Purim in the Time of Coronavirus

There has never, in the history of the world, been a better week to celebrate Purim. Never have we been so instantaneously connected, so able to join our voices and declare, “According to my senses and calculations, we’re all going to die.”

The pain, the disappointment, the terror, when life makes no sense. Our role models who do real good turn out to do real evil as well. A people whom G·d has chosen to serve Him until the end of time is split over the nature of their terrible enemies. New diseases spread like wildfire, showing little concern for whether their victims are good or bad people. A world of madness, a lawless jungle whose only logic is power and whose only wise men are mad, nihilists, or hermits.

That’s why Purim is the holiday. There, the Jewish people in exile, cradling in their arms the shattered vessel of their faith, Babylon ascendant, then Persia. Look at their sages, dying embers with no land and no Judaism structured to last without a temple. The most powerful sober man in the civilized world is a descendant of the king of the Israelites’ greatest historical enemy, the one their king failed to kill. Economists and pedants say with great authority: The Jews (as they are now called) have no future in Persia; their prophets were mistaken; their G·d has forsaken them. End of the road.

“All the finite worldly things on which I have mentally and emotionally come to rely turn out to have been playthings in the wheel of chance!”

“The logics with which I have tended the garden to turn fate to my favor have been maliciously upended. I am being laughed at!”

“There is no G·d! We are but cockroaches in the wheel wells of a car heading down a ravine with no driver at the wheel!”

“It turns out I’ve been sating my inner emptiness with little puzzles as a chaotic jungle churns all around, and now it has stepped on my toys!”

This is our exile. Our exile has always been so sunny, so fair, so brimming with the rational possibility of our survival. But Purim is THE holiday because it’s the holiday of exile, and Purim is no mere survival. The Jews in Egypt toiling endless aimless labor were surviving. Purim is redemption. Purim is joy in that place of pain, disappointment, and terror. In the place that makes no sense.

The only interludes in the exile, the only times Purim no longer seems vital, are when we are so inured to the darkness it no longer seems dark. When we turn as those Jews did to Achashverosh, name some small realm of the senseless dark a dependable salvation, and settle for a partial explanation of some whorl in the vast churning unknowable. We make it first and worship it. This stage is called “prelude to Haman,” and Purim will again be demanded soon enough.

We have called senselessness the sign of exile. Knowing, logic, sense — a fitting in, a connection, each thing arrives at its place among the other things as Adam knows Eve. But Purim is not the apparent solution to exile, its opposite, that is, enlightenment, knowing.

Purim — to not know, to lose that place among things, to be blind to their interlocking:

“One is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until one doesn’t know the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai’.”

Talmud, Megillah 7b

Some authorities in Jewish law say that the comparison is mathematical, that it is no mere coincidence that the Hebrew terms ‘Blessed is Mordechai’ and ‘Cursed is Haman’ have the same numeric value in the Gematria. Thus, the Talmud is saying you have to drink wine on Purim until you can no longer reckon this mathematical equality. But (aside from not fitting the words well—you are not then drinking until you don’t know the difference but rather until you don’t know the equality) there is more to not know about Haman and Mordechai than the mere math of the thing.

Esther, the heroine queen who lends her name to the whole story (Megillas Esther) is named after concealment, “I shall conceal my face.”[i] Not only is her identity long-concealed from her husband, but Esther is itself a pseudonym for Hadassah, a name of doubled and redoubled darkness, concealment that is itself concealed.

Esther is not just the name of the work but its theme. Every other book of the holy Jewish Tanakh mentions G·d by name. Esther does not. It is apparently a story of natural events, political machinations, reversals of fortune, the workings of happenstance. These must pass for G·d in the story of Purim.

Mordechai, a hero of Purim, is the nemesis of the evil Haman. Yet in this respect, they seem to work together. Mordechai writes the Megillah and hides G·d’s presence within it. Haman is a scion of Amalek; hiding G·d’s presence is his specialty. Mordechai does not name G·d; Haman says naming Him would make no difference. Amalek has the same numerical value as safek, doubt. Haman is doubt. Should Mordechai not have stood against doubt, and named G·d?[ii]

Nowhere is happenstance, the Hamanic G·d, more present than in gambling and chance. The honest scientist, in his exile interludes, admits his firm laws are bound by the rules of possibility and statistics, down to (and especially in) the quantum realm. Even regular laws of physics from Newton to Einstein and beyond are applied “with all else being equal.” The sun will probably rise tomorrow and the eggs on my breakfast plate will probably be better on my digestive system than the plate itself unless something happens, something unpredictable. The dice roll, we find the ends of the bell curve, the impactful and unlikely, the proverbial black swan. As the Yiddish saying goes, Mahn tracht un G·t lacht. Man plans and G·d laughs.

