How do Jews get to hell?
The short answer is they don’t, because Jews don’t really have a hell, at least not in the sense of the fiery, eternal torture chambers Dante elaborately portrays in The Inferno (1321). Instead, they have a very Jewish idea of eternal punishment: call it a hell for the disputatious.
In Canto X, Dante and Virgil, his tour guide, find the sixth ring of hell is filled with open graves, perpetually burning the still conscious bodies in them. Dante asks why the graves are open, and Virgil says,
“They’ll all be shuttered up
when they return here from Jehosaphat
together with the flesh they left above.
Within this region is the cemetery
of Epicurus and his followers,
all those who say the soul dies with the body.
Later, Dante interviews one of the corpses in hell, and the zombie says,
“… our awareness
will die completely at the moment when
the portal of the future has been shut.” [Digital Dante]
In other words, they will not be resurrected with the rest of the dead when the time comes (Jehosaphat is a euphemism for the Catholic messiah, who shares his initial). Their immortal souls, their “awareness,” will die when the they are summoned for final judgement. Epicurean souls won’t be reunited with their bodies with the Resurrection of the Dead. They die forever.
Dante seems to be deriving his ideas from a very specific discussion among Jews from a thousand years earlier. In the Talmud, rabbis discuss how heretical Jews can lose their souls forever, and they single out the “epikoros” for particular doom. Though he didn’t know Hebrew or Aramaic and didn’t read the Talmud, Dante really knew his Catholic theology, which took a good deal from the Jews, and Dante is channeling it here. But where Dante takes the epicurean connection literally – Epicurus is one of the souls he sees – the Jews have a very different notion of hell, one revealed by their funny refusal to acknowledge Epicurus. 
The three eternally fatal heresies
Jews, as in other religions, will be resurrected to go to the World to Come, but if they do one of three things, they’re dead meat 
#1 Deny that the Resurrection of the Dead is promised in the Bible [Torah]
#2 Deny that the Bible’s Author is Divine
#3: Be an “epikoros”
When we first encountered this list, my classmate Dr. Jack Brandes noted that it doesn’t make much sense. Why does denial that “resurrection of the dead is to be found in the Torah” take precedence over the denial that the whole Torah is Divine? Surely denial of the whole is more fundamental than any single proposition and should come first.
And we can add to Jack’s query, what the heck is an epikoros anyway? Why does it have its own word, one that hardly occurs anywhere else in Talmud and is named after a Greek pleasure-seeker? Why is he so singularly bad? After all, we’ve just come from pages of the Talmud that discuss rebellious sages and false prophets, and they seem much more worthy of eternal punishment than a common garden-variety sensualist or atheist, yet they are only condemned to mortal death. The epikoros, by contrast, faces eternal death. Where’s the equity here? “Lo fair!” as my son’s classmates used to shout in kindergarten in Israel, “No fair!”
Worse, when the rabbis finally get around to describing the epikoros nine pages of Talmud later, they seem to have saved up their greatest outrage for him in a self-serving festival of indignation. What does the epikoros do that’s so bad? Why, he has the temerity to make fun of those same rabbis and Torah scholars. He mocks them for being useless or self-serving, or questions the absurdity of their rulings or disparages them for making senseless rules that make life harder just to keep themselves busy (“They forbade us the raven but let us eat dove”). He insults them in front of others. The over-sensitivity of the sages to even the merest slight leaves plenty of room for cynicism. It looks like they’ve constructed a great, self-serving Catch-22: if you make fun of us and our authority, like for instance for defining an epikoros as someone who mocks or questions us, then you are one, and you are going to die an eternal death.
Yet, by contrast, the section (Cheilik – “Portion” – in Sanhedrin) has some of the most elegant and monumental displays of exegesis and story-telling in the Talmud. The rabbis’ eloquence is warranted because here they aren’t just adjudicating civil or capital penalties in this world, they are describing awesome cosmic events like the resurrection of the dead, when the Messiah comes, and the ultimate fate of your immortal soul.
So maybe when they come to the matter of the epikoros we should look at their condemnation as more than just an extended fit of self-serving peevishness.
Indeed, if we delve this strange word more closely, it tells a deeper story, one that reveals a startling unity to these seemingly mismatched list of three big sins. It uncovers a hidden sophistication carrying so much theological power that our cynical view of the rabbis as a bunch of racketeers protecting their turf is replaced with admiration for these learned mortals who have undertaken the dauntless task of trying to read the Divine Mind.
How to lose your portion in the world to come
Sometimes transliterated apikoros, apikorsis, apicorsis, epikores, or even ‘apikoyris’ with a Yiddish inflection, the word epikoros sticks out in the lexicon of the Talmud. It isn’t Hebrew and it doesn’t have an obvious precedent in Aramaic but seems obviously to come from the Greek philosopher Epikouros or as we know him, Epicurus.
Epicurus (341-270 BCE) taught that death was the end of both the body and the soul. He insisted that only the material world is real and he denied the existence of God or Heaven as logically absurd. After all, what kind of supreme being would introduce so much pain and misery into the world? For what purpose? Anyway, who has ever brought back a shred of proof of an afterlife where the soul receives reward or punishment? All we get is this one go-round in the material world, so we better make the best of it. The proper role of philosophy is not to guide humans into good behavior that will ennoble their spirits and please the gods for some reward in the afterlife, but to teach them how to fulfill the ultimate goal of life: seek pleasure and avoid pain, especially the physical and psychic suffering that attends death. In short, Epicurus was the very archetype of the heretic.
But if it is obvious their idea of a heretic refers to him or his followers, the rabbis are confoundingly silent about it. True, maybe their silence is because of their general reluctance to acknowledge Greek sources. They even warn against teaching Greek (see Perpetual Chanukah in the West – or – Why the Pythagorean Theorem is More Than Just Math). Greek philosophy was especially dangerous since its intellectualism and soaring embrace of knowledge of the universe was naturally appealing to the Jewish mind, just as science and philosophy are today, and Epicureanism certainly seduced many Jews over the centuries.) So perhaps the rabbis were simply following their policy of not acknowledging Greek thought.
