essences. The actual man of space and time, with this wool pulled from his eyes, sees one being in this extended square meter, gargantuan and beautiful, possessing infinite potential. This single being (call it a squeter) is an admixture of mineral, vegetable, animal, and human parts remaining at rest or passing in and out of it in mysterious motion. A thirty-meter horizontal steel girder, to the man of space and time, is really an illusion produced by the similarities we see in thirty neighboring squeters, like a “human chain” is just a bunch of individuals holding hands in our benighted understanding. What we call “millions of insects” are just small shifting portions of the squeter, none of them independent of its being. And if you ask: but the insects will move from one squeter to another? you have still missed the point.
You see, the man in space and time is free from your compulsive need to cut the universe into neat little pieces, a human being here, a bug there. Humans and bugs (or parts of humans and parts of bugs) are illusions imposed by the way we’re taught to think. A human torso occupies one squeter, while the arm attached to it occupies its neighbor. Why in the world should we say the arm has more connection with the person than with the asphalt or the beetle with which the arm shares its squeter? The arm belongs to the space, not to the man!
“But wherever the person goes, the arm goes! And it’s made of the same stuff as the person! And they’re physically attached! And the arm serves a purpose to the man!”
Well, of course you think of the arm and the person moving together, since you are unenlightened. You probably think the drawing in a flipbook or the pixels on your screen “move together,” too, until you realize they’re just tiny specks of color moving independently producing the illusion of a unified object. Of course you judge by what things are made of, rather than the space they occupy. You probably think that if a fly is attached to fly paper that flies are made of paper, or that since a cup’s purpose is to hold liquid, the liquid is part of the cup. There are all matters of interpretation, the man in space and time would assure you. What right do you have to impose your prejudices upon his way of seeing things?
The man in space and time divides up the world in a way that appears arbitrary and absurd to us, but it is not to simple to explain why it is arbitrary and absurd. The “facts” alone help us nothing. It’s a question of interpretation.
And the question of interpretation is far from theoretical. This week has me thinking about little else. How do things actually divide up? How are we to slice up the world we see, and what justifies our chosen criteria?
The blood of Jews has barely dried in Pittsburgh. Already, the men of space and time have offered their best theories on how to slice the pie.
Perhaps the way to view Pittsburgh is as a continuation of American mass murder, and other details are incidental; statistically, a violent madman was going to come for the Jews eventually, whatever the motivation. Or perhaps we should look at it as an expression of growing right-wing extremism, different from mass murders five or ten years ago and centered primarily around anti-immigrant, rather than anti-Jewish, sentiment. Perhaps the attack is an extension of Jew-hatred and mounting anti-Semitism in the US. Maybe it is an expression of the social malaise that has drug overdoses and suicide on the rise. It could be about racism or about guns, about President Trump or about Bibi Netanyahu, about Israel or about the growing influence of the far left.
All of these divisions, these approaches to slicing up the facts, I have seen this week. Some appear more reasonable, some more absurd. But this distinction is itself due to idiosyncrasies, to the way my mind works differently than others’, to the divergence in our experience.
Ultimately, then, I cannot blame those of us who wish to step back from pattern recognition and from story-crafting. I do not regret or renounce my disinclination to make of Pittsburgh a “thing.” If there are those Jews among us who step back from the analysis, let the story be G-d’s, and focus on fulfilling their duty, on repentance and good deeds—perhaps this is the beginning of wisdom.
Originally posted on Hevria.
The argument is well-known: It is difficult to believe in the cosmic significance of human life in a universe as vast as ours. If the universe is created by G-d with human beings in mind, why is there so much of it? How, in light of the billions of galaxies, can we tell ourselves human action matters in the big picture? This question deserves an answer, but first we must question the question, religiously, scientifically, and philosophically, to find out what we’re really asking.
Neil deGrasse Tyson asks this question in the name of science, I assume as part of the quest to banish the ignorance of the masses. And when scientists ask the question, they do it as if it’s new, as if the vastness of the universe were a modern proposition.
In truth, ancient sources such as the Talmud (based on Job 25:3) refer to infinite angels, denizens of spiritual realms beyond reckoning, in comparison to which the entire human race is like a drop in the ocean. Now, these endless ranks of spiritual beings are said to often care about and in many ways to exist for the purposes of humanity. Therefore, the difference between the universe as conceived by modern astronomy and the spiritual realms described by the Talmud is not in quantity but rather in quality. Infinite angels created by a G-d who cares about individual human beings is one thing. A vast multiverse totally indifferent to our presence is quite another.
(Besides the Talmud’s sheer statement of fact, there are moral lesson to be learned from endless realms of G-d’s dominion. As the religious sources imply, man’s smallness is a trait religion has tried to impart, not avoid. What makes a human being important in the eyes of G-d is not their size, beauty, or perfection, but their lowliness and potential for failure. Free choice, the ability to rebel against His will, is unique to humanity. We are special because we have the capacity not to serve. And if the sinner is the lowest of all possible creatures, why shouldn’t there be more gnats than sinners, and more galaxies than our own?
So the real thrust of the question here, to a religious Jew, anyway, is not why should the universe be so big, but why should G-d care about man? Or, to put it slightly differently, why would G-d need vast galaxies to demonstrate man’s insignifcance when gnats and angels would do?)