If the book of exile is named Esther because G·d is hidden within it, exile’s holiday is named Purim because stuff happens, no matter the plan.  Pur is the Persian word for ‘lottery’. It is the lottery that lies curled at the heart of darkest exile. Who catches the virus? Not whom a just G·d chooses, but those who are exposed. Ah, some who are exposed don’t catch it? Luck of the draw. The thing-that-just-so-happens happened to just-happen to them. The only knowledge in the face of Cornovirus is knowledge for shifting the odds in one’s favor, not unlike praying to a trickster god in ancient Sumeria. No finite being can make real assurances, after all, for there is no being enforcing logical laws in the particular, that all things should fit, and something may fail to fit today. That’s Haman, that’s doubt, that’s the roll of the dice, a Pur.

This is what Mordechai and Esther name the holiday celebrating Haman’s defeat. Just whose side are they on?

There are so many things to not know. Rather than assuming Mordechai and Esther should be agents for knowledge and enlightenment, we attend to the very core of Purim and find a battle over ignorance, a fight for the soul of unknowing.

Attend: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, may be read as the ‘Day like Purim’. Superficially, they are quite different: Fasting and feasting, solemnity and joy, apologizing and celebrating. Yet on Yom Kippur, we find a striking parallel, a commitment to unknowing:

The High Priest on the Day of Atonement would choose by lottery between two goats, one exiled to die in the desert of Azazel, and the other designated a sacrifice to G·d in the Temple. On this holiest day of the year, not only were the goats chosen by lottery, but the randomness of that lottery is openly emphasized in Jewish law.[i] The goats must be equal in appearance, size, and value, and should be purchased at the same time. We are not to see any reason why one should go to Azazel and one to G·d. A lottery is not, after all, a logical choice, but a random selection among equally-likely outcomes. With minds like human beings or “G·d”, there is arguing. With the lottery, the forces of nature, Haman’s favorite things, there is no arguing. The doubt is inherent.

But the joke is on Haman. He thinks Amalek has penetrated the temple on Yom Kippur. In truth, ranks of infinite angels have praised the lottery, “happenstance,” doubt, and chance long before Eisav first sired Amalek or exile darkened the face of the earth. Haman’s favorite things are the source of all repentance, the essence of Yom Kippur, and even more the essence of Purim.

Repentance is the most powerful force in the universe, without which life would be completely impossible. Even the greatest Puritans, the greatest flingers of fire and brimstone (today often not religious in the monotheistic sense of the word), believe in repentance even as they are rebuking the heathen and condemning him to death. The proof: They believe they themselves are good, not bad. Without repentance, at this stage in history, it is impossible that they can think of themselves as good, and their enemies bad, without a belief in repentance.

This proof holds across widely varying definitions of evil. Repentance is a robust existential proposition, not merely a moral one. Let’s take an outlandish figure from the late exile: Hitler, may his name be obliterated. Old Adolf had an unusual definition of evil, we may all agree. The details don’t matter. What matters is that repentance is the essence of life itself, even for monsters. Just as no story of a sinner’s life does not include sin, no story of Hitler’s life does not include his enemies. It doesn’t matter if you demean those enemies, send them to the gas chamber, deny to the death any association with them—you are causally bound. That is, part of what makes Hitler, Hitler is what makes a Jew, a Jew. He can say he hates it and wants to destroy them; this is what the sinner says about his past. But how can the sinner escape? Just as there is no “pure Hitler” without the Jews because Hitler is defined in relation to the Jews, just as his every move is pervaded by their presence, how he cannot relieve himself without being a Jew-hater relieving himself, so are the sinner’s desire not to sin, his attempts at compensation, his apologies, indelibly tainted with violation. Oh, a sinner is asking forgiveness…?

Hitler, or the sinner, or any who seek to find innocence in the face of perceived corruption, those, in other words, who seek to be good while others are evil, have two options:

1) To refuse to acknowledge any influence. Reject the notion of logical connection per se and declare all actions to be a pure willing-into-being from the self. I am not a sinner; I am nothing but myself.

2) To somehow not be a sinner even while acknowledging the past connection to sin. To rewrite the past with the present.

The former option may be understood as logical, even in its negation of logic, like negative space. The latter option does not provide a means or an explanation at all.

The former is to doubt all defining truth in favor of on’s own will. The latter is to doubt the negation of logic itself, to doubt the doubt, to doubt the question.

The former is to cast a lottery among the actions, no one superior to any other, for no one can know which is preferable. The latter is to soar when one runs out of intellectual road, to do good even when my mind says good and evil are equal.

The former is to say that all actions are equal and so the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai’ is illusory. The latter is to unknow into existence their inner similarity, to transform what is surely as evil as Haman into what is surely good as Mordechai.

The former is Amalek, Hitler, Haman. The latter is repentance and the light of the Jewish people.

