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?


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.

Spirituality and Intelligence Are Not Opposites

It’s not my fault that I often end up saying, “The whole system is broken.” It takes a cracked man to know a cracked time, and I was born in the correct season.

One such fissure in what, at some time in the distant past when dinosaurs weren’t sexist and the President was literally just dead, was once a seamlessly beautiful reality, is the dumb spiritualism dominant in some aspects of society.

First, they say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” which gets my teeth grinding. Then they may start on crystals, or speaking about “the universe,” and I really must step outside for air. Then they salt their soggy philosophical egg with a dash of Judaism, and speak of their prophecies from G-d, their run-ins with Him every time they pray, the angels hiding under every rock, beneath every sandal, in the folds of every tichel.

I’m not saying any of this is false, of course. I’m not in a position to do so. What I am saying is that it’s not necessary. The need for our rainbow-festooned contemporary spirituality derives from the same dualism that has probably taken many lives, the bifurcation between the material and the immaterial in modern thought.

It goes like this: Matter is real; it fits into the equations; I can even find equations that describe the matter of a human brain and what it does when it prays; perhaps a human being is just matter; perhaps understanding matter and its motions is all there is, “at the bottom of things,” to understand. This is one perspective, and even if it is not often stated nor technically pervasive, it draws a certain type of mind toward it, and colors many a thought among the masses.

The reaction to this abhorrent thought is to correctly note it is abhorrent. A human being is merely matter? Everything, all wisdom, is merely the wisdom of things? How low a view of the universe is it possible to have? And yet, this is taken for true wisdom. “Skeptics” sound smart on YouTube, denounce anyone who disagrees as an irrational anti-science wisp of hookah smoke.

What should the opponents of this lie do? They should fight it at an existential level. They should cry, “It’s not true! It is cruel reductionism, a morally bereft void of intellectual austerity, a pathetic clinging to a single method of understanding because it makes us feel powerful. It is a scientistic delusion; I am not merely matter; I am a human being!”

What they do instead is give up, because they have been given very poor philosophical tools in general and do not have to the time or the patience or the obsession to find the right words to counter the materialist hegemony (although if they stick around they might discover the wonderful (and strangely powerful) word, “hegemony”). They cede the ground of objective reality, the rational realm to which we all have access, and retreat into the only place left with any room for a human being – the irrational, the mysterious, the inexplicable.

The irony in this is that it’s only relatively recently that spiritual people and intellectual people have parted ways. Once upon a time, as is clear from any number of famous Jewish works such as the Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed, the spiritual and the intellectual were seen as identical.

After all, the entire way that a soul can know something outside of itself is utterly unlike anything else in nature; a soul can apprehend a blue whale, fit its form and its nature within an apparently miniscule space enclosed in bone and flesh. Then, we can look at multiple blue whales and test hypotheses about them in a process called inductive logic, which somehow veers away from the particular samples of our observation to grasp at broader principles. How there can be broader principles, that the whales are organized in some fashion beyond what we find in any individual creature, is certainly indicative of a spirit that tends away from particular corporeal limitations. The very process of making science itself is an immaterial, spiritual process, and an intellectual one.

Spirituality must be rescued from its modern guardians, and its guardians rescued from spirituality. Spirituality is the possession of every functioning human being on the planet, just like thinking. And it need not be exercised only in retreat from the unforgiving scientism popular among so many self-defined intellectuals.

The intellect, being immaterial, is spiritual, and the spiritual is a generalized or extended form of the intellectual. There is a reason, after all, why not only the philosophical works but even Chassidic discourses refer to angels as “abstract intellects.” The mind, and its apprehension of physical reality, is the foot of a mountain that extends to the heights of holiness. The mind grasps a whale, and then the unity between all whales, and then the concept of justice, and then a mathematical abstraction, and then a human soul, and then–

Someone might object that as one climbs this peak, one moves further away from the physical. To which the response must be: It is time to stop pretending the foothills are all that exist merely because the peak is sheathed in cloud. It is time to take a risk. The tablets are at the summit, and spirituality is not a retreat from objective. Spirituality is a necessary part of the objective. The sooner we insist on it and break down the false division between mind and spirit, the better.

Once we understand the unity of intellect and spirit, we can then move on to combining intellect with faith. Faith and intellect are, after all, merely two different soul faculties, pointed at the truth, and ultimately we may be expected to show that they are one.


Originally posted on Hevria.

If God Had A Vegas Show

It’s hard to say what G-d would choose for His Vegas show. He has been known to favor the old and chintzy, faded feathers and flashing lights; pure and demented. He might paste on mutton chops and run a chapel made of plastic and marry elopers in Holy! MatriMOny! Some would even argue (and certainly they’d be right) that G-d works off the strip, where the lights fade away and the short buildings squat in shame against the mute emptiness of His dusty earth.

But I, for one, think G-d might throw in with the magicians.

Not just because I’ve been obsessed with magic videos of late and could watch Mac King’s rope trick ten times a day or repeatedly kick myself at the brashness of Juan Tamariz’s Three Clubs (he’s cheating, of course, but not in the way you expect). Not just because magic is a multi-dimensional art which puts every tool of physical and psychological deception and often thousands of hours of backbreaking practice into the most childish of endeavors, making an audience feel stupid, monk-like devotion and dozens of parts producing one simple effect that everyone already knows — the world is not explicable. Not just because, like religion, the answers to all the questions would both ruin and elevate the mystery, with both sides pulling at our hearts, the equal tension placing us in the stance of maturity.

No, G-d would have a magic show because His tricks aren’t tricks.

I don’t mean He does miracles. That is rather unimpressive, for G-d. G-d can’t cheat like Juan Tamariz because Juan Tamariz has all sorts of rules he can’t get around like mortality and logic and diminishing returns, death, taxes, gravity. G-d isn’t bound by any rules and so cannot cheat.

