On Churches, Wagon Drivers, And Contradictions

I think it is part of human nature that, when confronted by big, old contradictions, we try to find a way around them. We hedge, feint right and left, poke for weaknesses. If indeed the contradiction lies across our only path, we then choose to idle, convincing ourselves that where we stand is where we truly want to be. Finally, when inner or outer force compels us forward, we turn for the last line of defense to our imaginations, which let us pretend contradiction does not exist, which is an elegant, clean solution to a messy problem that deposits us on a firm moral high ground (also imaginary) where we may live out our lives pleasantly repeating, “All is one, all is one.” Or, if our imagination is not so strong as to make all equal while remaining on the high ground, we may at least imagine that we have the strength to one day make it so, and devote all our lives to leveling mountains and valleys…

But facing a contradiction, despite the pain and the mess, is how we, collectively, figure stuff out. Not by avoiding it or attempting to uproot it but by engaging it in its structure do we sharpen our minds. The alternatives are either to dull them through endless, desperate hammering or to discard them in favor of our dreams, as castles in the sky need not these mundane tools for their construction.

Here’s an interesting contradictory structure:

(i) A teacher and Chassid I profoundly respect argued at length that the Vatican City is far, far worse than Las Vegas, as far as concealments of G-d go.
(ii) The same teacher on a different occasion shared with us a well-known fact about the great Baal Shem Tov — that the sage wouldn’t ride with a non-Jewish wagon driver who did not cross himself when his wagon passed a church.

At first glance, it seems like we’re saying Christianity is both bad and good, or both desirable and undesirable. There are many ways we could manipulate these statements to resolve the contradiction. We could simply call into question the veracity of either claim or say they actually represent two different worldviews that are allowed to freely contradict. We could question whether the BeSh”T story could actually be trusted or whether he would agree with my teacher or my teacher with him; there is enough room here to easily escape this dilemma. But suppose for a moment we were convinced that (i) and (ii) are true and that they must coexist in the same worldview.

Our next method of escape is to simply avoid the question through inaction. It might help to point out that the question is academic or pedantic, and that answering it reflects moral weakness. The question of Christianity’s place in the world, as a devoted religious Jew, is largely irrelevant to day-to-day life. There are (as always) so many other more important things to deal with. People are starving somewhere, grandma needs a new pair of horseshoes, etc. So let the question stand; we don’t need to pass through it. Just don’t get in the wagon!


I don’t have a choice. I do need to move forward. Because the ride in the wagon has grown rougher of late, and its drivers are leery, and threats loom on every side. We Jews seem to draw closer to the end of our post-war pass; our defenses are collapsing. If there is some wisdom that could tell us whom to trust, we must find it, and fast, because the wagon may be entering the woods, and the sun is setting.

And so: the next solution, an ever-more-familiar one. Wherein I deny not the source or relevance of the contradiction, but its premises — that is, the shared premise of every contradiction, that things have differences that make them incompatible. This is the best solution so far because we get to say that we have respected the problem (“The Baal Shem Tov really did say it!”) and that we have not just let it stand but rather proceeded forward and dealt with it.

Like this: Our problem arises from the BeSh”T’s judgment of a man based on his religious beliefs, or our teacher’s devotion to the view that Christianity (Catholicism specifically) has a nature or purpose that render it evil in our eyes. Neither of these need compel us, if we are brave enough to stand by our own judgment rather than theirs and say that a man should be judged by his individual tolerance alone and/or that Christianity and Judaism, like all religions, have the same goals and get at the same Truth. The mistake of my teacher and the holy BeSh”T lies not in any obvious disagreement of theirs but in their shared misunderstanding of the situation. And indeed, once we have discovered their mistake it’s easy to return to their statements and extricate them from error. My teacher was merely operating within a religious framework that, though sectarian, was a necessary precursor to our modern universal enlightenment. The BeSh”T certainly judged men only by their tolerance for others, but the best external means of ascertaining that tolerance was, in his benighted times, through signs of religious devotion. Presto! Other than the small matter of rendering them wrong and (appearing to be) relatively ignorant, we have rescued them from their contradiction through the power of imagination, which can conceive of a world where there are no contradictions. And, once it is imagined, we must make it so…

But, assuming I insisted on taking the BeSh”T and my teacher at face value, stubbornly focusing on the structures of (i) and (ii) as they present themselves, the definitions of all their terms intact. What if I insisted on engaging and fighting this contradiction that I may depart its straits with some wisdom for the non-imaginary riotous road?