Yet, they not only avoid any mention of the connection, they pun around it, as if to efface its source. They use an Aramaic word with similar spelling – apkayrousa – to define an irreverent Torah student (Sanhedrin 100a). Later commentators seem to contort themselves to follow this lead to a completely different and much less plausible etymology. Rashi, (1040-1105) expands the Talmud’s version by saying it alludes to “epkorousa,” [אפקרותא – disrespect]. Meir Abulafia (1170-1244, known as the Ramah), and Maimonides (1138-1204, known as Rambam) both agree the word derives from hefker, abandoned property that’s up for grabs. (Their agreement is even more remarkable because Ramah called Rambam a heretic for denying the Resurrection of the Dead.) In turn, Rambam explains his derivation of the word most completely. “The word epikores is Aramaic,” he insists. “Its meaning is one who abandons (mafkir) and denigrates the sages or a specific Torah scholar or denigrates his teacher.” We can see where he’s coming from. Both words share three root letters: P-K-R, פקר. Mafkir comes from hefker. By connecting it with disrespect for a teacher, it gives a new and profound sense of walking away from your half of a transcendent teacher-student relationship, Indeed, in his next sentence, Maimonides gives more examples of heresy, and then just a few sentences later he announces his Thirteen Principles of Faith, one of the most influential codifications of Jewish belief ever written.
Is it possible they ALL were unaware of the popular Greek philosopher of pleasure? No.
Epicurus is counted as one of the greatest of the Greek philosophers, rivaling Plato. Plutarch and Cicero wrote about him in the 1st century CE. In the 3rd century CE, contemporary with the rabbis holding forth in the Talmud, he’s treated in a bestselling work, The Lives and Opinions of the Greek Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, and he was well-known throughout the Medieval period (witness Catholic theology and Dante). Maimonides was well aware of Greek philosophy in general as a follower of Aristotle, and mentions Epicurus several times in his Guide for the Perplexed (1190).
For a thousand years these heavy hitters are insisting on a hidden meaning of the word, purposefully ignoring the obvious, to get at something else. What gives? What are they after?
Breaking the circuit
The surprising answer lies, I believe, in going back to the original Greek name. The main part of epikoros is the Greek χορός – chorus or koros – a circle of singers, probably part of an ancient ritual. In classical Greek theatre, it evolved into the group of players who stand together, sometimes in a ring, and dance across the stage back and forth singing verses of point and counterpoint to the theme of the play or actions of the main players. Koros in turn is traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root gher, meaning “trap” or “catch,” a core concept signifying the containment around something. It is easy to see how it also evolves into the Greek cognate of chorus, χόρτος – khórtos, meaning “enclosure” like an animal pen or corral. To evoke this shared primitive origin of the concept, have you ever sung a well-rehearsed song with others in a tight circle? You were probably moved beyond mere geometry to experience a spirit of solidarity, intimacy.
The other part of the name is more familiar, the prefix epi– , meaning “on top of,” commonly used for words that survive intact from ancient Greek like epiphany (a shining or appearance from above, a manifestation or revelation of heavenly presence), or in science for technical terms like epidermis (the top layer of skin) or epicenter (the point above the enter of an earthquake). But the prefix can also carry a sense of contrast, opposition, something after, above, atop, or even against – in short, different from – the root. An epi-gone is an inferior successor, like Fredo the weak brother in The Godfather, or like the imitators of the great artist Caravaggio to whom the term was applied.
Epikoros might well have chosen the name for himself: a radical who broke out of – superceded – the circle of Platonic belief. (The little we may know of him makes him sound like a compulsive self-aggrandizing rebel, rejecting his teacher Democritus and other predecessors, including Plato and Pythagoras, to claim he was self-taught).
In his treatment of the word, David Curwin, author of the brilliant Hebrew etymology website Balashon, notes
Imagine cattle herded into a pen. One breaks out and gets lost, to wander ownerlessly. There’s our Jewish epikoros: someone who opposes or breaks out of the closed circle to embrace a terrible fate. Like, Maimonides’ mafkir, the epikoros acts willfully, intentionally.
Epikoros cuts the circuit between heaven and earth. What you do on Earth has no consequences, because there’s nothing else, so seek pleasure. He is the archetype of the radical denier, that wise guy who has to say that one other, defiant thing, the pathologically compulsive skeptic whose goal is to break the circle of belief in anything that he can’t grasp with his appetites or senses. But his behavior, the rabbis are warning him, has led him to abandon his soul.
I believe the rabbis are not disingenuous here but are knowingly digging deeper to get at this more ancient, resonant aura around the word epikoros. But how does that explain their fixation on their own pride and sensitivities? And though they are excellent linguists to be sure, how would they have gotten access to etymology pieced together only recently by centuries of painstaking archeology and philology?
One explanation is a mystical one that goes to the root of their belief in their own authority: they are transmitting knowledge preserved in the Oral Torah that Moses also received on Sinai, antedating Epikoros by 1000 years. When they invoke “epikoros” as derived from hefker, they do so with the confidence preserved by an oral tradition that is much deeper and older than mere superficial cultural allusions. If their word play is more than a cynical effort to protect their monopoly on Torah authority, then it’s a test of our status, too: either we are heretics, or we believe this tenet on which rabbinic Judaism rests.
The road to Jewish Heaven is paved by scholars
At first glance, the epikoros’ offense seems the least dire of the three Big Ones and the one mostly driven by the very earthly concerns of defensive rabbis.
But when viewed through this deeper meaning, the list of three offenders defines three versions of the same form of heresy: they all break the circuit of authority from God through Moses into the Oral and Written Torah and from thence into the Mishnah and to Gemarah (the discussions of the rabbis of mishnah) that comprise the Talmud.
Who is the epikoros? His transgression is the most personal, immediate, and pedestrian of the three Big Ones, but in some ways that makes his sin the most dreadful of them all. He diminishes, even in apparently slight ways – he slights – the authority and respect due the sages and teachers who interpret and transmit the Torah. Why is this worthy of the ultimate penalty? Because their authority is absolutely equivalent to the Torah’s Divine authority. In fact, the two are indistinguishable. Offense Number One is to deny that the Torah tells us that the dead will be resurrected after the messiah comes, even though it doesn’t, at least in any literal way. Then how do we know? We’ll show you! And immediately the rabbis put on virtuoso performances of exegetical brilliance proving the case. The sages’ job, and the project of the Talmud, is to unfold the hidden meanings in the text of the Torah. Though they are human and imperfect, as the varying interpretations show, they are acting in good faith, they’re pros at what they do, and their conclusions have the force of Divine law.
By rejecting the superficial meaning of epikoros to invoke the deeper more ancient one, they are actually enacting the lesson: the apparent surface meaning of the Torah doesn’t say anything about resurrection of the dead, but our elaborations show it does incontrovertibly. Epikoros sounds like it refers to one thing, but it really means another. Watch this …
If you deny our reading, as arcane and incredible as it first seems, it is as serious as denying the Torah comes from God. And just as you must build a fence around the Torah, you must also protect not only the dignity, authority and majesty of our rabbinic project of unfolding its hidden meanings, but also our personal dignity, authority, and majesty, even if it makes us look like a mafia and even if we are only human. In short, the sages’ bravura performance in Cheilek, this famous awesome chapter in Sanhedrin, achieves transcendent coherence. It’s a meta-text that both renders a proof and performs the meaning of that proof.
