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.

On Legalizing Weeds

Here’s why fathers are important: They fret over weeds.

It is certainly the case, though it is not totally clear why (let’s face it, physical ability probably plays a role), that in the average middle class suburban American home blessed enough to have two parents, the mother’s role is usually in some way more confined to the home itself, whereas maintenance of the yard/pool/deck/etc. is more the purview of the husband.

So it was in my home, growing up, and the statistic was in no way mitigated by my mother’s propensity for gardening. It was somehow clear in subtle ways that her role was to plant and nurture beautiful life in riotous color but not to push the damn lawn mower around. Thus I, growing up, came to push it (being second in size to my father and chief honored recipient of his powers of delegation), and eventually, none of us really wanting to push it, we hired a yard service.

Yet still, after years of dissociation from the actual labor of dealing with our oddly shaped front yard, it is not unusual to hear my father, as we stride out toward the synagogue or take the dog for a loop around the cul-de-sac, assessing the extent of our weeds.

Very slowly, as I, over the past couple of years, have become ever-so-slightly less dense, I have come to secretly wonder whether this is the single most important thing my father can do for us.

This is not to downplay, of course, all his other roles. A provider is most basic and in most ways most essential, a protector, the law enforcer, etc. But I can’t help feeling that these are roles too appreciable by the lost philosophers of our Internet age. Fatherhood’s advocates tend to emphasize responsibility, particularly fiscal responsibility, in their efforts to get an entire generation adrift in nihilism to set aside their baser hedonism. They argue that family life is perhaps the only means of civilizational survival; they bring all the power of Darwin and evolutionary psychology and stories about cave men and fighting wild animals to bear on the problem of lost masculinity.

All of this is ultimately the fatherhood of the animal, and when it comes to convincing men, I take the old, counterintuitive approach. We do not first need to become animals to be human; stories of a father killing the bear that threatens his young brood speak to a place in the human heart little above the self-destructive pleasure-seeking boheme.

Fatherhood, in the human sense, does not exist to ensure any sort of physical outcome. The physical protection and survival of the family are themselves only animal means to a human end. And the human end is intellectual, purposive, and ultimately spiritual.

At the intersection of intellect, purpose, and transcendence, one finds the Kabbalistic concept of Chachma, the highest distinct faculty of the human soul, its ability to subjugate itself to, and thereby unify with, an external reality. It is the foundation of all wisdom, and it is the part of the intellect that lets a person open a window beyond the limits of their own existence and devote themselves to a higher truth.

And Chachma is often referred to, in the Kabbalistic texts, as father.

My father tells us that the weeds do not belong. He tells us that a human being is civilized, that chaos and all growing wild is fun, but order and civilization are right. He does not explain himself and does not need to. By dint of being the father, he is our collective familial Chachma. He sets the tone for higher truth; he tells the family that what they are is wonderful and more than he deserves, but what they can be, if they find purpose, is something much higher.

Don’t be an animal; don’t fight with your siblings; keep your promises; pay your debts; delete the weeds; take pride in your lawn.

There are things worth doing, a whole world of truth beyond what we are or even desire, and it is ultimately Good.

For this, I thank my father, and all fathers everywhere.

A Murder At Qumran

“He won. Get over it.”

These were the last words of The Prophet at dinner before he’d slunk off to smoke his Lucky Strikes at the cave entrance, leaving the rest to clean up what was left of the spit-roasted carob. Then they’d all retired to their own chambers with little discussion (if they discussed in any context other than mealtime they quickly ran out of things to say). Or so they thought until they found The Prophet at breakfast time, slumped over the large, flat boulder they used for a table, mouth clotted with dried blood, quite dead.

A brief inspection found he had been shot in the stomach with a silver bullet. The Scholar and The Jester wasted no time rushing to The Sage’s chambers despite his mumbled protest. But a quick search of his possessions, few and esoteric, revealed to be missing the holy man’s six-shooter, which he swore to have last seen beside his sleeping head.

The three eyed each other with suspicion; either the sage was lying or another had stolen the gun. This was quite possible; righteousness sleeps heavy but is furious when roused. The Scholar demanded to search The Jester’s small nook with its fingerpainted walls and he, in turn, demanded to run his knobbly fingers behind each of The Scholar’s bookshelves looking for the murder weapon, and so the sun already touched the common room by the time they shoved Prophecy’s cool corpse to the floor and The Jester began to fry carobs for their breakfast (since it was his turn). He whistled while he worked the pan and The Sage and The Scholar that once they ate his cooking they’d have trouble taking anything seriously for several hours.

The Sage tried to pray as The Scholar paced across the cave entrance, stroking his substantial grey beard where it protruded from his hood. He walked to the left, all the while looking at The Prophet’s corpse, then, once he’d left the sun’s light, would turn on his heel and walk right, staring across the blasted plain to the distant silver glimmer of the sea. He had been doing this every morning for a very long time and had rarely seen the sign of life, though occasionally a very sweaty archeologist would walk by without sparing the spindly old man or the gaping cave the slightest glance. That morning, however, there was only the sun, and the wind, and the sea. Solid and eternal, as all things ought to be. The Scholar paused at this thought and harrumphed. Behind him, the slightest of furrows crossed The Sage’s bald brow. The Scholar thought once more and harrumphed once more.

The Sage’s left eye sprung open, full of fire, though he did not shift from his balance upon the stool. “What,” he asked, full of, of all things, impatience, “is it?”

“It’s just,” said The Scholar, running his sandal along the groove his pacing had worn in the brown rock, “none of us had ever died before.” He looked uneasily between his two remaining companions (The Jester was juggling spoons) and added, “Have we?”