Here is the problem, as I see it:

(i) is basically an argument that the church is a very old and powerful institution of idol worship and historic Jew hatred, which means it stands athwart the Jewish mission of revealing the one true G-d in this world. Of the few things that could definitely be declared unJewish, idol worship tops the list. On the other hand, (ii) seems to say that this very heresy is in some sense better than the alternative; that the Baal Shem Tov preferred a driver who preferred the Sistine Chapel to the Vegas strip.

We may be tempted to distinguish between (i) and (ii) by the difference between the collective and the individual — that is, the church is bad, but an individual Christian is good, or at least preferable to a non-religious person. But how precisely are we to measure this distinction? At what point does the net-positive of a group of individuals worshipping their non-True G-d become a cumulative negative? Conversely, how do the teachings of the institution, which allow for violence and falsehood, somehow become the opposite in the mind of a wagon driver?

Perhaps we can resolve it like this:

Judaism views the societal relationship with G-d at two fundamentally different levels. There is the connection with G-d that is viewed as an integral contributor to societal cohesion, that faith in G-d that is one of the Noahide Laws, Judaism’s recipe for a successful civilization. Then there is the relationship with G-d that has nothing to do with worldly purposes and everything to do with the divine, the purpose of creation, the G-dly mission that the knowledge of Him should fill the world and he be known even in the lowest place.

Christianity, as a not-quite-monotheistic faith, is at odds with this second goal. While base human nature is neutral on the G-d question, my teacher thought that the church actively spreads misinformation and has historically been at cross-purposes with the Jews.

However, just because we don’t think Christianity is True, we do not begrudge it to its adherents. On the contrary, as the holy BeSh”T would tell you, in the matter of civilization and order in the world, Christianity has been a force for great good.

So: if we are looking, as Jews, for those who would truly aid us in our G-dly mission, Christianity is institutionally disqualified and we would have better luck searching in Vegas, where we might at least find someone with the wrong actions but the right ideas and goals. If, however, we seek not allies but merely for civilized men who are guaranteed not to ruthlessly murder us in their wagon, the Vatican is a better bet than Reno or Amsterdam, for its men are bound by rules, and even though they are in their details the wrong rules, they at least bind a man to manhood, and prevent his descent into foulest savagery.

But this is, obviously, only one of many possible explanations. Perhaps a lack of Christian devotion was somehow much more sinister in the Baal Shem Tov’s time than today. Perhaps religious Jews have bad judgment. Perhaps what divides us all is illusory. Perhaps the whole question doesn’t matter. Perhaps my memory is faulty. Perhaps the words mean other things. Perhaps crosses are not Christian. Perhaps the question will be made moot by driverless cars. Perhaps…

Ditching Yahweh

Even straight-laced Jews like me can fall into strange cults if they’re not careful.

Indeed, thanks to the Internet especially, we are in immediate contact with all sorts of strange folk even in our own homes. We pay money for the privilege. We are weird.

Anyway. Let me describe for you, in brief, a particular sort of cultist you may have run into.

Unsought, unsolicited, they nevertheless eventually turn up. Like a nasty mold blooming in a dark corner of a synagogue never touched by sunlight; like rot setting into the fatty extremities of the body Judaic unwarmed by even the capillary flow of lifeblood; like a single bot trolling the lonely bowels of a long-forgotten religious subreddit — someone always starts talking about “Yahweh.”

What “Yahweh” is not: The name of the Jewish G-d according to just about anyone who worships him.

What “Yahweh” is: A sort of social signal, like perfectly round glasses or a man’s chest hair framed by a pastel collar; a portent of what’s to come, a clear indicator of the type of person we’re dealing with.

And make no mistake, in conversations about Judaism the one who says “Yahweh” always loses. This isn’t because of the religious injunction against pronouncing G-d’s name, since Yahweh is not G-d’s name. In fact, the true pronunciation of G-d’s name is lost to us. No, you lose when you use “Yahweh” because “Yahweh” users are either (A) antagonistic or misled academics or (B) really odd provincial bumpkins who manage to keep talking about Judaism for years without learning anything.