But wait, did we not say repentance is essential to every living thing? If Amalek is able to reject repentance in favor of nihilism, of pure skepticism—if it can declare its doubts certain with total certitude—then there is another path, and one doesn’t need repentance in order to live.

Come to think of it, Hitler and Haman didn’t live very long…

We unknow the ‘cursed is Haman’ into ‘blessed is Mordechai’ not through ignorance or an appeal to the inner equality of all things, but repentance. The two goats of Yom Kippur are equal not because G·d and Azazel are equal, G·d forbid, but because we acknowledge that, if LOGIC were used to choose between the saved and the punished, we would be punished. We are not innocent in our understanding. We do not, per the web of causes and effects, do any righteousness unaffected by our past transgression. The only escape is repentance.

Repentance: To transcend G·d’s will for what is right to ask forgiveness from G·d Himself. There is no averting a decree signed with the King’s signet. But the King Himself may still come to our aid and sign a new decree. We may, by dint of our inherent soul-connection with G·d[i], speak to the One Who Wills, the One who may have willed differently.

The true source of all doubt, of Haman, of the darkness of exile, is a place where good and evil are as nothing before Him. There is felt there not G·d’s eternal unrevoked choice of good, but His ability to freely doubt, the fact that ‘good’ may have been ‘evil’ and ‘evil’ ‘good’ before him. That He chooses freely in the way His creations have been allowed to choose freely. That He has never been defined by good and evil, and they have been defined by Him; they, too, are His creations.

From here He can forgive, for from here, things may have been different; from here, He escapes the forms of all His own chosen logics. From here, He can wipe the slate clean.[ii]

How do we reach a place where He is somehow both good and yet not defined by being good? How do we find this place both beyond all knowing and the source of all knowing?

Lean in, say, L’chaim, and hear: The place is inside us.

The secret inner place of unknowing, which reaches into the cruel terror of illogical exile, reveals its inner blessing, and subjugates it in the eyes of all to the One King—its name is Bittul, self-abnegation.

The Jews of Persia choose self-abnegation beyond reason. They choose G·d even on the pain of destruction. Even when their every sense and reason says their existence depends not on a hidden G·d but on worldly considerations, they reject (and so elevate) those reasons and logics in favor of G·d. The correct course of action remains the same, even as they are placed in a position where they may well, according to reason, have chosen the other course of action.

The Jews of Persia are given a situation of doubt, a lottery. They do not know which way things will go. They place a finger on the scale and certainly determine the course of events by turning to G·d beyond all reason. They reveal the lottery to be a means by which they are reminded of the only certainty beyond the limits of logic. That things could possibly go Haman’s way is the callsign of a G·d unbound by any rules, even the rules of exile. The Jews repent, and ‘cursed is Haman’ becomes ‘blessed is Mordechai.’ The genocidal lottery becomes the holiday. The doubt is not removed but transcended, for it, too, is G·dly.

So in the time of doubt, in the time of terror, the solution is not logic and enlightenment. The pure joy of Purim does not lie down that road. All logics and explanations may be doubted. The joy of Purim is the joy of certainty, and certainty cannot escape doubt on a raft of facts. It is the joy of repentance, and repentance cannot escape the past on some new assurances from a sinner.

Certainty transforms doubt as repentance transforms sin, by freely choosing G·d in the dark. The joy of Purim is not an ignorant joy, but simply an unknowing one. It looks at all the reasons and explanations why our existence is difficult and pained and uncertain and sees that they, too, were choices, little messages of G·d, signals that sound in the dark. We catch them, hear them, and come home.


[i] ”From where in the Torah [do I know] Esther? ‘And I will surely hide my face.’ (Deut. 31:18)” Talmud Chullin 139b

[ii] Not knowing G·d is no mere incidental detail in the Purim story. That G·d is not named is no accident, but fundamental to the entire story of repentance under the threat of mass slaughter. In Jewish history, Purim marks the conclusion of the receiving of the Torah, which is one of the reasons it’s the latest book of the Tanakh. It was only in the story of Purim that the Jews truly accepted the Torah, because we only know the relationship is real when it is truly tested. In the concealment of G·d, the people freely chose Him. Purim is the choice of G·d even when he appears to be in no position to reciprocate with blessing. It is the proof that the love continues even when there’s a chance it’s unrequited. His hiddeness is thus integral to the importance of the day, a detail far too important to leave to chance.

[iii] Mishna Yoma beginning of ch. 6

[iv] Amalek’s doubts and its severing of all logical webs also derive from an inner ‘soul truth’, but only by rejecting the logical and finite aspects of the soul. The litmus test here as in so many things is unity. The proof that Amalek is OF the exile rather than redeeming the exile is that they are not alive (souls in bodies) but dead, nihilistic, or insane, the three escapes from unity, the three abjurations of G·d’s purpose.

