Two Places I Can Live

Every argument, every compromise, every concession to pragmatism, every demarcation and limit and definition driven into the ground seeking solid bedrock for anchoring the chains, they make me sick.

There are only two places I can actually live, sub-rational nihilism and faith.

Subrational nihilism, the power of it — this is the good stuff. Let go of all rules and restrictions, let the will unfurl. We don’t necessarily wish ill upon anyone (though who knows later?). We just don’t wish to live in their cages. We tell them whatever we wish.

Like a sinus opening to fresh air is the moment we steal away into ourselves and realize that no one else is present, that we are essentially free, and though we may be alone and life threatens to pulverize us, this is the good pain, the pain we own and author.

Until they kill us, we are kings. All pirates knew this, all brigands, all warlords, every robber baron. It’s the middle finger, sarcasm’s grease, the delicious drop of truth in the pockmarked hollow heart of cynicism. We know deep down it’s cruel, but better to be cruel and live.

And yet, even though the desire for this freedom rages like fire and presses like the sea, the structures of normal life hold. First out of sheer fear of the unknown. And second because somewhere deep there is a shard of light that once, maybe, sang in resonance.

There is a hope, somehow, carried through our caverns on some hot primordial breath stirring in gentle eddies the dust of the world, a hope that we can say what we are and not destroy ourselves in the saying, that we are free in definition, unbound in unbreakable chains.

There is a belief, a fool’s imagining, that somewhere beyond the self-annihilating fringe of the void, the universe has a curved wall folding into itself like a Klein bottle to terminate, one-sided, in my own chest, that we stand beyond all this yet see its worth.

There is a faith that we are faceted reflections of one sun, that our ability to break order and rules and patterns is itself the order of the entire world.

There is a faith that there is someone worth forgiving, and and it just might be us.

You taste it once for a second, and things are different forever.

Objective Reality Is For Meeting G-d

“Facts don’t care about your feelings,” some Jews say. I do wonder, though. If facts don’t care about your feelings, why is Rosh Hashana called the “day of the beginning of your action”?

In many other words: Once upon a time, centuries ago, few would have recognized a real facts/feelings distinction, if “facts” mean shared objective reality in the world and “feelings” refer to the private subjective experience of each conscious being. Like other forms of innocence, the unity between the person and the world (through mind) was considered close and true. When I thought well about furniture, the form of the wood and the form of my mind were the very same thing; if they weren’t, I was simply imagining, or my senses were faulty, or I was somehow otherwise malfunctioning. There was no notion of thinking ideas. I was not considered to think of the idea of furniture, but about the furniture itself. There was no idea of a table, produced in my mind and separate from the world, intervening between the facts and my soul.

More recently, men such as John Locke introduced the idea of the idea, and with it, the fact/feeling distinction. The facts may be one way, but my thinking about the facts could be different. Everyone has their own point of view, since everyone conjures their own ideas even about objective, shared reality. As modernity progresses, the mind is found to be ever-more limited by the imperfect body, to be vulnerable to deception and influence on the most basic of levels. At some point, some of us even began to suspect the mind is just a part of the body, anyway.

Nowadays, fans of truth are stuck between a rock and a soft place. The rock is the near-impossibility of returning to our ancient innocence. The challenge is to recapture our confidence in our own understanding, to reverse modern skepticism and believe once more that our minds grasp reality directly. We would need to return to a conception of the world being partially made of mind itself, to reconcile ourselves to an actually intelligible universe (our narrative role as evolved apes on a spinning rock notwithstanding). Perhaps most painful to the modern mind, we would have to undo our sunny skeptical pluralism and commit ourselves to pursuing the single, correct, capital-T Truth, to the exclusion of the many mistaken notions of those who cannot see it. We must forfeit the individual’s freedom to navigate around the truth, for the sake of finding any truth at all.

In contrast is the soft place, the attempt to maintain the fact/feeling shared/private objective/subjective distinctions without falling into relativism and ultimately the annihilation of all meaning. To do this, we must arbitrarily assign some fact/feeling amalgam the status of pure fact, and pretend it is solid ground, when in fact the entire edifice of our reason is built on quicksand.

Take, for example, those who wish to draw the line at science and empiricism, to say these are fact while all else is feeling. The problem is that there is no such statement of fact, not even “the sky is blue,” which is truly devoid of faith-based justification from the realm of “feelings.” Who is seeing the sky in this scenario, and with what tools? How do these tools bring about the subjective experience of this “fact” such that we should believe it to be true? If ultimately we do experience this fact privately, why is the “fact” that the sky is blue really different from the hypothetical “fact” that it’s purple?

Further discourse upon wavelengths or photons just add more such questions, the theory demanding even further justification in subjective experience; throwing more “facts” at the situation does not negate the interpretive frame that allows those facts to exist. All this is before we even get to the question of how we can define the sky as a thing, how we can share our observations with others, how we are so sure these facts “work” at a pragmatic level when we cannot even explain how we know the facts themselves, etc.

Given the rock of reversing five hundred years of history and the soft place of arbitrarily declaring certain feelings to be fact, most people simply don’t think (too hard) about these questions and generally live their lives as if the truth doesn’t matter.

They ignore Rosh Hashana, a day with a solution.

On the 1st of Tishrei, man is created. It is the sixth day, but it’s called the beginning of his work. The previous five days of creation certainly occur; G-d knows of them, and records them in His Torah. But when is it solidified into “action,” work, actuality, objective external reality as we (want to) know it? Only when Adam’s subjective and solitudinous soul is blown into his nostrils.

In other words, there were no facts until there were feelings.

Before creating man, there was no need for objective reality. Man, once created, is a creature full of feeling, an imperfect fact finder, commanded in G-d’s own Torah to assess even narrow legal truths under only the strictest limited conditions. The Torah’s standards for judges are exceptional. The average man on the street is not able to assess the objective truth of things even enough to provide a ruling, never mind to delve their depths.

But if G-d is a subjective being without objective action until Rosh Hashana, and human beings have been subjective since Rosh Hashana, then why is there an objective reality at all?

It can only be to bring subjectivities together.

Facts are not, contra the ancient view, an absolute standard inexorably governing existence. Facts are not, contra modernity, an illusion, nor are they feelings-based propositions chosen for arbitrary promotion. Facts are a place for subjectivities to touch, for man and G-d, and man and man, to find each other.

There is not direct joining of two private souls, which would necessitate becoming only one self. One self is what G-d had before He created the universe, after all. What He seeks from the world is an opportunity to find Himself in other selves. To do this, we must perceive ourselves as separate, and arrive at each other through some sort of external communication. Every detail of His work is tailored toward this end. He creates facts.

