G-d Is In The Pixels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital approximations of analog realities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Why “Light”?

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

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

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

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

[source]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would G-d express Himself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature, Wisdom, Prophecy, Torah, and G-d

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 can.

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).

The Digestible Torah

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.

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.

Ten Reasons Why Trust in G-d is Better than the Deathly Hallows

In the world of Harry Potter where even children wield otherworldly power, the Deathly Hallows are nevertheless a trifecta of near omnipotence, created (if one believes the legend) by Death himself. They are the Elder Wand, most powerful wizarding tool of all time, the Resurrection Stone, which can raise the dead, and the Invisibility Cloak, for those who always played Rogues in Dungeons & Dragons.

 

 488px-Deathly_Hallows_Sign_svg

 

In the real world, in Medieval times, there lived a Jewish scholar named Rabbi Bachayye ben Yosef Ibn Pkuda, and he wrote a holy book called Torat Chovot HaLevavot, Duties of the Heart, which describes in great detail the inner world of an observant Jew, with a focus on what G-d requires of the Jewish character (e.g. love, humility). In his preface to the Gate of Trust, he lists ten ways in which a rock-solid confidence in the Creator is more desirable than the abilities of the Alchemist, who can turn copper to silver, and silver to gold.

Bitachon, or Trust, means not just the belief in G-d’s omnipotence or in his involvement with the world, but also a positive reliance on his goodness, i.e. “things will go well for me, in a way I can easily appreciate, because G-d is kind.” Trust involves abandoning one’s worries and cares to G-d and is so great that it is repaid in kind with the object of one’s trust, regardless of one’s past actions. Even the dirtiest no-gooder in the world can live a life of perfect satisfaction if he trusts completely; it is a service of such loftiness as to reward itself. It is the method by which even the most normal of us can work miracles.

I began to think: what does Bitachon/trust offer the modern muggle that the most powerful form of wizardy does not?

 

 

1. You Have to Actually Acquire the Deathly Hallows

It takes more than a smile. You’ll have to fight every step of the way or flaunt extravagant wealth, and you better not have any qualms about grave robbing. If you don’t get the magical objects, you get no special powers.

Elder Wand at the Grave

But one who trusts in G-d knows that the Creator will sustain them even through severe poverty, famine, weakness, zombie apocalypse, etc.; He has many messengers with which to feed and protect, no matter what the material situation of the recipient. “Young lions suffer want and are hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good.” (Tehillim/Psalms 34:11)

 

 

2. Using the Deathly Hallows Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Even in the ancient tale of the Hallows, things didn’t end well for the three brothers. And in more modern times there was that whole incident with the Elder Wand, and no one wanted to breathe the Voldemort-dust afterward. Good thing Harry made the right choice.

Harry breaks the wand

One who trusts in G-d will find long years of peace and happiness, with the knowledge that everything that happens comes from the benevolent Master. “He causes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters.” (Tehillim/Psalms 23:2)

 

 

3. Keep the Hallows Secret, Or They’ll Be Taken From You

Even the mighty Professor Dumbledore didn’t go shouting about them, did he?

Dumbledore Fire

A person who trusts isn’t afraid to let others know it, and is in fact revered by his peers. “In God I trusted, I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Tehillim/Psalms 56:12)

 

 

4. You’re Always Doing Too Much or Too Little, and It’s Stressful

Wow, I just got my hands on the Elder Wand. I think I’m gonna whip up a Philosopher’s Stone. Why wouldn’t I want to live forever? I’d ask Nicolas Flamel, but oh wait, he agreed to die after the struggle for his invention nearly led to Voldemort’s resurrection when Harry was far too young and not nearly angsty enough to face him. It’s nothing but trouble when you just leave your powerful magic objects lying around.

Oh, you think, so I won’t create anything potentially dangerous. I’ll only use the Hallows when I need them, and the rest of the time leave them safely locked up in Gringotts. But then, what’s the point of having them in the first place? You just know there’s gonna be a dementor attack or an abundance of dirty laundry or something, and who has time to schlep to Diagon Alley and wait for the goblins to fetch your stuff?