The Type-A Yahwist is a professor who has studied the history of Judaism from an academic perspective and has come to think that “Yahweh” is the original pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton. They also tend to think that “Yahweh” was a member of the Canaanite pantheon who eventually assumed the role of the G-d of Israel, which is fine, but when you say “Yahweh” at the beginning you’re giving it all away from the get-go.

The Type-B Yahwist is a commenter on chabad.org who loves Jews but just can’t bring themselves to learn Hebrew, or ask a Jew what G-d’s name is (or, more importantly, isn’t). They heard “Yahweh” from a Type-A (or some mysterious Christian source unknown to me) and only mean to sound hip and in-the-know by calling G-d that name.

This typology of Yahwists reminds me of an important lesson from Chassidus. Imagine a thundering, luminous river of Truth sustaining the world. The river, since it is Truth and Light, leaves no room for darkness and falsehood. Everything that touches the water becomes bright and transparent, real and alive. Such is the power of the Truth. That which tastes not of the water, is, in turn, not. And so: There can be no falsehood, for to exist is simply to be a vessel for the Truth.

With two exceptions. (A) At the river’s head, where the waters rage with unrivaled force and have not yet truly become a river but are rather pure, formless, Light, there is a moment when anything might partake of it and survive, for it is life itself in all its possibilities and does not yet discriminate. (B) At the very end of the river’s flow, where one last finger of water extends as a calm pool to slake some minor object’s thirst for being, there is so little light, and so little truth, that clinging to the back of that object a lie might perchance exist, a parasite off the truth, real and undestroyed by contradiction.

The Type-A Yahwist knows Judaism as he knows much else: as part of a synergistic whole, whose grounding principle is the Yahwist’s own understanding. Within his intellect, essential truths are trimmed if necessary. He knows Judaism so much that his knowing becomes primary and the object of his knowledge secondary. The Type-B Yahwist knows too little, and it is not his own intellect that he would lose if he knew the truth, but his own ignorance. Rather than consuming the Truth whole, he fears to be consumed by it, and is content to remain on the edge of the Truth, never bothering to disabuse himself of his mistaken notions. Type-A is arrogant, for from where he stands the Truth is secondary to him. Type-B is afraid and so knows nothing.

The solution for Type-A is to show him that even if the Truth of everything is allowed to speak in its own voice, there can still be unity. The solution for Type-B is to show him that subservience to the Truth is better than freedom without it.

What all Yahwists have in common, in summary, is what every lie has in common, and that is, a conception in contradiction to reality. This is a sorry state of affairs. But it is also good news for those who seek the truth. Since a lie is in contradiction to reality, the reality of the lie is itself unstable. In other words, a lie is only true as long as someone keeps speaking it. Judaism has a G-d named Yahweh only as long as people outside of it say it does.

And sometimes…

Sometimes I worry that I practice Yahweh Judaism.

That’s right. That’s my cult. I live a relatively secluded Jewish life in a small Jewish community. I don’t learn from teachers as often as I’d like. In fact, I learn from teachers even less than I did in Yeshiva, and in Yeshiva it wasn’t much at all.

On the one hand, I’m worried that my Judaism, not exposed to the criticism of true teachers and those in the fold, may have developed corners or edges that are not in accordance with the truth of tradition. I am worried that my Judaism has, over time, become more about me than about Judaism.

On the other hand, I’m worried that I’m not really involved enough in Judaism at all. That, in my far-off, provincial service, I do not fall in the category of a practicing Jew. Perhaps this is the real reason why I have chosen, for the moment, to exist on the Jewish edge: because I am afraid of losing my independence in an intensely Jewish context.

I begin to wonder…was it ever real? Did it ever exist? Was I chasing the truth, or a moment’s fantasy? Did I worship G-d, or my own Yahweh?

This past week, I found the answer.

And the answer is: Go to New York. Go to the community. Go to the Rebbe.

Because if a lie is unstable and exists only as long as a liar maintains it, then the truth is solid as a rock. The truth exists without anyone’s help. The truth, like a river, is refreshing, because it doesn’t need our help.

This week, I went to New York, and I let go. I stopped telling myself stories about what Judaism is, what it means to have a G-d, what it means to be connected.

