What Is the Best Philosophical Proof for G-d?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Just so.

***

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

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

Testing for Prophets

Can A Politically-Fanatical Jew Identify a Prophet?

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

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

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

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

 

Why The Future Is His Alone

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

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

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

 

Infinite Test

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

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

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

On “Knowledge is Power”

If knowledge is power, then Kaballah is idolatry.

There is a reason we were discouraged from studying the holy sefirot, the arrangements of the divine lights, the permutations of the divine speech in their infinitely intricate manifestations. Upon meeting a system, there is an all-too-human tendency to conquer it, to bend it to one’s will, to direct it toward one’s ends. If that system undergirds our very reality, all the better.

Thankfully, knowledge isn’t power, because knowledge isn’t knowledge, any more than light is light.

G-d says “Let there be light,” and there is light, but no distinction is made between the word “light” and actual light. The Torah is made of words, but is also the Torah of Truth. To distinguish between the light of “let there be light” and the light of earthly reality would introduce a distinction both absent in the text and contrary to its nature, since the nature of the text is to be the source of nature, and its words are inseparable from the meaning they convey.

In other words, light is really the word “light,” just as fish are “fish” and man is “man.” The physical manifestation, the light, is merely “light” as He dissociates it from itself. The physical may be defined by its concealment, by the way it distracts from, though does not cover over (as the material does) the truth of its own creation. The physical is, at essence, a change of subject rather than a lie; the physical gives the impression of a result where only process, the speaking of “light,” truly exists. It is thus the bias of an embodied mind to assume that the divine word “light” is about anything other than itself, that its semantic content and its form arrive independently, that light somehow precedes “light,” at least conceptually.

Kaballah, which traffics in the divine speech, is therefore rendered idolatrous in the eyes of those in the grip of this worldly bias. One hears of sefirot, of ten divine emanations, modalities, tools, building blocks, and the natural inclination of one’s mind is to make of these emanations into mind things, members of categories, words describing things. Indeed, the mind is a creature within time and space, two entities most simply defined as “those by which other things are defined in multiplicity”; no single thing within time and space is self-defined; they necessitate a lexical-semantic split. It is this very quality of the mind, the way it parses structures and sees the connections between things, that turns knowledge into power, that leverages familiarity into mastery. So when this space/time mind encounters the divine speech, it cannot help but provide a purpose for the speech, a light for the “light” to be directed toward in creation.

The mind tends to see that “light” not only produces light, but vice-versa, that the causality runs both ways, and light is the ultimate purpose of “light”, in a way that it’s not the ultimate purpose of “fish”. This is all that’s required to render Kaballah pragmatic and subject to human needs; through manipulating light I can manipulate “light”; we alter and shape the divine speech by altering its physical manifestation, and we can even create new manifestations by deeper and cleverer manipulations.  There emerges a new system, a nature behind nature, the world of divine speech, no less real or useful for being spiritual, no less bound by rules and correspondences the mind can manipulate.

Knowledge is power.

Kaballah is just another system.

Knowledge only is not power where knowledge isn’t knowledge. But this, Kaballah cannot do, even without the biases of the mind. Kaballah shows fish to be “fish.” By the same token, it shows knowledge to be “knowledge” and mind to be “mind.” Even if we were to escape time and space, we would still find divine parsing of structures, the divine word He speaks to unite words and their meanings, the G-dly expression that itself necessitates the systematic nature of words and their meanings.

Ironically, for knowledge to not be knowledge, we must seek the place where the connection between mind and “mind” falls apart, where even the divine speech is nothing other than itself, where even “mind” is empty of meaning.

This is the uniquely Jewish idea that everything before Him is as nothing.

It is the higher unity, where even knowledge is powerless before its Creator.

The Cruel, the Less Cruel, and the Kind

They say the opposite of cruelty is kindness, and that the opposite of hate is love, but it is rare to find a man of unalloyed cruelty and hatred. A man of pure hatred is like a man without legs, a tragedy, but an exception that proves the rule.