Gringotts_cart_01

If you trust G-d, you needn’t worry. He’ll get you what you need, when you need it, as he does for every living creature. “I was young, I also aged, and I have not seen a righteous man forsaken and his seed seeking bread.” (Tehillim/Psalms 37:25)

 

 

5. No Matter How Secure Your Power, You Must Always Watch Your Back

Poor Voldemort.

Love or Friendship

One who trusts in G-d fears no one, and on the contrary, the world bends to one’s will and is on one’s side. “In six troubles He will save you, and in the seventh no harm will touch you. In famine, He redeemed you from death, and in war, from the power of the sword. You shall be hidden from the scourging tongue, and you shall not fear plunder when it comes. You shall mock plunder and hoarding, and you shall not fear the beasts of the land. But you have a treaty with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field made peace with you. Then you shall know that there is peace in your tent, and you shall visit your habitation and miss nothing. And you shall know that your seed shall be many, and your offspring [as numerous] as the grass of the earth. You shall come to the grave at a ripe old age, as the grain stack is taken away in its time.” (Iyov/Job 5:19-26)

 

 

6. Some Problems, Even Magic Can’t Fix

And they really prevent you from enjoying your massive cosmic-scale powers. Think heartbreak, or old age, or an unlucky Bertie Bott’s bean. These can really ruin your day even as you’re creating giant fireballs of death or whatever. Not cool.

Alas Earwax

For someone who relies on the Almighty, pain, troubles, and sickness don’t enter the picture. If they do, he knows they’re an atonement for his past breaches of his relationship with G-d, or, if he has nothing to atone for, that he G-d will reward him in the world to come for his suffering. “Now youths shall become tired and weary, and young men shall stumble. But those who put their hope in the Lord shall renew [their] vigor, they shall raise wings as eagles; they shall run and not weary, they shall walk and not tire.” (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 40:30-31)

 

 

7. There Is No Guarantee Of A Finished Product

Sure, the Weasleys have a house that defies physics and self-cleaning flatware, but they clearly can’t create their own money out of thin air. They have to actually hold jobs and stuff, and even then they (presumably) have to take the money to a market and buy food, which even then has to be eaten with the hope they don’t have tapeworms or slugs or something in their intestines. Even if you had all three Hallows, you’d still have to resort to robbing the bank, or the store, or both, or maybe getting an honest job in the Ministry to get food into your stomach. And if you’re fired, or there’s a famine, everything unravels.

Ron Eating

G-d, of course, has no issue with production and consumption, from money through digestion. “In famine, He redeemed you from death.” (Iyov/Job 5:20)

 

 

8. The Bearer of the Hallows Is Always On The Run

If the secret gets outs that you have some magical super powers, you can bet that they’ll be after you eventually. Who? Everyone.

apparating

Someone who trusts in G-d can settle down and be at peace. “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and be nourished by faith.” (Tehillim/Psalms 37:3)

 

 

9. The Deathly Hallows Don’t Effect Your Afterlife

Philosophically speaking, they’re actually quite weak. Beyond this mortal coil, what use are they? Magic is only helpful on this earth; on future journeys, who can say?.

Voldemort under bench

One who trusts in G-d, however, is rewarded not just in this world, but in the next as well. In fact, even if one were to face torment in the next world, trust in G-d would prove just as useful as with the torments of our world. “How great is Your goodness that You have hidden away for those who fear You.” (Tehillim/Psalms 31:20)

 

 

10. Harry Potter isn’t Real!

Seriously. It’s all in your head. Don’t run around saying you own the Deathly Hallows, you’ll get locked up in the funny farm.

dumbledore-dancing-harry-potter-gif

People see someone who is confident in G-d, however, as a pretty cool all-around real-deal type of fellow, because he is. People respect him and befriend him, and he brings blessing to all his familiars. “The Righteous is the foundation of the world.” (Mishlei/Proverbs 10:25)

 

 

Featured image of America’s Elder Wand courtesy of Flickr. Other images courtesy of the Internet.

