Messianic Skepticism

One impression that emerges from reading the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s letters on matters of faith is that deep skepticism and profound belief are not opposites, but rather belong together in a healthy soul. You can see this in the way the Rebbe describes the historical giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, taking a Kuzari-like tack of questioning which other historical events we ought to believe in if not the giving of the Torah. You can see it in his revealing response about fossils. And so, too, in one of his famous lessons “proving” the existence of G-d, when the Rebbe calls for consistency in our skepticism — if you don’t believe in G-d, you must, to be consistent, also deny many things you do believe.

Since skepticism is both useful and in consonance with his deep belief in the Torah, the nature of the Rebbe’s proofs and demonstrations is not really to move the recipient of the letter from skepticism to belief. Rather, the Rebbe moves us from doubt to certainty, to a point where we are still skeptical but it doesn’t matter. In fact, the Rebbe reveals our skepticism to be merely the other half of our soul’s desire to know the truth, no less a tool for finding G-d than our capacity to commit and believe.

It is a transformative and uplifting view of skepticism, which finds the light in the darkness, allowing the darkness to remain in its place and yet somehow shine. This is one sense in which the Rebbe’s skepticism has a quality of the messianic age when flesh shall behold G-d.

In truth, the connection runs even deeper, for it is not just faith in general, but faith in Moshiach itself, that inspires this holy skepticism. All who are not yet skeptics have not yet fully considered what Moshiach means.

After all, even the Tzaddikim, the perfectly righteous, shall repent when Moshiach comes. Those familiar with the inner Torah recognize that the Tzaddik is the very embodiment of perfection, eternity, and consistency. If there is one thing in this entire world on which, from a G-dly perspective, we can rely, it is the Tzaddik. Yet, in the coming age, even the Tzaddikim will change and become something unimaginably greater than what they are now. What applies to the Tzaddik applies infinitely more to anything that now conceals even an iota of G-d’s light, from a Beinoni down to frogs and rocks and mollusks. So: Everything will change when Moshiach comes.

But because the change is a change of repentance, of Teshuva, and the highest form of repentance at that, it is not a change that will occur only from the Moshiach’s arrival and onward. On the contrary, like all such Teshuva, it will be a change that propagates backward in time as well. Or, to put it more simply, when Moshiach comes we will see how the way everything existed before Moshiach was a totally necessary part of bringing about its existence under Moshiach. Sins will be seen as the road to a deeper relationship with G-d. Skepticism will be seen as the road to deep faith. Pre-Messianic rocks will be seen as a preface to Infinite Revelation. In other words: Not only do we not know, now, what a rock will be when Moshiach comes, we also, because we believe in Moshiach, don’t know what the rock is at this moment. Moshiach will recontextualize each and every being in our current reality into its own story; everything will one day be about Moshiach.

Therefore, if, today, we don’t see how each thing is about Moshiach, how a frog or a sarcastic remark is about (in the deepest sense of the word) the perfect and infinite revelation of G-d within the world, we have never met these things; we know only the most superficial aspects of their being.

On the contrary, a simple curiosity to know things as they are right now, to explore the world around us in light of the knowledge that some moment soon everything will be deeply retroactively transformed, would express as an obsession with the Messianic age. If we were fully cognizant of the imminent permanent transformation of reality, our curiosity about things would mainly concern the spark of Moshiach we could find within them.

In this sense is the Rebbe the ultimate skeptical scientist.

I Won’t Know What Pittsburgh Means

Sometimes, when I’m bored, I imagine something truly preposterous—a man of space and time.

Such a man would not see the world the way we do. I like to think he’d divide things neatly into cubic meters, or perhaps (with a nod to the issue of establishing an absolute frame of reference for such a grid) take a square meter at ground level and extend it down to the center of the earth and outward indefinitely to capture a slice of the universe. His whole reality would have a fixed population of around 510 trillion such square-meter-based slices, and they would be the objects of all his explanations.

Take this slice, here. The way we’d describe it, it bursts forth from the surface of the earth, capturing within its square meter steel girders, pockets of air, human beings and many of their artifacts (thousands of pieces of plastic), millions of insects, billions of bacteria, miles of ever-thinner atmosphere, empty space, then maybe a chunk of the moon, and so on. This square meter happens to slice through a Manhattan office building, but it has cousins that extend through the ocean and the planets, nightstands and nebulae.

Of course, we are not men of space and time. We see only what we have been taught to see in a world long-trained in souls and essences. The actual man of space and time, with this wool pulled from his eyes, sees one being in this extended square meter, gargantuan and beautiful, possessing infinite potential. This single being (call it a squeter) is an admixture of mineral, vegetable, animal, and human parts remaining at rest or passing in and out of it in mysterious motion. A thirty-meter horizontal steel girder, to the man of space and time, is really an illusion produced by the similarities we see in thirty neighboring squeters, like a “human chain” is just a bunch of individuals holding hands in our benighted understanding. What we call “millions of insects” are just small shifting portions of the squeter, none of them independent of its being. And if you ask: but the insects will move from one squeter to another? you have still missed the point.

You see, the man in space and time is free from your compulsive need to cut the universe into neat little pieces, a human being here, a bug there. Humans and bugs (or parts of humans and parts of bugs) are illusions imposed by the way we’re taught to think. A human torso occupies one squeter, while the arm attached to it occupies its neighbor. Why in the world should we say the arm has more connection with the person than with the asphalt or the beetle with which the arm shares its squeter? The arm belongs to the space, not to the man!

