Why I’m Not Worried About Your Conspiracy Theory

Here’s what’s incredible about fixed and eternal morality: A bad man tried to own or control goodness by doing something good. He cannot. Instead, goodness tames and controls him. He tries to tarnish it, it purified him. He tries to pervert it, it straightens him.

This is one reason why efforts to rationalize the Torah or its commandments are misled. Rationality, with its qualities of order and systematization, has little room for purposeless commands or self-defined wisdom; indeed, under the rules of rationality, these are almost self-contradictions.  This is why another way of saying that the Torah is rational is to say that the Torah is a means to some practical end. And if the Torah and its commandments have not achieved that end, then this implies something is lacking in the Torah itself.[i]

For example: Some wish to say that the purpose of charity is ultimately to refine one’s character. When the unforgivably wealthy boor gives a lot of charity, where does this leave us? We can obviously argue that they are still more refined than they would be otherwise, or that the personal effects of their beneficence remain hidden, building to a critical mass. We can argue, very easily, that they undoubtedly are better for giving charity. But the commandment itself is nevertheless defined and qualified. To even fully define tzedakah, we must take unsavory men into account. “That moron gives charity, and what did it accomplish?” is a question with which we are compelled to reckon.

Perhaps we object that this is the wrong understanding of charity, and that this form of kindness primarily benefits the receiver, not the giver. Of course, this alternate but equally rational explanation comes with its own qualifiers and corrupting definitions. We start measuring charity by its perceived benefits; it is good only inasmuch as it “makes a difference”; we must now explain the benefit to cancer research or the perennially homeless or the terminally ill.[ii] Once again, we can muster arguments to defend the long-term benefits of even “fruitless” cancer research or the sociological benefits of not distinguishing between the “responsible” and “irresponsible” poor. The very fact that we must muster arguments is the problem.

These explanations are manipulable by the evil and the powerful. People start huge charities, multinational organizations with vast ambitions like helping the global environment or fixing African poverty. They argue through public relations organs and the media that good people give to their cause, and certainly don’t oppose it. They, as an organization, matter. We need them, they say. They are good, and we are good by association if we help them. We are compelled by our goal-based value of charity to agree; to disagree, we must delve into their reasoning and find fault with it. Once we commit to charity generally, logic works as a trap, and only further logic is the key, and it is our individual efforts against vast (shadowy!) marketing departments.

But if we set aside (as difficult as it now is for us) pragmatism for a moment and consider charity as an end unto itself, we immediately see that it’s the multinational getting played when they manipulate us into giving them money and power. This or that Foundation thinks it is achieving power through controlling the generous, when, in fact, it is generosity achieving power by controlling a multinational.

The Nietzschean businessman or politician who worships power always thinks they are bending the weak men who follow rules to their will. In reality, businessmen and politicians are just men in G-d’s world, and the world, even the logic of the world, is created for charity. Since this is purpose, and G-d is not dead, there is a more fundamental level of reality than power. Power, itself, is like a parasite, living off of the reality of G-d’s commands.

What do I mean? Tzedakah, charity, is good. The act of giving one’s wealth away is desired by G-d. It elevates the world not through what it accomplishes but by its very being. It is not an improvement to the plot of the world’s story; it is the presence of the Author in the story. The world’s purpose, its very design, its nature is fulfilled by the giving of charity. The coin exists to be donated. The businessman may even exist for a single act of philanthropy.

We object: But the magnate thinks he exists to win at games and quench the flames of bodily lust! He intentionally abuses the notion of charity for his own benefit! He tricks us, once we admit we think giving charity is a good thing, to give it to him!

The response: If tzedakah did not exist in the eyes of G-d and the world and its rules were the highest reality, then the magnate would be in a position to truly control the situation, and whatever events took place, whenever he committed the funds to foul ends, they could call our charity into question.

As things actually stand, however, a human being cannot manipulate tzedakah at essence. It has no goal[iii], so its goal cannot be subverted.[iv] As an act, it is sanctified and holy. The coin is good only inasmuch as it is used for a mitzvah, but the mitzvah is good. The businessman is trying to steal donated money, but he causes his unwitting marks to express the unity of G-d and the world through giving of their sweat-and-blood in the form of currency to another, to a stranger, and the charity is good. Not only that, but the businessman himself is good inasmuch as he is a vessel for the charity. Rather than the charity only being beneficial if it achieves a certain goal, the businessman is only beneficial if he achieves charity.

Of course, charity is even better if the funds we donate with the best of intentions actually do help feed the poor in Africa, and we have every right (and possibly obligation) to try to ensure that it does. The point, however, is that the businessman only has power here under his own paradigm. He has only made good people into fools from one point of view. From the truest and most eternal perspective, however, his marks have made a fool of him, and used his greed and will for power to a holy end.