The proper translation of Olam HaBah is not the static “World to Come” but the dynamic “World that is Coming”: Heaven is unfolding, approaching, in process, and we’re always on the way to It. The Talmud and our earthly interpretation of Torah is its accomplice and mirror, also always in process, always unfolding, revealing the hidden vectors of an Olam HaBah that’s approaching us. The two are coming to greet each other on the road. Mock the authority on which the belief rests, become too disputatious, and you’ve become an epikoros. Renounce ownership of your place in it, and your very soul will be destined to roam Ownerlessly, orphaned in a desolate, unnamable space with no hope for redemption. For Jews, that’s really hell.
San Mateo, CA 2018
 My purpose here is not to highlight the differences between Jewish and Christian concepts of hell, a subject that’s been explored extensively and well by others. See J. Harold Ellens’ Heaven, Hell and the Afterlife ; Alan Bernstein’s Hell and Its Rivals .
 Sanhedrin 10B; 90A et seq. Sanhedrin 99b-100a
 Rambam on Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1. (https://www.sefaria.org/Rambam_on_Mishnah_Sanhedrin.10.1?lang=en )
 The forebear of most European and Near Eastern language from the Early Bronze Age, about 4000 BCE
“Now therefore write down for yourselves this song [shirah], and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be my witness … for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed” – Deutoronomy 31:19-21
“Sing every day, sing every day,” – Rabbi Akiva quoted in Sanhedrin (99a)
The first letters of the Torah when rearranged say שיר תאו [‘shir ta’ev’] “A song of desire.” – Attributed to R. Isaac Luria
When great poems get canonized in anthologies for college courses, they usually come thick with stuff that is supposed to help the student: short introductions, footnotes, annotations, guides, accent marks. They disambiguate inscrutable lines, point out cross-references and themes within the poem, and note the allusions to other texts and events that make the poem otherwise impenetrable. But the very density of these aids may have the opposite effect on the poor student. It also says, There’s even more of this out there. You gotta be a pro to really get it. Maybe that’s why most people can go very merrily through their whole lives without reading another poem after graduating high school.
The Torah is also like this. The newbie coming on the scene of the Jewish interpretive tradition stares down 73 volumes of the Schottenstein Talmud and millions of pages of other commentaries. Where do you begin? How can any human scale the mountain of interpretation?
But what if we approach the Torah, that densest of texts, like music? What if we treat it not first and foremost as a history of the birth of a nation or as a collection of dos and don’ts, or not even an elaborate assemblage of narratives, myths, and laws in prose, but rather as one very long song? And what if it even tells us so itself, I’m a song. Write me down and sing me through all your generations? Our assignment, to achieve enlightenment, becomes easier, less discouraging, and even joyful.
Torah sings its own birth
The Torah is the first and greatest document written in the new technology of the phonetic alphabet. It is only natural that a new disruptive communications tech, exulting in its new-found powers of expression, would narrate its own birth story (“Mr. Watson. Come here. I want to see you”), show off what it can do, and surround its revolution with transcendent awe.
So one of the recurring themes of the Torah is the power and centrality of writing in the birth story of the Jews. God writes the first tablets that Moses brings down from Mount Sinai with His Own finger. Moses writes the second version, taking dictation from God. Every king is commanded to write two Torah scrolls, one for himself and one for his people. We each have to write the words and keep them as frontlets between our eyes and next to our hearts, and write them on the doorposts of our homes, perhaps imitating the first act of literacy by a general population, the smear of a secret sign in blood on the doors of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt so the Angel of Death would read it and pass over.
And finally all Jews are commanded to “write down for yourselves this song [shirah] and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be my witness” (Deut 31:19-21). This commandment comes as part of Moses’ farewell address and might be taken to refer to the Moses’ final song of victory and admonition he will soon sing. But it seems more likely, and becomes so much more powerful, if the Torah is here referring to itself as a whole. This is, after all, the very last of the Torah’s commandments. Doesn’t it make sense that the Torah’s author is ensuring that His words “shall not be forgotten”? Wouldn’t the Torah want itself to stay an eternal best seller and remain always number one on the hit parade by commanding everyone to write it themselves and then commit it to memory by singing it?
If we take this “song” to refer to the Torah itself, it is also encapsulates the entire monumental revolution that the Torah has staged: an illiterate, oral culture of Hebrew slaves becomes a nation forged by writing almost overnight, and that act of writing is the transcription of a song.
Exodus tells us God’s original pronouncement is one long utterance from atop the mountain, like one long shofar blast. But it’s too mind-boggling to be comprehended by the newly-liberated slaves, so they beg Moses to write it down for them.
A scholarly approach to the Torah’s media revolution
As I have noted elsewhere, even from a scholarly perspective, it is not farfetched at all that the Torah is the story of the moment the Children of Israel convert from an oral to literate culture and marks the birth of its own means of transmission, the first alphabet. Exodus is now a story we can relate to today in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Moses is staging a media revolution! He brings a new, disruptive tech, the phonetic alphabet, that is so powerfully new that it seems divinely inspired. He then he delivers it exclusively to a huge population of slaves. The alphabet is so simple to learn, needing only 22 signs to master, that a newly literate population is armed with a new power almost overnight. It poses a viral, plaguey, counter-cultural threat to Pharaoh’s hegemony which is founded on a hierarchical, hieroglyphic-based communications, one that has become ossified and enslaved to an obsolete, 1000-symbol writing system controlled by a narrow class of scribe-priests.
Moses stages a war of writing apps in Pharaoh’s court, a demo of the alphabet’s superiority, besting the hieroglyphic scribes, who throw up their hands to declare, “This must be the Finger of [a superior kind of] God!” He then leverages the threat of this dynamic weapon, this new communications technology, to liberate the slaves. Pharaoh realizes, against his own will, that he cannot resist this upwelling tide, and for the first and just about the only time in history, an absolute ruler lets a huge slave population go, even at the risk of imperiling his empire. Imagine putting the iPhone in the hands of every slave in the Old South, but denying it to their masters. America might have been spared the Civil War.
The phonetic alphabet, like a smart phone, also grants to the Hebrews new powers of imagination and communication. They conjure a new kind of abstract God, completely the opposite of the many, image-dependent, literal idols of the cumbersome, pictographic Egyptian culture. It gives the Hebrews access to feel as if they can read the will of that God directly, as He expressed it Himself in the Torah, in their native tongue, written in the new medium.
That archeologists trace the most likely birth of the alphabet to slave scrawls in the South Sinai (at Serabit el-Khadem) during the 14th century BCE, about the same time of Moses in the Hebrew chronology of the world (1312 BCE) makes this story compelling and vital.