Every year on Rosh Hashana, we spend two days trying to awaken ourselves to this reality, that all we perceive as real is merely divine communication, the Creator seeking us out. On Rosh Hashana, we crown G-d king, which is another way of saying, “The world is not here for itself, and we are not here for it. The world is here for us and G-d to rendezvous.”

We choose, on the day when all truth was created from the one truth that we are meant to be together, to become his subjective subjects once more. This year, nothing will stop us. This year, we will find Him, fact and feeling, in Jerusalem, rebuilt.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Our Mystic Generation

Every year, Reb Shlomo ‘the Yellow’, the melamed of Nevel, would walk to Lubavitch to spend the Simchat Torah festival with his rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer. Even in his later years when his strength had failed him, he refused to climb onto a wagon for even a minute; every step of the way was taken on his own two feet. “In my Lubavitch,” Reb Shlomo maintained, “no horse will take part.”

ONCE UPON A CHASSID, compiled by Rabbi Yanki Tauber

 

Everyone who tries to learn Torah with a young person today must answer the question, “What do you get a Jew who has everything?”

It was not always so. The Alter Rebbe, a young genius, felt he did not know how to pray, and so exiled himself to Mezritch and discovered Chassidus. He, in turn, wrote the Tanya, as he describes in his introduction, to take the place of his private meetings with an endless stream of supplicants and seekers.

Implicit in this introduction is the non-polemical nature of the Tanya. That is, we already know, before chapter one, that the Tanya will not be working to convince us of anything. It is a work for those looking for guidance. The Rebbe is here to help if you come knocking at his door. If you are a stubborn non-believer or do not know whether it is G-d you want, you are not yet really asking the questions which Tanya answers. This, in turn, leads us to wonder: If the visitor to the Rebbe has not yet learned from the Rebbe, what brings him to come at all?

If we follow the old philosophical rule that motion fulfills a potential of the one that moves, we may assume that the Alter Rebbe’s supplicants sought him out because they lacked. The Alter Rebbe lacked, and so sought out the Maggid; the Maggid lacked, and so sought out the Baal Shem Tov.

It starts with learning. Through one’s self-awareness, one discovers how much more there is to know. One does one’s best, applies consistent effort, and realizes that one is somehow…insufficient. A teacher is needed, for one’s wisdom, for one’s soul, for something that is missing.

But if there is no initial learning, or that learning does not lead to questions, or those questions cannot be seen as arising from one’s very soul, what, then, brings a Jew to search ever deeper in the Torah? If one perceives oneself as lacking nothing, does one ever end up at the Rebbe’s door?

In the Rebbe’s last published discourse, the famous v’Atah Tetzaveh, he describes a generation full of blessings, a synthesis of the authentic lived experience of G-d and the explosive soul expression at the time of His concealment. The generation of blessing is not compelled by outside forces to worship G-d; they live in peace and plenty. The generation of blessing does not serve G-d because it sees Him, either; they have no deep understanding to render them dissatisfied with worldly existence.

Our generation of blessing, in particular, is relatively serene, and happy, and whole in its own eyes. What trouble us, especially the younger Jews reaching adulthood today, are primarily practical concerns free of any existential overtones. Even the desire to learn more Torah (for those who possess it) stems from curiosity or duty and no deep-seated want of the soul.

And yet, somehow it still works. Somehow, they keep coming to Torah, to Tzadikkim, and to G-d. They are moved, as the Rebbe says, not by circumstance internal or external, not by the yawning insufficiency of their own understanding, nor by external circumstance holding them powerless in its fist, but by their very being, by the self uniting both internal and external experience. The soul itself, the soul beyond experience, the soul even beyond death, desires G-d. It deserves Him more than it desires the experience of Him; it desires Him equally in poverty and in wealth, when it is threatened and when it is at peace. The soul does not need to feel deficient to desire G-d, but wants Him even when it lacks nothing, by its nature, because it was chosen.

Thus, we find thousands of strange creatures in our world, those who return daily to their Judaism for no reason at all. They did not choose Judaism in their wisdom; they did not seek out the depths of Torah because of any perceived deficit or shortcoming in themselves. They sought it out for no reason at all. It is a fact, yesh m’ayin, like every person in their life, like the moon.

Our generation of blessing, says the Rebbe, is a generation of mystics. Do not, when you look at their feeble minds, or small deeds, or hearts dulled by easy living, think that they are lowly. It is by these very traits that a Jew can today seek G-d without the help of horse, tragedy, or question. Our generation seeks G-d because they are Jews and He is G-d. Nothing else is needed.

Why, then, do so many well-intentioned Rabbis today, trying to shake a generation of mystics from their perceived complacency, seek to sell Judaism as the answer to questions? True, Torah is a book of instruction; true, Judaism is the deepest rationality. But to place the questions first is, in our generation, the wrong order. A “rational Judaism” assumes questions are important, that things like logic or consistency bother a soul, and that Judaism best resolves these matters in the final reckoning. But why should logic and consistency bother a soul? This is the question that every twenty-year-old in every Torah class in 2018 asks. It is the question behind many of his questions. Why should anyone set aside the broad freedoms of unbridled will or self-satisfaction for the agonizing limits of reason?

We are not rational people; we have no training in reason. Reason died long before we were born, and its death was mistaken for the death of G-d.

But do not mistake our lack of reason for a deficiency, for a problem in need of solving.

Rather, our generation, irrational, wanting for nothing, does not need questions to bring them to the Rebbe’s door. Go out and teach them Tanya, says the Rebbe, and the Jew who has everything will remember who he is, come of his own accord.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

What A Jew Wants (Doesn’t Matter)

In a sense, an anti-Semite might be forgiven for attributing all evil to the Jews, as there is no evil we will not learn, argue about, contemplate during Shmoneh Esrei, dream about on Shabbos, and master. The anti-Semite thinks the Jews want to conquer the world. Like all good ideas, he stole this from the Jews and got all the details wrong.

A Jew, after millennia of breeding and education on his chosen role in G-d’s creation, is a hungry sieve. He does not turn the blood of gentiles into pastries or the money of rural farms into globalist skyscrapers in Sweden. These are the limited visions of pallid yokels. A Jew turns neutral things in to Jewish things.

What is a Jewish thing? No, not controlling the weather, nor whatever Louis Farrakhan thinks we do in the flickering Walgreens he calls a brain. The only thing that’s distinctly Jewish is our pact with G-d; we’re a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, and in return he destroys the Roman Empire and shoots Hitler though Hitler his messenger. So: A Jew is a sieve. Neutral things go in, things in an eternal pact with G-d come out.