It turns out that philosophy matters, and that a relationship with G-d for its own sake is the deepest form of power in its simple and automatic negation of worldly power. By revealing that the rules of G-dly morality are not logical constructs aiming at, say, a certain vision of society, but rather that any given society is merely a means to the appreciation and implementation of the rules, we turn the forces of chaos against themselves. Where before, they found power in walking over the ants who were so weak as to follow a code, they are revealed, in the second perspective, to be mere minute reflections of the infinite, worshipping an undeserving deity for his own sake. Where once they could argue the rules must be abandoned because they are inauthentic, the rules are now seen to run deeper and far truer than any man or society.

In short – if G-d is not dead, and we refuse to settle for a pragmatic view of G-d’s commandments, then control of the world is firmly in G-d’s hands, not because of His authority (alone), but because this is the truth built into the very fabric of our reality itself. Neither NASA, nor Bush on 9/11, nor Koch, nor Soros can bind the good to their own will and possess it. They either participate in good, and so are shaped by it, or they oppose it and abandon it and good remains untainted by their influence.[v]

It is really those who feel they must struggle to discover the purpose of Torah who must shadow box at multinationals or the lizard people who truly run things. For the Jew who sees physical reality as the means and Torah as the ultimate end-within-itself, the nations may plot and scheme and donate as much money to bank accounts in the Caymans as they like. The world still moves ever-closer to goodness and perfection in union with the Guardian of Israel, who neither slumbers nor sleeps.


[i] Moshiach, incidentally, does not count, since Moshiach is nothing other than the Torah itself, realized. It is defined recursively; the (true) reward for the mitzvah is the mitzvah.

[ii] Indeed, this is exactly why many criticized Mother Teresa; she would wipe the mouths of the suffering of Calcutta, but did not set up clinics for palliative care; is her charity really charity?

[iii] That there are levels of Tzedakah, that it is best given to the poor, etc. are valid aspects of the commandment, but they do not constitute set goals for it. They are Torah-derived (rather than goal-derived) aspects of the commandment that constitute the relationship of the commandment to worldly reason while in no way defining the commandment within that system. Those mitzvot that generally find expression within worldly reason are called Mishpatim, whereas those that express only their essential nature – that they have no rational end – are called Chukim. It would seem there is no commandment in the Torah that even appears entirely justified by worldly reason in its details, nor, conversely, is there one that has no rational explanation whatsoever. Perhaps it is their role of uniting G-dliness with the physical world that dictates they all lie upon this spectrum.

[iv] Perhaps the best attempts to subvert holiness in history were not attacks on its goals but rather irrational resistance to its essence, devotion to stopping the act of holiness at all costs, no matter its outcome. This is the infamous evil of Amalek, and perhaps Midyan as well.

[v] The view of Torah Law as an end unto itself also saves us from the Groucho Paradox, paraphrased as I would never want to do a mitzvah that I could do. In other words, not only do the commandments transcend cynical manipulation by bad actors, they also are not besmirched by the well-intentioned participation of sinners. We cannot ask, “If I am so evil and can fulfill this commandment, how great can it be?” because the greatness of the commandments is self-defined. It is only we who are elevated by performing a commandment, never the commandment lowered by performing it.

Dear Society: Stop Killing; Start Murdering

Murder.

The word has a certain poetry to it, power and dark intention.

We’ve lost faith in murder.

Oh, we still  value violence. When Hamas launches rockets or a new terror stirs in Iraq and Syria, we respond. Sometimes we preempt. If it’s kill or be killed, we know where we stand. We still (on the whole) think that those who live by the sword must die by the sword.

The sword isn’t the problem. It’s the swordsman that eludes us.

Death is not murder. Neither is manslaughter. To kill in self-defense is not murder. Murder, (n): killing that’s against the law, or in other words, killing that deserves punishment.

And we don’t believe in murder.

* * *

Consider Cain and Abel, a story at the beginning of the source text of Western Civilization, the text some say we must abandon to be enlightened.

Cain and Abel, brothers who sacrifice for the creator, Abel with his flock, Cain with his crop. G-d prefers Abel’s offering. Cain gets jealous. G-d encourages Cain: “You didn’t do well this time, but you can improve.” He warns Cain: “Watch out! Your desires crouch and wait to drag you down.” Cain kills Abel. G-d punishes Cain.

G-d punishes Cain?!

What did Cain ever do to deserve punishment?

* * *

Imagine it just made headlines, 2014. What does it sound like? We don’t know how old Cain and Abel were at the time. They’re brothers. Maybe it happened at school. In America, we’re familiar with this kind of thing.

A sorrowful anchor describes the carnage at the murder scene. A reporter interviews sullen grey-faced witnesses. Back to the studio. What caused this tragedy, who’s to blame, and how might we fix it? Bring on the talking heads.

Head One: “It’s a problem of the brain chemicals, you see. If Cain were on the right meds, he wouldn’t have anger problems, and Abel would’ve lived to sire children.”

Head Two: “Property is the issue – if there had been no disparity in the brothers’ possessions, there would be no cause for jealousy and no cause for death.”

Head Three: “Wake up, sheep! It’s religion at the heart of man’s woes. This was the first religious conflict in history. Cain killed over G-d. Remove the poisonous influence of religion, and peace shall return!”