Most of us are cruel and hateful only in the service of kindness and love. We hate strangers because we love our people; we hate ideas because we love our minds as they are. “Those who love G-d hate evil,” the Psalmist says, extending this emotional dichotomy up to the rarefied reaches of the soul and the better angels of our nature.

No, in a healthy human being, love and hate are often concurrent, two sides of the same coin. The question is how to regulate these tendencies, balance them, and remain a genuinely good person despite our healthy, deeply human capacity for cruelty. Since love can generate hatred, it is not the means by which to balance our emotions. Rather, this role must fall to the mind. It is in this sense of an actual outside power not in dialectic with hatred, and able to control it, that the opposite of hate is not love, but truth.

Look at what in the world is truly cruel: those areas untouched by reason. This why we call some of the worst murders senseless. A man decides his country or religion or tribe is under attack. Out of protective love, he has their back and sallies forth to destroy their (perceived) enemies.

There are several ways to prevent this tragedy, and each failure to prevent it is a failure of reason. First, the mind of this killer has been set adrift from the internal moral law that says murder is wrong. his love, and this his hatred, broke through that barrier, placed there by G-d and education. Second, his mind failed to use its powers of abstraction to impart sympathy to the killer. Love of one’s own tribe is natural to the heart. Love of others through analogy requires moral education; the idea that they are also mothers, children, lovers of country, etc. must be taught to the heart. Third, the last line of defense of the forces of reason failed, namely, externalized reason, also known as justice. Without justice, the emotion of love terminates in dissolution, discord, and difference. To that extent, the emotion itself is self-destructive, a consuming flame without stabilizing wick or fuel that quickly gutters out in chaos.

Less cruel is reason, which ties the self-consuming love to earth and allows it to exist in stasis. The emotion of love is the individual inhabiting their inherent relationships with self and other. When a child loves her parent, she is literally enacting her relationship, actualizing a connection fixed in time; you are my parent by what has already happened, by my birth, and by loving you, I allow that set state of affairs to affect the present. If someone hurts my parents, I am caught in the web of their action; hurting those I love swiftly establishes another relationship that arouses hate in my heart.

The mind circumvents this causal chain, as if by magic. Like the difference between a man and an ox is the difference between love under reason to love untouched by the mind. An ox looks at food and thinks food. It looks at a tree and thinks about a tree. Its mind is merely an expansion of its senses. Reason, though, is seeing food and thinking thankfulness, seeing a tree and perceiving growth. The very power of abstraction places us a handbreadth higher than inevitability. Someone may attack me, but in their attack I may see only their desperation, and in my own rage I see an emotion to be weighed. There is suddenly room for right and wrong; I may separate good from evil on principle since every particular occurrence also falls in some general category. Revenge can be wrong, even if I saw with my own eyes the crime for which my enemy is indebted. This is the very soul of the law.

It is not even a particular principle that is so vital to justice, but rather having principles itself. Approaches on when to reward and when to punish may vary in details, but the law’s abstract nature always keeps more balance than lawlessness. Reason puts love and hate in a context; that is the most important thing. They gain an aspect of what-we-do, where before they sounded like what-we-are. Thereby, we are preserved from cruel chaos.

Why, then, is reason only less cruel?

Reason is a dictator.

Reason says the right thing is right only relative to other things. Nothing is right just because it is right, except, rather unreasonably, reason itself. G-d Himself, by reason, is reason’s recognition that something it can’t explain must be the ultimate context for what’s right; the first ground, an ur-context, is the uncreated Creator. Reason’s highest principle is that even the Almighty Contextless is defined in the context of context.

Reason, but its very chaos-ending powers, by its abstraction and contextualization—in other words, but its very ability to allow opposites to coexist peacefully—keeps us ever apart. Reason tells us a thing is never just itself, but rather exists in a context. Reason tells us that principles are higher than our love, that ideas must be more important than people in order to save people from themselves. It lets us love with a small love, a love influenced by reason that is a pale shadow. We love never the things themselves purely, but also what they mean.

