What Is the Best Philosophical Proof for G-d?

You will not arrive at philosophical proof of G-d’s existence because, philosophically, G-d does not exist. There is no definition of the word ‘exist’ under which G-d can be known to exist. Everything by which we define this word, everything we know for certain to exist, is in some way caused. G-d Himself, however, is not caused, and is free to be completely different from everything we know. Thus, given G-d, defined as the uncaused cause of all else, we cannot say G-d exists with the same existence as anything else we know. If the word applies to Him, it applies only as a personal name, not as a category.

This led philosophers such as the Rambam/Maimonides to call G-d the ‘metzius bilti metzius nimtza,’ roughly ‘the Existence without an existing existence.’ Or in other words: the Rambam says we cannot affirmatively say He exists (for the reason explained in the previous paragraph). Still, we are forced to say He lacks non-existence, because if He does not at least lack non-existence, how can He lend the existence with which we’re familiar to everything else? One cannot give what one does not possess; if G-d does not exist, how can the universe? So the Creator thus dwells in a third category, sharing the same definition of ‘existence’ with the universe enough to grant its existence, but utterly different enough to not be captured by that word. To creations such as us, the way He is both these things is utterly mysterious.

Since, per philosophy, He must exist at least as much as the universe does, maybe we can reach Him with proof after all. If philosophy was the only path open to us, we would say that a theoretical proof can reach G-d Himself, since G-d Himself is that which lends existence to the entire universe. The existence of the world is where philosophy begins, and the necessary existence of G-d, the source of the world’s being, is where such a proof would end.

The reason I say G-d is beyond the reach of philosophical proof is that there are other paths to reach the Creator, namely revelation. If G-d Himself reveals His own nature to humankind, all bets are off. In particular, if G-d tells us He can somehow cause things to exist the way our universe does, without having to Himself participate in that form of existence at all, it throws off our whole previous calculation. After all, the rule we used to demonstrate that G-d must exist at least as much as the universe, the law that you cannot give what you do not have, is an assumption itself based on how things work within our world. Philosophically, we cannot escape this rule; it seems to be built in the logical fabric of our reality; 0 + 0 cannot equal 1. But since, as even philosophy acknowledges, G-d exists in a categorically different way than everything else, that is, He has no cause, maybe this rule does not apply to Him either. All we need is a good reason to place Him beyond the rule.

Revelation serves this purpose. The Torah tells us G-d creates the universe ex nihilo, something from nothing, that is, not as a direct extension of His own existence, but with some kind of causal gap that by definition is impossible for us to understand. The universe’s being does not have to be some kind of subset or direct result of His being at all, because He can cause the universe while remaining at an infinite causal remove from it. The Torah tells us so.

With this piece of information, we must revise our conclusion: G-d’s existence is unknowable to the creation, and nothing compels Him to have anything in common with the universe whatsoever. Therefore, there cannot ultimately be a philosophical proof of G-d’s existence. At least, no unaided philosophical proof will land on the same G-d we know through revelation. Any given philosophical proof will take some created existence as a prerequisite, work its way back under the laws of logic that bind our reality, and conclude at the very least with a Creator who explains the created things from which we are arguing. By revelation, however, we know that G-d is not, in fact, compelled to explain any creation. He can cause it without being a causal explanation for it. This is what ‘creation’ means as the word is used in the first verse of Genesis, and it is not something even the greatest philosopher can comprehend, for all philosophy is at root a study of explanation.

So, the philosophical proofs are not proofs for G-d. What, then, are they proofs for? After all, for reason to so insistently converge on something that so many have called G-d, a necessary first cause for all that exists, cannot just be an accident! And it isn’t. The proofs reach the first cause of all that exists, the necessary first existence that causes all other existence. If this is not G-d Himself, the G-d known with the help of revelation to exceed all logic and all proof, it can be G-d as He descends to exist before creating, as it were. In other words, what the philosophical proofs point to is not G-d per se, but rather G-d-in-the-act-of-creation.

***

G-d-in-the-act-of-creation is more readily understood under the Kabbalistic doctrine of divine emanation than under the philosophical rubric. This fits perfectly. The emanated G-d-as-first-cause is anterior to all of philosophy’s tools (which all deal with existence under existence’s rules). Philosophy, per the Torah, cannot understand how its own cause comes into being; that realm is shut to the eyes of the mind, existing beyond all the rules we know to rule the created world.

This divine act of descending to create satisfies all of the philosophical characteristics of G-d when viewed by philosophy from the bottom up. That is, there is nothing about it that breaks the classical proofs. For example, everything that exists depends on it, and it depends on nothing that exists. It is absolutely simple and uncaused. The only sense in which it is complex and caused is the sense in which it relates to G-d per se who precedes it, and this relationship is itself ungoverned by the laws of logic or the usual definition of the words. Everything traditionally said about G-d is correctly ascribed to G-d-as-He-descends-to-create.

One can see why Kabbalah, to the unstudied, may seem to introduce multiplicity, G-d forbid, to the Creator. But in fact, what is here described is not a multiplicity at all, but a unity. It is merely not a unity that may be precisely philosophically described. This is why Kabbalah is not a violation of the codified theology in the Rambam’s Mishne Torah, which describes G-d Himself in all the familiar terms, the Being Who Brings All Other Beings Into Being, the Knower, Knowledge, and Known, etc. All of these terms indeed describe G-d Himself, for the ‘two G-ds’ described in this essay are not two G-ds, G-d forbid, but absolutely One G-d. ‘Hashem and Elokim are all One.’

The main reason this makes some Jews nervous is that it sounds to them, on the surface, like a Christian doctrine, G-d forbid. Further study, however, reveals not only that the Jewish notion of the Divine emanation is substantially different from the Christianity l’havdil, but also that Judaism does not reject Christianity for any theological doctrine per se but rather for its abrogation of the Law. Since it is the Law itself that opens up for us the nerve-wracking ‘non-rational’ notion of G-d, the Jews who still today irrationally oppose the Kabbalah may sleep easy. Those who reject the eternality of Moses’ prophecy have no justification, Judaically, to go tampering with G-d’s unity.

***

So, nu, what is the best philosophical proof for G-d-in-the-act-of-creation? Good question. First of all, the classical proofs are better than many assume and deserving of study, though given our lengthy introduction, they will not lead to the satisfaction of catching G-d by the toe (so to speak). They are especially useful as contemplations of the way the Creator is implicit in His Creation, or more accurately, the way the apparent independence of creation really, upon some thought, gives way to inner structures of dependence and, ultimately, nothingness. Really, to the Jew, proofs for G-d are proofs for the creation, demonstrations of the relationship with the creator inherent to the creation’s logic.

To this end, if you’re really serious, you should check out some modern scholarship on the proofs of the medieval or scholastic philosophers. My personal favorite (the one I find most intellectually intuitive and easiest to explain) is the Neoplatonic proof based on unity, but as the astute reader will find, almost all these proofs are variations on one another and work much the same. It is worth investigating why many of these are widely considered today to be philosophically irrelevant, and why, according to the latest and strongest arguments, they aren’t.

If by ‘best’, you mean the one most central to Judaism, it is worth noting that Abraham, the first Jew, discovered G-d’s existence after being raised by idolators through something very much like a teleological proof. As the sages teach us:

G-d said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your land…’ (Genesis 12:1)

Rabbi Yitzchak opened and said: ‘Listen, daughter, look, and incline your ear, and forget your people and your father’s house.’ (Psalms 45:11)

 

Rabbi Yitzchak said: this may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a a castle aglow. He said, ‘Is it possible that this castle lacks a person to look after it?’ The owner of the building looked at him and said to him, ‘I am the master of the castle.’ What happened with Abraham our father was similar. He said, “Is it possible that this universe lacks a person to look after it?’ The Holy Blessed One looked at him and said to him, ‘I am the Master of the Universe.’

That is, Abraham recognized in the purpose inherent to the creation that the purpose must point to Someone beyond the creation. The Tzemach Tzedek writes that in this brief Midrash from the sages are implicit the lengthy teleological proofs of the Rambam and the Ralbag. For Jews to understand their own father, Abraham, they may need to rediscover the lost doctrine known as ‘telos’ (or ‘tachlis’), the inherent purposes of things, which has been banished from the modern world. Do not believe too quickly the claim that science has ‘disproved’ this ancient wisdom…

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None of these proofs, however, speak to my heart. My life has played out differently—I arrived at the G-d of the Torah first, and only then became interested in proofs. To my heart, there is only one ‘proof’. Someone has summarized it nicely:

The major premise of the argument is that ‘every natural or innate desire in us bespeaks a corresponsing real object that can satisfy the desire.’ The minor premise is that ‘there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature, can satisfy.’ The conclusion is that ‘there exists something outside of time, earth, and creatures which can satisfy this desire.’