[v] This place of His Choosing is one of the most misunderstood places in history. The slightest error or impurity in one’s conceptions of G·d, and it is impossible to see correctly. The errors generally fall into two categories:

(a) Those who think that if G·d does not choose the good over evil because of some logic, then good is not really good and evil not really evil. This is the path of the rationalists, ironically named, for it is to ignore the rationally necessary supra-rational basis of all rationality. Indeed, the freely-chosen good is greater than any good by its own definition, since the freely-chosen good is chosen infinitely.

(b) Those who think that because G·d relates totally freely to good and evil that G·d really does not choose between them and that there really is no truth to the difference. Or in other words, that WITH G·D, the details of one’s actions don’t matter, and the entire notion of divinely-commanded morality is superficial. This was likely the mistake of the founder of Christianity and of Shabbatai Tzvi, among others. They do not see how the good itself is rooted in the very being of the chooser, just as they cannot see how the actual finite existence of the world is no contradiction to His infinite unchanging unity.

On Doubt

I. Does It Make Sense To Write About Doubt?
If I still struggled as I have in the worst nights, I would never arrive at these sentences, nor will those truly doubting care to read them. Doubt garbs herself with midnight veils woven from her own hair beyond which our powers of certainty cannot peer. “Doubt this!” she cries to anyone who would understand her true nature. And yet, this is her downfall; her own garments eat at her. Doubt may always fairly be doubted. Therefore, let me write.

II. Doubt’s Superpower
Most of our demons melt in the light. Doubt eats the light for lunch.

III. How Doubt Reproduces Within Us, Eats Us From The Inside, And Leaves a Husk
I doubt my doubts are important.

IV. The Wonderful Phenomenon of Doubt in a Social Context
Small doubts are social creatures; doubt’s spawn flock to dorm rooms and coffee shops. Like moths, they are drawn to the light. Better: Like cannons, they are drawn to ships. The small vessels keeping us afloat on the inky depths of unknowing (and make no mistake, even the Hebrews needed dry land in order to walk and to breathe) are ruptured and sunk by the shot of other ships.

“There is no one to pray to,” they aim at your bow. “Your father doesn’t love you,” they snipe at your mast. You can try defending yourself with an argument, but the underlying message is, wouldn’t you prefer to be on a ship whose sky remains clear of iron? Shouldn’t you sail to a more defensible position?

The only response to this that ever works is to undercut their own certainty, to put a hole through their hull, to question their assumptions. You may sink them before they sink you. You may drown in the attempt.

Either way, it’s the sea that wins.

V. Can Philosophy Rescue Us From Our Doubt?
You can doubt that A=A, or that 1=1, or that Truth=Truth. You cannot, however, rationally doubt I=I, that you are yourself, for if you are not yourself, who is doubting? On the other hand, rationality is, itself, an A, not an I. Doubt everything.

VI. Why We Should Be Happy That Reason Is Powerless in the Face of Doubt
Doubt is abhorrent to nature. To frame the sun coming up tomorrow only as a probability is to ignore the sun’s nature and to reject reason, which exists to understand it. “Maybe the sun won’t rise” is technically true, and also calls into question whether there is a sun that has risen every morning for all of recorded history. If the sun’s nature is not responsible for this phenomenon, what is?

I, too, am like the sun. No matter how many times I’ve sinned, day in, day out, always the same, I might stop today. Inductive reason cannot tell me my nature; what I am (and thus, what I will do) is not determined by what I’ve done.

To repent is to doubt.

VII. Where does doubt come from?
The source of doubt is a Truth too great to be known.

VIII. Why We Should Be Sad That Reason Is Powerless in the Face of Doubt
Doubt does not feel like repentance when you have no sight of the G-dly revelation and your faith seems to have died and to believe you can rekindle something real in your creased and blackened heart is harder in your eyes than willing eleven billion dollars into your bank account in the next thirty seconds.

IX. On the Beliefs of Skeptics
“You can never be objective since you doubt only in the context of truths you’ve already assumed,” they say. They complain that doubt is only allowed, in certain schools of thought, in the context of faith. They never complain that their school of thought only accepts faith in the context of doubt. Sanitation workers should not be purists.

X. Since All Connection Depends on Faith
Doubt is to be alone.

XI. Is Doubt a Disease?
Doubt is both better and worse than an airborne virus.

It’s worse because the typical virus doesn’t demand your help to spread, doesn’t have you measuring your friends to determine who is ready for infection. It’s better because a good friend may not only remain a good friend despite infection, but their infection may be the cure for your own.

XII. Is It Rude to Ignore My Doubts?
Like the local branch of the KKK, there’s a big difference between having doubts around and entertaining them.