Take the Marxists (please, take them). Karl had Jewish roots but was also a rabid anti-Semite, equating the Jews with capitalism and capitalism with, you know. This has not stopped Jews from snooping around Karl’s books, curious what everyone was so excited about. A Jew is a hungry sieve, you see, and if the world is putting something new on the table, our stomachs start rumbling. Is he really saying that economics contains the key to human suffering? Let us see, let us see. Humans once lived in a society without division, and one day we will again. You have nothing to lose but your chains! Moses calls to an enslaved people with a lost G-d. He tells them to believe, and it is our story, and what was a mundane tale of class exploitation now slips free from the bonds of time and approaches Sinai…

Butbutbut isn’t Marx an atheist materialist? The Jews who follow him agree! How can their participation suddenly make Marxism as Jewish as stepping out when the Rabbi picks the Iraqi chazzan for Mussaf?

First, who said “suddenly”? A small sieve takes a long time to chew through a world-historical buffet. Second, nu nu. You think the Jews are participating in atheism. Perhaps atheism is participating in Judaism. The non-belief in the Creator while yearning for a future of true equality is a non-belief opening the door to some wild G-dliness heretofore off the table. Limiting G-d to existing is so pedestrian, worse than complaining the Left Bank smelled like sewerage.

Besides, the sieve doesn’t believe in anything per se. The sieve does not prefer rice to water. It sorts them with a perfect lack of cognition (as far as I know. Perhaps I can here annoy a panpsychist). It sorts at a mechanical level, because at some base undeniable substrate these things don’t go through those holes and other things do. The sieve may worship rice, may offer sacrifices in the sacred paddy and eat it on Pesach (Sephardi), or rebel against it and deny it ever was and eat it on Pesach (Ashkenazi); the sieve will sort it from water all the same.

To see it’s not intellectual at all, take the Marxists, as in, Groucho. Jews want comedy. Many have written about this. A defense mechanism against oppression, sure, maybe, but why does the tradition continue in Brooklyn where the only suffering is rust and gentrification? And Manhattan? Seinfeld is not suffering (from Airline food?) the way the Jews joking about Stalin were. He is drawn, like so many of his fellow tribesmen and -women, to incongruity, the illogical. He does not see a covenant with G-d in this, though a comedian is a Jewish thing to be, and there’s a reason for that.

A Jew famously wants cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur morning. But a Jew remembers it’s Yom Kippur and in violating the fast with treif food he recalls the covenant.

A really devoted Jew forgets it’s Yom Kippur. This is almost impossible in Israel, which is why this particular form of devotion had been left by G-d to the Americans. The Jew does not think to violate Yom Kippur, because the Jew does not remember there is anything to break. Yet he is a hungry sieve, working at apathy. A Jew puts apathy in a Jewish context; even water run through a sieve is water run through a sieve.

A Jew flees across the sea and puts mountains between him and the city. He marries a non-Jew and spends his life drinking cheap beer and hunting. The sieve is moved to locations and modes it has rarely seen before.

A Jew is a sieve, by heritage and millennia of education. His very being says, “It must be this way, not that way.” Azoi, un nit anderesh.

The redemption is coming. The first time, when we were taken from bondage, you may have been left behind, because you would not strain yourself, would not let go of the illusion that you are like everyone else.

This time, no one will be left behind.

The only question: Will you become a partner in it? Will you let your mind and heart be sieved as well? Will you, in the last moments of illusion, consent to what you are?

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Is Advil Idolatry?

Here’s the scenario: You wish to worship the one G-d, yet you have a mild headache. You are fortunate enough to possess three adult-dose ibuprofen tablets, which you know to relieve these exact symptoms. You also possess a glass of water and, intriguingly, a hard-boiled egg. What are you going to do?

Don’t answer too quickly. There is no small measure of theology afoot here, in this common, apparently mundane circumstance.

The first philosophical issue with taking an Advil for your headache is the problem of induction. A skeptic such as Hume would ask how you know that ibuprofen will relieve your headache better than the egg. You cannot rely on past experience with the substances, as all experience on logically tells us about what has already happened, whereas the future, today’s Advil, may raise your cholesterol while the egg heals your headache. It does no good to claim it was always the opposite in the past, or that in your past your expectations in this scenario were always met, since the accuracy of past predictions may itself be merely an artifact of the past, irrelevant to today.[i]

No, if we are to properly face our dilemma we must assume we know certain truths about the universe in a future-proof way. Call them axioms, assumptions, or the direct experience of the atemporal. Say we know G-d, and G-d made the Universe, from the beginning, with a certain consistency. Things have names reflecting an adherence to an internal and an external order. Call this “nature.” The Advil is better for our headache than the egg, all else being equal, since this is the nature of ibuprofen.[ii] We ought to be comfortable with Advil having a nature, as our scenario starts with a desire to worship the one G-d, who made the world intelligible.[iii]

However, having escaped one problem by setting forth the notion of nature, we immediately find ourselves trapped anew.

We wish to take Advil instead of the egg for our headache, since the Advil has a pain-relieving nature when ingested. But isn’t this relying on a limited being, that is, ibuprofen tablets, instead of relying on upon G-d? After all, the original idolaters worshipped the sun and moon because they thought it would help their crops grow; perhaps I worship Advil to help me get back to work. Ingestion would not be the strangest form of worship.[iv]

Now, perhaps we could separate Advil from idol by pointing out we do not believe the medicine alone will help us, but rather that G-d gave it the power to help us. However, the origin in G-d of a creation’s beneficent (or malevolent) power is only enough to negate the most radical idol worship, which holds G-d has abandoned the earth entirely to the forces of nature. This is full-progressed idol worship, civilized and mature, and it sounds suspiciously similar to Emerson and Thoreau.

The original idol worship, however, does not exclude G-d as an active force consistently present in the universe generally or human lives specifically. It merely claims there are other powers, too, with the ability to open or close the valves of divine blessing at will, like ministers to a king. The original sun worshippers did not think the sun was the source of its own power with G-d long gone, but rather that the sun was appointed by G-d to bestow vivifying radiance upon the earth, and despite the origin of its appointment and its power in G-d, one must thank and praise the sun as well if one wants the crops to grow.

What does this have to do with taking ibuprofen? I’d understand if we thought Advil had a choice in whether to cure our headache, leading us eventually to thank and praise it. But we apparently see the medicine the way a true monotheist sees the sun, i.e. as the “ax in the hands of the wood chopper,” merely instrumental to G-d’s purposes, and possessing no free choice whether to help or hurt us at all. Advil is merely G-d’s tool. It has a curative nature, bestowed upon in by G-d, and it is only G-d we thank for it. We are not like the sun worshippers of old. Right?

Wrong.

Though the sun worshippers’ mistake manifests most clearly in the case of an intermediary with free will, it also expresses, in a more refined fashion, in every inherent quality. That is, Advil’s pain-relieving quality can in itself be the object of a subtle form of idol worship.