A Sublime Tune

The year is 1877. Cornelius Vanderbilt and Brigham Young recently passed away, New Hampshire just became the last state to allow Jews to hold public office, and, on the other side of the world, in White Russia, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch delivers a famous series of discourses on Chassidic thought.

Your friend Richard walks into your well-furnished Boston parlor hefting some kind of canister, which with the obscurity of distance and a bit of wishful thinking you imagine to be packaged whiskey (perhaps he arrives from Jack Daniel’s Tennessee distillery, which just turned two years old). All hopes of drunken frivolity flee your mind, however, when you see the stern visage with broad forehead and wide lips staring at you from the side of the cardboard cylinder. Under the portrait, a florid signature acts as a mark of authenticity. It reads “Thomas A. Edison.”

Without explanation, your friend uses your best letter opener to lever the metal cap out of the cardboard tube, carefully upends the whole thing on the table, and lifts it away to reveal…something. It looks like a thick, hollowed-out candle, and its outer surface is covered in thin grooves. Your friend declares, bellows to mend, that you are looking at sound.

Finding this overly Sinaitic, you stare.

“Edison,” he presses on, “has found a way to record sound.”

You risk a glance at your European piano (I allow you, for the purposes of this exercise, to be fabulously wealthy) stacked high with recorded sheet music. Your friend seems hurt.

“It’s not just the notes he’s recorded. Those are used to create new sounds. He’s gone and recorded old ones onto these wax pieces, and with his new machine, you can hear them again.”

“New machine?” you ask.

“He’s calling it a phono…phono something. Isn’t it the bulliest thing you ever heard?”

Eager to wipe the smile off his face (you really like your letter opener) you say, “Impossible.”

He frowns. “I heard it myself. He cranks the machine, and it reads those notches on the wax there, and music comes out of its horn.”

“Who ever heard of a machine reading?”

“You just did.” He thinks that this a great point and grins like the cat’s uncle. He doesn’t know that your great, great grandfather Thaddeus was already rolling his eyes during the declaration of the Declaration of Independence, thereby bringing cynicism to America. Richard is destined to lose this exchange.

“Why should I care?” you ask with an attitude your descendants a century and a half from now will be proud of. “I don’t need any machine. If I want to hear music, I play it, or I find others to play it for me.”

“Oh, everyone knows you spend hours holed up in here with your drink and your piano-”

“If there is a better use of my time I’ve yet to discover it.”

“It’s not that. Don’t you want your music to spread out across the divide?” asks your friend.

“What divide?”

“Why, the one between yourself and everyone else, of course! What good is your music if only you hear it?” He crouches next to the cylinder, admiring it. “With this, the whole world can sing.”

 

First there wasn’t an existence, and then G-d created one. Before that (Augustine would tell you if you asked) He was preparing hell for those who pry into mysteries. Douglas Adams said with authority that the creation of the Universe “has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” But unfortunately, it’s here. We might as well deal with it.

We are told that He had a hard time creating it all. He’s infinite, you see, pretty much by definition, i.e. G-d(n.): He who caused everything else to be and was not caused by anything else to be. So He must be infinite, since if He’s there before everything else exists and He’s not infinite, we have to wonder what else is there, how it got there, where it gets off not being either G-d or G-d’s creation, etc. It would be terribly out-of-place, since no place or time had yet been created. But I digress.

The problem with being infinite is that all You see is more of You in every direction. If you want to create something that is decidedly not You, say, a slice of pizza, you have to make room for it. No problem, you say. Being infinite has its advantages; you’re infinitely powerful. But now – what do you make the pizza out of? It’s fine, You think. I’ll make it out of my own infinite existence.

A slice of pizza made of infinitude sounds great at first (people would have probably been less angry if the universe were any kind of pastry) but: 1) If it’s infinite, what makes it pizza and not G-d? Isn’t pizza by definition limited to being pizza and not, say, a giraffe? You can’t make these fine distinctions. All you have to work with is Infinitude, and whatever that is, it probably doesn’t come with cheese and sauce. 2) Once you have this pizza, where are you going to bite into it from, wise guy?