XIII. Doubt As a Tool
Doubt is a sharpening stone for the blade of faith. Perhaps the sword cannot cut through the stone. Hacking away at the rock will only blunt your faith. But the practiced warrior learns the art of attacking the stone with the right motion at the correct angle. The sword gets sharper.

Perhaps even sharp enough to cut stone.

XIV. Can Amalek Be Defeated?
The Rebbe teaches that Amalek grows with you. At the beginning of your journey, there is one kind of Amalek. Years later, when you have vanquished those doubts, their more refined children still rise against you. In a way, this is freeing, since you will not demand that any one answer vanquish Amalek forever.

Amalek’s ultimate downfall comes only with the answer of Moshiach, which is not really a single answer, but the totality of an unending motion of growth, the classroom of the unknowable Truth.

XV. Who Should Doubt?
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” The first line is a problem, true, but can we really say, after the 20th century especially, that it’s worse than the second?

XVI. A Lie
“If He would just reveal Himself to me, I would no longer doubt.”

XVII. Faith Is A Match for Doubt
Just as Haman is special for knowing the truth and yet rebelling against it anyway, a Jew is special for doubting the truth and devoting themselves anyway.

XVIII. Trust
There is no human social system that can survive a pervasive breach of trust. Consider the Beit Din and its laws of testimony. If witnesses cannot be believed, nothing can be believed. Doubt’s last refuge is, therefore, paranoia. Even Haman didn’t try it.

This is why when the Tzemach Tzedek told the chassid, “Believe in G-d because you believe in me, and I’ve seen Him,” it is a good answer. The day it becomes a bad answer is a very bad day.

XIX. A Summary of Everything New We’ve Learned About Doubt the Past 500 Years
Proof is useless because the soul wants certainty, which proof cannot provide.

Certainty, like doubt, will meet you where you are.

XX. The Doubt of Purim
“There is no joy like in the world like the loosening of doubts.”

Purim was not an otherworldly miracle, lighting striking Haman on the point of his triangular hat. That would not remove doubt.

Purim was having no sign of G-d, living within His utter concealment, Haman ascendant, until the moment Haman was destroyed.

Apparently, doubt, too, is His domain…

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

 

May G-d Rescue Us From Our Solutions

Based on my everyday experience, it makes sense that the creation of the world is incomprehensible.

What is this thing doing here? Why is it built on a system of soul and body, a painful contradiction seemingly unjustified by anything in the universe? Sure, there’s baseball and hating Michael Chabon, but no joy in this vale of tears is without its price.

Chief, in my reckoning, of all the challenges that G-d places before a soul on this earth is the challenge of doubt. Not the caricature portraying the vacillation between “blind faith” and the ability to “believe,” but the deeper doubt, the one that zigs faith and zags understanding to strike right at what I am.

The problem is that we become attached to things, and even though past pain has made us wise, we (even subconsciously) begin to define ourselves by our views, opinions, and moral judgments.

If we are souls in bodies, you see, these beliefs are bodies. They are not purely of our private selves, but rather various means by which to express those selves in a place our selves otherwise could not reach. We, you see, are like lightning or opera; our souls are not for bottling. We can want whatever we want with our entire being; we are one thing, and that one thing decides what it is. A soul wants (in a passing moment between agonies) to eat pizza, and the soul changes; that’s what it’s now about. The soul is not insecure. It is thoroughly itself, so self-inseparable that it can turn toward pizza and lose nothing.

But imagine being a Jew who believes that Judaism means the Torah is given by G-d, and then there are eighteen articles a day on the falseness of Judaism or (even worse) on how Judaism means never having to say you’re sorry and crying at Disney films.

This puts the body under a lot of stress. A soul, at its protean essence, can simply switch to a new, enlightened outlook. Nothing is stopping it. It may desire to see things today as no Rabbi on earth has evern seen it, and it can fulfill that desire. The soul is of the infinite; it can be about anything.

The only thing holding the soul back, just like a fat kid trying to finish the Presidential Fitness Test, is its body. Your stupid soul got invested in some stupid idea (about Judaism) and you can’t just drop it now for a more palatable cultural/pragmatic Yiddishkeit germane to the New Yorker subscriber’s pillow talk, no more than Eugene can get Presidential with his thighs chafing before his classmates captivated by the heaving mass of his bloated form.

But no, souls in bodies, this is the plan. Infinite dreams, sweaty underwear realities.

If it is any consolation, G-d put Himself in the same stupid bind by creating this world of lies and investing Himself in it. If He wanted, He could go fractally spiral his endless wisdom through infinite dimensions while the stupid world with its ugly continents can’t even do one pull-up. Instead, He is here, in every slimy dismissal and every Hamas missile. Him, Him Him. Why? Because.

Like I said, of all things to make no sense, it makes sense it would be this one.