Just so.

***

There is a reason the biblical story of Abraham does not include his early philosophical discovery, but rather begins with G-d’s revelation and the command, ‘Go forth.’ Judaism is not a philosophical religion, but rather a religion that may find some use for philosophy. The last time Judaism was truly philosophical was before the Torah was given, when a young boy in Sumeria decided the smash his father’s idols and invent something he thought was new, the worship of an ultimate G-d, a necessary G-d. The Torah, speaking to his descendants, does not need to prove anything, nor could such philosophizing even point to G-d.

Good thing we were there at Sinai, you and I…

I Saw G-d on Facebook

We do not, in Judaism, agree with the philosophers that greatness is greatness no matter who or what possesses it. Korach erred to think he could bear Moshe’s greatness as easily as Moshe and Aharon’s holiness as easily as any Kohen. In this, he was a heretic, ultimately denying creation ex nihilo, that Moses could be a radically different creation than Korach. So I do not mean to say that a Facebook comment can be genuinely great per se like (l’havdil) a work of Torah.

But if it is no longer a “Facebook comment per se,” if Korach ceases to be Korach by becoming Moshe’s man, then true greatness is possible, the greatness of the inifite. All finite things hold an emptiness at the center called bittul, a negative space that may contain the infinite. Through bittul, the non-great may become great. When we talk about a great FB comment, we’re talking about one that’s becoming nothing inside and out.

 

Here’s what it looks like: I met a severe Yeshiva student on one of my wanderings. He was of European slimness, shorter and younger than average in the study hall, and brilliant. He pursued Judaism with the dangerous fanaticism of a broken-hearted youth.

The ‘danger,’ such as it is, lies in the multi-layered nature of the pit, the hole inside that Judaism will fill, because Judaism must, because if it doesn’t, what am I? Many souls contain a Machpelah, a cave within a cave, a cave above a cave. Only Judaism fills the most bottomless hole, the cavity closer to us than our very being. We can plug smaller, more superficial spiritual needs with worldly pleasures, therapy, art, friends and family, secular knowledge, political activism, or a gratifying job. Sometimes the upper chamber may even be filled by time, the spiritual agonies of adolescence calloused over by the 20s.

The trick of the hole-filling Baal Teshuva, the returnee to Judaism looking to satisfy a need, is to realize that beneath the sinkholes opening along our contingent path through circumstance lies a broader existential tale tied to our very being. We possess emptiness born not of the path chosen for us but of we who walk it, that deep inner vacuum to which Judaism speaks, the infinite desolation that only G-d can make whole. Torah and Mitzvos will contextualize the other problems, the ones of nature and nurture, and may repair them at the level of what they are. They will transform us from biological beings dealing with problems into G-dly souls wrestling with them. But all direct changes to the form of our questions do not require Judaism. Self-discipline and a regimented life come from the army; self-help books and gurus can transform your attitude; medication and diet help depression and anxiety; friends and family give us love.

One of Chassidus’s penetrating insights is that to live a G-dly life is different from conquering the form of your troubles. To heal the animal soul—the path of Mussar/Ethical teachings—may be a prerequisite to the work of the G-dly soul, but it is not that work. The Baal Shem Tov revealed that a commandment performed for a reward demotes the commandment to below the reward. So, too, if the point of the commandment is self-improvement, it elevates the animal traits above the mitzvah. A Korach cannot become a Moses from the outside, by slowly improving his Korach-itude, because Moses is not merely a more ethical Korach. Korach becomes Moshe by first becoming nothing, by finding the infinite emptiness within and introducing it into his life. He does this no matter which contingent foibles and character flaws lie in his way.

It should not surprise us that many a young Baal Teshuva, thinking it’s Chassidus they seek, join a yeshiva and start studying the Tanya. They soon discover the Tanya addresses only a single problem, the union of the souls with the divine. They then remain in a frustrating stalemate until something else shows up to solve their problem. Occasionally it is Mussar that saves the day. More often, it’s one of the other hole fillers, and, their itch scratched and their issue resolved, they stop seeking G-d. My acquaintance, the young zealot, seems to have done just that. He now often posts pictures of himself, bare-headed and often bare-chested, luxuriating in an exotic locale, to Facebook.

 

There was another student in that same yeshiva where I met the first. Where the first was young, this second was older than the yeshiva average. Where the former was fanatical, the latter was disinterested. The first was hungry, seeking satisfaction from every page of the Talmud, every letter of each Chassidic discourse. The latter seemed to hate everyone and everything about our little school, often missing classes, arriving at strange hours with odd friends to study the talks of the Previous Rebbe of Lubavitch in Russian-accented Hebrew. The only things the two students had in common were their distinctive approaches to yeshiva life apart from the established order, tormented spirits, and a penchant for cigarettes.

The Russian (let’s call him) was, without doubt, the most abrasive person I met in perhaps my entire yeshiva career. He had no air of glory about him whatsoever, no sense that, by participating in Judaism, he was doing something noble or extraordinary. He spoke with all the tact of a Moscoloid street rat and had physically assaulted a non-zero number of his fellow students. He had studied philology in university back in the Motherland and spat out the names of philosophers like curses. He liked the Kuzari and alcohol. I think he is an orphan, but he found no loving family amongst us; if he has a void in that sense, it’s hard to imagine we were filling it with our constant exasperation at his moods. He was no Moses (lacking the piety) and no Korach (lacking the delusions of grandeur and the pictured path to fulfillment). He was more a Dasan or Aviram, kicking over blocks for fun, and you wanted to ask him, “Why are you here?” However, in retrospect, it is clear he possessed the knack of every successful fulfillment-seeking Baal Teshuva. He could be here because he was here. Dogged, senseless, persistence without reason or clear reward is the trick of the Baal Teshuva, and you can’t teach it. It appears in other areas of life aglimmer with the sheen of the infinite. The advice for writers, I have learned, is to write. The ingredient of cake, when G-d makes it, is cake. That which is created from nothing has no explanation. Moses can be Moses only because he is, and this mystery the Russian embodies.

 

Today, checking my Facebook feed, I see two truly great words, words that ring with the full hollowness of a Chassidic story. You must recognize those involved, read the words in an irritated Russian accent written to an old non-friend, a youth from yeshiva. The Russian was never there when the youth slaved over the holy books, was not around when he sculpted a shining new face for himself in the night, was not awake when he closed the book, picked up his jacket, and quit. But beneath the latest in a string of frivolous photos of a new life, the Russian has commented,

with the mournful triumph of the eternally satisfied,

with the confident disregard of those who cannot break free from the bundle of life even if they wished,

with the greatness of those who are empty and thus are Moses,

with the longing of an inner cave so long-buried the explorers have stopped looking for it,

with the laconic, mystified bemusement of those who have suffered worse yet never managed to leave:

“תחזור כבר”;

“Come back already.”

Testing for Prophets

Can A Politically-Fanatical Jew Identify a Prophet?

Would we be able to tell an Ezekiel or a Jeremiah from a false prophet today? Judgment and intellectual objectivity are necessary factors in a moral life, as Rabbi Dessler explains so well. Upon further reflection, intellectual integrity is no mere moral tenet or a prerequisite for sitting on beis din. Intellectual honesty is also vital for identifying prophets.

Consider a person claiming to be a Jewish prophet approaching the constant online fray, the dust in which to secure victory many of us have chosen the desired reality and gone on to interpret all words to fit as necessary, processing everything through a Bed of Sodom. The only way to determine a true prophet is, as the Rambam writes in his Introduction to the Mishna, to test their prophecy against the future. If every single word the prophet says (apart from predicted punishments) comes to pass in every detail, we are obligated by the Torah of Moshe to listen to them. If even one particular turns out to be false, we know they are no true prophet, and do unto them as the Torah prescribes.

Once, this test for prophecy may have been reasonable. Today, the president says a sentence on video, and one half of the country decides his words erupt from a wellspring of genius that has never been wrong. At the same time, the other half finds them flowing from a pit of foolishness that has only ever poisoned minds. The actual words he says have no bearing on these conclusions. How could we ever find a prophet with such a mindset? The exact half-and-half split would prevail. We would be stuck.

Of course, the same question applies to the law of Moses itself. If we can reread any of the prospective prophets’ statements, we can reread those of the Greatest of Prophets for the same price. The difference is that Moses enjoys the safety of ancient words with an unbroken interpretive tradition. By definition, we must file any new prophet under ‘current events.’ We set a reminder on our phones to check whether the prediction has come through, and judge it with the same mind that posts novel interpretations of the latest safety briefing on Facebook.