“But wherever the person goes, the arm goes! And it’s made of the same stuff as the person! And they’re physically attached! And the arm serves a purpose to the man!”

Well, of course you think of the arm and the person moving together, since you are unenlightened. You probably think the drawing in a flipbook or the pixels on your screen “move together,” too, until you realize they’re just tiny specks of color moving independently producing the illusion of a unified object. Of course you judge by what things are made of, rather than the space they occupy. You probably think that if a fly is attached to fly paper that flies are made of paper, or that since a cup’s purpose is to hold liquid, the liquid is part of the cup. There are all matters of interpretation, the man in space and time would assure you. What right do you have to impose your prejudices upon his way of seeing things?

The man in space and time divides up the world in a way that appears arbitrary and absurd to us, but it is not to simple to explain why it is arbitrary and absurd. The “facts” alone help us nothing. It’s a question of interpretation.

And the question of interpretation is far from theoretical. This week has me thinking about little else. How do things actually divide up? How are we to slice up the world we see, and what justifies our chosen criteria?

The blood of Jews has barely dried in Pittsburgh. Already, the men of space and time have offered their best theories on how to slice the pie.

Perhaps the way to view Pittsburgh is as a continuation of American mass murder, and other details are incidental; statistically, a violent madman was going to come for the Jews eventually, whatever the motivation. Or perhaps we should look at it as an expression of growing right-wing extremism, different from mass murders five or ten years ago and centered primarily around anti-immigrant, rather than anti-Jewish, sentiment. Perhaps the attack is an extension of Jew-hatred and mounting anti-Semitism in the US. Maybe it is an expression of the social malaise that has drug overdoses and suicide on the rise. It could be about racism or about guns, about President Trump or about Bibi Netanyahu, about Israel or about the growing influence of the far left.

All of these divisions, these approaches to slicing up the facts, I have seen this week. Some appear more reasonable, some more absurd. But this distinction is itself due to idiosyncrasies, to the way my mind works differently than others’, to the divergence in our experience.

Ultimately, then, I cannot blame those of us who wish to step back from pattern recognition and from story-crafting. I do not regret or renounce my disinclination to make of Pittsburgh a “thing.” If there are those Jews among us who step back from the analysis, let the story be G-d’s, and focus on fulfilling their duty, on repentance and good deeds—perhaps this is the beginning of wisdom.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Ben Zoma The Skeptic

Perhaps Ben Zoma’s words in Chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot are not as simple as they appear.

The sage seems to be explaining why we should not seek wealth, wisdom, and strength in the traditional senses. You can make all the money in the world, but until you’re satisfied, you’re not rich. You can lift and bench daily, but until you conquer you own heart, you’re not strong. And your twelve PhDs won’t make you wise until you have the humility to learn from everyone.

This ethical direction is rendered as a redefinition of terms, as indicated by the “what is x” form of the Mishna. You may assume wealth means the accumulation of assets, and Ben Zoma tells you that the word really refers to a state of mind. This is in accordance with the general theme of the Ethics, that is, lifnim mishurat hadin, correct behavior beyond the letter of the law.

According to the letter of the law, a Jew is required to earn his or her wealth honestly. Beyond the letter of the law, one must change one’s entire perspective on wealth and adopt ben Zoma’s definition. Property and money are inherently unable to achieve wealth; only the soul can do that. The same is true of the wise man, who goes beyond the requirements of learning; the truly wise know that wisdom is a constant journey. Strength, similarly, has its limits; true strength is the strength to direct strength to an end.

Why does the law deal with traditional notions of wealth, wisdom, and strength, but Pirkei Avot redefine them? It has something to do with the inner meaning of “beyond the letter of the law”. It is not that the Rabbis gathered in one tractate all that a Jew may do extra. It is not a collection of non-obligatory Rabbinic suggestions about proper conduct, but rather the path toward truly transcending the law, to viewing the laws of the Torah in their proper context and proper place, that is, as the commandments of the divine Lawgiver.

We are told by Ben Zoma, on these matters often envied by others, that a Jew seeking a G-dly perspective sees, as the Creator does, the limits of all things. Wealth is only wealth until it meets dissatisfaction; wisdom is only wisdom until it meets stultifying and myopic elitism; strength is only strength until we lose control of it. They are therefore not ends unto themselves, but only part of G-d’s greater plan, and the ethical Jew will work to view them in this context.

However, straight redefinitions of these terms need not be understood pragmatically. Ben Zoma is not telling us to treat satisfaction as the true wealth. He’s saying that satisfaction is true wealth. If we cannot see it, we are looking at it the wrong way.

But what is this vantage point that lets us redefine these worldly qualities?  Certainly the vantage point is closer to G-d than people who worship money, power, or smarts – but what makes the new definitions better than the old ones? After all, G-d could declare that wealth is simply money, if He wished. G-d can do anything. He can even love the quantities that so torment the descendants of Adam.


We are led by the Mishna to a place of equanimity from which wealth, etc. cease to be objects of pursuit and become truths that simply are. We draw close to G-dliness known as Truth, that place of consistency independent of technicality, the arbitrary, and time/space.

Time and space are the height of arbitrary, of course. In their domain, things gain identity by where and when; you and I differ because you’re in Israel and I’m in America, or I’m in the past and you’re in the future. We are different based on what happens to be true about us, rather than our essential natures. In time and space, factories produce objects that are virtually identical but technically separate. We judge them not by their truth but by their circumstance. This one happens to be here and that one happens to be there.