That’s why the dream of Moshiach is so big and so unworldly. Everyone here, with their own ideas and preconceptions, seeks to either free the soul and deny the body or recognize the body and tame the soul. Some wish to tell us the body/thought is a lie, an artifact created by brainwashing. They all vote Democratic and think they’re G-d. Others laugh at the soul’s freedom and write it off as childish mishegas. They adopt Trumpisms into their speech unexamined and don’t even think G-d is G-d.

His plan is much stranger. The soul’s freedom and the body’s cage are one; will and intellect do not contradict. The idolator says a body, by its nature, inherently conveys a certain soul. The Jew knows that body and soul are each his native tongue. Just as the Rebbe did not fear technology or vessel but demanded they be used for holiness, Moshiach will show how the body does not contradict soul but is its pure and perfect expression; nature and miracle are both G-d, are only G-d; the gufei halachos and the nishmasa d’nishmasa are one. To lose the soul or the body is to die, but to find both without contradiction is to live forever.

In the meantime, we live in this exile with Jews who think nothing is more Jewish than criticizing Jews, who think that thousands of years of Jewish parents died to raise their children to reject “inmarriage” as a ghetto. We live in times when just about a whole country of Jews define Judaism as being a wilful soul without a constraining body; they do not see how they are as incarnated as the next gilgul, how they only clash with us because they, too, have bodies; souls love and do not clash. It is not the self of the soul we doubt, but the bodies she expresses through. Where she is of limitless potential, the body is of defined actuality. Where she can infinitely agree, the body cannot occupy another body’s space.

How long must we wait for this doubt to end, this endless self-harm of the body Judaic, this terminal and interminable disunity between self and inner other?  How long must there be tension between the need to unite with brother and sister and solid impermeable realities that separate us? How long must we tolerate?

We are told that it is all one, and we work to see it. We are told He wishes to be together with us even in our bodies. But how much of this can we take?

We cannot live much longer, having to choose between Jew and Judaism, between self and self.

G-d, rescue us from doubt. Destroy Amalek, let us not need to be free of your Torah nor of the selves we see in it. Let us experience the freedom of the body and the entrapment of the soul. Rescue us from our own solutions, and give us Yours, amen.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

If Haman Was My Rebbe

I would never take Haman as my Rebbe, nor advise anyone else to do so. But if I did, he would tell me to stop caring about the answers.

The tragedy of Haman, his death-struggle with G-d and the Jewish people that ends with him dangling from his own gallows – it is trivialized by answers. If we seek answers there, we miss the entire point.

“If G-d really exists,” you might ask Haman (if you were stupid enough to make him your Rebbe), “why doesn’t He show Himself?”

“What then?” Haman would answer, before perpetrating some unconscionable act of genocidal violence. What then? Who cares whether He shows Himself or not?

You look at Auschwitz and ask where was G-d, as if some answer to the question will make you happy, as if with the secrets of creation spread out at your feet you would still find your question important. You do not want the release of an answer. You want the draw of the question. Understanding where G-d was would only obviate your question, reduce Auschwitz to something necessary, part of some plan. Really, your question is not searching for an answer; it is a question in search of itself. This is the type of question Haman likes.

Haman would tell you to quit your arrogance and realize your life is not ruled by answers. You do not sit in judgement of it. It is something that largely happens to you, with some rather important choices in the middle. G-d happens to Haman. Haman is a believer, in this sense. G-d is true to him. And he does not care. This is maturity.

Haman repudiates the trendy doubts of small minds, the materialisms and the atheisms, the naturalistic scientism and the happy agnosticism. These are doubts for men who don’t know. Haman is a higher class of rebel. Haman is a man who can know and doubt at the same time; this is the only true form of unbelief. His doubt is unconditional. It is an existential fact of the universe. Haman doubts the same way the sea fills its bed.

Haman sneers at petty men who, faced with the Truth, see no room but to follow it. He is a scion of Agag, a king of Amalek. When the whole world feared to raise a hand against the Hebrews and their almighty G-d, his people stood alone. There is a terrible courage to marching to certain defeat because His dominion cannot seem absolute.

The Jew is Haman’s area of expertise. He knows that in the Jew he finds his eternal enemy. Where he knows and rebels anyway, the Jew doubts and follows anyway. The Jew is doing and then understanding. The Jew cares not for the always-qualified approval of the world. The Jew does not need answers. Just like Haman.

Haman loves learning, and would insist that all his followers be great scholars. Learning is a wonderful experience, where we bring truths into our world and watch them glint in the light of our understanding. They belong to us. Haman is fond of possessions.

Haman would tell his Chassidim (could there be such a thing?!) never to miss a day of Torah study, to always say a kind word to their neighbor and always consider the less-fortunate. Haman would have no problem telling you to give charity or to contemplate the creator or to march for justice in Palestine. It’s all the same to him; whatever you want, darling. As long as you remain the one who chooses, who cares?