Head Four: “This tragedy lies at the feet of agriculture. If only Cain were a shepherd like his brother, or a hunter-gatherer…”

Head Five: “If there had been no rock[1] with which to bash in the victim’s head, this terrible act would never have happened. Our hearts go out to Adam and Eve, and they will appear on our show tomorrow to discuss a ban on rocks in the vicinity of humans.”

Head Six: “You’re all geographically illiterate. Look at a map, people. This took place in the Middle East. Cain was expressing his righteous anger over the injustice of western imperial colonialism. And Israel. It’s always Israel.”

Head Seven: “You know, I agree with my colleagues, but they lack depth. None of the above reasons would bring him to slay his brother. It’s family life that’s to blame. It is the struggle for parental affection that taught Cain jealousy. View G-d as a proxy mother and you see the source of the anger.”

To the experts, Cain’s decision was a predetermined step in a causal chain that regresses to the birth of the universe. If they believe in Cain’s free will, they don’t see how it’s different than any other step in the process that  slays Abel: (1) there is a difference in their property, (2) brain chemicals mix, (3) Cain makes a choice, (4) he picks up the murder weapon – deal with any one of them, and you’ll fix the problem. There is nothing deserving punishment here. There is simply a sequence of events, of causes and their effects. One domino hits a second hits a third and then there is not enough oxygen in Abel’s brain and the reporters come swooping in, no doubt in the throes of their own causal sequences involving the ambulance chasing gene and the economic currents that force enterprising young people into journalism school.

There is death on the news. There is no murder.

* * *

There is, of course, another opinion, not Head Eight but rather Head Zero, representing the majority view of humanity for the past two millennia, though perhaps not for the past two decades.

Head Zero: “Cain murdered Abel as an act of will. G-d told him he could either improve, or be lost to blood lust. He chose the latter, even though he had the ability to overcome it. And G-d punished him.”

Head Zero actually reads what’s written in the text – “Is it not so that if you improve, it will be forgiven you? If you do not improve, however, at the entrance, sin is lying, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it.” Simple as that. No mention of Cain’s circumstances, of weapons or family.

Why doesn’t this version make the news?

Perhaps it isn’t newsworthy, since Head Zero doesn’t give us any advice on how to solve the problem. She doesn’t explain how to rearrange society. She appears to throw up her hands and say, “Humans are evil. That’s just the way we are, and nothing can solve it.”

But that’s only a surface understanding. Though all Western religions agree with Head Zero, they do not advocate nothing. Rather, their solution is internal, and must take place within the individual.

The strangest thing: by saying humans are evil, Zero is the most uplifting of all the heads. The modern theories rob the individual of his agency by aiming at externalities. They tell him he is at the whim of powers beyond his control. Just like Cain’s bad upbringing and his low self-esteem, there is an entire matrix of causes, an extensive sociopsychobiohistorical calculus that explains why you just cut someone off on the highway, and that (we might as well say) makes it impossible for you not to cut someone off. It is not your fault. If we want to fix road rage, we must go back to first causes, etc. You are perfect, just the way you are. Until society ruins you.

Head Zero (aka Torah, aka common sense a hundred years ago) says it is your fault. Next time, exert some intellect and some will, and don’t cut him off.

Head Zero terrifies us.

She suggests that the key is education, of ourselves and of our children. Not in math or science, but in right and wrong. We need not await Utopian changes or a doctor’s prescription; we need not protest or raise awareness. We can fix it now, by fixing ourselves. The lessons of self-control and forgoing immediate gratification will solve more than a thousand political protests.

This is challenging, since we’ve been inundated with anti-Zero propaganda from childhood (why this is so is a discussion fraught with many talking heads themselves advocating external solutions to this problem). We don’t want to fix ourselves. We want the world to change. We want to have a fairer lot, a better chance, an easier job. Down with the CEOs, the white man, the black man, Coke, Apple, Microsoft, my next door neighbor, and the government. Let them change.

But the world is a closed system, and exporting responsibility has consequences, namely, the trademark of 21st-century consciousness: merciless, unyielding, abject, nihilism. By shifting obligations from ourselves onto others, we lose our sense of purpose. We feel powerless and irrelevant. We are reduced to screaming about what’s wrong, instead of quietly making ourselves right.

There are only two types of people who aren’t blown away by the meaninglessness of living in 2014:

(A) Those who don’t shift responsibility. (The elderly/old souls. See: your grandparents)

(B) Those who spend a little time every day convinced they’re fixing the external causes of their problems, i.e. everyone else. (See: Social Justice Warriors, Militant Freegans, Nazis, Communists, the guy at Shul who’s way too into politics, etc.)

Type (A) is less annoying,

* * *

Cain is not a victim of circumstance. He is a human being who makes decisions. And because he is human, he fails. And because he fails, he is human. For if he fails, that means he could have succeeded. We have the ability to not murder, not just the ability to not kill. We can fail, or we can succeed.

It is in our hands.

And that is a heartening thing.

 


[1] Head Five is a bit of an ignoramus, since the Midrash says Cain killed Abel by slitting his throat, and the Zohar says Cain bit Abel like a snake. But he’s a talking head on the news; what did you expect?

 

Image from Flickr.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.