Reason implies that if we come together without third-party mediation, we will destroy each other. If I don’t want chaos, I will meet you only on reason’s property. Yes, that’s a threat.

Can we say we’re together at all? My mind says our love is a good love. Is it so lacking in reality that my mind controls it? My mind cannot even control a brick wall. Is there no love undying? Perhaps only G-d’s, and He Himself is only real as mind, as real as the way things fit together!

The kind is something else. Call it faith. For love to survive, justice must tame it. But for justice to live, faith must direct it.

For the rules not to chafe, for abstractions not to hurt, for principle to be more than a forfeiture of self, we must rediscover a higher love. Not the love of emotions, not the actualization of a relation to an object, but a love rooted in self-definition. Emotive love says, “I love you.” Faith love does not speak, for speech is the sound of communication, and we only must communicate if we are not one. Emotive love is the search for you as me. Reason says the search for you cannot be everything, must ever be a mere action, a mere part of me. Faith says that the search for you is a search for me, when we remember we have never been apart.

Faith says that just as we are one with our own principles, we are one with our Creator and each other.

Faith says we reason not because we have to but because we can, because it is how we draw our self-contained love into canvasses of other.

Faith says chaos, in its basic motions, in people moving apart and coming together because of their fixed structures, captures a deep truth of us. Chaos is faith in the negative polarity. If we wish to fix it, we control it with reason, and then control reason. The opposite of hate is truth, but not intellectual truth. The opposite of hate is love-truth and being-truth.

By faith, reason’s context is given context. The “it depends” is told it depends. We are not defined by strictures or relationships; they are defined by us, in our very being.

And it is at this point when we reach faith, on the lip of this greatest and most profound freedom, that G-d tells us what we can do for Him.

Originally posted on Hevria.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Why Unity Is Impractical And You Can, Too

Back to basics: Truth is unity, and unity is truth. They say dead men tell no tales. Mad men tell only tales. That is, the mark of those who have lost their grasp on reality is the incongruity of their reports with what is collectively known to be true; they say grandma is a flamingo and not an old lady with a hairy chin; they say the voices in their head were placed there by the sinister plotting of the world’s anteater population; they say the United States in an orange in the Czar’s fruit bowl (bad example).

Let me put it differently: There’s a famous story in which the Queen of England visits an insane asylum. One of the patients tells her with barely-masked contempt, “You know, inside these walls we are quite certain it is all of you on the outside who are mad.” She responds instantly, “Yes, my dear, but we have the majority.”

With all due respect to the Queen, I think she is more right than she suspects. Those outside the asylum will always have a majority over those inside because the maximum size of the insane man’s coalition is one member. Cooperation is only possible when you have a shared mental reality; you cannot agree to overthrow the government if one of you thinks it’s a baseball and one thinks it’s a plush duvet; you cannot agree to build a tower for any holy or unholy purpose if you do not share a language.

A similar teaching to the Queen’s we learned, L’havdil, from the second Rebbe of Chabad, who said that when two Jews meet, it is two G-dly souls vs. one animal soul. In this summation, the Rebbe demolishes two assumptions: (1) That the animal souls of each Jew can unite in a coalition against the G-dly souls; (2) That unity means one whereas division means two. In this case, the two are united but the one is alone.

First things first: The animal soul exists in a state somewhat like insanity. I do not mean to extend the definition of insanity to all men and simply place them at different points on its spectrum; I have written about this approach before and, if unity is truth, it is the approach to a deep and abounding divisiveness. The only unity down that road is unity in the humility of knowing that none of us knows the truth, and it extends exactly as far as our willingness to not make assertions — an uninspiring prospect.

No, when I say the animal soul exists in a state of insanity, I simply mean that it is fallen, a christian term stemming from their doctrine of original sin which applies to our understanding of that sin as well. The animal soul is fallen, which means that it does not inhabit the world of truth, which means it does not know unity.

The mark of the fallen is their clothes. Not only were Adam and Eve naked before they ate, but they were unaware of their nakedness; the “knowledge of good and evil”‘s instantaneous effect was to make them need to dress themselves.