It seems G-d can play an infinite symphony for Himself, but he can’t record it. The music is one thing, an expression of G-d as He truly is, what we call His Infinite Light, whereas the recording is quite another, bringing G-d somewhere that’s not Him. And “not Him” is in short supply. Even if he uses his infinite power to make that pizza, on the grounds that he can do anything, it won’t help: it would be like listening to an iPod at a concert, where the weak recording of the music is drowned out by the real thing and ceases to be audible. Besides, what use is a recording that only exists on condition that the musician continues to play? Why can’t He create something separate from Himself that exists on its own terms, without the need to bring his infinite power to bear? If the pizza can’t just be delicious without having to constantly reflect G-d’s involvement in its creation, is it pizza? Or is it still G-d’s ephemeral symphony known only to Him?

He really can’t seem to escape Himself.

 

The wax cylinder begat 78s, and 78s begat 45s, and humanity rejoiced, for a mere century after Edison’s invention they could listen to ELO whenever they desired. The technology involved in the successive generations of records was essentially identical. Edison discovered that by translating the vibrations of a diaphragm to grooves on tin foil he could later reverse the process, vibrate the diaphragm in the exact same way, and reproduce the sound. It is quite astonishing that such a crude process should work, and no one was more surprised than the great inventor when he first heard his machine say “Mary had a little lamb.” The phonograph was born, and with adjustments, the modern turntable followed a few years later. Sound was captured.

But was the whole world really singing? Sure, you had music in your living room, no multi-million dollar stage shows or spandex required. But if you wanted to hear “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” as you sat in the park, dodging occultists and penning a letter to President Carter, you were out of luck. Even at home, your records were large, fragile, and subject to decay, all concerns since the original phonograph, though mitigated in part by technological advances.

We see a general principle at work here. Any form of communication, whether by sound, light, or other means, must lose something in transmission when translated to a different time, place, or person. In other words: it is impossible for another to know something as it knows itself. This is why it takes the best of poets to fit even the wispy edges of our experience into dead, fragmented words. It is why in the ancient High Court of Jerusalem, instead of sleeping the night before a capital decision, they would stay up until dawn, debating, reviewing their opinions, lest they forget. How could they forget, asks the Talmud. The words of the judges were recorded by two stenographers, it’s true, but words on paper can never convey a full line of thought, as anyone who tries to review their notes at the end of a school term will unfortunately find. If it is thought, it cannot be expressed in words. If it is in words, it is no longer thought. If it is emotion, it cannot be put into musical notes. If it is music, it is not emotion, and only those artists at the heights of their powers can approach leveling the difference. Once the music is performed, the rule holds sway once more. A performance is not a recording, and a recording is no longer a performance. If this miscommunication principle were not true, speech wouldn’t be necessary at all; you could know my thoughts as I know my thoughts. If you could know that, what would be the difference between you and me? If there is nothing lost in transmission, we are not communicating, we are one. If we are not one, then we communicate.

Therefore, when Richard unveiled that cylinder for the first time, you were dubious. Once you heard the gramophone sing, you scoffed. It didn’t sound like music. It was noisy, tinny, reproduction “from a mile away,” as a contemporary put it. In all the excitement of hearing, say, a drum set in a drumless room, one might not notice that drums-as-cylinder are an anemic caricature of the real thing. Where was the attack, the full-bodied thwack, the full crash of the cymbals? No, a lot of work remained. Drums-without-drums were a failure, and the failure is called low fidelity; the recording was disloyal to the original. The goal ever since has been high fidelity.

 

It’s the year 2000. The world fails to end from a computer glitch, AOL acquires Time Warner, reality television first begins its long war on regular television (and regular reality), and President Clinton is off visiting Vietnam. You enter your dorm room at your prestigious University and find your friend, Richard Pritchard IV, clicking away at your PC. He turns as you enter, waves, and thumbs a knob on your expensive, powerful stereo system. The death throes of an electromechanical bull beaten to death by a six-string guitar fill the room. You shout and make to pull your stereo out of the wall socket, battered by waves of noise with every step, but your friend beats you to it by closing the audio program.