The world of time of space is really a world of falsehood. An individual can possess much wealth by dint of numbers on a bank account, strength by the size of their muscles or their armories, wisdom by knowledge accumulated. But these are circumstantial rather than inherent, the way a can of coke is Nebraskan or Floridian based on where it’s shipped. Two men may be fundamentally identical, and yet their bank accounts vary by millions, and in this world, it is not a contradiction. On the contrary, by the standards of time and space, it must at least be possible.

Ben Zoma brings us beyond the letter of the law and close to the Creator in the sense that the Creator prevails over space and time. G-d is beyond arbitrary. He is true because of what He is, and all other things exist by the truth of His being.

Ben Zoma has found the definitions of wealth, wisdom, and strength that do not change on technicality; one may possess Ben Zoma’s wealth with no money and with vast riches alike. It depends entirely on who the person is, rather than what they happen to have; their spiritual accomplishment and their ability to see beyond physical happenstance is what matters. The Mishna enjoins us to raise ourselves beyond time and space and close to the Truth.

And that is when we are most lost.


Now, the man of time and space has no problem assessing whether or not he is wealthy; far from causing a crisis of doubt, it is a fact of which he is all-too-certain. Then he learns Pirkei Avot and realizes he can be more than arbitrary; his wealth is not wealth, his strength is not strength.

But then, having achieved character and quality, he finds himself struggling to situate himself. What is the meaning of things without his earlier perspective? Without quantitative way markers in time and space, is there anything toward which he can orient himself? Perhaps we are self-defined souls floating lonely in a void of things less real than we are. Perhaps all those things defined in time and space are not real at all.

Answers Ben Zoma: Be healthy, wise, and strong! Do not think that the destruction of your worldly perspective has destroyed your mission on earth. Goals still exist, as do achievements. They are merely qualitative; the soul’s investment in these qualitative things matter.

This same dynamic exists regarding the wealth of others. The man of time and space envies others’ qualities. The man of character and soul is in danger of envying nothing – indeed, of skepticism whether anything deserving of envy can exist at all. Ben Zoma assures us that others may indeed be wealthy or strong, truly. These terms still have meaning. They are just not the arbitrary meanings of his prior assumption.

Therefore, the redefinition of terms is also an epistemic teaching. It is not just providing information or advice, but telling us what we are able to know. For to move beyond time and space is to move beyond the observable. Far from an ethical teaching, Ben Zoma could just as easily be rescuing the authentic man of Truth from wracking doubt.


The Torah speaks to the man from whom nothing is true as surely as it does the coarse one obsessed with his jealousies. It tells us, in its terse words, that how we ought to act and what actually exists are not opposites. On the contrary: what is serves what must be done, and what must be done is a glance into the nature of the truth.

Ben Zoma sits on a mountaintop and calls to the man in the valley. “You do not see the whole picture!” he cries. The man in the valley trusts the sage, and climbs the mountain. Now he can no longer see his house or his neighbor. Unsure he will ever find them again, he resigns himself to life alone on the peak…until Ben Zoma directs his attention back to the valley from which he came, spread out before him like a dappled quilt, a new point of view.

“What is wealth?” asks the spiritual Jew, who will not condescend to answer. Wealth is a false disparity, a façade covering over true worth. One day there will be no wealth, no striving; we will exist beyond space/time in paradise, and all our definitions will inhere in our very selves.

“What is wealth?” asks Ben Zoma. It is not what the world thinks it is, granted. But it is not a lie. The yearnings of the human heart are not a false mask to be torn off the underlying truth of the world. Wealth is true. Wealth is real.

Ben Zoma gives no simple advice. His definitions are a path in the service of G-d. Raise yourself up until you understand me; realize, from your new position, that what I was saying makes even less sense than before. Read my definitions with fresh eyes, now, when you most need them. See that the definition awakens you to your lack of definitions, and then, when you stand in a position of skepticism denying all words, gives a way forward. Behold the things that to be believed must be preceded by a belief in nothing.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

May G-d Rescue Us From Our Solutions

Based on my everyday experience, it makes sense that the creation of the world is incomprehensible.

What is this thing doing here? Why is it built on a system of soul and body, a painful contradiction seemingly unjustified by anything in the universe? Sure, there’s baseball and hating Michael Chabon, but no joy in this vale of tears is without its price.

Chief, in my reckoning, of all the challenges that G-d places before a soul on this earth is the challenge of doubt. Not the caricature portraying the vacillation between “blind faith” and the ability to “believe,” but the deeper doubt, the one that zigs faith and zags understanding to strike right at what I am.

The problem is that we become attached to things, and even though past pain has made us wise, we (even subconsciously) begin to define ourselves by our views, opinions, and moral judgments.

If we are souls in bodies, you see, these beliefs are bodies. They are not purely of our private selves, but rather various means by which to express those selves in a place our selves otherwise could not reach. We, you see, are like lightning or opera; our souls are not for bottling. We can want whatever we want with our entire being; we are one thing, and that one thing decides what it is. A soul wants (in a passing moment between agonies) to eat pizza, and the soul changes; that’s what it’s now about. The soul is not insecure. It is thoroughly itself, so self-inseparable that it can turn toward pizza and lose nothing.

But imagine being a Jew who believes that Judaism means the Torah is given by G-d, and then there are eighteen articles a day on the falseness of Judaism or (even worse) on how Judaism means never having to say you’re sorry and crying at Disney films.

This puts the body under a lot of stress. A soul, at its protean essence, can simply switch to a new, enlightened outlook. Nothing is stopping it. It may desire to see things today as no Rabbi on earth has evern seen it, and it can fulfill that desire. The soul is of the infinite; it can be about anything.