“Who cares?” is your mantra when every answer has a question. You could tell Haman that Amalek is only created by the G-d he believes in to pose an obstacle on the Jews’ way to redemption. “Who cares?” he would ask, before demonstrating clearly that all things which can and cannot be are equal before his true Infinity, and the story of the Jews is merely a contrivance with a beginning and an end, and he would never let you live such a superficial life. A chassid must not be bribed by the surface purposes of contingent, “meaningful” existence. Sure, being a good person is meaningful at some level, but next to eternity…don’t kid yourself, is all he’s saying. “Meaning” is a crutch. If there is something you must do, you do it regardless.

At his tish, Haman teaches: If you do something for G-d because you are certain it means something, you worship not G-d but your own certainty. It is the veil of doubt that makes G-d most real, for we then serve Him in purity. Amalek did it when it was difficult, when G-d was splitting seas and draping darkness, when they were absolutely certain. So a Jew must do it when it’s difficult, when G-d is hidden, when Achashverosh is the clear power in the world.

When Mordechai does not bend and does not bow, Haman understands it perfectly. The Jew cannot be bought with power. They cannot be bought with physical pleasures. They cannot be bought with “meaning,” a life of purpose in the court of a great king. They are stiff-necked and cling stubbornly to the Truth; they will serve G-d, no matter how desolated the holy city, no matter how bitter the exile. There is no way to tear them from this task. Genocide is a quick solution kludged together when all else fails.

Haman, in his plot, brings out the very best of the Jew. They are two halves, and if Haman were (G-d forbid) a teacher of G-d’s wisdom, he would dare his followers to be every bit as committed, every bit as tenacious, as his genocidal plot indicates. He would encourage them in their worship.

In fact, Haman would be happy with the entire Judaism. Except for Purim, of course.

Haman hates Purim, because Purim makes from Haman a Rebbe. Everything is reversed, the chain reaction of his doubt is shown to be a recursive loop in the mind of G-d; it is infinite, He is in it.

He hates Purim, because on Purim it is not the individual who chooses, but G-d who chooses, and G-d can choose anything.

He can choose to make the world mean something.

He can choose to make Mitzvos mean something.

He can choose to know (and so create) the Unity beneath all dualities, and so do away with any dramatic and eternal rivalries. He can make Amalek not some great enemy, but merely another iteration of the same message, another sign.

And He does it all without showing his face, without breaking the doubt.

The doubt is in place.

Yet Haman certainly dies.

The Baal Shem Tov’s Question

“Whip the horses until they know they are horses.” “Whip the horses until they cease to be horses!” – Two versions of the words that inspired Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi to stay in Mezritch and continue his study of chassidus.

~2500 years ago, Pythagoras proved his famous theorem with demonstration strong as prophecy. To this day, the majority of the public who never uses geometry after freshman year still knows that A squared plus B squared equals C squared. This, at least, can be relied upon. The Greeks knew it well. Brilliant men such as Pythagoras and Plato formed (pun!) a religious attachment to mathematics and its truth that nowadays, despite our vastly increased knowledge, seems kind of off. Oh, how the heart in the grips of terror and despair leaps to behold the square on the hypotenuse, a solid form in the midst of so much shifting doubt, the rock of our deliverance!

We may laugh, but we should mourn. It is a terrible tragedy that we have kept the theorem but lost what made it sacred to wise men’s eyes. Indeed, it is perhaps our greatest tragedy. Much of our current confusion is due to a surplus of answers to questions we have never asked. Just as the average man today has possesses riches King Midas could not dream of, we each, through advances both in knowledge and communication, have access to information that would drop Pythagoras to his knees. It does not drop us to our knees or draw our eyes heavenward because, again, like our physical wealth, our knowledge floats around us in a sort of unidirectional nimbus, a halo of stuff that just is, its purpose mysterious. The wealth of Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy seems to sit there awkwardly, immodestly huge, unable to insist on a particular purpose, because after all knowledge is just knowledge and though I can tell you more about triangles than Euclid ever suspected I cannot tell you why it’s important. Though Plato knew less math, he knew what question his math answered and thus he consecrated it.

In losing the questions, our answers cease to seem like answers at all.