This week, I let Judaism exist. I let myself be surrounded by it, submerged in it. I let my hands brush across the surface of the wall, and I found it solid, ancient, indestructable. I felt the tension leave me as I realized that G-d and Judaism never go anywhere, that they are constant as everything else moves. Even though I’m not in Yeshiva, the Yeshiva exists; it is there; the students are the same as always. The synagogues with their crown jewel Torahs stand resplendent like a signal fire.

This week, I reminded myself that Judaism is not a cult of Yahweh, that it exists because it exists, like the moon, like a blizzard.

This week, I went back to the place where I last forded the water, and found the river still there, peaceful, eternal, real.

I have done worse in its absence than it has in mine, which makes me humble and happy. Humble to have had the privilege of bathing in the waters; happy to know that they were no ephemeral mirage, but ancient as the earth.

I know what I must do now. I know I must kneel on her banks, and dip my canteen beneath the surface, and carefully carry it back across the lonely miles. I know that the way is hot and dangerous, a large and terrible desert full of snakes and scorpions.

But if ever I lose my way, I can take a sip, and hear what the water says:

It’s real. It’s real. It’s real.

This, despite our ignorance. We who choose the true path do not ourselves know how to pronounce that great and terrible name. But one day, when we make it across the sands and dig our own wells in our own corners of the wilderness and make for the water a home, we will learn that secret word.

And it will not be “Yahweh.”


The picture and its caption are honest-to-goodness from a book from the 19th century.


Originally posted on Hevria.

My Plan For (Jewish) World Domination

With my tried and proven business sense, all I need to take over the world is a product to sell. People don’t enjoy being taken over, you see. You have to distract them with shiny, sparkly things, and their distraction slowly grants you power. Of course, I’m a religious Jew, so the plan, at the same time, should help bring about the messianic age. People will be so happy about the Messiah, they won’t even notice if I’m filthy rich on the side[i]. Not to mention utterly omnipotent.

So, without further ado, here’s the plan. It’s incremental, it’s brilliant, and I get to open up a pizzeria as a hobby.

Phase 1: The Killer App

Even though my Stanford application was rejected, I know that any tech company that wants to run the world must start small; only G-d creates Hobbesian leviathans from thin air. And like certain world-dominating businesses that rhyme with bugle, my company will initially offer only one service. Not search; that is for the non-Jews. We will start with a Brochos App.

Brochos (does not rhyme with ‘nachos’) means “blessings,” and we Jews say lots of ‘em every day. In fact, we ideally say 100. During prayers, before performing commandments, after using the restroom, before and after food…We give thanks to G-d a lot. The problem is that [cue the whistful downtempo piano music, grayscale scene of Manhattan sidewalks] in today’s fast-paced world, it is more difficult than ever to remember to take the time to say the right bracha. We forget Modeh Ani when we wake up and we forget Shma when we go to sleep. We make the Shehakol before a cup of water, than say the Borei Nefashos after, and then we forget whether we said either, and now we want to drink a second cup, and we are, as they say in Yiddish, ‘farscrewed.’ [cue Technicolor and the big band] Enter the Brochos App! With the power of scheduled task and cutting-edge voice recognition technology, never miss a prayer again:

  • Your alarm clock will keep telling you to say Modeh Ani until it hears you say it. Same thing with Shma in the morning.
  • Random music from your collection will play at full volume after a certain time of night (in combination with low light levels) until it hears you say
  • Your phone will hear you make the initial blessing on food, and will then remind you to say the after blessing. When it hears you say the after blessing, the reminder will disappear.

Your Jewish life revolutionized!

But Tzvi, I can hear you wandering through the computer screen, won’t this make, like, absolutely no money ever? How right you are. The point initially is not to earn money. The point is to get people using our services. Then we move on to

Phase 2: Expansions

The continuous updates to the initial app will expand its usefulness much farther afield than anyone would initially guess. The truth is, that if there are going to be effective reminders for things like Lulav and morning Shma, there must be a comprehensive Jewish calendar backend with GPS-based time functionality. Of course, none of this will help if the person doesn’t know the Jewish law relevant to the act at hand. Thus, we will begin to implement halacha pop-ups.