The only thing holding the soul back, just like a fat kid trying to finish the Presidential Fitness Test, is its body. Your stupid soul got invested in some stupid idea (about Judaism) and you can’t just drop it now for a more palatable cultural/pragmatic Yiddishkeit germane to the New Yorker subscriber’s pillow talk, no more than Eugene can get Presidential with his thighs chafing before his classmates captivated by the heaving mass of his bloated form.

But no, souls in bodies, this is the plan. Infinite dreams, sweaty underwear realities.

If it is any consolation, G-d put Himself in the same stupid bind by creating this world of lies and investing Himself in it. If He wanted, He could go fractally spiral his endless wisdom through infinite dimensions while the stupid world with its ugly continents can’t even do one pull-up. Instead, He is here, in every slimy dismissal and every Hamas missile. Him, Him Him. Why? Because.

Like I said, of all things to make no sense, it makes sense it would be this one.

That’s why the dream of Moshiach is so big and so unworldly. Everyone here, with their own ideas and preconceptions, seeks to either free the soul and deny the body or recognize the body and tame the soul. Some wish to tell us the body/thought is a lie, an artifact created by brainwashing. They all vote Democratic and think they’re G-d. Others laugh at the soul’s freedom and write it off as childish mishegas. They adopt Trumpisms into their speech unexamined and don’t even think G-d is G-d.

His plan is much stranger. The soul’s freedom and the body’s cage are one; will and intellect do not contradict. The idolator says a body, by its nature, inherently conveys a certain soul. The Jew knows that body and soul are each his native tongue. Just as the Rebbe did not fear technology or vessel but demanded they be used for holiness, Moshiach will show how the body does not contradict soul but is its pure and perfect expression; nature and miracle are both G-d, are only G-d; the gufei halachos and the nishmasa d’nishmasa are one. To lose the soul or the body is to die, but to find both without contradiction is to live forever.

In the meantime, we live in this exile with Jews who think nothing is more Jewish than criticizing Jews, who think that thousands of years of Jewish parents died to raise their children to reject “inmarriage” as a ghetto. We live in times when just about a whole country of Jews define Judaism as being a wilful soul without a constraining body; they do not see how they are as incarnated as the next gilgul, how they only clash with us because they, too, have bodies; souls love and do not clash. It is not the self of the soul we doubt, but the bodies she expresses through. Where she is of limitless potential, the body is of defined actuality. Where she can infinitely agree, the body cannot occupy another body’s space.

How long must we wait for this doubt to end, this endless self-harm of the body Judaic, this terminal and interminable disunity between self and inner other?  How long must there be tension between the need to unite with brother and sister and solid impermeable realities that separate us? How long must we tolerate?

We are told that it is all one, and we work to see it. We are told He wishes to be together with us even in our bodies. But how much of this can we take?

We cannot live much longer, having to choose between Jew and Judaism, between self and self.

G-d, rescue us from doubt. Destroy Amalek, let us not need to be free of your Torah nor of the selves we see in it. Let us experience the freedom of the body and the entrapment of the soul. Rescue us from our own solutions, and give us Yours, amen.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Perhaps the Earth is Flat

Of all the fresh hells we face in our long, chaotic slide into civilizational decay, the rise of the flat-earthers is the most encouraging.

Take a moment to appreciate that a whole small demographic has united with the power of the Internet to rebel against the curvature of the earth. This initial blow alone sometimes knocks unsuspecting members of the public to the mat. Your writer, however, has explored the dripping Reddit caverns and felt the heat wash over the pockmarked Twitter-field, and is long past feeling shock at Internet cults.

The flat-earthers are simply here. They’re around. And they have something to teach us.

Google them if you dare. They have slideshows, they have diagrams, they have hours and days and weeks of YouTube videos. They are far more organized than the recently infamous “incel” community, but rather than directing their anger at women and at G-d, they fight against the machinations of Big Astronomy.

Of course, we have known that the earth is round since the times of the Ancient Greeks. In a typical display of dazzling low-tech genius, they realized that the earth’s shadow on the moon during eclipses is round but does not distort as the sun changes angles, indicating that a proper sphere and not merely a disk is blocking the light. This does not matter one whit to the flat-earthers. I am certain that there is a YouTuber hiding behind a NASA-proof voice scrambler who has debunked this evidence.

Our most pressing question for the flat-earthers, once we get past our scoffing, snark, and virginity-shaming, is why they think anyone would care enough about the earth’s shape to create a vast conspiracy obscuring it?

There are, I think, a number of factors. It piggybacks off the faked moon landing conspiracy, since those who believe in one conspiracy tend to believe in a few.[i] Furthermore, to believe the earth is flat has become a modern idiom for a backwards fool, so naturally those who see themselves as intellectual outsiders would wish to make that king bleed. The idiom itself almost certainly derives from the myth that Columbus disproved a widely-held belief in a flat earth.

Where, however, does the myth come from? Why should anyone care what shape the earth is?

Perhaps they sense, deep down, that it’s a flat earth under the vaulted sky that denies the G-dless emptiness of the modern worldview we are fed as children.

After all, the party line on the universe is that space extends more or less uniformly in every direction. We occupy some node on an endless Cartesian grid. None of our intuitive directions map onto that grid. Also, the grid is imaginary. There is no true up and down in space, because the baseline of reality is emptiness. Emptiness is the rule. Emptiness is the canvas of reality. Where something exists, there is an exception to the rule, a blot on the canvas.