The question is, what is nature? We noted before that the very logic ingesting Advil (instead of an egg) for your headache is based on the nature that inheres in the medicine, a nature very much connected to a G-d who exists beyond time. What is the nature of this nature?

If the nature of Ibuprofen is a set of rules or laws created by G-d as an independent entity, this means that both the man who deserves a headache and the man who deserves his headache to end will be served by the Advil equally. If this does not sound scandalous, the business equivalent would be that a man who deserves to be richer and a man who deserves to be poorer are served equally, under the law of nature, by identical business practices.

In other words, although we do not think the Advil (or shorting stocks, or collecting airline miles) is a being with free will that can choose to help us, we do see it as having a nature that determines outcomes for us, regardless of other considerations, divine considerations. Though G-d is the ultimate power, this object will bring me a certain measure of blessing, regardless of what G-d wants, regardless of whether I reject Him or worship Him. It has power, beyond His control.

One way we could try to circumvent this problem and still rely on ibuprofen as monotheists is through the permissiveness of miracles. After all, if G-d wishes, He may intercede and prevent the salutary effects of Advil on, say, Martin Shkreli (it may be His sense of humor). That G-d intercedes in nature is, after all, fundamental. There is thus a means to ensure that even though by nature the medicine has the same unchanging effect, beyond nature it does not.

Yet this is no true negation of idol worship, since we should still have to concede that nature is a power independent of G-d. Even though He can negate its power at any time, ibuprofen must still be negated to express the will of G-d, and when it is not negated but soothes Shkreli’s aching wrists, it is acting “beyond” G-d’s will! The Creator must prevent nature from running its course every time an evil man receives good business advice. What, then is nature, if a countervailing system of behavior must so often avert it? And who, then, is the one G-d, if His ax handles are so often in rebellion?

Rather, the nature of the Advil, its palliative properties, must be wholly dependent on G-d, with no ability to help or hurt outside of Him. They must not merely be caused by G-d, derive their power from Him, and then act independently. They are not merely created by Him at every moment, technically dependent on G-d, because then the question would remain, what is being created? and the answer could be, a consistent nature irrespective of G-d’s will.

No, to negate the idolatry of qualities, we must understand nature itself, without any miracle and before even looking to its source, as an expression of the divine will. As the Holy Baal Shem Tov put it, a leaf only turns a specific way in the wind if G-d’s desires it. This is true, even though the wind is part of nature and governed by the consistent laws of nature. It is G-d’s will that there should be a leaf, that there should be a wind, that circumstance should bring them and their natures together, and that the wind should so twist.

Advil has the nature of relieving headaches, but that nature, just like headaches or the futures market, can never come to benefit anyone outside of G-d’s will. Nature, in the first place, is merely an expression of G-d, and its existence independent of Him as a second power He has any need to change or subvert is illusory from the start.[v]

In order to truly not worship idols, to believe that G-d is the only power, one must look at the qualities inherent to nature as an integrated part of the more general divine expression, thick with natural, supernatural, unexplained, inexplicable, well-understood, and even human causes. This creation of G-d, a complex weave constantly unfolding according to His desire for our universe, is at no point beyond His control, and in no way contrary to His wishes. It is, in its minutest detail, exactly the way it must be, even when it appears independently, alone, and without regard for the truth.

A Jew takes Advil instead of an egg for his headache, because ibuprofen has a quality of pain relief in its G-d-given nature. A Jew also knows that this nature has no power whatsoever outside of G-d. If it relieves his pain, it is only because he is deserving in the eyes of his Creator. This is how one may live in the realm of nature and bow to no image nor rely on any power besides G-d alone.


[i] This is without mentioning the problem of how, on a purely experimental or experiential basis, we are meant to understand the egg to be an egg, when its appearance, location, DNA, etc. are all quite different from what we have previously encountered. To rule out medicinal qualities a priori is thus to demonstrate a closed-mindedness unbecoming those who learn primarily from experience.

[ii] We have a tendency nowadays to focus on the mechanism of this medicinal nature. An in-depth exploration of why this mechanism will only ever get us so far, and the way it is more of an answer to how than why, is for a different essay.

[iii] Moreover, in the form of an intellect apparently subject to description by words.

[iv] Cf. Baal Pe’or, worshipped through defecation before its image.

[v] This raises the question of why there are miracles at all – a good question to have, for another time.

If Haman Was My Rebbe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He can choose to make the world mean something.

He can choose to make Mitzvos mean something.

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

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

The doubt is in place.

Yet Haman certainly dies.

The Bar Mitzvah Lesson: A Tragedy

Shaul’s father misunderstands why I’m here and apologizes for his son’s stop-and-go Hebrew and ignorance of Judaism while Shaul himself listens politely in his baseball uniform. They don’t know that I have no expectations of prior observance or tradition. In my personal life, I am in a position to notice flaws. Here, it wouldn’t help.

And just as I plan to ignore his shortcomings, I’m not going to track his growth, not precisely. It would be a miracle if, consequent to these sessions, his Hebrew improved or he could recall a word I say. A boy from a family like his could theoretically grow in observance in his teen years, but then, Sancherev’s army could theoretically be struck by a debilitating plague at the walls of Jerusalem.

At least the father is honest; I’m not. I can’t tell him that Bar Mitzvah lessons are triage, that his priorities, a respectable Maftir and a decent Mussaf, are not what his family needs if they hope to preserve the future of the Jewish people. I can’t tell him that while I hear his son repeat his memorized aliyah my mind scrambles for options. How can I fill our time with more Mitzvot? What questions about Judaism does Shaul have that he does not want to ask, and how can I find an excuse to preempt them in our remaining fifty minutes? Is there a way to breach intermarriage? Should I bring up the history of Judaism?

One week, I decide to ask Shaul if he knows about Moses. He doesn’t, not really. But then, on a different occasion, when I have used Mussaf as an excuse to talk about prayer in general, he floors me when he says the soul is compared to a candle. In my capacity as a private citizen, I sneer at the bumper stickers and boilerplate of the popularizers of Judaism that at this moment I want to embrace, to kiss, to fall to my knees to worship. Somehow, he learned this! I can’t spare the time to wonder how this small scrap of mysticism has made it through the raging cataracts of his teenage mind, past the sports trivia and phone apps, to be remembered in a place where news of the Jews’ greatest prophet has yet to reach. The Chabad House Bar Mitzvah lesson, like life, is too short; these miracles must be ignored, for the mission. There are only forty minutes left.

I’m still not sure how I ended up as Shaul’s teacher. I don’t even know how to read from the Torah myself; if the Rabbi hadn’t made Shaul a tape to memorize, I’d have been lost. But I am not cynical and jaded and ignorant, not in Shaul’s eyes. I am, to him, a representative of the collective wisdom and heritage of the Jewish people, even though he doesn’t know what that means, and if I was chosen mostly because I have patience and spare time and a beard, he’s unaware.