 

Why The Future Is His Alone

The test for prophets may also reflect a difference between G-d and idols. Prophecy of G-d is unlike deep spiritual intuition, astrology, or other forms of ‘spiritual prognostication’ at a pragmatic level. Per the Rambam, true prophecy is correct in every detail, whereas all other ways of predicting the future are always wrong in some detail. This contrast makes sense in light of the metaphysical difference between G-d and mere gods, between creation ex nihilo and creation from something.

Creation ex nihilo is the result of a single cause. All other “creation” (really, per the Ramban, the term properly applies to creation from nothing) is just the actualization of some preexisting potential, the meeting of formal and material causes that the Alter Rebbe calls the “צורף כלי,” the smithing of a vessel. Furthermore, no form of magic or mystical power can create from nothing; this ability, the Alter Rebbe explains, is in the domain of G-d alone, since He alone is a necessary being.

It follows that prophets whose insights derive from lesser powers or beings and the perception of their natures, as astrologers understand the stars or the spiritual forces that the stars express, only ever have a partial picture of reality. The subject of their insight is necessarily only one of the multiple parties bringing about the future. Their predictions must be imperfect because they stem from mere partial contributions to the reality of tomorrow. The prophet of G-d, by contrast, with a hotline to the Sole Creator of All, can authoritatively say what will happen tomorrow, for only he has insight into a single cause of everything today. (Of course, the Jew believes that since no finite being has any power to bring about any future, and that all of reality is in the hands of the Creator alone, that the astrologer’s predictions are also insights into G-dliness, of a sort.  However, the astrologer may not know this, and their knowledge is limited to G-dliness as it has already concealed itself within the workings of nature.)

 

Infinite Test

Just as our judgment, even when unrestrained by bribery or preconception, cannot bootstrap morality, it alone can serve as no basis for accepting an individual as a messenger of G-d. The infinite regress of doubt must stop somewhere. We must follow Moses not because we have tested him against an intellectual standard but because of our faith in him and our direct experience of G-d at Sinai. Only this will allow us to check for prophets in our own time with any sense of certainty.

The Torah is no medical text but by dint of faith lends more authority to doctors than doctors could claim even by reason alone, allowing them to abrogate temporarily (by declaring a situation life-threatening) certain commandments of G-d. So, too, is the Torah of Moses no tested prophecy but a faith-reality lending authority to a test of future prophets. And just like doctors, those prophets may, too, abrogate certain commandments of G-d temporarily, as Elijah did when offering sacrifices on Mount Carmel.

The Sinatic Event made from every Jew a prophet, and so broke the cycle of prophet-tested-by-test-of-another-prophet. We knew Him, at that time, much as we know ourselves, and saw His presence with our own eyes. It is only this that lends a rational test for prophets of G-d any force.

G·d vs. The Virus

All it takes is a global pandemic for all the philosophy to come out. Though most of us are hard-pressed to describe a constant system of causality, that is, to trace actions or events definitely to what caused them, we suddenly must know. The virus must be so harmful as to justify our knowledge, a prime example of desperate measures calling for desperate times.

Even before the wet market and the outbreak and our collective gasp for breath, some appreciated the power of simple direct causation: “Vote Republican and my grandmother will die.” “Drive your car, and everyone will die.” “Teach that in schools, and everyone will die.” Death truly is the last refuge of the scoundrel and should be denied to him at all costs. Every personal and political decision in history has killed thousands, surely, and what we could have, should have done to preempt this Coronavirus is no different. But I am not going to the effort of putting pen to paper merely to laugh at consequentialist morality (an act, surely, that will eliminate some rare species of botfly from the heart of the Congo, etc.)—there is G·dliness to contemplate! (Animal soul: “Booo!” Me: “Can it, Sheldon!”)

The question is a simple one: To what extent does COVID-19 control G·d, and to what extent does G·d control it? We once discussed this in terms of Purim, the lottery, His face concealed and revealed in the nature of the day. The point, however, is profound enough, central enough to the difference between a G·dly and unG·dly life, to deserve a lifetime of contemplation (perhaps in this way we can fulfill the facet of divine worship called Mesiras Nefesh, self-sacrifice for G·d). Let us attack the question from a different angle called Hashgacha Pratis, individual divine providence, and the way Chassidic teachings transform the concept.

Individual divine providence means that G·d is actively involved in the universe at the level of each creation. It is a Jewish doctrine transformed by the innovation (revelation) of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the Holy BeSh”T, a theological radical in all the best ways. It also, like many other principles of Chassidus (“G·d is everywhere” is another), is the way a typical eight-year-old in Hebrew school understands G·d. This childlike perspective is no accident. The simplicity of a simple Jew touches the simplicity of the Creator. But it would be a mistake to call the BeShT’s theology childish. It is nothing short of revolutionary:

“As explained by our master, the Baal Shem Tov, not only are all the particular activities of the created beings under Divine providence, and this providence is the life-energy of the created being that maintains its existence, but every particular movement of an individual created being has a connection to the intent of the creation as a whole…A slight movement of one blade of grass fulfills G‑d’s intent for the creation as a whole.”

from the discourse “Al Kein Yomru” 5696

Divine providence has historically been denied even by those who believe that G·d created the world from nothing. These are the deists and their ilk (in the straightforward reading) to whom the Alter Rebbe rebuts in the 2nd chapter of the 2nd part of the Tanya. Like other idolatry-adjacent beliefs, Deism derives from bad philosophy rather than simplemindedness. Because they imagine G·d can only cause effects through a close relationship with those effects (a limitation that only pertains to finite creations), they think divine involvement in His world contradicts His simplicity. They believe G·d abandoned the earth and is merely the ‘G·d of gods,’ the ultimate cause beyond, and today uninvolved in, nature. The response to this position, as the Alter Rebbe writes at length, is that creating something from nothing, on the contrary, necessitates the constant involvement of the Creator.

Jewish sages and rabbis, of course, have never denied G·d’s constant involvement in the creation, G·d forbid, just as all Jewish sages maintain that there is perfect and total divine knowledge. The debate has always centered around the extent and nature of G·d’s involvement in what He knows. Before the holy BeSh”T, some, like the Rambam, explained divine providence to rest only on individual people, but over all other species only in general. Per this view, G·d does not decree whether a specific fish should live or die, only that the species as a whole should survive, because it is only the species as a whole that is central to His plan. If the life of a single animal becomes a human concern, e.g., the peddler’s donkey dies and he suddenly has no more means of making a living, only then is G·d concerned with the individual animal. Even these sages seem to agree that the “chance circumstance” which rules over the lives of non-human creations is itself a decree of G·d, just as G·d decrees that human beings should have free choice. He decrees, in other words, that here something else should decree.

Opinions also vary as to whether there is divine providence over human beings equally. The Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed) says providence is a function of the intellectual bond between man and G·d. Thus fools and evildoers are separate from total providence and left to some extent in the hands of nature just like other species.

The Chassidic doctrine of individual divine providence first introduced by the Baal Shem Tov is genuinely original, at least among the stated opinions and known philosophies of the Torah that have reached us. Although previous Jewish sages strongly support both G·d’s omniscience and, possibly, His constant creation of the universe, the holy Baal Shem Tov came and revealed a new light, a new facet of the Truth. G·d is involved in every aspect of the creation, and every aspect of the creation contributes to His plan for the entire universe.

In the Baal Shem Tov’s world, there is no room for chance.

But what if we are not stones or donkeys or even wicked fools? What if we are righteous, deserving of individual divine providence according to all Jewish opinions? Is there any innovation, then, in the Baal Shem Tov’s light?

A further wrinkle: Hashgacha, divine providence, as so far discussed, is a doctrine drawing G·d closer to mundane worldly realities; hence the Rabbinic hesitation to embrace it fully, for fear of contradicting His simplicity, His transcendent perfection. Providence, in other words, means G·d is involved even where He’s not expected, in the affairs and logic of finite and worldly things. But a Jew intertwined with Torah and Mitzvos, with the divine Wisdom and Will—what use does this Jew have for providence? The Creator shows Himself openly and directly in their G-dly affairs, within their holy pursuits! Per the sages before the Baal Shem Tov, providence is needed specifically where it will not go, to the mundane and the separate. And even the BeSh”T, who says there is providence for sinners, does not seem to explain why the non-sinners need it. A saint, a holy Tzaddik, does not need G·d’s hidden machinations; his very soul is a revealed instrument for the divine!