We will also begin to take advantage of all of the phone’s sensors in revolutionary ways, not just the microphone. The compass and accelerometer will tell the user not just the direction in which to pray but will direct lulav shaking according to four different minhagim[ii]. The app will help you step forward and backward for Shemoneh Esrei in a legally acceptable way and can even help the newly religious with their prayer shockel[iii].

The camera will calculate all sorts of halachic measures: how much cake one must eat to say an after-blessing, how tall a building must be to build a fence around its roof, are my tzitzis wide enough?

If all else fails, for a small fee one will submit halachic questions through the app to our team of trained attack Rabbonim, who will stop at nothing to bring your case to a legal and practical conclusion.

Thus, our little app becomes something more and more something you can show off around the Yeshiva water cooler. As more and more people integrate it into their daily life, we’ll bring out the big guns.

Phase 3: Salvation

I call this phase “salvation” because this is when we start making it impossible (to the mind of the consumer) to get a good afterlife without the aid of our smartphone app. How do we accomplish this task, so much more epic than the small brochos app that only three people used for free?

Simple. We use the phone camera to overlay the Gemara. And to preface: Does anyone like to learn Talmud nowadays? No one normal. Do people still learn Talmud? Yes. Why? The afterlife. You have to know the G-dly wisdom if you want a beautiful piece of the Garden of Eden with silver chandeliers, matching sweater vests, and litter everywhere. So you’re stuck learning these books, and they’re in Aramaic, and who knows if you’ll ever be great at it? ENTER THE APP.

Point your phone at the dense page with the little letters. Watch your screen light up like Yidden at a Coloradan Phish concert. Instantaneous translation and commentary of what you’re looking at, with the opinions of all the major Rabbis throughout the centuries! We will either work with Artscroll/Koren or we will make our own, brand new English translation. Every reference to a different page of the Talmud or to the scripture will have a pursuable link with more translation and commentary. No more turning to a different page for meaning; it’s all right there in a cutting edge graphical overlay. And if this still doesn’t help, we will still have the option of calling a Rabbi for a small fee.

No Jew will be able to resist their jealousy of their Talmudic genius friends. And we will slowly expand the Talmud commentary to all Jewish religious works and from English to all languages, including Klingon.

And can you imagine the applications of everything we’ve mentioned so far once everyone wears Google Glass? [iv]

But that’s not all.

Phase 4: Socialism

This is the original term we give to the expansion of our service into the social realm. No longer will your learning and good deeds be your own business, between you and G-d, but rather the business of the entire world! You gave charity today? You take pictures and upload them; we and the crowd will judge them; you will receive holiness points. Same with Talmud. Compete with your friends to see who can learn faster, more, and better. Take tests, earn points.

What do these points get you? Two words: Global Scoreboards. The entire world will see the extent of your observance. People will be able to Judge you at a character level, eliminating the superficiality and falsehood of the regular online experience.

It is impossible to see any downside to this; you benefit through notoriety, we benefit through advertising revenue. Moshiach’s times. Zero-sum games are golus, baby.

Not convinced? Well there’s always

Phase 5: Utopia

In addition to selling something every Jew owns[v] and in addition to increasing the good deeds and Torah learning of Jews immeasurably, we will have solved all major theological issues that prevent the coming of the Messiah.

To wit: Our researchers have found that 95% of a religious Jew’s time isn’t spent perfecting the world, and 94% of it is spent worrying neurotically about whether they are doing the right thing, what their relationship with G-d is, and whether they cleaned up all the chometz. We at The Tzvyndicate™ believe that by quantifying religious observance as outlined above, Jews will no longer be distracted by their insecurities. It will be absolutely clear to anyone on the street whether a person is a Tzaddik, a Rasha, or anything in-between. As G-d intended.

We can then actually go about the practical business of bringing Moshiach, and I can retire to my pizza store safe in the knowledge that the future is secure.

What did Google ever do for the world?

[i] Why do we so discriminate against the rich? Is anyone ever “filthy poor”? Or is that too obvious?

[ii] The fifth minhag, which holds smart phones to be the tools of the devil, will, if selected, cause the phone to self-destruct in a puff of red smoke.

[iii] Also according to a number of customs – the pendulum, the corkscrew, the scrubber, the MBD Hands, etc.

[iv] We will be inventing our own version, of course, called the Tzvectacles™.

[v] A feat only previously achieved by the Spice and Spirit cookbook.


Originally posted on Hevria.