“I didn’t know you bought a Rage Against the Machine CD,” you say, unclenching your teeth.

“I didn’t buy it. There’s this new thing called Napster.”

“Isn’t that a mattress company?”

“Hardly,” he says, ever-patient. “It’s a program that lets your download music from anyone connected to it.”

“Yeah? A lot of use that is, if RATM ends up playing through my speakers. I have to sanitize them now-”

“The program has everything. Every single, every album. It’s a whole new world.”

“Isn’t it stealing to download it without buying it?” you ask.

“They have Radiohead.”

“Move over,” you suggest, and sit in front of your computer.

“I already acquired a few albums, if you’re interested.”

“Wait, how did you download ‘a few albums’ onto my hard drive? Only one gig [of the ten available. Oh, nostalgia. –Ed.] is free.”

“Each album is, like, 80 megabytes.”

“Impossible.”

“Why?”

Since you are a huge nerd (not everyone got into the prestigious University through their father’s connections like Richard) you actually know why, and pull over a pencil and a pad of paper. “It used to be,” you begin contemplatively, “that you’d listen to music with your turntable. The quality was good but the records were clunky. They were analog.”

“Analog?”

“Yeah. They recorded sound waves as curves.” You draw a sweeping hill and valley across the paper. “Nature generally behaves like a curve, and sound is no exception. CDs, however, aren’t analog.” You begin drawing more shapes, and your friend leans over to see. “CDs are digital. They don’t use waves; they use numbers that approximate waves.” A series of flat-roofed rectangles now stretch from the bottom of the page to the curve, the Manhattan skyline seen through the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. At some point of their width, the flat-topped rectangles invariably exceed the curve or fail to reach it. You point to the vertical shapes and say, “Each of these is a digital estimate of the height of the analog wave at that point, and can be expressed as a number.”

“But why wouldn’t you just use the curve itself, like they did on records?”

“They take up too much space. A series of ones and zeroes can say the same thing and take up less room doing it.”

“But it’s inexact!” your friend objects. “Rectangles can’t really imitate a curve.” He points to the wedges of space between the skyscrapers and the bridge. He is right, of course. This is the information in the sound wave that is lost when converting to digital. You begin drawing new rectangles, thinner this time. If the first set were broadswords, these are stilettoes. Though they diverge much less from the curve, the error is still there. And it always will be, “Unless you have an infinite number of rectangles,” says your friend. You raise an eyebrow. “I took calculus in high school,” he explains.

 

640px-Pcm.svg

 

“We don’t need an infinite number,” you say. “We only need 44,100 per second of sound.”

“What?”

“The guys who invented the CD figured out that’s how many you’d need, if you want the digital to duplicate the analog. To the human ear, at least. And that’s why an album can never be 80 MB.” You describe a list of numbers as you write them down. “The rectangles are called samples, because the curve is sampled as a certain number at a certain rate. Here, the rectangle is at this height, and then a second later, it’s at a different height, etc. Each sample is a number, and every number in binary is represented by a certain number of bits. If we only used one bit to store a sample, each one could only have a height of 1, or 0. Not a lot of accuracy there.”

“I hope you’re talking to yourself, because I don’t understand a word.”

“So instead of one bit they used sixteen of them, which yield 216 choices of height. Sixteen bits is two bytes per sample, with 44,100 samples per second, and all of it’s done twice, since there’s two channels in stereo audio.”

“Left and right,” Richard says.

“Correct. Now a full CD runs for 74 minutes. Times sixty seconds per minute…” You hold up your handiwork. The page reads:

2 x 44,100 x 2 x 74 x 60

“Equals,” you say, and tap some numbers into your desk calculator, “783,216,000 bytes. Or around 700 more megabytes of Rage than you claim.” Your tone says, QED.

He grabs the mouse from your hand and conjures up the properties of a CD he downloaded. The screen reads 80.3 MB. Your brow furrows.