Which makes it strange to read the words of the Rebbe Rayatz. The 6th Rebbe of the Lubavitch dynasty, R’Yosef Yitzchak, a leader of the Jewish people whose very life was the Jewish practice and education he spread under the deadly watch of Stalin and the KGB makes a remarkable statement about his imprisonment, torture, and commuted death sentence in 1927. He says that if it had not been for his discussion of the Baal Shem Tov’s doctrine of individual divine providence in the discourses of Rosh Hashana of that year (תרפ”ז), he would not have had the strength to withstand his imprisonment.

To which, three questions:

(1) Every Rabbinical opinion we know would agree that the Rebbe, a saintly Jew who gives his whole life to the service of G·d and the Jewish people, experiences individual divine providence. So why was it the Baal Shem Tov’s doctrine, precisely, that gave him strength?

(2) Why is divine involvement in private affairs even relevant in this case? The Rebbe’s entire existence is a public devotion to the betterment of the Jewish people and the furtherance of G·d’s Will and Wisdom on earth. His life is inseparable from G·d, regardless of G·d’s involvement in mundane worldly affairs.

(3) Even if we wish to propose that the benefit of his contemplation of providence is finding G·dliness even in his enemies and imprisonment, why is providence the object of his thought? The heartening concept that finds G·d even in terrible oppression is “everything that comes from G·d is good”! Hashgacha Pratis, individual divine providence, merely says that G·d is involved, not that the bad is good. Under providence alone, we might say that G·d is involved in the thing, but it is indeed a harsh punishment or a bitter exile!

Indeed, there is an implicit tension between questions (2) and (3). If the Rebbe Rayatz’s whole life is one with public service in matters of Torah and Mitzvos, if his entire being is about G·d and not about himself, why would the apparent evil of his enemies and imprisonment bother him at all? We are speaking of a saintly Tzaddik who risked his life day after day to serve the Jewish people. The holy Rebbe had little concern for his wellbeing in a state of literal self-sacrifice. He was like the holy Rabbi Zushya of Annipoli, who said to the student sent by the Maggid to learn from him how to accept suffering with joy, “I lack nothing and have never suffered!” Such souls do not feel difficulty, do not feel pain, do not feel stress. Why does the Rebbe need to contemplate individual divine providence in the first place? On the contrary, like Rabbi Akiva, a Rebbe is grateful for the opportunity to give up his life for G·d!

Rabbi Akiva, however, who yearned for self-sacrifice and even to die for the sanctification of G·d’s name, is not the only Jewish path. Avraham, Abraham, our father, did not seek out self-sacrifice. His total devotion to G·d expressed in the spreading of monotheism. If this devotion called for self-sacrifice, he was willing to give up anything (indeed, even his divine mission itself, which is the secret of the Akeida, the binding of Isaac), but he did not seek it out. Thus, when Abraham sat in prison, he would not have enjoyed it. It would have been an interruption to his life’s mission of spreading the worship of the One G·d.

Thus, the Rebbe’s pain is like Abraham’s pain. The existence of a holy Jew is one devoted to G·d and others and especially to connecting others with G·d. In this mission, the personal risk or threat of bodily harm concerns the Tzaddik not in the least. (And here, the FIRST LESSON: to focus on helping others in the time of crisis will lessen our pain.) The righteous Jew is instead pained that his self-sacrifice might interrupt his holy work, might imprison them where they are unable to carry out G·d’s Will (here, a SECOND LESSON: where we can do G·d’s Will, we are free). It does no good, either, to say that because the Rebbe is now in prison, being in prison is now G·d’s Will. A Rebbe is not G·d’s employee, merely contributing to the cause to the best of his ability. The Rebbe, the Jew, is co-owner of the enterprise. Owners are in it for the result, and no to absolve themselves of responsibility. If the Rebbe is sitting in prison, he may not be guilty for his inability to spread G·dliness, but it still hurts.

Facing a global pandemic, and at any other time, there are two types of souls, each with its distinct mission. One gives itself over to fulfilling the task to the very end, no matter the coast, but in the end, once all effort has been expended, it feels no pain. All is by G·d’s design. He planned and expected the whole story, not just my part, but whether the thing will succeed at all—so why should I worry? So do faith in G·d, and the faithful execution of my responsibility, make for peace of mind.

Then there is the Jew who cannot rest, who is so bound up with G·d that G·d’s Will is his will. The Jew does not serve than then wash his hands. The Jew is a piece of G·d; G·d’s concerns are not merely his mission but his entire being. Never mind what G·d expects of me—what does G·d want beyond my responsibility? The job is on pause. It hurts.

(We see it in the story of the Rebbe Rayatz’s father, the Rebbe Rashab, in Petersburg, at a rabbinical council. He witnessed the Tsar’s ministers attempt to coerce the gathered Rabbis, with the threat of pogroms, to agree to secular education for all Jewish children. The Rebbe spoke so vociferously against the idea that he fainted, and his words were so pointed he was placed under house arrest. Once the Rebbe was freed, one of his rabbinic colleagues came to visit and found him weeping. The Rabbi asked, “Lubavitcher Rebbe, why are you crying? We have done everything we could do!”

The Rebbe replied, “But we still haven’t accomplished it…”)

Those with no faith, who do not believe G·d controls our affairs and whose lives are egocentric, feel pain when the crisis exceeds their ability and expectation. Those with faith whose lives are devoted to G·d in the selfless pursuit of the mission and who know G·d’s total control of all things feel peace. But those with faith, who know G·d controls our affairs, but for whom G·d’s mission is their very self—the crisis causes them pain, not because they are pained but because G·d is pained. They do not say, “G·d has other messengers to accomplish the mission.” Such false humility has no place in the inner spark of G·d that knows if its assistance were unnecessary it would never have been brought into being.

Thus, the THIRD LESSON: Pain in the faith of the crisis does not necessarily reflect a lack of faith. If we feel the pain, we should make it that pain that, as the Rebbe Rayatz says, the Baal Shem Tov’s doctrine of individual divine providence can heal.

As every chassid knows and rushes to explain, the descent is for the sake of an ascent. The concealment of G·d is that He may reveal Himself further. The essence of “Cursed is Haman” is “Blessed is Mordechai.” Moses doesn’t enter the land and passes away in the desert so that Moses’ work may become the possession of the entire nation. The darkness exists for the sake of greater light.

And yet, the darkness is still darkness. Jail time is by definition time spent not spreading G·dliness or helping Jews, despite all the inspiration that may eventually come from it. The virus is a killer and a terror, even though so much good might emerge from it. That’s why it still hurts. That’s how it yet, in its way, has control, yet denies G·d.

Unless you believe the Baal Shem Tov. The holy BeSh”T says that not only is every detail of the creation in G·d’s control, but every particular fulfills G·d’s purpose for the entire universe.

What is critical, in other words, is not that the BeSh”T extends individual providence to every detail of every creation. What matters is why. Until the Baal Shem Tov, divine providence was a hierarchy. The Rambam says individual providence is a function of the extent to which something understands G·d. The righteous have more providence, the wicked less. The enlightened more, the benighted less, a rock none in particular, for it knows nothing of G·d intellectually. A virus is more rock than a human being…Comes the holy Baal Shem Tov and reveals: Not only is every detail of each thing from G·d. Not only is it all by G·d’s plan in general. But each creation itself fulfills His general plan for the entire creation.

The Baal Shem Tov is no longer talking about G·d’s plan and the human being, as not-G·d, dealing with it, being at peace with it or feeling pain because it’s on hold and we are helpless. The Baal Shem Tov’s divine providence, at the fiery heart of Chassidus, is that there is nothing to fear but G·d alone because there’s nothing but G·d alone. The BeSh”T says if we have no pain but G·d’s, then there is no pain anywhere, for G·d’s will is everywhere fulfilled and nowhere unfulfilled. Light has no privilege, is no speedier or more direct a fulfillment of G·d’s plan, than darkness. The Rebbe remembers this and thereby makes from his imprisonment itself a G·dly perfection. The Soviets themselves decided to set him free. G·dliness did not merely emerge from the dark. The dark was G·dly and did not have to become light to be so.

The FOURTH LESSON: There is no despair in this world. G·d is not merely its Creator, not only deeply involved in it but equally present in all aspects of all creations beyond by our understanding of their natures.

Those who have not yet tasted the taste of Torah think that effects derive from comprehensible causes. In the crisis, they are either crushed (if wrong) or arrogant (if right). Until the Baal Shem Tov, those who made their will G·d’s will knew that their lives were the effect of an incomprehensible Cause, but the effects themselves were still comprehensible; dark is dark, no matter the light that emerges from it. The BeSh”T reveals that you understand the darkness as little as you know G·d because the darkness is just as immediate to G·d’s unfolding plan as the light, a direct and necessary fulfillment of His purpose for the entire universe. What you think darkness and light mean, they do not mean…

This freeing ignorance, this relinquishing of judgment, this disappearance of contradictions to G·d’s plan—this is the real freedom. We do not and cannot know what the virus is; all we can know is that it cannot contradict G·d’s highest and deepest intentions, any more than a thing can hide behind itself. The Creator is just as concealed by the virus as He was by the status quo ante. Whence despair?