According to the party line, the universe is open, it surrounds us in every direction, but it is not open to anything. The emptiness does not give way at universe’s edge to a giant cardboard box stenciled with THIS SIDE UP. There is no context to the open universe. The universe is meant to be the ultimate context. You, on the surface of the earth, are put in your place by the vast void.

If this universe has a god, it is an impersonal god, a cold god. When you can see the earth and every one on it as whizzing through space at hundreds of thousands of miles an hour, who says you also see a leaf drift from branch to gnarled roots, sunk peacefully put firmly into the loam? The loam is a speck in violent whirling motion, and we only don’t see it because we cannot see the space beyond us, the space where the god presides over his grid, true space.

If the earth is flat, however, and we live beneath the vaulted firmament, everything snaps into a startling directionality. The earth is not an object in space; it becomes our space. What lies beyond the firmament is irrelevant, as it does not extend equally in all directions.

In this universe, there is an above and there is a below. These directions correspond with my intuitive sense of above and below, toward my head and toward my feet. No matter how the earth may move, these definitions remain fixed; the firmament remains beyond the brow of every human alive.

This fixed, consistent, shared directionality moves the mind toward the inner space of the earth’s atmosphere, and away from the wonders of the void beyond. If there is such a planet as Saturn (who knows what the flat-earthers think about the solar system), it is not another rock on the grid like our rock. Saturn always appears, when we can see her, in the firmament, in the sky above. Saturn is always up and the people watching Saturn are always down. How, then, could the watchers be just another thing up in space? How could we not matter?

No, the god of the flat earth is surely a god who shares our perspective; even though he may dwell somewhere beyond the sky or in a different dimension, when he sees us he sees the men who walk upon the earth below. He has created our universe in such a way that we stand apart from all we see, from every other planet and star.

It doesn’t sound all that bad when we put it this way, does it?

I wonder if deep down, I, too, yearn for the earth to be flat. The stress of being an ape at a random locus in an endless emptiness does eventually take its toll.

Thirsting for something more than intellectual proof can provide, yearning for more than the mathematical curves and the masses that move along them, I try to recall the last time I felt or perceived myself to be surrounded by G-d. When was the last time I thought of myself as a being embedded in the immanentized truth of the Creator, rather than a creature adrift on a cosmic life raft?

I find my mind has come to observe itself as yet another being, a pebble spat out by the furious gyrations of the cosmos, possessing no inherent direction, no settled orientation. My up may be G-d’s down or G-d’s sideways, and there is no way of knowing, since there is nothing about me that can tell me about G-d. He is outside the endless motion, with His own plans. My imagination is not broad enough to picture G-d beyond the edge of infinite space.

Is the mind of G-d indifferent to my mind? Why would He create a reality of such painful estrangement? Why is my up not His up, my down not His down? How could he send me on a mission deep into the bowels of a cold and lonely mechanism, and keep the true compass for Himself?

Okay, I tell myself, but is it actually true? The earth isn’t actually flat, is it?

I don’t think that’s really the correct line of inquiry. It’s a little question-begging, after all, to assume that the question of the earth’s shape is just a fact, a fact adrift on the grid. To categorically associate “actual flatness” with the mere material accident of the earth’s shape is to, in a sense, already assume the earth is round.

Thus, the question of the flat-earther is ultimately not astronomical but epistemic. We are not discussing the mere facts of earth’s nature, but whether earth’s nature is composed of mere facts at all.

Really, the question is, what is truth?

Is truth an absolute, a net in which I am caught?

Or is truth something that radiates from my own eyes?

These questions, I think, move in the secret hearts of those who would challenge the curving horizon.

They are not children, the flat-earthers. They do not represent some long-abandoned rung on evolution’s ladder. They are not afraid in the clichéd way we assume, as barbarians facing a new world.[ii] They are atomized and alienated and lost, but these things don’t scare them.

They feel only that most human fear. They fear themselves. They seek, quietly but persistently, with their clothes-pegged voiceovers and their awful bible camp photoshops, beneath the wash of the public’s irony, the answer to our deepest question—who are we?


[i] And to eventually hate the Jews, though this is neither here nor there; everyone seems to hate the Jews regardless, and obviously as Jews the justifications for this hatred are known to be false. Jews, largely immune from believing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, seem to fall for all the other ones at alarming rates.

[ii] The best very short story about barbarians’ fear of technology is this one.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Stuck Inside of Elul with the Tishrei Blues Again

Here we are again.

We made it. Congratulations. Last year’s Rosh Hashana can’t have been a total disaster.

Now what?

Look, I know you’re busy, and honestly, one more discussion about how profoundly meaningful it all is and I’d be spitting nails myself.

“Meaning” is overrated, seven pale splintering letters holding up the levy, preventing the flood of the world from obliterating the way of G-d and summing up what makes “having” “Him” “in” your “life” so special after all.

Might as well admit it – “Meaning” just means that the room has a sunlight, that the stupid system (all systems, including intelligence itself, are stupid) is not the end but only the beginning of a reality, a metaphor, a symbol, shadows on the cave wall.

So yes, Elul is “meaningful,” it’s not just a month but the time that we blah blah blah.

Elul is nice. it makes us happy, productive, it’s healthy and helpful and really good for getting where we’re going and doing deep things along the way with the people we love and even with our Creator. There are scales, a king, a judge, memory, music, honey, apples, joy, a field, guilt, a desert, sin. It hurts but in a good way, and we’re definitely going to change.

Okay?

Okay.