“Reality trumps theory,” says Richard with satisfaction.

How boorish.

 

G-d is omniscient, thank G-d. He knows that my presentation on infinity earlier was full of, well, infidelity. G-d is not infinite in the confined, logical, Aristotelian sense of the word, where “infinite” and “finite” are a contradiction. G-d is what’s called a Kol Yachol, the One who can do anything, whose boundless expression is absolute perfection. This means that if, in his infinitude, he can’t “do” finitude, then He is imperfect, limited to limitlessness. G-d has no limits.

It therefore turns out that G-d exists in some place beyond all conception, and infinitude and finitude are merely modes of his expression. One can be G-d and be non-infinite, the way that there is such a thing as music before any air vibrates or any grooves run. Music itself is ineffable, beyond, and “live” and “recorded” are just two ways of tapping into the same truth. G-d is no more infinite than He is finite, no more spiritual than He is physical, just as it’s nonsensical to say that music is, at its essence, more live than it is recorded. The thing itself is being mistaken for the way it communicates.

This seems encouraging for those of us who don’t have any money for live shows and/or live in a finite, physical, natural world where nothing interesting ever happens. Neither of these is any less “real” than going to the live show or meeting G-d face-to-face. A recording is no less music than a concert; our physical world is no less G-d than whatever existed before He created it. It’s like a game of peekaboo. I cover my face with my hands and ask you, “Where have I gone?” The answer is nowhere. My hands are me just as my face is me, and no concealment has taken place.

Is any of this truly satisfying?

Not in the least.

Are you happy to live life listening to your iPod, never seeing the artists in the flesh? How about living in this world, secure in the knowledge that it, too, is G-dly while never coming face-to-face with its creator?

Wouldn’t we prefer to see His face, and not just His hands?

Weren’t the world and iPods created in the first place for those who can’t handle the real thing?

 

Compression is one of the boons of the shift from analog to digital audio. The goal of compression is to put the lie to the miscommunication principle; we can have drums without drums. We can even have 700 MB without 700 MB; we can carry thirty thousand songs in the palms of our hands. This is the mp3 revolution.

And, as any audiophile will tell you, it’s a lie.

A lot of the music flying around in the glorious Napster days sounded almost as tinny and reduced as Edison’s wax cylinders. Since mp3 is a form of “lossy” compression, a certain amount of information goes into an mp3 encoder and significantly less comes out the other end. The encoder’s job is to decide which information is relevant and therefore worth keeping and which is not. By discarding details of the sound that (in theory) your average listener won’t miss anyway, the mp3 stuffs an enormous amount of relevant sound in a small place. The lower the bitrate of the mp3, the more information is thrown out.

To which the audiophile would say, “I didn’t realize the music was so easily divided. If the artists decided certain sections of the waveform ought to be in the recording, by what right does a fancy calculus-wielding program strip them out?”

The argument then becomes highly subjective (and violent) and focuses on whether the algorithm does a good enough job at guessing what the human ear can’t hear anyway, and at what bitrate. This often branches (and if it doesn’t it should) into a divisive ideological discussion. Does the near-miraculous process of fitting something huge into a small place deserve recognition as an outstanding intellectual achievement if it yields Beethoven’s Symphonies encoded in a near-skeletal 128 kbps, turning everyone’s music library into a collection of cell phone ring tones?

Everyone agrees, however, that the sound you get from an mp3 is not the same sound they heard at the recording studio. It is, at best, an illusion. Just because David Copperfield said the Statue of Liberty was gone, and it seemed that way to his audience’s senses, doesn’t make it true.

 

As previously mentioned, G-d can do anything. Don’t go placing any rash bets just yet (if Elvis and Tupac ever ride the Loch Ness monster through Times Square I’ll be writing my next brilliant article in the lap of luxury); He seems to prefer following the rules of logic most of the time. It’s probably related to the aforementioned slice of pizza; if everything that takes place has his fingerprints all over it, could the world ever just exist in peace as the world? If there were no logic, could pizza ever just be pizza? It’d be like a thirty-year-old whose mother still does his laundry: hard to respect.