Dad is into Holocaust remembrance, so we talk about putting it into Shaul’s speech. Some families choose Israel, some the Holocaust. Either way, this is what constitutes American Judaism circa the apocalypse, and I dare not squander any passion I can find. Mortality and calamity are on the menu, and if no thirteen-year-olds wish to partake, at least the parents will be satisfied with the graduation from Jewish life that the Bar Mitzvah too often signifies. I don’t argue, though. There is no time to convince him off the holocaust in the next twenty minutes, and besides, his father’s right. Shaul should know about the Holocaust.

In addition to the tragedy, we work sports into the speech as well. Jackie Robinson is a hero of his, and of course Sandy Koufax. “There are a couple of stories about the Rebbe and baseball,” I say. It is a statement of faith. If I speak about Judaism and baseball to Shaul’s father it would just sound like salesmanship, and bad salesmanship, because I’m not a salesman and Judaism is not about baseball. But when the Rebbe speaks about baseball, Judaism is about baseball. Just like when I’m trying to teach this kid something, I am the right man for the job. This is one of those Rebbe things. I can’t explain it. I tell him to search for baseball on Chabad.org.

Even with only fifteen minutes left this week, I try to weigh my responsibilities to the mission. “Perhaps these words will…help,” I think, and try not to think, “Like a bug helps slow down a car as it hits the windshield.” That is a trap. I must never fall into the trap of, “These people care only what the neighbors think of the nice party they’re throwing.” If I think it, they might think it, and that will not happen. I try to acclimate to the impossible.

And it is impossible, a thousand ways. At thirteen, we expect this to work? He is already gone; his mind is in athletics when it is fully anywhere at all; he skips two whole lines of Maftir when one of the Bat Mitzvah Club members wanders into the office looking for something. Though he’s from a traditional family, he doesn’t know who Abraham is or what a gabbai does. He’s mostly worried about his public speaking, and I don’t blame him. His knowledge is actually, all told, above average. Nowadays, circa Götterdämmerung, who has the chutzpah to hope for more?

But he is the one who happens to be in front of me, twice a week, for the blink of an eye, and that “happens to be” is part of the mission and what miracles are made of.

Hurrying, in ten minutes I teach him to wrap his Tefillin, over and over. They won’t be worn every day, but I speak to him as if they will. I don’t expect him to be religious. I expect him to be Jewish, and to be Jewish is to know how to do this.

He follows my instructions obediently. “Shaul is a good kid,” I tell myself. “Polite, disciplined, happy.” It’s what I always tell myself. It’s what I told myself about my students in summer Yeshiva and my campers in upstate New York. He has a good family life. His parents care about Judaism, in their way. I can see the seeds of it, the exact spot where the miracle will take root.

I do not, in my mind, compare Shaul to Mottel, whom I used to drive home from cheder. I do not consider how Mottel at eleven spoke fluent Yiddish, knew dozens and dozens of niggunim and a thousand Chassidic stories, memorized Tanya and Mishnayos. How at eleven, Mottel had a wit sharper than a razor and studied the Rebbe’s talks after Shabbos dinner. I do not spend time, in the last five minutes this week, on the small thought dawning like a winter morning in the back of my mind, that nowadays, circa The End, even Mottels sometimes leave Judaism behind. What hope could there possibly be for…

It is not for me to understand. I am just a messenger. I have no expectations. It is not my place to despair or rejoice. I am not myself. I am here for the miracles. I am here for the impossible and the nonexistent, and then I will be gone from him, and he will move on.

G-d, the Rebbe, Shaul’s soul –

Your move.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Is Jewish Religious Tolerance Condescending?

Famously, Judaism does not want everyone to be Jewish. Our vision of a perfect world includes other religions and we even discourage conversion. But more and more lately, perhaps in consonance with a rise in introspection regarding “tolerance” in general, I have seen non-Jews view this open-mindedness with suspicion and even outright contempt. “Surely,” they insist, “you don’t believe those other religions to be as true as Judaism, or you’d convert.”

Good point. A Jew obviously values Judaism, and if he or she takes it seriously, they clearly don’t hold Christianity, say, to be as correct, even if they do hold it to be valid. To an outsider (and even to a Jew who has not really thought about it) this seems like confusion at best or PR sophistry at worst, a dishonest and condescending “pat on the head” to non-Jews.

There are several ways to square seeing other religions as “valid” but not as true as Judaism, and some are more honest than others.

Many today would, I suspect, instinctually reach for the pluralist panic button, that very Jewish invention that declares (through a bullhorn, protest sign, or bumper sticker) that society is better when we allow the mutually-exclusive claims of various faiths to coexist. Pluralism is quite the leviathan to fry, and to properly dismiss it we’d need to deal with relativism[i], perennialism[ii], interfaith relations[iii], the role of Judaism in a diverse and/or secular society[iv]…suffice it to say that the issues are complex and would require in-depth discussion. However, most of that discussion would miss the point entirely. Our question is in the main religious and philosophical, a matter of truth that could reasonably exist in a world consisting of a single human being trying to choose the right path. The more practical concerns of pluralism are of secondary importance if truth is our priority. If at all possible, we must try to find an internal solution that prioritizes the truths within Judaism and hope that correct social results will follow.

Another approach that misses the mark is to double down on the practical, rather than ideological, essence of Judaism. Clearly, our religion is more one of orthopraxy, correct action, than orthodoxy, correct thinking, what with the Rabbinical disagreement over even the very foundations of Jewish belief. If, indeed, “the action is the main thing,” what does it matter if other religions believe in different prophets or (in our view) false messiahs? Actions are what matter! Unfortunately, aside from not really solving the problem—we still believe it’s “better” to put on Tefillin than (l’havdil!) taking the eucharist—this approach ignores what few orthodoxies are fundamental to Judaism. For example, the first two of the Ten Commandments seem rather important, and though we may riotously disagree on the precise nature of G-d there is no question it’s important that Tefillin are for, or at the bare minimum signify, Him.

The best answer, instead, stems from an acknowledgment that Jews do believe in certain truths, and that we believe in them to the exclusion of others. In what sense, then, are other religions “correct”?

The first clue lies in the Seven Noahide Laws, which Judaism holds apply to all of humanity. The difference between these seven and the Jewish 613 is not quantitative but qualitative as well. Though some, such as David Hazony and Dennis Prager, see the Ten Commandments as the recipe for a successful civilization, the Rebbe sees that as the role of the Noahide Laws[v]. After all, the Ten Commandments and the experience at Sinai are the birth of Judaism, where G-d refers to Himself specifically as the redeemer from Egypt. Morality and G-d’s moral law, on the other hand, predate the Sinaitic event by the Torah’s account. The Noahide Laws serve as the rules that make order out of human chaos, that transform the jungle of homo homini lupus into a sustainable civilization and, as such, constitute Judaism’s clearest statement of universal human morality.