I know, I cling to my cynicism as a crutch because I’m really afraid of the bright light of God’s salvation. I don’t change because I don’t believe I can change, which I can change, by believing I can change. I’m being overly dramatic or not dramatic enough. I’m whirling in epistemological circles. I need to just get over it. I need to farbreng. I need to study. I need to daven. There are solutions.

The problem is too much I; it’s too little I. It’s not enough learning. It’s too much learning. It’s idealism, it’s pragmatism. I need to spend more time outside; I need to stop thinking I need to. The answer is street performance or street violence or street sweeping. Real men are busy making money. This is not how a business runs. Get it together. It’s insulting not to have it together. It’s insulting to have it together. Read my book. Five simple steps to fixing everything. Acquire something, lose something, follow the steps, fit the form.

I know.

I’ll figure it all out in the morning, with a structure, with a calculus. I’ll cobble something together at the last minute, find the cruse of sincerity in some un-excavated corner, make some dumb resolutions, keep half of one.

It will be drenched in meaning. Meaning will suffuse it like a fine chai. It will be so soaked in meaning I’ll need to use three Clean & Clear cloths.

It’s probably part of the plan, one of those dastardly Jewish plots to crash the stock market or end apartheid or circumcise the lizard people.

For weeks they trot out all the lectures and the books and the explanations and the alcohol and the heartfelt sincerity, intentionally trying to goad and annoy us.

So what? So what?

The only relief from all the meaning, from the too-familiar face, is G-d, arbitrary, non-existent, the chooser.

He wants it all for no reason at all; he wants it for what it is; it means nothing.

Either clean up your pathetic act and do the damn Mitzvos, Tzvi, or don’t. If you choose the former, you just have Him. If you choose the latter, you have nothing.

There are no stories about Him, there are no words that capture Him, nothing compares in individual or species.

How do you even know it’s Him you’ve met?

You’re just going to have to trust Him.

If He is indescribable, what’s so good about Him?

Answer the question before you show up here.

We find Him either in the brute manipulation of stuff into the correct configurations, or not at all.

If the correct configurations correspond to forms emanated both necessarily and willfully in a mode of infinitely detailed inter-inclusion as a web of meaning that captures all of the creation and neatly dices each being and all of their properties into a perfectly balanced framework whose very shapes convey the Truth unknowable and permeate reality with unlimited purpose, okay.

Whatever.

It’s only because He wanted it that way for no reason.

Or didn’t.

It means nothing.

Just do the damn Mitzvos.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

On “Inasmuch”

There is no reason to ever use the word “inasmuch” in 2017, inasmuch as one listens to the loudest voices of our time. Everything either is or is not. If your IQ is below average, then you will not amount to as much as someone with above-average IQ in your position. If you are hurt, your whole world is the pain. And if you are a Jew, everything you do is part of being a Jew.

Here’s the strange thing: the idea that if you are not for us, you’re against us, is essentially a tribal idea, but in the modern context it is applied in nominally non-tribal contexts. People say, for example, that if you don’t loudly support the President, you are somehow working to undermine his administration or vice versa. Putting aside for a moment the fact that practical politics is at heart a process of separating in-group and out-group with a veneer of rationality slapped on top. Normally, the veneer is at least a veneer, and we can speak about ideas or actions that a person represents without going full Sith-lord-with-absolutes over it.

All of this could be aided by a healthy dose of “inasmuch.” “Inasmuch as he fights against Trump, he’s making a terrible mistake.” “Inasmuch as his family owned slaves, he’s a terrible person whose family should not be depicted with complexity or any redeeming qualities.”

We’ve partially lost the ability to say inasmuch, inasmuch as we’ve lost grip on the concepts of transgression and repentance. You see, this old paradigm was not results-based (the world should be a certain way) but rather person-based (you, the individual, have a certain mission to fulfill). A person drifts from their mission, they’ve transgressed. But they can get back on track – this is called repentance, and it will fix them up good as new.

What is the repentance for not having produced the correct results or fit the correct form? There isn’t one. A family having owned slaves simply does not live up to the correct reality, and there is no way to go back and make them have been correct. They are simply in the wrong. Unfit. Forever. Because our expectations for them are not based on their individual situation, but on the world-historic conclusions we wish they’d have reached before they died in benighted, less perfect times.

(What about reparations to heirs or at least sincere regret? This implies that heirs or some deity are in a position to forgive what was a crime against a certain person in a time that can never be revisited and whose costs cannot actually be repaid.)

And so: 2017 – when a person does not fail inasmuch as they have strayed from their mission but simply fails. One is with what’s right, however that is established, or one is simply against it.

(There is another cause of this phenomenon, having to do with a very uncomfortable relationship with the status quo, systems, and rules, perhaps for a different time.)

There is no person, mistaken inasmuch as their expectations are false. Wrong inasmuch as their assessment is inaccurate. Even evil inasmuch as they are overcome by self-destructive animal impulse.

Today, one is either a saint or hell fuel – inasmuch as the most passionate voices on Twitter are to be believed.

In place of this current system, I heartily recommend the humble “inasmuch.” The “inasmuch,” like all good words, implies two opposite things at the same time. It tells us that something is what it is, and that it can be something else. A dog is a good boy inasmuch as he goes outside to do his business, but a bad boy inasmuch as he rummages in the trash can for scraps. The “inasmuch” tells us there is more to being a dog than being a good boy, but also that a dog (with the right upbringing and the sales gene) can become a good boy, partially. The dog will never equal good boy, but it will also never equal bad boy, and there is a realm of action which does not totally redefine the animal but does partially define him. He is who he is, results or no, but who he is can be devoted to being a good boy. And when he’s a bad boy, we know it’s at most an accurate descriptor of part of what he is.

