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.

Richer than Donald Trump

Surely, there are benefits to a Trump presidency for any conservative. That regulations have been reduced, taxes cut, and a Conservative justice installed to the Supreme Court are all boons to the United States. However, many of us have always seen the degradation of character and, thereby, of reasoned political discourse on a national scale, as the primary cost of Mr. Trump’s presidency. This is a cost we continue to pay in fresh, unpredicted forms on a near-daily basis.

Who, after all, could have predicted that in 2018 Conservatives would be bowing to money?

It’s not that they are directly bribed, exactly. Rather, many have come to value a certain businessman over those who make meaningful sacrifices for the country. This is not even a dichotomy between wealth and principle. It is, in fact, merely an abandonment of a principled definition of wealth. There are many ways to measure how rich a man is. Many conservatives have now settled for the lowest.

Consider: President Trump has billion(s) of dollars, but what has he ever given to our society?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a progressive. I don’t despise the rich. I appreciate a businessman, a capitalist even, who invests in projects and provides goods, services, and jobs to the population. When the whale’s money goes into the bank or the stock market, this is to the benefit of thousands and millions of small fish, who can then take loans and make their smaller trades. In all of this, Mr. Trump has undoubtedly participated.

However, it is surely unfair to compare the largely self-interested machinations of the invisible hands to the sacrifices of time, autonomy, health, and sometimes life that the immigrants in our armed forces make for the American way of life.

Strangely, if one were to look not at the ledger of income or assets, but, as we are encouraged by Judaism, at what one has given away, those who should punch at a level far lower than Donald Trump have shown themselves to be far wealthier.

3% of all US veterans are foreign-born. Many Haitians and Africans, those immigrants the President doesn’t want, serve as firefighters and soldiers, policemen and airmen. They put themselves in physical danger and give years of their lives to the public service; they do not, in return, get to eat American fast food or to watch all the channels they do in the white house. They do not claim to have bone spurs. They do not discourse upon their own personal Iraqs, Afghanistans, or apartment fires.

In return, many soi-disant conservatives respect men such as Sheriff Clarke, who cover themselves in hardware for cable television, over the experience of actual Americans who happen to be African immigrants who really serve in the military.

What is happening to us? Why are believable expressions of sacrificial devotion lower in our eyes than the words of those who constantly claim them for political points?

It seems that under the Party’s new reorganization of priorities, some have decided the forms of wealth that matter are those light up the sky of even the dim inner world of the classroom bully in their passing. Mr. Trump is brilliant because he is wealthy, and he is wealthy because he, like, has a lot of money. Money is intellect is power is worth.

Such is the philosophy of people who, while constantly venerating military service, turn from the sacrifices of their fellows to judge all immigrants the way the King commands.

It is no escape, either, to claim that one respects no-one, holds no men in high regard, and is simply acting pragmatically on economic policy. For people who respect no one, those who resort to this retreat into cynicism always seem to be defending the President. They wield their lack of admiration for people who deserve it without the knowledge that it is a double-edged sword (who can respect a man who respects no men?). Finally, they continue to attribute meaningful distinctions to the President that Mr. Trump almost never makes himself, speaking as he does on immigrants as much as he is about the countries from which they happen to hail.

Mr. Trump builds hotels on multiple continents. Who, however, decided this is true wealth? It is, perhaps, purchasing power. In contrast, the Mishna says he is wealthy who is satisfied with his portion. A different chapter solemnly reminds us that more possessions lead to more worries. Rabbeinu Bahya writes on the ten ways in which one who trusts G-d is better-off than an alchemist who can transform dross into gold. Man’s power is exhausted trying to defend his wealth from thieves, and the more money he has, the more his exhaustion grows.

If we are to respect a man for his wealth, why must we conflate it with the material evaluation of his earnings or possessions?

Few speak, in the political context, of the ways in which wealth is a good only in combination with the intelligence to dispose of it wisely and the character to not be tempted by those purchases or investments that would turn those riches into a great burden. Few speak, in politics, of the way mismanaged or dishonest wealth can lead to one’s destruction.

Too few speak about the worth of an immigrant’s life given for this country.

Too few weigh it against all the gilded walls of the Mar-a-Lago and ask themselves whom they respect, or why.