We shall return to the universe’s indifference in a moment, but first we must question not just how innovative the question is but the apparent scientific grounds of the question itself. Although a huge universe does not represent an innovation to the religious mind, are we even so sure the physical universe is so huge? Contemporary science is notoriously bound up with observers and frames of reference. In 1983, Mostafa A. Abdelkader formulated a totally unfalsifiable mathematical model of the universe in which we all live on the inside of a hollow earth and Pluto is the size of a bacterium. It is still irritating philosophers of science. I do not think his paper accurately models reality, but it is difficult to prove that it does not. Perhaps the way the question of the universe’s size is posed, with so much self-assuredness, is really just a relic of the centuries when science considered itself something like G-d’s truth.
Even if we are (1) primarily concerned with the universe’s indifference and (2) certain that it is vast, we must then turn to the thicket of philosophical assumptions underlying the question.
Do we assume, for example, that all creations are equally important in G-d’s eyes, or might distant galaxies be byproducts of some process, with G-d’s true concern touching only our local blue-green marble? Even if we insist that G-d is truly omnipotent in the sense that He has no byproducts and everything He creates is with direct intent, how do we know that there is a reason underlying everything He does? Certainly, there may be some divine purpose behind the untold galaxies, but can we even confidently explain why G-d wishes to create a certain hydrogen atom here on earth? And if not, how can we ultimately hope to plumb the divine intention behind more complex creations? Perhaps it is only possible to understand what He Himself reveals as his reasons, and beyond that we have little hope. What man can claim on the basis of worldly inference and deduction why the Creator made light and the atmosphere such that the sky is blue?
But fine. Assuming we are asking why G-d would create a universe we assert is vast and recognize as indifferent when what He truly cares about is the moral decisions of human beings, and assuming He made it this way intentionally, and that we are meant to comprehend it—nu, why is the universe so big?
To make man humble? The men most obsessed with huge hunks of dead matter utterly beyond our reach hardly seem to have a diminished sense of superiority. And besides, we always knew about the angels. How many are your works, and even more so in transcendence and variation, more than just another rock or ice or fire.
To give man choice? True, a universe containing only the earth may make men feel the presence of G-d, since we may to obviously be the center of it and so have no choice but to serve Him.
This reason is, in a way, question begging, since whether the large and indifferent universe causes a sense of distance from G-d is what’s at issue here. A good explanation for distant galaxies may cause us to feel close to G-d. In fact, paradoxically, even the free-choice explanation of the universe’s size can have this effect, since G-d went through so much “effort” only to make us feel distant from Him, an expression of great love and devotion! Besides, even without a large and indifferent universe, there are other ways G-d conceals Himself from us, through the world’s materiality, corporeality, etc.
No, the only way the vast indifferent universe makes sense is as an end unto itself. It is not here to facilitate a human need per se but rather to fulfill a G-dly need, so to speak. In other words, the huge reaches of space are not a means to a human end but are themselves a desirable end before G-d.
As we are taught, G-d desires a dwelling place in the lower worlds, to be fully present in a place that completely denies His presence. In other words, He wishes to conceal Himself in a place that has the capactiy to eventually reveal Him. He does not want this because it grants human beings free choce but, on the contrary, grants us free choce in order to facilitate this unity between the unG-dly and the divine.
In such a universe, there should be an infinite number of things that make no sense.
The ancient universe, before we learned of its true size, could reveal some aspects of G-d, but not the Creator Himself. A universe of immense magnitude full of inaninmate matter is the type of universe that conceals Him but can actually truly reveal Him.
In the beginning, the universe conceals Him, as all brute matter does. It conceals Him the way marble conceals the sculptor. “Just marble here,” the block of marble says. Matter speaks only about matter.
But matter, you may be objecting, is tamed by form, by spirit. A block of marble may not tell us about a sculptor, but a statue certainly does. The statue is given a form in which arist invests their power. The marble, through its shape, now points toward something beyond itself; the matter is given both content (in itself) and context (in the human world). Raw matter may not tell us anything about the nature of the Creator, but all matter in our universe is formed—color, shape, mass, and various other properties mean that G-d hides in the universe only unitl we plumb the depths of his palate, his molds, his storehouses. A single “dead” pebble, grasped by its form in the human mind, can and does reveal four fundemental physical forces as well as an uncreated Creator, and much else besides.
This is where we were around five hundred years ago, when we thought the physical universe was much smaller, and G-d decided something must change. He set aside his Michelangelo persona and became a modern artist.
You can interperet this change in two ways. Either His presence was too obvious and He wished to hide further, allowing the generations to descend from ancient heights. Or just maybe He thought He was too hidden, the One G-d mistaken for an artist of relatively human caliber. (No one mistakes creation ex nihilo or the divine infinite for human. The error, of course, was mistaken what we could know of forms, qualities, and souls as commensurate with Him. And so—) Either way, the time of matter had come.
Either way, He sent us telescopes.
We were shown that the universe is vast and full of stuff, more stuff than we can begin to imagine, not angels full of purpose and obsessed with humanity but rocks and ice and emptiness, and endless unfathomable indifference. We have learned that the Creator is not pocket-sized, nor can He even fit comfortaply in a museum or between a pair of ears. He has broken free and rampaging through the city. He knows trillions of dead planets, holds them in motion, maintains them in existence, all without our perception, without our consent, without our boxes.
There is no soul or story that can lend all of this context or make it mean something. There is no way to look at it as a sculpture. The sheer unending incomprehensible particularity of its members breaks our categories and even our imaginations. We poke and prod at the universe with numbers indicating units of time and space, and the universe does not even shift in its sleep.
“Reveal me in this,” G-d says, “and it is Me you reveal. Not the structures of your own mind. Not the limitations of your understanding. In this endless empty formless thing, I will be what I will be.”
Why is the universe so big?
Nothing smaller is meaningless enough to convey its Creator.