And the first of the Noahide Laws is the belief in G-d.

How, one wonders, can the non-Jewish code begin with a decidedly religious command? If the entire world is meant to believe in the G-d of the Jews, how “tolerant” of other religions are we, really? And if this god they must believe in is not our god, how do we really attribute validity to their religions?

This brings us to the second clue, which is that Judaism is not a religion in the typical sense of the word. We have already mentioned how we value orthopraxy over orthodoxy. But in fact even orthopraxy is secondary to the Jewish identity, as is race, nationality, and even theism itself. While there is a defined Jewish religion, Jews can be atheists, non-practicing, or even, in some respects, converts to other faiths, while still remaining Jewish. Judaism is not just a set of actions or beliefs but an essential state acquired by inheritance; I am Jewish because my mother is Jewish. More broadly, we are all Jewish because we or our parents converted, at Sinai or later, and the Jewish conversion process is a merging of stories, the joining of fates within the Jewish mission and the Jewish narrative. To be Jewish is an immutable identity because things that have already happened are immutable; the past is immutable. You cannot undo being born to your mother or taking an oath at the foot of the mountain.[vi]

The Noahide Laws and the intrinsic nature of Judaism bring each other into clear focus. Judaism holds that our G-d, creator of heaven and earth, belongs to all mankind, but that the Jews have a special relationship with him based on the covenant made at the mountain. In turn, this means that the covenant at the mountain, if it introduces a new truth, introduces it not universally but particularly as part of the Jewish story.

More simply: There are two truths about the one G-d. He is both the Creator of heaven and earth and He who took us out from Egypt, and these are different not only contextually but to their very core.

The G-d who creates heaven and earth is, in the eyes of Judaism, a fundamental pillar of creating a lasting civilization, Jewish or otherwise. He is the G-d that the Rambam says we can know, the first existence who needs no others but upon whom all others depend. This G-d can be reached by logic and is the possession of all humankind; He can be presented in argument, puzzled over, contemplated through positive or negative theology. When we say we respect other religions, we respect them inasmuch as they grasp this widely-available truth, at it could be argued the majority of them do.[vii]

On the other hand, the G-d of the exodus from Egypt is He who made a personal covenant with a certain group of people, that unchangeable covenant of the past. The G-d accessed through the covenant is personally bound to us and us to him beyond his involvement in the world’s creation. Our relationship with him is based on faith, forged in the crucible of Egypt by great miracles and hardened at Sinai by a G-dly choice from beyond the veil. The circumstances transcended reason and the laws of nature, and it formed the foundation for all time of our tribe’s relationship with G-d.

So, do Jews believe our religion is “more true” than other religions? Yes, and we would never forfeit our unique relationship with G-d, on pain of no longer being Jewish. Is it therefore false and condescending to say we value other religions?

Not at all. Because the unique truths of Judaism are not something we’re in a position to share. Reason can be shared; faith cannot.[viii] I believe Tefillin are true, but they’re true because they reflect a choice of G-d to care about them conveyed to us through a prophet thousands of years ago. You can possibly doubt that occurrence; you can certainly doubt what it meant; you are not part of the tribe that witnessed it. Our experiences are fundamentally our own, and, beyond what is the common inheritance of all minds, we cannot expect the world the understand them. It is in the shared collective present that we all participate. Heaven and earth were made for all men, and their G-d can be argued for rationally, experienced universally, and shared. Ultimately, we have a subjective and objective relationship with the creator, and the latter belongs to everyone. It is this common ground that we value, and beyond it we have no hopes of convincing others anyway.

True, we do believe that the G-d of the Jews is also the G-d of the universe, but we cannot argue it and we cannot share it. Like all matters of faith, it is a digital switch; it is either on or off, a 1 or a 0, something that happened or did not. It is simple and therefore ineffable and it is not created by us but has happened to us by no personal merit of our own.

Ultimately, much of the truth of Judaism is intimately tied up with being Jewish, which is not a choice we make[ix]. And being Jewish is itself a mysterious matter that precedes our choice, something that happened in the moment between exile and redemption. If billions of G-d’s human beings have not yet hung still in that moment, devoid of all velocity, alone with the creator, we can still celebrate with them the impossible creation, the something from nothing we all call home.

 


[i] That no one’s more correct than anyone else, which I’d be willing to bet a shiny quarter no one has ever believed.

[ii] That deep down we all believe the same thing, a rather lazy assumption powerfully tested by every major religion and way of life. For a short and (from the Jewish perspective at least) perceptive book on the subject, try God Is Not One.

[iii] When we find out that a Jew not acting like a Jew, a Christian not acting like a Christian, and a Muslim not acting like a Muslim turn out to all be exactly alike.

[iv] Other than works of genius like the New York bagel or the script for Annie Hall.

[v] For one of many times the Rebbe applied this approach, see this exchange about the Arab birthrate in Israel.

[vi] And metaphysically, it is these experiences (and also those of the forefathers) that convey to us the Pintele Yid, the Jewish spark that constitutes the deepest and most permanent part of the Jewish soul.

[vii] There is even a laxer standard for the gentile’s affirmation of G-d’s unity, as shittuf, the attribution of causative agency to intermediaries or emissaries, is permitted to the non-Jew. For a treatment of the shared G-d of many Eastern and Western religions, you cannot beat the excellent The Experience of God.

[viii] This is, on the view of the Kabbalah, why G-d bothers to create reason at all, an unchanging objective reality beyond subjective experience. Without an objective reality (accessed by the intentional mind through reason) G-d would forever be separate from his creation; it is specifically the objective reality that is shared. This is also why few aspects of Judaism are purely subjective and most are at least in some way accessible for understanding to the non-Jew; it is through the objective aspects of Judaism that we meet G-d outside of ourselves, as is his deepest desire.

[ix] We even say this is true of converts, who are retroactively revealed to be lost Jewish souls.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

The Secular Geocentrism

The alleged “debate” between the church and Galileo is misunderstood, and not just because many get the facts wrong. Even if the scientist was locked up for saying the earth is not at the center of the universe, his statement was not religiously offensive on the grounds most people would assume.