Instead of direct involvement, so to speak, He uses a system of interlocking translations of His Truth. The physical world, what we call “natural,” is for Him the end result of a long process. He begins with his Truth, his song. We now know that, by definition, only He can hear it; in fact, if you know it like He knows it, congratulations, you must be Him. He then taps into his powers of finitude to capture the same song in a limited form; He wants to put himself into the smallest possible space, which by definition means somewhere utterly removed from Himself. It’s hopeless, you might think. There is a fidelity/space tradeoff. If He wants someone to get the music as-is, he should play them the supernal equivalent of a vinyl record, or a non-compressed CD. This is like saying that if you want to meet G-d, you have to meditate in a monastery for at least eighty years. He can reach as low as the monastery, where the physical touches the spiritual, but he can go no further. If he were to express himself any lower, it could only be as an illusion. His Truth would not be there; some lookalike substitute would have to suffice. He is not portable. If I find him on the subway in Brooklyn, or, Lord help us, Manhattan, it’s not really Him I’ve found. It’s His mp3.

Is there a solution to this quandary?

Humans have found one. It’s called FLAC, the Free Lossless Audio Codec. You read that right. Lossless. That means the files are not going to be as small as MP3s, so it’s a little bit harder to fit them onto your hard drive or your phone. But the files are half the size of the original recordings, and they’re perfect. Drums that can’t fit in your hand go in one end. Drums that can come out the other. For the first time since that wax cylinder was upended on the table, if I play you a song, and then hand you a string of ones and zeroes that make up a FLAC file, I am actually giving you two of the exact same thing. As long as you have a good recording microphone, and the right software, the two are indistinguishable. And the FLAC can take the train.

G-d looks at Himself, and sees: Himself. He looks at the world and sees Himself, too. One is a compressed form of the other, a FLAC inside a .zip inside a .rar inside a .7z. He has all the software He needs to hear the music (his programming ability is world-renowned). He doesn’t even need the infinite, “live performance” version anymore. He has this lossless file. They are the same thing. It’s not just an illusion. If we can make FLACs, then so can He. And so He does.

What’s the point of it, you may be wondering. Why go through the trouble? If to Him the world is merely a reflection of Himself, why create it? It really does seem to be a bad move, if only in its pointlessness. He can see right through his own deception, the same way a really jacked up iTunes could play the 7z[rar[zip[FLAC]]].

The point is that there are those who can’t see through the illusion. Not easily anyway. They are stuck right at the point where they have the file, but not the necessary software. There are those that can’t hear the music.

There are 7 billion of them, actually.

naturesgramophone

As you look down at your breakfast (eggs fried lovingly; salad), Richard takes the spot next you on the bench in the Yeshiva dining room. “Spend a year in Israel, they said. It’s a man’s life, they said,” he complains.

“Just buy some Cocoa Rice Krispies already,” you suggest, taking a swig of filtered water. The tap water in Jerusalem hurts your stomach.

“Do I look like I’m made of money? Twelve shekels!” He takes a bit of egg and shudders. Richard (he prefers Yerachmiel now) never adapted well to new places. You’d never tell anyone, but you feel a little homesick as well, and you frown as you chew.

“Why the long face?” asks a kind voice. You look up to find one of the rabbis sitting across from you, eating granola cereal. His huge salt-and-pepper beard fans across his neat black sweater vest below a cantankerous moustache. Floating above it all are sparkling brown eyes staring at you through oblong glasses.

“Missing home, I guess,” you answer, shy. You heard he sometimes yells at people.

“You know, G-d is with you more in the difficult times than the easy ones.”

“Ah, sure,” you say, and push some tomato cubes around your plate. The rabbi’s words remind you of some e-mail you deleted once about footsteps in the sand. Richard elbows you in the ribs and you look up to find the rabbi glaring at you.

“It’s true,” he insists, his voice climbing an octave. “Why are we here in this world?”

You shrug. He looks at you like your stern uncle Ezra.