It is also not farfetched to think that the Torah was one long song of 23,000 verses that was meant to be committed to memory. One of the great breakthroughs in understanding Homer’s epic poetry is that it also marked the moment the Greeks became literate in the 8th century BCE. Harvard professor Milman Parry studied the balladeers of the illiterate cultures of Serbo-Croatia of the 1930s. Able to recite thousands of lines from memory, these singers told epic tales of heroes and wars. They mixed the distant past with current memory and family genealogies like those in the Torah. They reciting the shared cultural histories of the tribes and towns they entertained and connected it to their audience personally.
Parry showed that the structure of these epic songs – their repetition of musical themes, melodies, consistent line lengths and accented syllables, rhyming patterns, stock phrases, and larger thematic patterns — all worked together as mnemonics, enabling the stupendous feats of memory by these illiterate troubadours. His student, Albert Lord, then elaborated Parry’s insight in a 1960 book, The Singer of Tales, showing that the structure of Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, more than 15,600 and 12,000 lines long respectively, deployed the same interwoven devices of song. The conclusion was clear: the singer of the ancient Greek epics was oral and probably illiterate, and the epics were transcribed by someone in the newly-literate Hellenic tribes.
No wonder the last commandment of the Torah is that every Jew should recapitulate this awesome moment for themselves by writing a personal copy of the song, and then “put [it] in their mouths…for it shall not be forgotten.” Write the song down, then perform its music. In some ways, this is as fundamental to being a Jew as the acknowledgement that God is One and re-enacting the Passover story.
Torah as Art
Reading the Torah as a song also transforms our interpretive approach to it. We know from the beginning that the multiple interpretations of the text aren’t competing for which is truest, but that many or all can be true at once and supplement or complement or even gainsay and negate each other. Like a great poem in the college anthology, that only enhances the awe we have of it. The fruit multiplies and the tree is stronger for it. This isn’t just a manual, or code of laws, or history, or a cryptogram. It’s art.
This explains why the Oral tradition, which gives authority to our millenia-long rabbinic and interpretive traditions, is as important as the written Torah. Reading the Torah as a song embraces our millions of words of scribbled commentaries and much else that liberates us. Scholars read the text and parse every jot and word to discover its original singular intended meaning, playing a millennia-long game of telepathy with its Author. They are trying to read God’s mind. A noble endeavor that keeps Jewish law and tradition alive and ever-growing.
But now we are freed to also embrace a much more accessible and personal job description: the Torah, like a great poem, was also an aboriginal musical performance that we all should try to resurrect and perform.
Descriptive prose carries its meaning on the surface. The Torah, like poetry, does not. … The whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal . . . remains mysterious and ‘fraught with background.
Rabbi Sack also quotes R. Yechiel Michal Epstein (1829-1908) from his Arukh ha-Shulchan.
The rabbinic literature is full of arguments, about which the sages said: “These and those are the words of the living God.” This is one of the reasons the Torah is called “a song” – because a song becomes more beautiful when scored for many voices interwoven in complex harmonies.
There is room now for the instruction manual version of the Torah, the Shulchan Aruch  and its description of how to follow the 613 mitzvot. There is also room for all the many volumes of the Talmud and all its commentaries and footnotes, not to mention the thousands of books, essays, blogs, sermons written since. There is room for this and also that, for Talmudic legislation and its stories – are they mere illustrative anecdotes? Parables? Metaphors? Flights of fancy? Casual comments and throwaway lines? All of the above?
And there is plenty of room – in fact there is a demand for – elucidations of hidden, syncretic, hieratic knowledge like Kabbalah.
Finally, the difference between the performance of a song and its written score is the latter’s silence. This gap opens a vast space not only for all interpretation but for silence, for biting our tongues and for lifting our fingers from the keyboard to withhold saying what we think lurks in the text. There is room for the silence of humility or discretion or doubt. There is room for the silence that comes from the inability to say anything at all in the face of this infinite task.
The Lost Music
Moses was the only human who could hear God’s first original awesome utterance of the Torah and still have the wit to retain and transcribe it. All the other Israelites, assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai, quaked with fear and begged Moses to transform God’s voice into the new medium, like vinyl to MP3, or illuminated codex to printed book. Today, so much of this song has been lost before we even begin to approach the text: the original cadence, rhyme, melody, voice, sound of the original singing. Even if the Torah trope (melody) and the vocalizations given us by the Masoretes are aboriginal from Sinai, we missed that long blast from high.
None of us can be Moses. We are all sentenced to yearn for, but never attain, perfect comprehension. That we can only capture snatches of the original tune demands respect for silence, even as we noisily and merrily try to recreate that sound from Sinai by singing the Torah (trope) and wordless Chassidic melodies (niggunim).
Judaism is a religion of words, and yet whenever the language of Judaism aspires to the spiritual it breaks into song, as if the words themselves sought escape from the gravitational pull of finite meanings. … Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul.
Yet if we do treat the Torah as a song or poem, we can’t perform the original with fidelity. Sadly, musical notation wasn’t included in the revelation on Sinai along with the alphabet, and we weren’t there to hear it. In its stead, though, comes a pleasure of the text, as French critic Roland Barthes phrased it, if we approach the Torah with our ear tuned to its music and poetry.
This pleasure transcends the many joys of scholarship: it opens something prayerful in the primitive Hebrew of the Scriptures that we lose when we erect rational understanding – clarity – as the goal of all interpretation. If the Torah is the Supreme Poem or Song, every syllable has a secret melody.
David Porush, San Mateo
Erev Yom Kippur 5779
 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Torah as G-d’s Song,” https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/2308716/jewish/The-Torah-as-G-ds-Song.htm
 The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin), Preface to Ha’emek Davar, Parag 3
 Rabbi Sacks, op. cit.
 The Set Table. Codification of the laws of the Torah – halacha – written by Joseph Caro in 1563
 Rabbi Sacks, op. cit.
 Roland Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte (Editions du Seuil, 1973.
“Writing is a form of prayer.” – Kafka in his diaries.
The writing machine in fiction is almost always a metaphor used by authors from Swift through John Barth, Italo Calvino, and William Gibson to explain and display their own techniques, an energized funhouse of self-reflection. I’ve looked at many of these over the decades, since they play on the slippery boundary between reason (mechanics) and irrationality (art) in order to question deep assumptions about how their authors, and their cultures, find and express “truth” in fiction. In this essay, I look at two fictional texts about machines that write directly onto the human body. Both mechanisms work to give their subjects knowledge of realms beyond the ken of sheer mechanics. The first is the Sentencing Machine in Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” (1914), an excruciating device for torturing and executing condemned prisoners by incising tattoos on their bodies . The second is Thomas Pynchon’s much more benign “Puncutron Machine” in Vineland (1990), an electroshock device for adjusting a subject’s spiritual balance, his karma, and send him “purring into transcendence.” Their comparison shows these two authors’ interest in metaphysics, a territory of twentieth century literature that is curiously under-explored in most criticism. The route to that territory goes from the physical body, through texts written by machines on bodies, to transcendence. Continue reading ““The Hacker We Call God”: Transcendent Writing Machines in Pynchon and Kafka”
These demure humming boxes contained the densest working out, the highest tide of everything that collective ingenuity had yet learned to pull off. It housed the race’s deepest taboo dream, the thing humanity was trying to turn itself into.