The attempted narrative is that religion is a crutch, a fig leaf for gaps in our knowledge, and the outcome of either base fear or an evolutionary glitch (like all forbidden beliefs). This being the nature of religion, it therefore strokes our egos and tells us that humanity is central to the universe, necessary, the goal of its creation. That, apparently, is why religion sees (or, less controversially, saw) the earth as the center of the universe. Meanwhile, the light of science, banishing the benighted demons of Carl Sagan’s worst dreams, says that humanity is a purposeless accident in a very strange universe. Galileo was simply initiating the reduction in ego modern man needed.

The irrationality of the human ego, at least, the Rambam would acknowledge. Though he maintains the geocentric Ptolemaic cosmology of his time (a solid four centuries before Galileo) he has no problem discoursing at length on fools who believe the universe was created for man. In fact, he maintains that there is nothing mankind accomplishes that is not accomplished better by others. In general, says the Rambam, we are not needed in the slightest. Just as the purpose of a tree is to be the best tree possible, so too man is directed toward the highest form of man, but why there should be men in general is a question on G-d’s inscrutable will, inscrutable by definition because to be based on reason is to be caused and that is notoriously problematic. Granted, other schools of Jewish thought say that man is important, though with the caveat that he is important specifically because of his lowliness, not because he is close to being the highest of all creations.

Suffice it to say, the argument between religion and science is hardly one of whether man is important or not important on a cosmic scale. We all know that before the cosmic scale we are nothing. The argument is much closer to whether we ought to use the cosmic scale all. In other words, everyone agrees (at least potentially) that man is irrelevant, whether he sits at the center of the Universe or on some rock flying through infinite space. The disagreement is on why he is irrelevant. The Rambam says we are irrelevant because of G-d’s will which is beyond understanding. “Galileo” (as represented in the narrative) says we are irrelevant in light of our vast new knowledge of cosmology.

Look at it this way: In the old philosophy of the schoolmen, G-d (and to them, there is and can be only One, “your G-d” making as much sense to them as “your physics” might to a modern physicist) is not what fills gaps in knowledge but what stands in the spot of the necessary but unknowable, the being who can end the infinite regress of causes but who is himself uncaused and thus unknowable. The universe in its being, motion, form, and telos cannot exist without a beginning (or, in the case of telos, an end); it is ever pointing to something beyond itself. In the materialist scientific understanding, the universe points to nothing but simply is.

The difference may seem academic but it in fact shakes the worldviews to their foundations. When Maimonides says man is nothing, he has coming to a conclusion that fits the stated goal of his pursuit, to understand of the infinite as much as a limited human mind is capable. Eventually he must throw up his hands and say, “I understand how vast is the universe and how tiny is man from the very fact that I cannot understand why it should be this way; G-d’s unknowable will for an irrelevant creature man truly is unknowable to that irrelevant creature.”

But when the scientist says man is nothing, he says it with the authority of a God. He will demur that he only follows the experimental observations where they lead, but this position is less humble when it is the best anyone can hope to do, even a god, who must exist within the bounds of science like anyone or anything else. When the scientist says man is a speck whirling in the void, he ceases to be a hominid whose lizard brain evolved into sentience and is instead making pronouncements on the cosmos, speaking at the highest level of all reality. There is no point when he must throw up his hands. He says, “I understand how vast is the universe and how tiny is man from my vantage point on a hill in the milky way galaxy, my biological chemistry evolved for fitness peering at the truth through massive telescopes. The universe’s production of a tiny, irrelevant creature is understood profoundly by said creature.”

Those who thought the earth was at the center of the universe were certain they were incapable of knowing the purpose of the universe. One’s ignorance needs no more explanation than a rock’s; one simply does not have the capacity to grasp G-d. Those, on the other hand, who hold that the earth is one of a billion trillion planets know their precise place in the universe, and this knowledge has no explanation other than that it is.

It is no accident that Maimonides’s passage on man’s irrelevance is written in the context of discussing theodicy and the claim that G-d does more evil than good. That G-d’s ultimate reasons for creating the universe the way it is are an outcome of his unknowable will refocuses man’s attentions away from the nature of the world’s being to what the world ought to be. There is a reason why the revolution in cosmology that places the earth at a random locus in space did not see a consequent revolution in personal humility among scientists or the public generally; the modern study of nature has not yet found its bound and is assumed by many not to have one; we spend much of our time studying forms and processes and assume that an understanding of morality or righteous action will eventually emerge.

Indeed, your average geocentrist thinks that he cannot know why G-d wanted man to be at the center of the universe, and this might make him self-effacing. He does not know why G-d tells him his own actions come first, then familial concerns, than societal ones, but it makes him truly compassionate. He does not know why G-d tells him to respect property and bodies, but he ends up respecting people. He is not quite sure how those who know the earth is a random planet could be caught up in their brilliance, or how those who care for all of society first often find their own righteousness to go by the wayside, or how those who say property is unimportant often end up treading on people, as well…

To him, these are all strange, paradoxical mysteries of a world impossibly made from nothing by an unknowable Creator.

Who is more humble, he who is nothing out of ignorance, or nothing by dint of his own wisdom?

Faith and Rationality (I) — Who Needs Both?

I have written before about the difference between “gods,” the limited demigod superheroes of pagan understanding, and the G-d of monotheism. Mainly, the G-d of monotheism is not merely the greatest or most supreme being in existence, but is the Creator of all other existences, a necessary being upon whom all else is contingent.

Though at first this difference may seem subtle, G-d the Creator is the catalyst to a mental chain reaction that fundamentally shifts our understanding of reality. It is a notion, in fact, that is just as revolutionary to our modern sensibility (which congealed from the so-called enlightenment and has since crumbled into the light-and-loose postmodernism-cum-nihilism you can pick up from any awards banquet or Twitter account on the street) as it was to the hyper-rational Greek weltanschauung.

The idea of G-d demands a radical reconsideration of rationality itself, which in turn opens new doors in our understanding of “faith.” I put the word “faith” in scare-quotes because it is terribly maligned in the public consciousness, a term that has come to mean a belief in what cannot be proven, the decision to abandon the rational for the unproved. In Judaism, at least, this is a slander; the term emunah does not mean anything like putting aside our rationality and choosing G-d because he makes no sense. The Jewish faith (and, if I understand correctly, several forms of Christianity) rejects Tertullian; Credo quia absurdum is not our way.

I hope, in a series of exploratory essays, to deal with the nature of rationality and of faith in the Jewish understanding. First we will busy ourselves with trying to get a handle on these terms from the perspective of the hidden Torah. We will then refine our understanding of faith in particular into several particular categories, one of which could even be said to grasp the Creator Himself, a matter whose controversial nature will become clear in time. We then hope to make a brief diversion to recapitulate an old point of this blog on fossils and the way the Lubavitcher Rebbe deals with them and the Torah’s creation narrative in general. We then plan to dive into the world of comparative religion and see how our understanding of rationality and faith might shed light on the way Judaism views other religions. The next essay will probably deal with Darwinism and Religion from an unusual angle, observing the most “religious” Darwinist arguments one hears today and evaluating whether and to what extent they fit with our monotheistic worldview. Finally, we hope to test the practical application of our faith/reason dichotomy by diving into the world of chance and probability with an eye to Jewish history and the Jewish future.