We are bound up in the life of the living G·d. We have a mission. Nothing stands in our way. Let us proceed, without delay, to the immediate and complete redemption, when these truths will be as common and straightforward as a sour headline.


Based on the Rebbe’s renowned letter on Hashgacha Pratis, Igros Kodesh vol. I p.168ff and the Rebbe’s sicha for the 12th of Tammuz, Likkutei Sichos vol. XXIII p.157ff.

Morte e Satisfação Ao Lado do Tejo

Beneath the needled boughs on the banks of the Tagus. Why ever move again? The air is cool and breezy off the mighty estuary. Gulls croak all around. Behind is the bustle of Lisbon, the distant breath of automotive traffic, the clashing of a pot in a restaurant no-doubt desperate for off-season custom. Today is a good day; it isn’t raining.

Why ever move again? The Ponte Vasco de Gama, longest bridge in Europe, unfurls to my left like a misplaced spasm of Louisiana, a momentary whiff of Pontchartrain and beignets and bayou. The cable car to the oceanarium drifts silently overhead. It is impossible to wonder with anything more than the curiosity of the content whether today they have any takers. Calm waters and limpid skies give way at the horizons to clouds, not the droning omnipresent gray of Sunday but white cotton East toward the rest of Europe, and upriver, future rain-bearers. One of the restaurants has hung chimes which soften the squeaking and clanging of walkers along the promenade, their presence just constant enough to remind me I am not outside of civilization but on the edge of a pocket of peace folded against its loving bosom.

The bridge crosses the river so I don’t have to. Why ever move again?

It is possible to step on the Vacso de Gama bridge and walk to Vladivostok without your feet leaving pavement. But Vladivostok is only an idea in Lisbon, an implausible theory. If I was the bridge, a simple unprepossessing miles-long concrete structure, I could have Russia implicitly. I would in some sense run there at every moment, be there by being in Lisbon, my body my grandfather’s whom I have never met.

But I am not even the bench I am sitting on, nor this pen, nor even the fingers manipulating it. I’m certainly not the distant dirty-snowed port, salmon and cod by the millions failing to warm its air. If I want to cross the river, I have to move. I at the very least have to move my thoughts. But why ever move again?

“Your body will need something eventually,” a voice within threatens. Perhaps. But perhaps I reject the notion. Adam didn’t need in Eden; courageous Korach didn’t need in the wilderness. They were perfect just as they were. Perhaps I will waste away here on the bank of the river, because it is an insult to beauty and G-d’s creation to need anything, a rejection of the lapping waters and the moment in which they lap and all else that fills it. Motion is betrayal. Maybe I will die here with honor, the empty bench remaining as a testament to my discovery of G-d right where I sat.

As the sages or King Solomon might connote, and as I’ve been trying to say for a few paragraphs: existence is suffering. And as father Avraham teaches us, my still death beside the Tagus would itself be a motion, a furthering of my existence, a departure from the non-being I smell within the infinitesimal fraction of here and now.

It is no simple thing to cease to be accessible at your own metaphysical address, to rig your front door so that when they batter it down they meet nothing but G-dliness. An accessible existence is a notoriously difficult thing to dispose of. When Descartes said cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, it was with a note of triumph, having ascertained that there was at least one thing he could not doubt, namely the existence of the one who was doubting, i.e., himself. He should have mourned. The prisoner cannot free himself. Actions grounded in our own knowing are grounded in us and so no matter their apparent valence shall always reinforce our existence.

Martyrdom is no escape. A monk sets himself on fire in protest. His form is lost in the flames; his soul passes from the material realm. His existence is no longer accessible, not as itself…right?

Do we not find the monk’s existence immortalized through his actions? Is he not found, there in the heart of his protest, for all eternity? He has become part of something larger than himself; he has traded a small mortal form for the form of the idea. His existence is now eternally accessible, more easily found. It is a martyrdom of self-extension.

The call sign of this self-perpetuating martyrdom is its logic. The human condition: our “independent” selves are functions of other selves. I’m bigger than little brother but smaller than father, smarter than a fifth grader but dumber than Einstein, a giver to students but a receiver from teachers. The tie that binds, the triangulating system binding us to other nodes in the web of being, is logic.

When the monk sets himself on fire, he does not sweep his locus on the web clean; on the contrary, he ascends to the state of pure logic, his node full of web. “The tenets of my religion define me,” he said before he was burned. “There is nothing here but the tenets of my religion,” he says now.

The node is not empty; it is so full as to merge into its surroundings. A living monk may sever the connections, shift his position, leave Buddhism for atheism or Sikhism. A martyr of self-extension has locked his logic into place. He has moved beyond being a single thing among all finite concatenated things, and become a principle of concatenation, an idea, infinitely more present, undying.

In other words, death and life are not continuing and ceasing to be in this world. Being is to be in the web of logic. Death can reinforce and intensify this being. It is not, itself, an escape.

Avraham is the first to break free of the web, to wrench himself free, to non-be. Our father rebels against all his holy logic by binding Isaac upon the altar. In his mad devotion to G-d he sets aside his beliefs and religion and the extension of his line. When logic tells him “G-d promise a nation through Isaac,” that his son and he are tied by the web, Avraham ties his son and thereby cuts the connection. When logic tells him G-d does not desire human sacrifice, he turns away. When it insists that martyrdom is only for a cause, Avraham is willing to not be a martyr, then. There is no ground for the sacrifice of Yitzchak in what Avraham is. On that mountain he exerts none of his own logic.

Is this not the very inscrutability of G-d made manifest? When Maimonides writes that we cannot even affirmatively say that G-d exists, what he means is that G-d is not a being of the web. He exists only because He is himself, relative to no other thing, and so the verb “to be” means something incommensurately greater in his case. Avraham is only able to be nothing before G-d by dint of the G-dly nothingness within. He is not nothing by external relationship to the Creator (a further web) but by faith, the inner path, a capacity built into his very being.

If he is not defined by any web, what remains is not more of Avraham, but none of him, which is also, absurdly, Avraham— the deepest truth of Avraham, his G-dly truth. He found it not through stillness and death. He found it by riding to the mountain on G-d’s command.

Why ever move? Because it is the only way to stay still. Why abandon this moment here, where the birds of prey swing low on the winds of the continent to hunt the glassy blue waters? It is the only way to keep it.


November. Dusk. Lisbon.
All the demons here
are my own.

A million moorish tiles weeping.
Strangers on the Praça offer hashish and cocaine in stage whispers.
Dark cobbles, dark thoughts.
The square was urbane, European, and soothing
before I learned
from the Bubbe in the purple bonnet
urging me to plunge my youth
into the city
before the single synagogue
is returned by demographics and economics
to the post-Inquisition peace
with the pogrom.
Here they burned the Jews.

All the demons here
are my own.


The Jews of Lisbon saw the waters of the Rio Tejo from the Praça do Comércio before they were burned at the stake. They were no mere martyrs. They were descendants of Abraham, torn from the web, instantiating the inner G-dly void closer to them than any logic or definition.

There was, in the preceding silence, a perfection against which there is no rebelling, a stillness that could not be moved. There were no bodies that hungered, no directions to reach in, no seconds to measure. Why ever move?

Then, a sigh, and there was light.

Celebrating Halloween the Chassidic Way

“Why can’t we just celebrate Halloween if it’s secular nowadays?” ought to be a self-answering question for observant Jews. Alas, our passion against paganism may still exist in at least a dormant state, but our passion against secularism does not. That the two are even related has been largely forgotten. Come, then. Let us celebrate the 31st of October in the Chassidic fashion:

The Rambam tells the whole sad story in the first chapter of his laws of idol worship, for it must be the reader’s goal to eliminate foreign worship from our minds and hearts, and our minds and hearts are where, in the story, it first got in. It was the mind and heart that first turned to idols and eventually away from G-d entirely.

No reasonable person could conclude that there is no ultimate purpose or end to the creation unless an alternate explanation presented itself. Man was formed by G-d’s own hands and spoke to Him face to face, so the alternate explanation had to be pretty good. And it was; it was based on G-d’s will itself, an interpretation of it.