I propose that, generally speaking, we are lost in a doubled darkness. Darkness, because we don’t know the question the triangle answers. And a deeper darkness, because even if we had the questions, we wouldn’t know which questions the questions answered. In other words, when we think of this whole business of answers and their questions, we may feel that it’s not so bad. After all, we still have the answers, the facts, whole and complete, and the main role of the questions was to make the answers seem meaningful, to help Plato sleep easier at night. But that’s not how Plato, nor Aristotle, nor, l’havdil, the Rambam saw it. On the contrary — the question that draws forth “the answer” of any creation (what we might in Kabbalah call its chochma) is one of its causes and ultimately the thing that gives it not just meaning to the observer but Meaning in the scheme of creation. Indeed, the notion that each question of a limited nature is the answer to yet another (higher-order) question eventually led even the philosophers of pagan societies toward the existence of something which simply is in-and-of itself, and is not the answer to any further question…

So our path back into the light of understanding, for the Pythagorean theorem or anything else, is to learn the question and then to see how the question is essential to the answer.

Take, for example, the terse teaching of the Baal Shem Tov I wrote about last year at this time“Everything is by Divine Providence. If a leaf is turned over by a breeze, it is only because this has been specifically ordained by G‑d to serve a particular function within the purpose of creation.”

It is entirely possible to know this teaching for years and even think about it often without ever knowing what question it answers. I’ve done it.

It’s not just the question of whether G-d has divine providence over everything. If that were all, the teaching would just say that. It appears that “everything” is not enough; we must hear about a leaf in a breeze, and the leaf in the breeze is not itself merely analogous to “everything.” What is the significance of the leaf?

The significance of the leaf is its insignificance. We are learning that G-d cares about the leaf in the wind because something about the leaf implies G-d shouldn’t care about it. The Baal Shem Tov doesn’t teach that “Every single hand you are dealt in poker is ordained by G-d,” or “Every wheel that falls off one’s wagon is divinely decided.” Such teachings imply a question predicated on a deterministic universe, where the antithesis of divine providence is luck or happenstance. The question would be, “Does G-d rule over even the things that seem random?” and the answer would be yes. Instead, we have a leaf turning in the wind, an example we wouldn’t normally consider luck or happenstance because we barely consider it an occurrence. In fact, the Baal Shem Tov’s question, as betrayed by his example, is, “Does G-d rule over even the lowly, insignificant creations?” and the answer is yes. In short — Q: Does G-d have time for my frivolities? A: G-d has time even for a leaf.

The difference between the actual question and the possible question is vast. The Baal Shem Tov is not asking whether G-d has control over those things which seem given over to chance or nature. This would implicitly acknowledge a dichotomy between the things that we think must happen (e.g., our rug must stay on the living room floor and not levitate us to a whole new world) and things where, well, the Creator can fudge the numbers (I get a straight instead of a full house), and we would be answering that both deterministic nature and “chance” are ruled over by one G-d. Compare to the leaf in the wind, in which the implication is a hierarchy of significance, that G-d would seem to care more about the Truth or human beings or animals than He does about a single part of a single plant, and we insist that, in fact, even the unimportant things are important to Him.

It is the difference between whether we have as our baseline a universe of unranked answers, or a universe of answers demanding questions which demand further questions. To say G-d cares even about a poker hand is to have as our question whether anything is truly random, to look at the universe as a collection of facts possibly attributable to a different cause than the apparent one. But to say G-d cares even about a leaf is to have as our question whether the inherent hierarchy of the universe, the fact that some things are greater and better than others, is reflective of G-d’s involvement in the creation — that better things are close to Him, and smaller/worse/lesser things are far. The first approach says that everything matters because nothing matters because the hierarchy is an illusion. The second approach says that the hierarchy is true but G-d still cares about everything, and you work out the contradiction.

If the teaching were about playing cards or wagon wheels, we might think that G-d treats differently with necessity and happenstance, and the Baal Shem Tov comes to teach us that he cares equally for both. Really, the Baal Shem Tov teaches us something far deeper and more profound — that there is a G-d utterly unbound by nature, and a universe of occurrences that spirals forth from the creator in ranks of importance, purpose, and meaning. It is only logical that G-d should care more about an angel or the form of a triangle than a single leaf in the wind. It is only logical that He should care more about the question than the answer.

The Baal Shem Tov comes and teaches us that G-d cares even about the answers, about the brute facts, about our dead triangle, and not just Plato’s sacred one. The Baal Shem Tov teaches that even now, at the end of history, in the multilayered dark, the appearance of chaos and questionless answers is false, because even the answers come directly from G-d, and what at first glance seems unimportant is as G-dly as the Infinite Light.

We live in a time when our answers have forgotten they are answers. The Baal Shem Tov’s question, about the significance of that which seems insignificant, reminds the answer that it is an answer, that G-d cares about even the irrelevant leaf. But now that the G-d cares about the leaf, how insignificant is it really? The need for the question, for viewing the leaf as a tiny creation in a universe of vastly more important beings, is eliminated. The leaf, by the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, has gained its own direct connection to G-d; its own soul is on display.

The answer has been whipped and forgotten it’s an answer, much like the unmoved mover who creates and sustains the world, and even the darkness has become light.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.