But I don’t mean He doesn’t do miracles. G-d follows the rules because he chooses to make them; he is locked up only because He chooses to be locked up; even Houdini could reasonably argue that the chains are solid and the shackles are real because the chains and shackles do not depend at every moment upon Houdini to cause them to exist. G-d putting on shackles would fool no one.

No, G-d’s stage show would be confined to a very small number of classic performances that are not performances, doing tricks that are not tricks. He would do them because He can do anything, but we would only understand them because He does not do anything but rather exactly what we expect. Better yet, the audience would only experience the trick to the extent they are certain they are not witnessing a trick; the more certain they are nothing is happening, the more they would know they were being entertained.

Are you watching closely?

Yankel stabs Hershel in a back alley (we can recreate in on stage with some dead-end backdrop work and low lighting) with a butterfly knife. Yankel is not compelled and chooses freely. Hershel is not compelled to be there; he chose freely as well. But Yankel cannot stab Hershel unless Hershel truly deserves it, and the moment was known to have happened since the beginning of time.

Did you catch it?


Try again: Yankel stabs Hershel. This is inevitable; it has happened already, before either was born. It’s only because it is inevitable that they can choose it freely; Yankel cannot stab Hershel unless he has already done something to justly deserve it; Hershel cannot be stabbed by Yankel today unless he already was and always will be because it must happen.


Look, it only must happen because they choose it freely. If they could not choose freely, they would not exist; it’s their ability to choose that makes them interesting; that’s why G-d brings them on stage. It is only because they can freely choose that this inevitability arises, and it is only because it’s inevitable that they are able to choose it.

A magician never repeats the same trick twice, and if there is a G-d in Vegas (having happened in Vegas, would De stay there?) he never insults his audience with a second stabbing. Instead, he regales them with a classic, no assistants necessary.

For my next trick…

A box. Don’t saw it in half; didn’t you see Raiders? The box sits in the holy of holies, and, like most things that sit, indeed, most things that are, it takes up space. It has a measure; bring your tape, lay it down on the floor (don’t mind the rope around your waist; keep your eyes from wandering and you certainly won’t come out lightly toasted) next to the box. It has a measure, yes? Now look along the length of the tape and see the room has a measure. But pay attention to the space beyond the ark on either side and see that it is the entire length of the room. Somehow (this has been known to cause slight migraines), depending on where you’re looking, the ark takes up space and does not take up space, simultaneously.

Some wag says, “That’s mighty impressive, G-d, but Penn & Teller down at the Rio (who don’t believe in You, by the way) perform miracles every night. They shoot bullets into each others’ mouths; the quiet one cuts a plant by cutting its shadow and instills a rubber ball with a playful intelligence. What’s another miracle in Vegas?”

You missed it, you see. It’s not a miracle. If it were a miracle, it could happen. If it weren’t a miracle, it could happen. So this doesn’t happen.

What doesn’t? Well, a miracle doesn’t happen, because the only object that can possibly take up no space in the Holy of Holies is indeed the holy Ark. No other box would do it. They simply are not the right conditions for this event. They would take the ark out to war, and you never hear about any strange measuring problems there. No, it’s what happens when you take this specific item made to a particular measure in a certain way — in short, you take the actual, real, ark of the covenant — and place it in a room built to specifications, right in the center (which you must measure to find) that all of a sudden something strange happens. It can’t be a miracle; you just measured this to make sure it was the correct length for it to be considered “the ark in the holy of holies.” And only because it is made to that precise design it no longer seems to exist at all.

The other way? It can’t be natural, of course. It doesn’t take up space! Of course a miracle is taking place. But if a miracle is taking place, that in fact proves that the ark of the correct measure has been placed in the correct position; this is the most certain way of knowing it was made to specifications! You can imagine the building inspector being invited up to the stage with his clipboard, wiping his glasses, circling the holy of holies, making sure everything is up to specification. He measures to either side of the ark, sees that it takes up no space, and declares, “Ah, it must take up exactly the correct amount of space!”

And so, you have witnessed, here in the theater, tonight, neither a miracle nor the absence of one, a non-trick trick, something strange proving something normal and vice versa, and you are not quite sure if your tastes are refined enough to even be certain you have witnessed anything at all. It is almost as if that same niggling sense you’ve had since childhood that nothing must be the way it is, that there is no reason for anything to be this way, has been justified all along, but you find all it proves is that everything is precisely as it must be.

When they get that at the Rio, let me know.

One more?

For this time of year?

The king favors Esther, and Haman is hung from his own gallows.

The victory does not involve G-d. The Jews had the right people in place at the right time to fend off disaster. The victory only involves G-d; Haman’s rise to power is a direct effect of the Jews valuing the princes of men over the divine, and his destruction represents their choice of G-d over the world.

It is precisely because G-d is not involved, because His name is not printed in the megillah, that He saved the Jewish people at all; Esther chose to fast for three days in an act of faith before appearing before the king at her least radiant, and it was this real and natural danger that proved the key to our salvation. But it is precisely because G-d is involved that the salvations happened at all; Esther finds favor in the King’s eyes because it is so written; it has been written since before the earliest emanation, that Haman will fail and the Jews will succeed, and that is what allows for nature to take its course.

The miraculous salvation occurs because it is not miraculous.

The chosen people are chosen because there never really was a choice in the first place.

The curtains fall.

Tomorrow, you will not succeed in accurately describing the show you saw; or is it the show you didn’t see? You’ll only be able to say that it was G-d, on his own terms, and He wasn’t wearing a Prince Albert frock and a bow tie.

Go; it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and strangely like everything you’ve ever seen, and your applause both is and is not appreciated.


Originally posted on Hevria.