First, the generation of Enosh erred in philosophy and reasoned that since G-d has placed the sun as the source of sustenance for the earth, it deserves worship, too. They applied this logic to all spiritual forces, the four elements, constellations. They valued G-d so highly as to make Him irrelevant, a watchmaker, a disinterested king.

False prophets then arose who claimed the intermediaries yearned for worship, that G-d Himself demanded it. And with the stretching out of years, the Creator, quiet and unnecessary, was then forgotten entirely.

If other beings, creations, have importance or efficacy, then they have explanatory power. So was room made for the secular, which existed in theory inherent to the nature of the sun, but needed human reason to bring it out. The realm of things having nothing to do with G-d is first created when we mistake G-d for having created it.

In the Rambam there is little separating idolatry from secularism.* One leads to the other directly; they constitute the error and its eventual consequence.

Today, for whatever reason, we have separated between the unnatural and the natural, the pagan and the secular, witchcraft and philosophy. As we have become ever-more physical even in our spiritual sensibilities, we have come to think of sun worship as something distinct from our experience even as we have come to see secularism as the natural neutral substance of life. A witch cursing an apple for Snow White is a fairy tale, but an apple as a colorless tasteless purposeless hunk of stuff that just exists is called “reality.”

We want to distinguish between sinister necromancy Halloween and cute kids asking for candy Halloween. The latter is clearly not as strange or threatening as the former. The latter could at least theoretically be diverted to G-dly ends, and that is the advantage of secularism over its idolatrous roots. Secularism wants to see things just as they are, and things as they are exist for G-dly purposes, no matter how narrowly you look at them. But if we seek no such purpose and take the secular merely for itself, we live in its lowliness, in its coarseness, in a state of idolatry to which an additional forgetting and numbing have been appended. Such was the world that our father Abraham was born into, per the Rambam, before he walked its sands and peered at its luminaries, before he rediscovered G-d and made Him an heirloom.

We shall not escape secularism through reason centered on our own benefit or perfection. Reasoning with the will of G-d as it relates to our benefit and perfection is what the generation of Enosh did. G-dliness can be found reliably only within a simple faith in Moses’s prophecy, something the Creator gives us and we cannot create. With this, a chassid celebrates the 31st of October and the 2nd of Cheshvan and all other days, past, present, and future.


*By providence, enlightenment secularism has called itself Secular Humanism, and humanity in modern Hebrew is literally Enosh-ity; perhaps we should begin calling it Secular Enosh-ism, to remember.

Does the Torah Say The World Is An Illusion?

Of Witchcraft, Cucumbers, and Reason

Every year, around my birthday, I think about whether the world is an illusion. A classic rookie mistake in the study of Chassidus and Kabbalah (egged on by the mysterious rejoinders of those who teach rookie Chassidus and Kabbalah) is the immediate and total negation of the universe’s existence—everything is G-dliness, G-dliness is everything, and if nothing seems to have received this news, that’s just the illusion, baby.

Chassidus is not a conspiracy theory, however, and there is no Shadowy One merely manipulating your perceptions, for, if your perceptions aren’t real, why should He bother with them? and if they are, then they could hardly be called “deceived.”

Deeper: Chassidus (the Chabad version, anyway) is all about G-dliness penetrating every level of the soul on its own terms, and the key to the human soul and self, what Aristotle called the rational animal, is through its mind.

Now, the mind can and does accept that some things it perceives are merely illusory. However, there is a point—we know, because we’ve crossed it—beyond which calling everything an illusion leads one to reject the mind wholesale. If we live in a mere dream theater, if we are a brain in a vat or within the Matrix, our reports of the outside world falsified, then our minds become disconnected from our environment and to think the mind embraces the truth and becomes one with it (as described, e.g., in Chapter 5 of Tanya) is untenable. Any truth could be manufactured, any unity mere self-indulgence. My mind would ultimately not be a dwelling place for G-d in metaphysical actuality, but a dwelling-place for imaginings that pass the threshold of truth-perception, so I call them true.

In other words, for Chassidus to work, our minds must be able to actually be vessels for an outside reality, must actually cross the gap and connect. There must be a difference between imagining and knowing, “And Adam knew Eve.”

Like all knowledge, our knowledge of G-d is not self-sufficient but is founded on faith and propagates through a faith-medium. Faith, like knowledge, crosses the gap and connects, but, critically, it does not connect in a piecemeal, finite fashion subject to analysis. In truth, all knowledge is really a combination of faith and knowledge, with neither one reducible to the other.

There is no rational answer to total skepticism (“How do you know the direct apperception of the Divine at Mount Sinai wasn’t a demon’s trick?”). There must first be faith, a non-negotiable, inexplicable connection between self and other not subject to analysis. Rationality begins when the supra-rational has taken root, and then every step of rational reason (“Since G-d spoke at Mount Sinai, we have an obligation not to wear wool and linen”) is caused not merely by its rational antecedent but by that initial and pervading faith. Once faith is in place, the void held at bay, our understanding must proceed on its own terms,* rather than contradicting its own efficacy by calling itself an illusion.

In short, knowledge cannot be allowed to reduce to faith or illusion. If knowledge reduces to faith, e.g. by saying every step of the reasoning process is an a priori direct soul connection rather than the work of systematized logic, then there really is no such thing as knowledge apart from the faith which founds it. Similarly, if knowledge reduces to illusion, then our knowledge comes to reject the faith that is its own necessary precondition, and neither total skepticism nor “living with contradictions” could be called knowledge, for in neither case is the mind a vessel for what’s beyond it. With only faith, one may have G-d, but one does not have G-d on one’s own finite terms, does not have G-d authentically as a rational animal. Without faith, one has nothing but oneself.

But how do we get from faith to knowledge? How do we know that the G-d we have accepted from Mount Sinai does not want us to reject the workings of reason? Perhaps the first tenet of faith is, “trust nothing is real except what I tell you”?

Indeed: G-d has told us that just as He is real, there is at least some reality to the universe. This is why G-d created such a thing as a rational mind. He has made knowledge, and a world of composite, non-infinite things for knowledge to know, and sanctify, in that order.

Where does G-d tell us this?

One old standby is that it’s in the first verse of the Torah. In the beginning G-d created, after all. G-d Himself tells us that he did something, and His Torah never departs from the straightforward meaning. On the other hand, perhaps “creation” (ex nihilo, Nachmanides would urge us to append) merely means “the generation of that which is illusory.”

So, the Rebbe Rashab memorably uses** this instead:

The Mishna (Sanhedrin 7:11) states that a sorcerer is liable for the death penalty under Jewish law, but only for an act of sorcery. If he merely creates the appearance of sorcery, he is exempt. R’Akiva tenders an example: If two known sorcerers are gathering cucumbers, but the first actually gathers them with witchcraft, whereas the second merely creates the illusion of having gathered them with witchcraft, the first is liable and the second is not.

If, asks the Rebbe, the world is merely an illusion, how could the first sorcerer be liable? They, too, have done nothing but manipulate perception!

This argument clearly has an advantage over the first verse of the Torah, establishing that what, to Torah, counts as an illusion is distinct from the reality of our physical world. We cannot merely call creation an illusion, for cucumbers actually moving is different from cucumbers only appearing to move.

Of course, it is still possible to draw arbitrary distinctions, to the effect of “gathering cucumbers” is part of a more regular, consistent, accepted illusion called (for brevity) “reality,” whereas “appearing to gather cucumbers” is an illusion within the illusion, a break from our usual perception, and this is the source of the different judgments for these sorcerers.

There are problems with this evaluation of the Mishna, however. The Torah need not have framed the matter as actual vs. illusion (lit. “performing an action” vs. “fooling the eyes”). If the law wanted merely to issue a practical ruling it could say: “if you discover the cucumbers to be ungathered after the sorcerer’s apparent gathering, the sorcerer is not liable.” Since the Mishna instead tells us to assess whether it was mere illusion, it seems to adopt a definite metaphysical position that the first sorcerer’s action was not an illusion.

Secondly, the “illusion within an illusion” interpretations reads into the Mishna a probably-untenable epistemology. The simple way to read the law is that the court assesses the difference between illusion and reality. The proposed way of reading it is that the court assesses the difference between what they’re used to and what they aren’t.

To see how this would affect the rest of Torah law, consider that the idea of illusion is brought up specifically in the case of sorcery. Isn’t it true that any Torah transgression that turns out not to have occurred isn’t considered a transgression? If we thought we saw Shimon murder Reuven, but Reuven turns up alive and well, we certainly no longer try Shimon for murder. Why should sorcery be any different?