Richard Price, Plowing the Dark
Here are the four questions the concept of telepathy helps me answer:
1. Where we are: Our desire for telepathy tells us what we are turning ourselves into: truly intersubjective beings, transmitting pure thought, sensation, and experience to each other instantaneously, without mediation or translation. Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, creating artificial humans, finding alien life, colonizing other planets. Telepathy. These are the science fiction dreams that actually seem to propel billion or trillion dollar worldwide industries. But all of them seem to lie just out of reach, beckoning us. We’re always so close. We’re always not quite there, like Zeno’s Paradox, closing the gap but never reaching our target. Seeing all communication as telepathy tells us something about what it means to be human, maybe a little about what it means to be a living thing at all. My dog is barking, the bees are dancing, the trees are reading each other’s chemical minds. To be alive seems to be to aspire to telepathy.
2. What happened? If we use the dream of telepathy as a lens to look back, it helps us understand our history. Older communications technologies – the alphabet, printing press, radio, TV, and the Internet, were revolutions in telepathy, coming with increasing speed through the centuries and now decades, driving us to this ideal: getting experience and thought to pass from mind to mind. Each came with new hopes, new ways of interacting and defining ourselves, and new gods.
3. What comes next? This trajectory helps us map what will come next: brain-to-brain experiences through the computer, aided by AI.
4. How to really read: This is minor but it is dear to my heart as an old literature professor: Telepathy implies a way of reading. Reading telepathically means really trying to find out what the author is thinking and intending before finding confirmation of my own bias or theory in the text. They should teach it in every literature class: how to read beyond ideology. Reading is an act of intimacy between the author and me. It comes with a certain responsibility that accompanies all acts of conjugation. I submit to entering and being possessed by another’s mind. When a writer sits down to write in good faith, even the most profane, they are writing a form of liturgy. And I should try to read faithfully, in good faith, like a prayer, beyond prejudice. Every time we try to make ourselves understood or try to understand another, there is a divine hope.
I’m the author of The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction (Methuen/Routledge), Rope Dances (short stories, The Fiction Collective); A Short Guide to Writing About Science, (HarperCollins & Pearson) and other books, as well as reviews, essays, blogs, fiction, plays, and articles. For 21 years, I was a professor of literature and media at William & Mary and then at Rensselaer. I am also the former CEO, co-founder and executive of several e-learning companies and programs at universities, non-profits and the private sector.
Inspired by the launch of the World Wide Web with the Mosaic browser, I originally explored versions of this material during a sabbatical year as a Fulbright scholar at the Technion in Israel (1993-94). I indulgently took it up with a doctoral class in literature at Rensselaer in 1994. I am indebted to them for their skepticism and indulgence of these “porushian studies,” as they mockingly called my rants, and with good reason. Though wisdom be eternal, cleverness is fleeting, and probably narcissistic.
I published a short version of the larger project appeared here in Mots Pluriels, an Australian journal. Some of it showed up in bits and pieces in numerous dense publications (e.g. “Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson’s Snow Crash” in Configurations, a Johns Hopkins University journal.) I am most recently grateful to Jason Silva who both resurrected my work and my interest in it by meeting me in San Francisco and then mentioning it in one of his ecstatic video posts “The Urge to Merge.”
I thank my many Talmud teachers and classmates past and present, who often served as the first, suffering audiences, saved me from much foolishness, and have immeasurably enriched my life and thinking. I am especially grateful to my wife, Sally, for her deep and abiding forbearance, to my children, and to my granddaughters for gazing into my eyes for long minutes, even as babies, with questions I can’t answer.
I am inviting you to get lost in this labyrinth, dear telepath, and if you have the time, like a fellow spider in this web, drop me a sticky line at email@example.com.
It‘s only Monday, and I‘m already looking forward to the weekend. But since I’ve got a ways to go, it got me to thinking, Where did the idea of the weekend come from?
The fact is, it took a nation of former slaves, the Jews, to invent the idea around the 14th century BCE. Moses liberates them from bondage in Egypt. They flee as quickly as they can, knowing Pharaoh is likely to change his mind again. He does, and while pursuing them his army is drowned in the Red Sea. Moses leads the Children of Israel, now a horde of several million, safely across into the Sinai desert, the wasteland east of Egypt. They come to Mount Sinai and camp at the bottom while Moses ascends to get further instructions from God. After 40 days, he brings down the Ten Commandments. One of the ten is this incredible innovation: set aside one day a week to rest and worship God and keep the day holy. Since then, the Shabbat, as Jews call it, has become one of the Jews’ extraordinary gifts to world civilization.
Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy. It’s an abstract, positive commandment that doesn’t quite seem to fit with the don’ts (don’t commit adultery, murder, covet, bear false witness, steal, worship idols, have other gods, or abuse My Name) nor the only other do (honor your parents), which is personal. Yet, the Sabbath is one of Judaism’s holiest concepts since it commemorates the seven days of Creation. It is the foundation of how Jews measure time, and it originates with them.
This is not an example of cultural borrowing. The Sumerians, Akkadians, nor the Babylonians had nothing quite like it. Although there is fragmentary evidence they may have counted seven day periods from the new moon, their “week,” if it existed at all, was unstable. The Egyptians used a ten-day cycle. The Sabbath was created ab novo by Jews. If you cannot accept that it’s divinely inspired, then it’s admittedly – like those two other Jewish inventions at Sinai, the phonetic alphabet and monotheism – at very least an invention so extraordinary and transformative that it inspires the world.
Jews place such importance on the Sabbath that their calendar is fixed around the stability and sanctity of the seven-day week, and they go to great lengths to preserve it. A lunar cycle is actually 29.53 days. If you don’t add an extra day now and then to the lunar calendar (called intercalation) to catch up with the sun’s rhythms, it will soon be a mess as it gets out of sync with the annual seasons and the solar year. Instead of adding a day to the week, rather than lose a fixed, certain Sabbath, Jews loosen the concept of a month and subjugate it to the week, adding an extra day to certain months. They even add an extra whole month every two or three years rather than violating the sanctity of the week.
