Does the Torah Say The World Is An Illusion?

Of Witchcraft, Cucumbers, and Reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where does G-d tell us this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

**In the discourse “Ha’umnam“, 5643

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