That is the power of inasmuch. It allows for the subject, as it exists separately from the predicate, but also for a legitimate predicate, the subject participates him as well. It introduces shades of meaning, interstitial space between absolutes where something magical, like a choice, can occur.

That is inasmuch – the participation in an idea or category, to an extent.

Without partial participation in an idea or category, we would never have reached a time when some think only complete participation is possible because the world would never have been created, or the act of its creation would have ceased as quickly as it began.

The world would never have been created because what makes the world a world is its separation from G-d, but nothing can truly be separated from its creator or it would simply cease to exist. So the world really is constantly connected to its creator. Of course, the world is only G-dly insofar as it needs to be G-dly to exist. But from my perch on the imposing crenellations of 2017, I see that the world is completely, 100% G-dly. No work required here. There’s a creator and this is his world? Good enough for me. It can’t conceal G-d at all, it doesn’t really exist, it doesn’t even really need to be here. Problem solved.

There are no expectations; whatever I do is blessed; I am G-d’s child in a G-dly world.

What about the fact that the world also conceals G-d? It is, after all, a physical reality of apparent brute fact not obviously declaring its dependence on its creator. Of course, the world is only independent of G-d insofar as it needs to be a low place of concealment. Well, from my tall, gothic, gargoyle-festooned tower in 2017, I say the world entirely hides G-d. It is a place of pure evil, meaninglessness, death. It simply is because it is. It is 100% self-sustaining. No work is required here; what good would it do? The world cannot reveal G-d; I am a matter janitor simply shifting dead rocks around. Problem solved.

There are no expectations; whatever I do is irrelevant; I am a person who lives far away from any intervening G-d.

The only thing that might bind my action is some ill-conceived theory about what will cause my tribe to survive longer, or what does not impede the freedom of others, or what will make things seem fairer. And these, I could also opt-out of, if they get too burdensome.

If the world is 100% G-dly, I am free. If the world is 100% un-G-dly, I am free.

If you’re not with me, you’re against me.

If you have sinned, the sin is who you are.

How do I pick a side?

Inasmuch as these are the only options – very carefully.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

My Rebbe Is An Activist, But I’m Not

Even respectable chassidim agree that talk is cheap. I’ve heard them speak about it for hours at farbrengens.

However, every respectable chassid also knows that the three garments of the soul, in descending order of truth/reality, are thought, speech, and action. So really, action is cheap.

Maybe that’s why Jews love action.

Oh, I’m not saying Jews are stingy with words, especially if they’re complaining. But the type of speech Jews like nowadays isn’t speech at all. College graduates gussy up action to seem like words. Newspaper ads, protest slogans, “think”pieces.  Not for these is humanity distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom by the term “medaber,” the ones that speak.

After all, animals communicate. Bees dance, dolphins whistle, dogs urinate (some human protesters have taken this approach as well). Everything in the assuredly vast range between gnats and investment bankers shares the same type of speech, the type that leads to the manipulation of food or mates (I heard praying mantises get a two-for-one special). What is the fundamental difference between sniffing under another dog’s tail and demolishing that snotty know-it-all with a facebook comment? Both are important practical skills in their respective species; both are fundamental to social interaction; one of them might even make you friends.

Real speech of the “medaber” type is about abstractions. Eleanor Roosevelt once said the endlessly tweetable quote, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” This only proves that she considered the average mind sub-human (in violation of Democratic values!). The quote should say, “Human minds discuss ideas; animal minds discuss events and people.” This means that math major was in some sense expressing more humanity with their non-ironic goggle glasses than you were by picketing Monty Python for sexism, which should make you nervous.

Jewish speech is really just more Jewish action. And no one does Jewish action better than Lubavitch, which some compare to McDonalds franchises and some compare to cockroaches, and no one knows which is more insulting. This weekend you can tune into the incredible Kinnus HaShluchim, the annual conference of Chabad emissaries all over the world, a room full of chassidim who have done it, who have set up shop for life in the far-flung reaches of the globe just to wrap tefillin on or light candles with or feed kosher food to another Jew who needs it. Watch them speak about actions and act on speeches (“Spontaneous dancing!”).

They are heroic, they are self-sacrificing, they were a big part of making me who I am today, and I salute them. They are doing G-d’s work.

They are also doing the Rebbe’s work. The Rebbe who said “action is the main thing” in every talk. The Rebbe, who transformed a small chassidic court into etc. etc. The Rebbe, who always demanded more and for whom no words were sufficient.

For him, action certainly was not cheap.

“Wake up!” says the reader, if they’re even half-Chabad. “This world is important, it’s all happening here. We have to do the mitzvos, we have to bring moshiach and light up this darkness!” And that’s true. There is no use arguing what the Rebbe made so clear. The world is dark, and it does need moshiach.

Action is still stupid, though. Light for lighting up darkness is also dark. When someone wants Moshiach because it will fix the world, then they don’t want Moshiach. When they’re shvitzing with lepers in Bangladesh (can you put tefillin on the wrong arm if it’s the only one left?) in order to see their dead loved ones again, it’s not redemption they want. When they, lord help us, deal with Israelis in order to bring peace to land, they are missing the point. And that’s the problem with action, in a nutshell: wrestle with a muddy man and get dirty, wrestle with the world and you become redefined in its terms.