Considering this: there is nothing in nature to suggest anything special about a seven-day week. The Sabbath is a complete abstraction. Further, it arises in an agrarian world where work never ceases and the rising and setting sun or the waxing and waning moon are much more efficient and important markers of time. Why would any other culture adopt it? The Sabbath is so distinctively Jewish, and so intimately bound to the original revelation of God and the Bible that give the Jews their identity, that it is part of the traditional proof of the distinctiveness and validity of their religion.
Around 740 CE, Bulan, King of the Khazars – a vast nomadic Turkic nation controlling all of Eastern Europe – had a mystical revelation that he had to embrace the one true religion. He interviewed a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew. In the end, he chose Judaism and converted his entire people. Four centuries later, Rabbi Judah HaLevi recounted the Jew’s audience with the King in his book, The Kuzari, still studied by Jews as an essential testament of faith.
The Rabbi in his speech to the King makes several arguments defending Judaism, but one of the most persuasive, because it is indisputable, is the worldwide acceptance of the seven-day week culminating in a Sabbath.
Rabbi: Did you ever hear of a nation that does not accept the standard seven-day week, beginning on Sunday and ending on the Sabbath? How is it possible that the people of China agree with the inhabitants of the westernmost islands on this matter, without some initial contact, collaboration, and agreement?
King: It is improbable….unless we are all the descendants of Adam, Noah, or some other ancestor from whom we received the seven-day week.
R. Judah HaLevi, The Kuzari (1140)
Even if we regard the Sabbath as a merely cultural practice, devoid of any religious significance, it indisputably marks one of the most monumental social revolutions in history.
By forbidding work on one day every seven, the Sabbath distinguishes humans from beasts, who have a very different notion of time, if they have “notions” at all.
It distinguishes free people from slaves, who don’t control their time or their work. This must have been especially and immediately poignant to the Jews, slaves just a short time before they receive the Sabbath. And now thirty-five hundred years later, its transformations of work, play, time, freedom, and self-determination still resonate globally.
Jews light candles to mark the beginning of the Sabbath at sundown Friday. In my home, we turned down the lights and lit the candles to mark the start of something different from the mundane and ordinary. Even the kids, when they were babies, instinctively understood it. We called it, properly, a birthday party for the world. The Sabbath gave them a sense, even before they could talk, that there may just be something beyond all the material stuff in life, something inexpressible, filled with light. We turned off its competition in light-making, the tv. I now see my grandchildren, all under five years old, getting it. I hope and pray they also grow up to appreciate the other lesson of Shabbat, the slave’s lesson, that time itself is precious and transcendent. Our freedom to do with it as we choose is one of the sweetest things in life.
Chasing virtual reality, what we used to call cyberspace, has spawned a multi-trillion dollar worldwide industry, which makes it a pretty sexy phrase, right? But do we really know what we mean when we use it? In normal conversation today, when we say something is virtually true we’re saying something like,
“It’s just about almost perfectly completely and for all intents and purposes as effectively true as truth … but not essentially, really true.”
So when we call it virtual reality, this technology meant to fool you into thinking you’re experiencing something you’re not, we’re saying it is “almost really” real, or virtually real, don’t we? It’s a beautiful oxymoron, and more or less accurate, depending on how cool your hookup gear and the simulations inside are.
Since we’ve made a trillion-dollar bet on it, wouldn’t it be valuable to know what we mean when we use it? What deep human urge does it promise to fulfill? What itch is it scratching? Perhaps, armed with that deeper understanding, we may even be able to predict where it’s going. I think we can do that by looking at the curious history of the word virtual. Continue reading “Almost Really Real: How the word “virtual” deconstructed itself and what its curious etymology tells us about the future of virtual reality and truthiness “
Why does the Talmud warn us against teaching our children Greek?
Chanukah is sometimes thought of as a more minor holiday in the traditional Jewish calendar. Yet it gives us a way to understand a challenge Jews continue to face as they to try to thrive in the modern world: the seductions of “Greek” philosophy.
With thanks to classmates Boris Feldman, Josef Joffe, and Sam Tramiel. And special thanks to Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman
Why does the Talmud forbid teaching Greek?
The last page of the Talmud tractate Sotah brings to a climax the apocalyptic portrait of the decline of Jewish generations, spirit, learning and virtue after the destruction of the Temple. It marches through a long, dispiriting list of the horrible things that happen as the generations decline and have to abandon customs that could only be kept alive when there was a spiritual center in Jerusalem. In the middle of this lamentation (called the Yeridas HaDoros – “descent of the generations”), the Talmud warns somewhat mysteriously that fathers shouldn’t teach Greek to their sons.
DURING THE WAR OF TITUS [Chorban 67-70 CE] THEY [the Sages] DECREED AGAINST THE USE OF CROWNS WORN BY BRIDES AND THAT NOBODY SHOULD TEACH HIS SON GREEK. …….
What did the Sages have in mind? They can’t have meant Greek language, because the Rabbis were conversant with Greek, spoke it in the streets of Jerusalem, and it had displaced Hebrew as the lingua franca among the educated classes. In various places in the Talmud, Greek is praised as the only language into which the Torah can be elegantly translated, as Akiva asked Onkelos to do (the Targum). In the commentary, we read the lament of Shimon ben Gamliel, the great Sage (50 CE), who boasts of the Greek wisdom in his father’s yeshiva:
There were a thousand pupils in my father’s house; five hundred studied Torah and five hundred studied Greek wisdom.
Chanukah: Greek vs. Hebrew Part I
The events we celebrate on Chanukah happened following Jerusalem’s conquest by the Greeks in 332 BCE. Around 167-165 BCE, the Greek king Antiochus II, as part of his general purging of the Greek empire of foreign influence, outlaws Judaism and defiles the Temple. Matisyahu, Judah the Maccabee, recaptures and purifies it. He lights the lamp of the Temple, and miraculously one night’s worth of oil stays lit for eight nights. Chanukah miracle of lights because it is an eternal reminder of the re-assertion of Jewish holiness over Greek idolatry and materialism.
In 76-67 BCE – Hyrcanus and Aristobulus great-grandnephews of Judah HaMaccabee, split the kingdom between the Seleucid [Greek] faction, seeking to accommodate Hellenism, and the Pharisees, separatists who wanted to protect the purity of Jewish ritual and the Temple from these modern influences. Aristobulus seizes Jerusalem and the Temple. Hyrcanus besieges him. The Talmud tells the aggadah (story) of an old man inside the walls of Jerusalem who communicated via secret code, Greek, who betrayed the defenders of Jerusalem to their Greek besiegers:
AND THAT NOBODY SHOULD TEACH HIS SON GREEK. Our Rabbis taught: When the kings of the Hasmonean house fought one another, Hyrcanus (Seleucid) was outside of Jerusalem and Aristobulus (Pharisees) was on the inside. Each day those within the city would let down dinarim [coins] in a pouch over the city wall and Jews of the Hyrkanos faction would in return send up for them lambs for the daily communal sacrifice. There was within Jerusalem a certain old man who was familiar with Greek wisdom, and he communicated surreptitiously with the besiegers in the language of Greek wisdom saying to them, “As long as those within the Jerusalem walls engage in the sacrificial service, they will not be delivered into your hands.” On the morrow, they lowered the dinarim in a pouch, but the besiegers following the advice of the old man and, seeking to prevent the service, sent them up a swine. When the swine reached midway along the wall and stuck out its hooves into the wall, Israel quaked over an area of four hundred parsahs [1600 square miles]. At that time, they declared, “Cursed be the man who shall raise pigs and cursed be the man who shall teach his sons Greek wisdom.”