Good and Evil did not exist before the fruit; nothing was disgusting, repulsive, wrong, nor appealing, attractive, or right. There was only the truth, the naked truth, and man and woman participated in it directly. What need for clothes when everything is a faceted reflection of one unity, an extension of me and I of it, all united as one with itself and its creator?

But then came the fall, and nakedness became unbearable, and we slipped into the obscene slouch we euphemistically call human nature. We became as G-d, who did not only know the creation as he knew Himself but also as a separate reality. We knew good and evil, value judgments that derive from the objective perspective, from separation, from distance, and we pulled on our clothes.

This brings us to the Rebbe’s second point, that unity is not one and division is not two. Unity was one when we were pure intellects, grasping and assimilated into the truth, and two was unthinkable destruction.

But now there are clothes.

Clothes are the symbol of our defeat, our post-hoc means of relating to the world that bombards our senses. Clothes are our nod to external trappings, our acknowledgment that since Adam’s sin nothing in our world is truly as it seems, that what can be known is not essential and that the essence cannot be known. We find the truth now through reflections, we see only the light that finds resistance in an object, but not the object itself. I stare at my coffee mug and know it only as I know it, and not how it knows itself, for my truth is buried in my unconscious and conscious mind, my personality, my faculties, my body, my clothes, and from its end the mug is equally hidden, and to know each other we must work through translations of translations of translations, shifting layers of meaning we pry beneath looking for a light G-d hid away a long time ago.

In this state we are one animal soul. One, and separate. We are one person, stuck in our own heads, writing our own rules for an indifferent universe, writhing under the boot of our own fear, trying to remember a moment in a garden when flesh touched flesh and the uncrossable canyons had not yet breached the earth’s surface. We are like the patients in the asylum, not because (G-d forbid) we have lost grasp on reality but because that same reality has become so fractured that we enter it through 600,000 separate doors.

How do we, dear reader, become two G-dly souls, united, in one reality? If unity is truth, and truth unity, we must work through the clothes, and find the shared reality. We must reverse the insanity of the fruit.

And insanity is not reversed by more information.

The truth, and thus unity, the shared reality, is not to be found through spreading more information or learning techniques of persuasion. These may spread out our one animal a bit further, but it will present nothing another animal cannot swallow and make their own private domain. (This is why it’s always entertaining to see each side in an argument tell the other, “You’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts,” as if this has ended arguments since the beginning of time.) The truth is, in a word, impractical; it is not something we stumble upon in the natural proceedings of speaking to others animal-to-animal.

No, since the beginning of time, since the angel first settled at the gate with his sword of spinning flames, there have been only two ways to find the truth, two ways to unity. Neither are about spreading oneself; both are methods of self-refinement. They have many names: The imminent and the transcendent, the worldly and the unworldly, within garments and above them, the many and the one.

The first way: We take our garments, the notion that we are separated from the truth of everything, perhaps even ourselves, and we work within it. We analyze and dissect our clothes and the exact nature of the word around us. We study the difference between a word and its meaning, between the analogy and the analogue. Through this wisdom we are able to press up against the inside of our eye sockets, to pull our garments tight. We begin to understand what makes them more transparent, more seamless, and we begin to clear away the layers of our own interference that we might find the signal, to impose form upon matter. We find to our delight that as we move closer to the external truth, it moves closer to us, for our new refinement is like X-ray vision for the garments of the world, and we just might meet in the middle. Our garments remember they are only garments, and the sin is reversed.

The second way: We take our garments and we refuse to accept them. We leave the bounds of this fractured discourse, and go searching for the truth. We try to move our own truth through resonance, using art, beauty, and deep emotion as tuning forks that something deep within might shake off its outer trappings and reveal itself. We rail against any rules that might bind us; we speak to people in ways that make them uncomfortable because we don’t care for the proper channels outlined by their garments but for the person within. We indulge in absurdity; we meditate; live as if no ancestor of ours ever dreamed to taste the fruit. In a word, we dare to imagine the world of the garden before the fall, and we are so stubborn and so insistent in our contravention of the accepted paradigm that the world moves before we do, and reality takes on our assertions. Our garments remember they are not garments, and we find ourselves in Eden.