What makes magic, magic, is the lack of obvious cause and effect under the rules of nature. I understand the causality involved in Shimon squeezing the trigger, which sends a bullet flying down a barrel pointed at Reuven. This rational chain of events exists in many other places, not merely in this one instance, and will, all else being equal, produce the same result every time. It is this consistent working of cause and effect, all over the world, that indicates my mind is actually understanding the various aspects, the gun and the air, etc. For this to be an illusion, some other intervening factor must come into play, and that will be the cause of Reuven remaining alive. Perhaps I was seeing the whole incident in a mirror and Shimon was, in fact, facing the other way, etc.

Compare this to sorcerers gathering cucumbers. I don’t necessarily see or understand the mechanism or chain of causes that bring the cucumbers to be gathered, or, for that matter, bring me to perceive them being gathered. Without that consistency of regular experience, it is hard to even know what I am perceiving. It is not sufficient to produce an intervening cause that allowed the cucumbers to remain ungathered…for I do not know what causes them to be gathered in the first place! The only way to distinguish the gatherer from David Copperfield is by the result, by whether the cucumbers have actually moved.

We might think that even if we find the cucumbers, after the fact, to be gathered, this itself may merely be a step in some broader illusion, an issue that never arises with murder because we understand the causal process at work. We know that if Shimon shoots at Reuven’s chest, he’s on the hook for what happens, regardless of whether Shimon was trying to shoot the bottle behind Reuven, or what have you. How do we even know what the wizard was aiming at, however? Perhaps cucumbers appearing to be gathered, then appearing to be back in their field, is only the first step of the ritual!

Therefore, the Mishna comes to tell us not to go too far, that we can evaluate sorcery on its results. It needs to tell us this about sorcery when it doesn’t need to tell it to us elsewhere; we might think there is no way to evaluate whether sorcery has taken place, while we have no such assumptions about murder.

But if the Mishna says that “gathered cucumbers” and “non-gathered cucumbers” are different only relative to our perception rather than in straightforward fact, then what differentiates sorcery from the rest of Torah law? We ought to find a question on every facet of jurisdiction, a question pertaining to the efficacy of our senses and the truth of our assumptions. For just as there is no essential difference between the sorcery and the illusion (cucumbers themselves being an illusion, just a more common, well-behaved one) so is there no essential difference between Reuven being alive and Reuven appearing to be alive, and no resort to causal processes of murder can close the gap. Guns are an illusion, the air is an illusion, and we might conclude Reuven showing up in the courtroom is just the first step of Shimon’s elaborate murder plot! The “well-behaved” nature of guns describes merely our usual perception of their behavior, rather than anything intrinsic to them we could use to convict, just as “cucumbers don’t move by themselves” is no help with the wizard. Torah law would have to explicitly tell us that the illusion of murder is not tantamount to murder itself and perpetrators of murder-illusion are not guilty.

If our case is an “illusion within an illusion,” then every case of law in the Torah is like sorcery and ought to be treated as such. The unique distinguishing nature of sorcery, i.e. that its causal process is mysterious, would hold true of every aspect of our reality. Since there is no indication in the Torah that this is a concern in all aspects of law, but merely when it comes to sorcery, we must read the Mishna in the straightforward fashion: cucumbers are real; the illusion is not.

The Rebbe Rashab takes a third, stronger tack against the “illusion within an illusion” or “perceived reality vs. perceived illusion” interpretation, in which he applies the Mishna to itself: If the cucumbers are an illusion, then the death penalty we give to the sorcerer will also be an illusion. But in such a case, there is no actual reward and punishment in the Torah system. But then one of the fundamental principles of Judaism is false, and that is impossible. So the Mishna must be read as truly distinguishing between reality and illusion and not merely using those terms to describe different perceptions of an illusion. And therefore the official source, in the Jewish faith, for the reality of the universe as we perceive it is the 11th Mishna in the 7th chapter of Sanhedrin.

We may ask: If the Mishna’s efficacy in demonstrating the reality of cucumbers (and thus the rest of the universe) depends on the reality of the Torah’s capital punishments, why do we not simply say “the universe is real because reward and punishment is real, and many rewards and punishments are carried out in the physical universe”? Why resort to the complicated matter of the sorcerers at all, if it rests on reward and punishment in the first place?

Because, again, the “reality” in question is not the reality of G-d or G-d’s actions, but the reality of the world on its own terms. If we doubt the truth of G-d or G-d’s Torah, no Mishna (and possibly no anything) can argue for the truth of the universe. Remember: All knowledge is based on faith. The question is rather, given that G-d is real on faith and revelation, to what extent is the universe real?

Since this is the question, it does no good to base the reality of the universe, as a whole, on the reality of the Torah’s rewards and punishments in that universe. The cucumbers may be a mere illusion, but the court’s punishment, prescribed in divine revelation, may, for all we know, be far more real, riding as it does on the reality of G-d in a special way. Who says that when G-d creates a cucumber it’s real, but when he orders a holy court to punish, it’s only as real as that cucumber? Perhaps such punishments rise above their apparent similarity to our other worldly experience in some way we cannot, from within that world, perceive. Perhaps the court’s punishment is real not because it shares a reality with cucumbers but because it shares a Torah with G-d. The cucumbers are only real inasmuch as they play a role in reward and punishment, inasmuch as they aren’t worldly but G-dly.

Rather, we must base the reality of the universe not on something G-dly, but rather on something unholy or mundane, on sorcery and cucumbers: Cucumbers moving is a transgression that really happened, whereas cucumbers only appearing to have moved is an illusion and no transgression has occurred. It is only when we question whether our assessment of mundane reality is merely a perceived non-illusion that we turn by necessity to reward and punishment. In short, just because reward and punishment are real does not mean the world is real on its own terms. But if the world is entirely illusory, then reward and punishment could not be real. Thus, the cucumbers cannot be entirely illusory.***

Just as in other areas, knowledge does not reduce to faith; it is not enough to know a principle of the Torah (reward and punishment); cucumbers must be met on their own terms. But faith, a supra-rational basis in G-dliness, underlies all knowledge.


*This is possible because, even though rationality is influenced by faith, the inner life and source of all rationality is faith itself. When we are bribed by worldly pleasure or our own irrational will, it effectively bends our rationality, whereas when we are pre-committed in faith, it allows our rationality to be born and forms the core of the rational process. Thus we see a true difference between the “irrational” and the “supra-rational.”

**In the discourse “Ha’umnam“, 5643

***After this initial salvo, the Rebbe Rashab spends the rest of the discourse explaining that, although the world is not an illusion, the truth of its reality is questionable, and incomparable to the truth of G-d, etc.

Messianic Skepticism

One impression that emerges from reading the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s letters on matters of faith is that deep skepticism and profound belief are not opposites, but rather belong together in a healthy soul. You can see this in the way the Rebbe describes the historical giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, taking a Kuzari-like tack of questioning which other historical events we ought to believe in if not the giving of the Torah. You can see it in his revealing response about fossils. And so, too, in one of his famous lessons “proving” the existence of G-d, when the Rebbe calls for consistency in our skepticism — if you don’t believe in G-d, you must, to be consistent, also deny many things you do believe.

Since skepticism is both useful and in consonance with his deep belief in the Torah, the nature of the Rebbe’s proofs and demonstrations is not really to move the recipient of the letter from skepticism to belief. Rather, the Rebbe moves us from doubt to certainty, to a point where we are still skeptical but it doesn’t matter. In fact, the Rebbe reveals our skepticism to be merely the other half of our soul’s desire to know the truth, no less a tool for finding G-d than our capacity to commit and believe.

It is a transformative and uplifting view of skepticism, which finds the light in the darkness, allowing the darkness to remain in its place and yet somehow shine. This is one sense in which the Rebbe’s skepticism has a quality of the messianic age when flesh shall behold G-d.

In truth, the connection runs even deeper, for it is not just faith in general, but faith in Moshiach itself, that inspires this holy skepticism. All who are not yet skeptics have not yet fully considered what Moshiach means.

After all, even the Tzaddikim, the perfectly righteous, shall repent when Moshiach comes. Those familiar with the inner Torah recognize that the Tzaddik is the very embodiment of perfection, eternity, and consistency. If there is one thing in this entire world on which, from a G-dly perspective, we can rely, it is the Tzaddik. Yet, in the coming age, even the Tzaddikim will change and become something unimaginably greater than what they are now. What applies to the Tzaddik applies infinitely more to anything that now conceals even an iota of G-d’s light, from a Beinoni down to frogs and rocks and mollusks. So: Everything will change when Moshiach comes.