Sotah 49b [This aggadah [story] is repeated in Bava Kamma 82B and Menachot 64b]
What is the deeper meaning of this story? The placement of this prohibition against Greek wisdom in the dramatic end of Sotah, the selection of this story of the traitor who betray Judaism from within Jerusalem by means of secret Greek wisdom, the quaking of all of Eretz Yisroel, draw our attention to deeper currents. What are the Rabbis warning us against? What is the historical context? What do they mean by “Greek wisdom”?
Rashi [1040-1105 CE] explains that “Greek wisdom” refers to a set of cryptic expressions of gestures understood only by the paladin (palace dwellers), not by common people. But what was this secret code? The answer lies in the parallel track of philosophy preserved by Christianity that they inherited from the Greeks: Pythagoreanism.
Pythagoras and the Neo-Pythagorean revival in the Talmudic Era
Pythagoras is the father of Greek philosophy. His influence over all of Western thought, even into our twenty-first century, has remained strong in a way I will explain in a moment. But first, who was Pythagoras beyond the inventor of the Pythagorean Theorem we learned in middle school?
Pythagoras (570-490 BCE) was the son of Greek nobility. Around 550 he travels around the Middle East and Mediterranean for twelve years. He travels to Egypt. On his way back, he stops at Mt. Carmel to visit Elijah’s cave for several weeks. He then journeys to Babylon at a time that would have coincided with the Jewish exile. Inspired the wisdom and mysticism of these other cultures, he returns to Greece and founds a mystic-scientific-communal brotherhood preaching asceticism, mystical number theory, the “divine” tetractys, and the transmigration of souls.
- Reality is ONLY that which can be measured and understood, delved by rational numbers. Our mastery of their secrets enable humans to become “gods.”
- He invents word “philosophy” – that is, lover of knowledge.
- He inspires Plato’s distinction between being and becoming: the notion that the universe is fixed and constant beneath its constant state of flux.
- In turn, he inspires Aristotle’s rational, orderly vision of cosmology: the universe can be arranged and ordered into a complete, coherent, unified system. It is governed by logic. Reason is the highest attribute of human nature. To be rational is also to be ethical and therefore, divine.
- Cosmology: The universe is ruled by rational numbers and their manipulation (mathematics).
- The sign of the cult is the mystical Tetractys…
…seems to be an idea of numbers Pythagoras melds with the Jewish Tetragrammaton, the Four Divine Letters of God’s Name, that he might have picked up on his journey through ancient Israel.
- Pythagoras instituted a dominant theory or discipline of Arithmetika theologomena, virtually equivalent to the Jewish gematria, the system of calculating Hebrew letters as numbers to discover further meaning, God’s intention, in the Torah. The entwinement of the two concepts is intimate; maybe Pythagoras imported it from his contact with Judaic mysteries in Israel and Babylon. It should also be noted, though, that the word gematria has a Greek origin: it is a cognate of ‘gamma + tria’ and bears etymological relationship to geometry and grammar
- He believed in the Transmigration of souls – a Jewish concept of gilgulim. The soul is to be freed from the “muddy vesture of decay” of the body by ascetic practices and secret wisdom. Matter is evil.
- Contemplation of the universe from reason – rational thought – is the highest human activity.
Pythagoreans also communicated via a system of secret signs, numerical codes, and hand gestures which they used while enforcing their famous discipline of ascetic silence. One of these signs, in fact the only one we know of for sure that survives to today, is the same as the split-fingered gesture of the Kohanim which Pythagoreans used for “salut,” a deep concept for them signifying cleanliness, purity, ethical truth, and blessing or greeting. Maybe this is precisely the secret code the traitorous old man used to betray Jerusalem to the Greek sympathizers.
So we can see what the Talmud is concerned about. Pythagoreanism was a seductive and powerful philosophy, a form of secular/pagan theology that would have been, and was, attractive to Jews, with their love of learning and wisdom and esoteric knowledge. Indeed, between the second century BCE and second century CE, as the Talmud begins, Pythagoreanism enjoys a huge revival in Roman culture, what we now call neo-Pythagoreanism. Cicero, the famous Roman senator, and his good friend in the Senate, Nigidius Figulus, lead the revival around 50 BCE. Nigidius writes a 27-volume treatise of mathematics, grammar, astronomy and magic that becomes a classic, along with Cicero’s work, for centuries.
In the first century CE, the sect of neo-Pythagoreans construct a Pythagorean Temple underground, at Porto Maggiore in Rome. It combines elements of paganism and Christianity. It is the site of secret sacrificial rites, necromancy, and is filled with images of the Greek gods. At the same time, it has an apse and nave, a new architectural form built with the Pythagorean ‘golden mean’ but is meant to represent the cross, the same architecture we see in the great cathedrals of the Christian Europe and even in the humblest wooden Baptist churches today.
But the connection is more than architectural. With its notion of the perfectability of man, the notion that matter is evil and corrupt from which reason needs to be freed, you can see that this Pythagorean Greek wisdom lays the groundwork for the flowering of Christian theology soon thereafter.
At the same time, the allure for Jews must have been great. Here for instance, is a vow pledged by the Roman Neo-Pythagoreans which echoes the Tetragrammaton (the four Hebrew letters of God’s Name):
A Neo-Pythagorean Oath from the 1st c CE: “By that pure, holy, four lettered name on high/nature’s eternal fountain and supply/the parent of all souls that living be/by him, with faith find oath, I swear to thee.”
The essence of neo-Pythagoreanism is a way of thinking that we would find very comfortable as 21st century moderns:
- The universe is ruled by rational numbers and logic.
- All that is known is only that which can be touched and measured and calculated and observed.
- Humans can become divine by application of reason.
Because there are so many similarities to Jewish concepts, one could see how the Seleucid Jews would find assimilation so attractive, and why Jewish thinkers and students could be seduced, even from within the walls of Jerusalem itself. Indeed, the Rambam, in Guide for the Perplexed, calls Aristotle “half a prophet.” But which half? Why half? Rambam says Aristotle fell short because he equated human nature with rationality alone. Aristotle’s ‘thinking being’ strives to rule the world through subjugation and calculation; Maimonides “praying being” can be king of the world by elevating it. “When there’s nothing higher than intellect, intellect has no guiding light.”