Their memories were notoriously jumbled, or at least, so he recalled, but he knew they had set out together, the four of them, a long time ago to do something terribly important, but then they were in a cave where the only thing that remained consistently true was that it was impossible for any of them to leave. He had been here long enough to wear down the stone (though, oddly, never his sandals) with his pacing, and now The Prophet was no longer.

The Sage and The Jester were never quite as bothered by the inconsistencies, though for different reasons, and even though The Sage shook his head in agreement and The Jester shrugged among his spoons, they hardly seemed moved by the violent turn of events. The Sage said something under his breath about different unfoldings of the One Eternal Truth and went back to his prayer.

Later, when most of the carobs were finished and the day was unbearably hot and flies, somehow able to enter the cave, had begun to swarm The Prophet’s decaying remains, The Scholar said, “How will we know when the flood is coming this year?” He knew many things, but the weather was not knowable, and to survive the sudden waters of winter they had always relied on The Prophet’s warning and spent weeks trying to remember how to breathe water, The Jester always seeming to struggle ’til the last moment before pulling through. Now they would not know, and the waters might catch them by surprise. Even The Sage preferred not to drown.

The Jester belched, but when he did so it wasn’t ugly but rather the very joy of a fine meal. He said in his sing-song voice, “There’s no Prophet, so no rain either. Dry, dry, dry, all the way down to the end of the road!” His words, combined with his cooking, sent his compatriots into fits of giggles, not because anything was funny but because life was grand and they were at the center of it and what could ever happen?

The sun was well past its zenith when The Sage sobered and, still lying on his cot, began to tinker with his favorite toy, a small pebble that “equaled,” in some mysterious act of interentanglement, anything in the Universe. He knew that the author of this story had read Borges because the pebble had once equaled the author, so he knew not to called it the Aleph for fear of being called unoriginal. The pebble allowed, through its deep window into the unity of all realities, to see how the temporal and the particular reflect the transcendent eternal and at that moment he suddenly remembered the last supper the night before, The Prophet before his betrayal.

The Prophet had been wearing atop his hood a strange red hat with a broad bill he’d produced from his chambers. This itself was ordinary, as The Prophet was always producing odd objects and ideas he had foreseen. But then The Prophet had prophesied, and a great argument ensued, with The Scholar growing louder and louder and The Jester alternating between a cackle and a whimper and eventually he’d blocked them out because he needed to pray and escape the pettiness of their collective presence.

The Prophet had always understood how right and wrong lay under all questions and had never acted with anything other than the utmost rectitude. The Jester, thought The Sage, is mercurial, hard to predict, and an old enemy, but he loves life. No, only The Scholar knows death, and could use his wisdom to conceal a firearm, and hated The Prophet for his stupid hat. The Scholar is the murderer, and that’s that, he thought. Evil will grow even in the desert. The pebble showed him that his conclusion was true in all possible worlds.

The Jester, meanwhile, drew dirty pictures in charcoal on a freshly-washed section of his bedroom wall. The primitive skeletons were particularly crude, and above his goat beard the trickster’s face was twisted in a rare frown. He had quite liked The Prophet, who had smelled so much of the life-scent of the world and always produced the most colorful souvenirs from across the times. The Jester loved the tin soldier and the aquamarine ankh and Stretch Armstrong. It was hard for him to even imagine one of his friends hurting The Prophet who knew so much of life. The very thought warmed his blood. They stole the joy. They stole the love. Sounds like The Sage, he thought to himself. Rules and sanctimony. But, he thought, spinning in circles for emphasis, The Scholar had his rules, too, and not rules about killing, either. The Sage had his limits but knew the ultimate futility of making things fit. The Scholar had no such qualms. “Hm,” he said, sketching an obscene symbol with his finger. “Wherein lies death?”

The Scholar, for his part, was frustrated that he’d written no records of the previous night’s debate, and his memories were slipping from him like an eagle loosing from its perch. There had been an argument, certainly, but he hadn’t murdered The Prophet, for two reasons: (1) He had no reason to disrespect The Prophet, no matter how unreasonable his sight may have been; on the contrary, the prophecy was in some sense the highest form of wisdom. (2) It would be unreasonable to murder any of his friends; this just meant more work for him, and besides, what rational basis was there for such an unprecedented occurence even being possible? Clearly they had lived far beyond the usual years so far…No, it was certainly the others, though they may not realize they don’t even remember it. But which one, and where would they hide they gun? Who could be so foolish?

Supper was a sullen affair and, they slowly came to realize, a contingent one. The Prophet no longer existed to know what would take place in advance, which led them to wonder whether any of it needed to take place at all. The Scholar’s carob soup made them thoughtful and quiescent. The Sage discoursed upon righteousness and the escape of the self through obeisance. The Jester picked his nose and recited a list of his favorite textures to rub against his cheek. The Scholar wondered whether everything could fit together after all and whether he could prevent any future murders, working, as now he must, from uncertainty.

It was only a week later, after The Jester had held a knife wide-eyed to the Scholar’s throat, shouting, “You kill! You kill!” that they thought to check The Prophet’s own room. There, among far fewer possessions than they remembered their friend owning, on the center of an inexplicable plywood desk, sat the gun, pinning under its weight a note to the table. Written in carob oil on goatskin, it said quite simply that he had received word of a great temple’s destruction and the end of an age and that the time of “must be” was giving way to “can be” and that though they could no longer predict the floods, the three of them together would perhaps learn to breathe, and that this cooperation would be good, far better than what is certain in its own right. Somehow, it said, they, too, were supposed to become necessary.

So that night they turned to one another with a newfound humility and respect, aware for the first time that themselves was not all they could be, while outside on the dusty plain with its freshly dug grave, hidden, for the moment, from all the armies of men, the first drops of rain began to fall.


Originally posted on Hevria.