Truth is unity, and unity is truth.

The two ways are one way, and the Lord dwells in places of perfection.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Dogs Have Four Legs

I met a guy the other day who doesn’t believe in Dog.

More specifically, he doesn’t believe they have four legs, which is the same thing. “Some are born with three,” he said, “which is deficient compared to four, but some are born with five, which makes four look pretty weedy.”

But dogs must have four legs.

If dogs sometimes have four legs, sometimes five, sometimes three, then the entire world from algae to angels would violently tear itself apart. If they have four legs in 98% of cases, and that’s how dogs have four legs, I fully expect the sun to set in the East tomorrow and the hypotenuse to be the shortest side.

That dogs have four legs is, in fact, the single most important belief I hold. If dogs have four legs, there is room for a rule. There is more to being a dog than having four legs, and it is not even what distinguishes their species, but nevertheless we have identified a category of beings and something true about them. With this foundation, this underlying faith in Dog firmly in place, we may sally forth courageously to other matters.

First: Some dogs have three or five legs. A fascinating exception that proves our rule. We may pause and meditate on the contrast of accident and essence, and the mystery of wholeness, and the strange way that adding can sometimes subtract. We can then stand up and continue on our way, unmoved, unconcerned in the slightest, full of joy! for dogs have four legs, and would even if 98% of them had five and it helped them walk better.

With a firm grasp on the fourfold nature of the canine limbs, we may climb to sublime heights or forlorn depths and find the way lit before us. We may smile when we hear that everything we know is wrong, that common understanding is riddled with contradictions. “True, there are exceptions,” we may say, “for does not the Creator Himself deal in contradiction? But the rule is still the rule and He deals in those as well.”

Dropping deep into the domain of despair, we may encounter that devil who says in a fit of what passes there for mercy, “Well, we are all mad anyway, crazy.” We think, I may well be mad, if madness is a vacation without the dog, but I cannot be mad if I desert the dog completely, for if there is no dog there is no sanity and no insanity; there is merely a mess that sometimes appears intelligible, and an unintelligible kindness is accidental and worth nothing. “98% of us are mad,” they then jeer, wielding the dreaded statistics, but it is darkness rebuffed by coruscating caninity, and anyway, madmen form no majorities since they share no reality. The alienation of those who deny dog is profound indeed.

How do so many sheep come to stray from the shepherd dog?

Some of us are driven eventually to find the secret of the dog, which is not much of a secret at all. I repeat: Dogs have four legs. This is the common sense approach, available to at least 98% of minds who dare think about it for a moment. We are driven to discover it because we want to make sense of that which is obvious. It is an eminently reasonable belief, and all those who think our day-to-day experience is reasonable will find it in the end.

But some of us are convinced that nothing is as it seems, because some dogs have three, and they are forced to conclude that dogs only have four legs if the dogs actually have four legs, if the actual meat and bones are all lined up under this thing I’m pointing at right now. They sometimes believe in G-d, these people, but not in dog, and thus not in the easiest way of getting at Him (G-d makes dog for a reason, after all). If dogs can have four legs then there can be a G-d but if dogs have four legs then there is the G-d.

Usually, people who think dogs don’t have four legs just want everyone to be nicer, because, after all, the “common sense” (so-called) approach is that a three-legged dog is somehow deficient, i.e., it is missing a damn leg. To this I respond that I, as a not-nice person, am not missing anything by being nasty. Really this bad behavior is just behavior and my bad attitude is just how people are, man. If G-d ever told people to be nice, he must have meant it personally for them, because there is no abstract “nice” that exists for all eternity, waiting for me to be it. Because the thing I name a dog might have four things I call legs, but dogs don’t have four legs.

Look, sorry for all this, but I desperately need someone to confirm that dogs etc., to tell me that my mind has met their mind. If man has a best friend, then there’s some hope for me, perhaps.

But I start to lose faith.

Maybe nothing is as it seems.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.