Action will never capture moshiach for moshiach’s sake. Action will never be a yearning to know a G-d who is beyond this world. Action is ever declarative of the world’s existence.

Inaction is much better. Like the story Rabbi Manis Friedman tells about the reactions of the “Orthodox” Jews to the enlightenment. Reformers would come and say, “Such and such a custom is archaic, not real Judaism, beyond twisted, and worst of all unhygienic, care to comment?” Group one replies, “You may be right, we’ll look into it.” Group two replies, “You’re definitely wrong. We will do twice as many unhygienic customs, just to spite you.” Both of these groups, though opposites, are equally reactive to what the world says, and they act. Group three, and this was the general Lubavitch approach says, “We will keep on doing what we always have done, uninfluenced.”

The only real escape, if you don’t want to play the world’s game, is inaction.

I am forced to conclude that when the Rebbe says take to the streets, or storm the defenses, or turn over the world, he’s not talking about the same type of thing as Occupy Wallstreet or The Tea Party. It is not a “rah rah we can change the world” type of thing. Which is fortunate, since those types of things are often crawling with bacteria and self-righteousness.

Really, what the Rebbe is demanding is inactive action, or action not caused by or meant to effect the world. Only that can break the cycle of darkness and introduce a truly new light. Of course, connecting to something transcendent is a lot easier in speech and thought than it is in action. The Rebbe is actually demanding the hardest thing. Color me surprised.

The Rebbe is thus hardly an activist. People hear the Rebbe say, “Take to the streets and dance!” and get excited because this they can do, because transcendence and authenticity are so hard but moving their legs is easy. But it’s not meant to be easy. It’s like the people who hear they have to trust G-d so they never do anything to earn money. An amusing comparison, since the people that make the first error normally hate the supposed laziness of those who make the second. But these two people are one and the same. They both choose the sections of the directive that make things easier.

Turns out, we need both sides (shocker). You need balance. But not a balance where you sometimes learn and sometimes act. A balance where your learning and action interact to produce something new. An action that neither respects the world nor attempts to change it, but changes it through transcending it.

There must be some way to make action more than action, to change the world but remain unaffected by it.

So you can stay in Acopolco, explaining mikve to the coyote’s wife, and I’ll remain in this dark room typing these words. Sure, you’ll learn every morning, and I’ll shake the lulav with a Jew. You’ll tell yourself your actions, which are easier for you, are motivated by what you learn in the books. I’ll tell myself that the thinking that I enjoy is all going to be brought down into action.

Meanwhile, the exile spins on, and neither of us really wants moshiach. Neither of us wants everything to change. Both of us are inured to the dark, and our efforts will keep perpetuating it.

For me, the first step into the light will be the one away from my inner world and into public affairs. But others have the exact opposite problem. We should both get to work. Time’s a-wastin’, and the action is the main thing.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

My New Year’s Resolution Is To Make No Difference

I resolve, for the New Year, to not “make a difference.” I must accept what I cannot change and find the strength to change the things I can, to paraphrase a wise prayer. I will remember this year that strength is rarely measured in page views, Facebook likes, or marketing budgets. True strength is strength of character.

I resolve to neither need the status quo nor resent it, but to see it for what it is – the reality. Needing it is imprisonment and needing to change it is imprisonment. A relentless flow of news from around the world assures me that terrible things happening elsewhere are my concern. But while empathy is excellent, delusion is not. I resolve to care for the people in my vicinity on a daily basis, and for myself most of all.

I resolve to mind my own business. People say that minding your own business lets evil grow as no good people bother to stop it. People tend to forget that what makes the evil so bad in the first place is its failure to mind its own business.

I resolve to not read death tallies. Death tallies are only powerful for those who think there is something worth doing before the end. Are we alive because we’re alive, or because we happen to not yet have died?

I resolve to evaluate endeavors before I commit to them. Often, that which seems meaningful is merely a yoke. It says, “I am worth only the difference I make.” That which seems to affect no one but me in my own mind appears inferior. I will spend less time doing, or worse, worrying that I’m not doing. I will spend more time being.

I resolve to fight not just for external freedom but for internal freedom – the freedom to be alone, to think the thoughts I want to think, when I want to think them. One of the great teachers once said that the only difference between a man and a horse is the man’s ability to see a tree and think something other than “look, a tree.”

I resolve to experience wild abandon and childlike joy. They are in everything, from running wildly down the street to turning a page. I hear they can even be found in profound grief. May G-d keep me from knowing.

I resolve to appreciate the here and the now and the is, on its own terms, since it is. Existence is not a simple thing; it is bestowed. So much depends upon a red wheel barrow, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens. Not upon a metaphor or complex symbol, but upon the wheel barrow itself, a gift from G-d. I will take the time to count my wheel barrows.

I resolve to notice the color of people’s eyes when I first meet them.

I resolve to taste my food.

I resolve to understand the words I read.

I resolve to break free this year. I will find my redemption. It is not hiding behind a police barrier, a soapbox, or a ballot box. It is hiding in a place of mystery deep within my own heart, a fortress with no front entrance only vulnerable from above.

I resolve to step away from the light and into enlightenment. I will find the silent place where I can see the G-d who should disown us but is stuck with us, the one who invented the music. I will find at least one way in which He doesn’t appeal to me. I will do the same thing with his creation. By these I will set my compass.

I resolve to pursue these resolutions not with a fierce sweat-stained striving, but like a cat finds balance on a sun-mottled garden wall, proud to do what it is born to do, warm to the touch in the morning light.

 

Image from Flickr. Thanks for reminding me about the red wheel barrow, David.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.