If Antiochus Was My Rebbe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, he’s obsessed with oil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It may not be pleasant.

But it is beautiful.


Originally posted on Hevria.

Why Beethoven Is Better Than Bieber

“Better? How can you say better?”

This is a very common question nowadays, what with the collapse of all discourse into postmodern nihilistic emptiness. As with all such questions, it can only be answered by a return to old ideas, ideas older than the current back-and-forth between enlightenment and post-enlightenment thinking.

Once, in those benighted days, people thought a work of art or a course of action could be “better” than the alternatives, subjective preference be damned.

How were they able to do this?

There are several layers of groundwork that must be in place to truly argue for it, and expounding on them would take much more effort (and time) than I can currently give. Suffice it to say, one would probably begin with the question of whether a human being can actually apprehend the truth of anything, then move on to what that truth it, work one’s way through the steps of the ancient philosophies, perhaps discover G-d along the way, and (more important for our purposes) even discover man.

It is this last part of the groundwork that forms the foundation for the ladder of better and worse. Simply stated: A human being is an animal that can do something no other animal can do. Just as an animal is a plant but more, so too is a human an animal but more. A human being is an animal that can think.

When we say “think” here, we mean in the old sense of the word. Not that one can process data, or accomplish organized tasks, or even organize socially. Rather, to think is to grasp the form of the object of thought, to understand what it is, in distinction to other things.

If I think about dogs, I will come to realize they are not cats, and that they are not tables, and that they are not the Pythagorean theorem. But I will also come to realize dogs probably are more feline than they are Pythagorean. In this sense, to think is to grasp what different things are, and how they fit together. Therefore, a human being is an animal that can grasp what different things are, and how they fit together.

However, not all things are created equal in their form. This is evidenced by the difference between man and other animals. Our dog, for example, can definitely react to a cat differently than he reacts to a table. However, a dog cannot react to the Pythagorean theorem at all.

Why? Because a cat not only possesses a form but is also made of physical material. A dog cannot really think in the human sense, cannot grasp forms, what a cat is and how it fits together with dog food or squirrels. A dog reacts to a cat differently than a table but does not understand what a cat is in any abstract sense; it could not tell you what makes a cat a cat, but only that the thing in front of him right now, with the claws and brushy tail, must be chased. In other words, it grasps not so much the form of the cat as the smell or appearance of certain matter. A form is general, abstract, and qualitative; a dog grasps only what is particular, concrete, and embodied.

This is why Pythagoras spoke only for people, and not for animals. A human being can grasp more of reality than his best friend; a human can grasp what things are and how they fit together, even if they are general, abstract, and qualitative.

It follows, then, that the more one grasps form over matter, the further away from an unthinking animal one becomes: Just as a chipmunk can sit on a log, so, too, can a man as wise as a chipmunk. But to craft a mahogany chair informed by engineering and aesthetics, to impose a form on the log and reduce its matter to that which is necessary (or most beautiful) to hold up a sitting person, is a profound reflection of what makes us human. The latter is the imposition of the general, the abstract, and the qualitative upon the matter of the log. It is the imposition of form onto matter. It is what humans can do that no animal can do.

Similarly, there is a difference between a hooky melody with lyrics of young lust and the Ninth Symphony.

The difference is not, as our modern minds are trained to think, one of complexity. It’s not that Beethoven uses a full orchestra whereas Bieber uses Pro Tools, per se. Complexity and the dominance of form over matter are not synonymous. We could make the information conveyed in the Ninth Symphony more complex by breaking it up into smaller pieces. But taking an ax to a chair and reducing it to kindling makes it more complex, too, and what is achieved is only chaos. Chaos is not an expression of form but rather the deepest expression of matter, because to grasp a form is, again, to grasp not only what things are but also how they fit together.

The “how they fit together” aspect of a form derives not only from the form itself (because, after all, chaos and white noise are technically forms as well) but from a third aspect of every thing, namely, its purpose. The matter of a chair is wood; this an animal can appreciate. The form of a chair is its legs, its seat, the specific shape of the carving, etc., and that is human handiwork. But what makes the chair a chair rather than an oddly shaped arrangement of stuck-together kindling, what lends the form an advantage over the matter, is ultimately the chair’s purpose; it’s for sitting. If either the matter or the form is not conducive to sitting, then the chair ceases to be a chair, and its form ceases to be an imposition on its matter, and we are left with a jungle-like chaos inimical to humanity.

The same holds for Beethoven. What makes Beethoven a higher form of human expression than “Baby” is not raw complexity, but rather a complex form used to the specific ends of the great composer.

It is this purposive complexity, the masterful demonstration of unity and harmony in the imposition of form over matter, that is the higher form of music. The simpler, more rhythm-based forms of Mr. Bieber, especially as they are so focused on the animal realm of material sensation, simply do not manage to achieve those heights.

And so, for humans, at least, Beethoven is better than Bieber, since it is more in line with what we are, and is a clearer demonstration of what makes a person more than an animal, that is, our ability to grasp what things are, and how they fit together.