“G-d wants to be revealed even and specifically in the lowest places. He wants to be seen in His infinitude in a place that seems utterly separate from him. It’s like a FLAC file.”

“What?” you and Richard ask.

“Never mind,” he snaps. “Suffice it to say that from His point of view, nothing ever changed. Before a world was created He was alone, and now that it was created He is alone. The difference is all on our end.”

“I prefer after the world was created, since I exist,” your friend pronounces. The rabbi’s beard twitches as if it might fly off and attack the student on its own.

“Since the illusion of an existence separate from G-d is made for us, it’s designed so that we constantly teeter at the point of discovering Him. He is always waiting, just beyond our reach. We are handed code, and told to understand.” The rabbi eats a spoonful of oats and waits for your response, his head cocked to the side.

“What does that have to do with difficult times?” you ask.

“Anything that you can easily see as a blessing, for example those delicious eggs, or my granola, or a good day where everything seems to go your way, is G-d giving you Himself, directly, because you can appreciate it from your perspective. And if you can appreciate it, how great can it be? How much of His Truth is left in it?”

“That’s uplifting,” your friend chimes in.

The Rabbi stabs one of Richard’s eggs with a fork, transfers it to his plate, and begins to eat it. In between bites he says, “You don’t get it. In fact, not only do you not get it, if you were to truly understand, you’d be Him. It’s the miscommunication principle. The only aspects of the Truth you can appreciate are the trifles He can hand you without you totally losing yourself. He lets you hear a whisper of a whisper of His music.”

“Isn’t this like how G-d conceals Himself to give man free choice? Because if He was revealed no one in their right mind would ever choose to do evil?”

“It’s so much more than that,” the Rabbi says, drawing his plate close and thereby thwarting Richard’s attempts at reclamation. “To say He hides Himself to give us free choice is to chalk up our deaf, dumb, blind, G-dless state to an infuriating technicality. What I’m proposing is that we should rejoice in His concealment, because it is the purpose of our existence. We are to look the illusion of His absence straight in the eye and tell it that we don’t believe in it, that no matter what our senses tell us, the world is G-dly. And G-d is good. We must demand to see it from His perspective. His endless symphony plays all around us.”

“What happens once we do that?” asks Richard.

“When G-d realizes that He doesn’t see the illusion, and that we aren’t fooled by it, it no longer serves any purpose. So He takes it away.”

 

There once was a great sage who asked a young child why he was crying. “My friends and I were playing hide and seek,” replied the child. “But I hid myself so well that they gave up looking for me.” Said the sage, “This is how G-d feels about His creation.” Our world is so much more than the two-bit manipulation of the material. If we use the right software, the right perspective, we’ll see that G-d Himself has been here all along, waiting impatiently to be found.

 

There is so much more to say.

We could talk about how the difference between a data stream and a live music show is really the difference between the natural and the miraculous, how nature itself is a lie. We could talk about how withstanding the great tests that G-d places before us, like the forefather Abraham did, is the ultimate purpose of the illusion and, therefore, of life, since it is the crucible where nature clashes most strongly with our will and duty, and passing a test literally creates miracles because it itself is in violation of nature. We could talk about the Big Lie, how we’re told by our world in a million different ways that it’s the ones and zeroes that are important, that whoever manipulates the data best will achieve happiness, that there is no underlying music and the search for it will fail, and that if you must search for G-d don’t G-d forbid let it get in the way of your success in the field of binary manipulation. We could talk about the incredible strength and joy that the G-dly perspective lends to one’s life, since there are no setbacks, there is no darkness, and He not only runs the world but the world in fact has no existence apart from His truth. Maybe in the future we will talk about all of these things, but for now, this long screed has come to an end.

All of what I just told you has been sitting in holy books written in Hebrew for over a hundred years, by the way. You might wonder – why not just have you read the original sources? Why write so many words? Why bother with tortured examples from the world of music and with whimsical multi-generational fiction?

I thought you would appreciate why by now.

Hebrew without Hebrew is so much better.

Wouldn’t you agree?