But because the change is a change of repentance, of Teshuva, and the highest form of repentance at that, it is not a change that will occur only from the Moshiach’s arrival and onward. On the contrary, like all such Teshuva, it will be a change that propagates backward in time as well. Or, to put it more simply, when Moshiach comes we will see how the way everything existed before Moshiach was a totally necessary part of bringing about its existence under Moshiach. Sins will be seen as the road to a deeper relationship with G-d. Skepticism will be seen as the road to deep faith. Pre-Messianic rocks will be seen as a preface to Infinite Revelation. In other words: Not only do we not know, now, what a rock will be when Moshiach comes, we also, because we believe in Moshiach, don’t know what the rock is at this moment. Moshiach will recontextualize each and every being in our current reality into its own story; everything will one day be about Moshiach.

Therefore, if, today, we don’t see how each thing is about Moshiach, how a frog or a sarcastic remark is about (in the deepest sense of the word) the perfect and infinite revelation of G-d within the world, we have never met these things; we know only the most superficial aspects of their being.

On the contrary, a simple curiosity to know things as they are right now, to explore the world around us in light of the knowledge that some moment soon everything will be deeply retroactively transformed, would express as an obsession with the Messianic age. If we were fully cognizant of the imminent permanent transformation of reality, our curiosity about things would mainly concern the spark of Moshiach we could find within them.

In this sense is the Rebbe the ultimate skeptical scientist.

Abraham the Murderer

Abraham is just some cisgender white male kid kicking cans in Silver Springs. He watches YouTube and plays Fortnite religiously but he is still not right. There’s something off about the way he looks at you. He sees too much. His skull can’t hold it all and ugly truths pour from his mouth.

Abraham wants to make his mother proud but never quite manages. Abraham’s father hits him sometimes, so when his dad is out Abraham burns the family business to the ground. Abraham’s father explains what power truly means with the back of his hand and the dull retreat of his mother’s eyes.

Abraham regrets nothing. Abraham’s heart is a coal wreathed in blue flame. Abraham decides it all must die. Abraham’s father stops paying for Wi-Fi and shoots a truancy officer.

Abraham dreams of ways to destroy his father. The moon could smash him, but then it would only come at night. The sun could scorch him, but only by day. The mountain, until it eroded; the cloud, until it dispersed. None of it is enough, he thinks, lying in his own reek, flies trailing lazy arcs across the thatched ceiling. I will kill him myself. That is what a man would do.

But his heart spasms brighter and his mind snaps shut. No. I can hate him only as long as I live. Death must not defeat my hatred. I will find something that endures forever, and etch my father’s punishment in its skin.

In this way, Abraham discovers the One G-d.


Abraham goes through puberty and meets a girl who can love an idea. They move to New Mexico.

“The One G-d is the best idea anyone has ever had,” Abraham tells his clan over Discord. “Even at their best, people will disappoint. People will always leave you doubting yourself. But ideas are sweet and dependable, and the Idea that people can’t understand is the sweetest of all. The Idea is the only indiscriminate and unyielding benevolence.” He takes a pull from his Mountain Dew. “Markets, the news, Odin, whatever your parents worship, it’s rotten with people. The idea never hints that nothing its children do is ever good enough. It is never so starving as to bash in a skull.” Abraham calls everything rank with human sweat an idol.

“How do you know,” asks Jason-who-went-to-college, “that the Idea (over which you seem to have perspired quite a bit) is not just Abraham’s idol?”

Abraham is angry, but he sees the point. People might think G-d is for smashing his enemies alone. Perhaps they would be right. Abraham thinks and thinks during his long walks along the Rio Grande. He decides that, because G-d created Abraham, G-d is not Abraham’s idol. “You are the proof,” he begins telling the nerds who visit his four-doored house. “The Idea cannot be mine any more than The Idea can be yours; that’s how we know It is not an idol. An idol has allegiances. The Idea is yours only like the light is the mirror’s. We reflect.”

On Facebook, Jason marks Abraham as his father, a declaration of fealty.


Abraham grows old nursing his Idea and spreading it. Every night in he dreams of men and women across the States, but they are no longer people. They are abstractions meandering among the squares and triangles, cavorting with loyalty and intransigence, free of selves, free of others. Their faces turn upward toward one light, away from the darkness of cruel arbitrary whim.

One morning, on a whim, G-d says to Abraham, “Hi there.”

Abraham, who has been waxing his Trans Am, about dies. He is angry. He is sad. He is ashamed. The idea, it seems, is suicidal. Abraham turns off the buffer and says, “Did you say something?”

The Idea says, “Don’t be rude, son.”

Abraham thinks for a moment, strokes his tangled beard, sighs. He did say that G-d created Abraham. What you create, you can destroy.

“What do you want me to do?” he asks, and steps into history.


“People are not so bad,” Abraham says, lying in bed on night, but what he is thinking is, a son, a son, a son, a son!

Sarah finishes that evening’s prayer, closes Twitter, and places her tablet upon the nightstand. “No,” she says, removing her glasses, thinking, a son, a son! “They aren’t.”

Abraham can barely believe, after so long. But he trusts. G-d has never let him astray. “Are we too old?” he asks bemusedly.

“Let’s find out,” Sarah suggests.


“Do they really deserve it?” Abraham asks the One. Death hangs suspended in the red heavens above the mesas. Sodom seethes below.

“Deserve?” G-d thinks aloud. “Am I some magistrate, bound by ordinances? Am I not the Creator of heaven and earth?”

Abe thinks on this a bit, sweats, and musters the platonic form of all chutzpah. “You are the Creator. That’s why you ought to act justly. Justice is the mortar of your creation. Are you our true Creator, or not? Spare them.”

G-d is pleased as He wipes Sodom clean.

Abraham turns his face and weeps.


Isaac is worth more than an endless eternity of abstractions.

In the curve of his cheek and the spread of his shoulders, Isaac embodies his father every hope. Abraham knows that he himself is not an idea and will someday die. But in his son, the knowledge of G-d on earth will live on.

“Kill him,” G-d says.

We can imagine a different multiverse, in which Abraham is not Abraham. We can imagine a reality in which Abraham is paralyzed, at this moment, by his dreams, but in our universe Abraham is neither a child not a philosopher. His knees are scabbed from prayer and his palms cracked from devotion. G-d is his love, his light, his master, and his sole possession.

His idol.

Abraham gave up people for a dream, and a dream for a Voice in the wilderness. He can give up one more thing.

It’s a long three days, sitting on his ass.

We do not know what he thinks as he rides, but every grain of sand, every streetlight and rented scooter probably seems a mocking agony as he contemplates justice. He demanded justice for sinners, why not for his son? But then, Sodom never trusted.

He probably thinks about his mind, how it wants to rebel, to cry that worship of G-d on earth only survives if Isaac does. He doesn’t let it.

Mostly, I think, he considers his father, and how his own destiny was written, and how nothing changes.

Abraham binds his beautiful son with firm cords upon a lonely altar and prepares for the second murder of the day.

Abraham discovers, there, on the mountain, that G-d is not an idea, nor a person, but something more.

Abraham finds, with a waxing, trumpeting joy, that so is he.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Faith vs. Trust

Faith is to stand in relation with the creator, and know my sins require punishment. Trust is to stand beyond relation with the creator, and therefore have an unreckoned future of goodness.

Foolishness is not to know Him, wisdom is to relate to Him through intermediaries, and faith is to relate to Him directly through your self. Trust is the self deciding there is no self.

The fool thinks a video on the Internet cannot separate Him from G-d. The wise know it can. The faithful know they can repent. The trusting know they cannot be separate from Him again. They are repentance.

Faith is to accept an infinite G-d beyond my understanding runs the world. Trust is to so deeply associate with G-d as to know that what’s best from my perspective is what will happen.

Faith is the fire unstoppable; vinegar will burn, ice will burn. Trust is never arriving at the need for the fire unstoppable.

Faith is to pray for the miracle. Trust is to perform the miracle.

Faith is to know that sometimes, for my own good, G-d must cover His face. Trust is to know that this cannot happen.

Faith is to never lose sight of the light. Trust is to know one is as totally helpless at the dawn as at midnight.

Faith is to know that everything in the past was ultimately for the good. Trust is to know that everything in the future will be for the immediate good.

 

Faith is to believe with perfect faith that the redeemer will come, and to await it every day. Faith is that Moshiach is certain as sunrise. Faith is that, regarding your certainty at least, Moshiach has come.

But trust is to know with perfect trust that this morning the chickens will lay their eggs and the traffic will clear on I-75, whether Moshiach comes or not. Trust is that everything simply reveals the good of G-d. So why do we need Moshiach?

If a single individual knew that Moshiach, rather than the chickens or the traffic, was their own personal greatest good, and that individual trusted in G-d, Moshiach would already be here.

 

Faith is to know the Rebbe.

Trust is to be the Rebbe.