But before we get to any of that, even to the definitions of faith and rationality, we must first ask the question: What does it mean that G-d is the Creator of everything that is not G-d?

If we take the notion seriously, it means that “faith” and “rationality” themselves are creations, a position that to classical philosophy might seem quite radical. On the other hand, classical philosophy did not view G-d as the creator per se, and their rationality had trouble openly acknowledging its own limits.

And rationality is limited, if it is a creation. Even if it is eternal, it is still contingent and thus of a “lower order” than the creator; G-d can perform or create a logical contradiction, and this is precisely what the Talmud said he did in various miracles, perhaps the most famous being his original call sign to Moses, the bush that burned but was not consumed, almost as if at the very beginning of his recorded prophetic revelations the Creator wanted to distinguish himself from the logic-bound “god of the philosophers.”

Alright, so rationality/intellect and faith are both creations. What are they?

Again, it is worth re-emphasizing that each of these terms have connotations in the popular/secular culture that are not helpful in the context of monotheistic creation. We have already touched on how faith is not some sort of backup system that maintains our connection to G-d or religion at the point where intellect and rationality fail. This is an insult to the true religion, which is rather like a binding relationship and is not in the first place based on answering one party’s questions; religion is not based on intellectual understanding and so if intellectual understanding were to be taken away we would not need to improvise some magical blind faith to stay connected and involved. This is not what we mean by faith.

Furthermore, the distinction between reason and faith does not fall on the line between learned and revealed wisdom. A Jew might be tempted to say that the teachings of Jewish philosophy stem from reason, but the mystical revelations of the Kabbalah (which literally means “received wisdom”) are taken totally “on faith.” This, again, is not what we mean either by reason or faith. We will see how there are aspects of the Kabbalah largely susceptible to reason, whereas there are perhaps aspects of philosophy only properly penetrated by faith. In other words, the truest distinction between these concepts has nothing to do with the provenance of information, whether we learn something through tradition, revelation, or demonstration. Certain traditions and revelations are quite reasonable, and certain demonstrations get at the supra-rational.

Faith and intellect are two powers of the soul. They each grasp a different sort of truth.

G-d created the world in two ways, the intelligible and the unintelligible. These have many different names and manifestations. Philosophically, he creates the form of each being in an intelligible way, whereas the matter of each being is created ex nihilo in a process that is utterly inexplicable, as much a melding of opposites as the bush burning but being not consumed. Form, after all, is what allows us to abstract away from any individual apple and consider “appleness” as a whole, as an abstraction we can compare to elephantness or triangularity or any other without actually dealing with the physical objects themselves. This is the process of abstract thinking, and it allows us to reverse the creative process and meet the Creator at his blueprints. But matter is not so easily disposed of; there is no “meeting the mind of G-d” at the source of the actual stuff that makes up the apple, since it has no source; it is created something from nothing.

Form (e.g. the apple’s sweetness or redness) and matter (e.g. the actual physical stuff of apple) are different because they require different G-dly expression to create. Redness or sweetness or any other quality in the world derives from one or a combination of the ten sephiroth, is an instantiation of the G-dly realm of Atziluth, where all things have a G-dly source/essence. But matter does not (and cannot) have a spiritual source; it is created something from nothing; no layering or combining of spiritual beings will ever produce a physical atom; they exist in different realities entirely.

We thus find that the intelligible aspects of the creation, its forms, perforce derive from G-d’s self-limitation (after all, G-d is beyond conception but the forms are not) whereas the unintelligible aspects of creation, its brute material existence, come from G-d’s infinite expression (as it is only G-d’s limitless power that can close the unbreachable gap between immaterial and material).

Intellect may thus be summarily defined as that faculty of a human being which grasps G-d’s limited expression, and faith is the faculty which grasps G-d’s infinite expression.

The question remains: Why, indeed, does a G-d who creates everything decide to create both the reasonable and the irrational, to express Himself both finitely and infinitely within the same creation? Or, in other words, why is the creative process both one of spiritual gradualism (in form) and abrupt creation ex nihilo (in matter)?

The Midrash says that G-d creates because He desires to dwell in the lowest possible place; He desires to completely hide Himself from a certain realm of reality and then to be known there, on its own terms, as He knows Himself. That is, our physical world is designed to conceal G-d more-or-less completely, and the purpose of creation is fulfilled when He is revealed in this place not by his own action but by the choices of those from whom He is hidden.

Now, he could create this lowest world entirely ex nihilo, with no intelligible G-dly forms whatsoever. (Indeed, in the Aristotelian philosophic understanding this is very much what He has done; this is how the Moreh Nevuchim might describe the creation, though he would of course say that though there are no G-dly forms there are forms immanent in the creation.) But this is essentially an external imposition of will. G-d would be interacting with the world in a way of all or nothing, take it or leave it. No matter how deeply one understood a world created entirely ex nihilo, it would never reflect the “mind of the creator”, since there would be no such mind. Nothing in the world would convey a G-dly truth. All truths would be worldly proofs. So the Creator instead chose to let Himself into his creation; he limited Himself in the expression of the G-dly forms, the sephiroth and all the spiritual worlds. He made reality at least partially collaborative; if the sweetness of the apple reflects Chessed d’Atziluth then understanding it means understanding some aspect of the Creator.

So perhaps then the Creator ought to have created only through limitation? After all, He can do anything, and if He desires to be truly known in his world, why create ex nihilo at all? But this, too, will not achieve the goal of His full expression in the lowest worlds. After all, if He were only to Create through conceivable forms His true infinitude would be excluded from the creation. Or in other words, if G-d could be fully collaborative and open to human participation, He would not be G-d, and though He could make Himself not-G-d to the creation, this would be contrary to His desires to be fully expressed within the lowest worlds.

We can therefore add to our definitions, since in understanding what intellect and faith grasp we have gained insight into how they grasp.

Intellect is that faculty of a human being which grasps G-d’s limited expression, and its mode is collaborative, the self-subjugation (by any number of parties) to one reality. Faith is the faculty which grasps G-d’s infinite expression, and its mode is receptive, the acknowledging of the reality of another even if one cannot make it one’s own. The necessity of both is born straight from the notion that the G-d of monotheism is a true Creator, bound by neither infinitude nor the finite rules of rationality.

In the next essay, I hope to start where we leave off here and analyze different types of faith and also to explore how this distinction plays out in the Jewish way of acquiring truth, the study of Torah.