Greek wisdom, the secret Pythagorean code, represented the hoof of the swine touching Jerusalem’s walls in the fight between traditionalists and Greek modernists, and the betrayal and defeat by the latter of the former, the Pharisee’s tradition that would later become rabbinic (Talmudic) Judaism. The smallest contamination shakes the entire foundation of Israel itself.
Perpetual Chanukah in the West: From Pythagoras to the Holocaust
All this would be just an interesting historical exercise showing the historical entwinement between Greek and Talmudic thought if it weren’t for the fact that, in clear purity of form, Pythagoreanism still holds sway today.
Pythagoreanism is the fundamental constant across the history of Western culture. It connects the Hellenic culture of 5th c BCE of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle with Roman culture. It connects Roman philosophy that dominated in the time of the destruction of the Second Temple with Christianity in the centuries soon to follow. Pythagoreanism represents a continuous tradition of the perfectability of humans and the basis of the universe and everything in it as reducible to rational, deterministic, unified laws.
Greek philosophy institutes a vision of the deities who created a clockwork universe of perfection, instituting immutable, static laws of physics and nature. The gods set it motion and let it run. This is a scientific cosmology that still holds sway today in the common mind. It keeps us from awakening from the great cybernetic delusion of our last century, that we can create an artificial intelligence, mind, or neshama through the application of computer codes and algorithms. It still governs most of what we’re taught in school and our still Newtonian-Pythagorean concept of the universe. But this conception has nuanced, though absolutely critical, differences from Jewish metaphysics.
Contrast Greek philosophy to our Jewish cosmology of an unfolding universe. God, whose Face is always receding and hidden, creates the cosmos. In the Christian concept, the Word – Logos – becomes flesh and utterly knowable and personal, an idea developed by the neo-Pythagoreans in the first century. The Divine Attention of HaKodesh Borechu continuously sustains an unfolding universe. Even the method of Jewish hermeneutics – how we argue and discourse to arrive at the truth – contrasts sharply with the Greek. You need only compare a page of any conventional Western book with any page of the Talmud to get the idea. One signifies a simple, clear stream of letters marching in lines across the page as the story proceeds in orderly fashion from beginning to middle to end. Open the Talmud, however, and you are plunged into a hypertextual jumble: a noisy symposium capturing voices and commentaries and commentaries on commentaries separated by centuries and hundreds of miles and cultures. The choppy sea of Talmud exemplifies what Plato scorned as chaotic, subjective “aesthetika” and “rhetorika” as opposed to his orderly “logos.”
If we trace the history of this contrast between Greek and Hebrew, between Seleucids and Pharisees, between Pythagoreanism and the Talmud even until today, we see there is ongoing violence in the hyphen that the sages of the Talmud anticipated. Indeed, this story of the betrayal of Jerusalem by Greek wisdom and the prohibition against teaching it is prophetic. The story of the Temple sacrifice befouled by a swine, the story of the shaking of the walls of Jerusalem, are warnings that reach back to original Chanukah – already a couple of centuries old when the Talmud story is told – and forward to all of Western philosophy, including postmodernism today. The subtle but fundamental incompatibility between these two philosophies leads to what I call “philosophical violence in the Judaeo-Christian hyphen.” With the burning of the Talmud throughout Europe and the many trials Jews have suffered under the rule of Christianity, including the Holocaust, this violence is not just philosophical.
The twentieth century begins with work by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica, “showing” that all thought can be reduced to mathematically rigorous logic. Russell later wrote that “the European tradition … consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” [Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929)]. Even later, in his History of Western Philosophy (1945), Russell declares Pythagoras the greatest of all philosophers. Interestingly, Russell’s last act, literally, in his life, is meant to shake the whole land of Israel. Though a pre-State supporter of Zion, his final political statement, read the day after his death in 1970 in Cairo, condemns Israel’s aggression against Egypt in 1967 and demands retreat to pre-1967 borders.
In the 1920s, Martin Heidegger reinserts Pythagoreanism, an updating of the Greco-Christian Being vs. Becoming duality, into the heart of philosophy. Without going into his extraordinary influence over the twentieth century, including the postmodernism and deconstruction, suffice it to say that virtually every thinker and theorist since has to grapple with Heidegger and has been influenced by him.
However, two recent works of scholarship suggest the prescience of the Talmud’s warning in Sotah. Victor Farias, in Heidegger and Nazism (1987) and Emanuel Faye in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (2005) show how Heidegger, who was an unapologetic and avowed Nazi, introduced Nazi violence into the scene of contemporary Western philosophy. In the 1980s, his chief heir and leader of the Yale school of deconstruction, Paul DeMan, was exposed as having been a Nazi collaborator and writer during WWII. The monumental French thinker Jacques Derrida, himself an Algerian Jew, rose to DeMan’s defense in a shameful chapter in the history of postmodern thought.
Reconciliation through “Jewish Physics”: Quantum Cosmology
But let me end on a note of reconciliation. Realizing there is violence in the hyphen paves the road to recognizing the inert nature of Pythagorean philosophy. The recent works by Farias and Faye expose the link between Nazism and empty philosophies of materialism, constructivism, deconstruction and moral relativism that have lain at the core of Western thinking itself, philosophies that lead to mechanization and disregard for the sanctity of all human existence. It is the same Greek chochma [wisdom] that lay in the heart of the traitor of Jerusalem and is that tempts ongoing Jewish assimilation to Western culture.
In our newfound skepticism about the darkness at the heart of postmodernism, there is hope for a new deepening. This is especially true because the philosophical turn has been accompanied by a revolution in our scientific concept of how the universe works. Together, the two revolutions hold promise for how Jewish thinking may influence the future of Western civilization.
For a century, our scientific understanding of the fundamental principle of the universe has been grappling with what we can call “Jewish Physics.” In calling it this, I am echoing the notorious propaganda of Nazis in the 1930s, who called it “Jew Physics.” (See Klaus Hentschel and Ann Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism. Springer, 2011). This revolution has been led by Jews, starting with Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton in the 1920s, and includes Niels Bohr, Eugene Wigner, James Franck, Otto Stern, I.I. Rabi, Wolfgang Pauli, Robert Hofstadter, Richard Feynmann, Murray Gell-Mann, Sheldon Glashow, Steven Weisenberg, Jerome Friedman, Martin Lewis Perl, Frederick Reines, David Gross, Adam Riess, Saul Perlmutter, Serge Haroche, and Francois Englert. These are just half of the Jewish winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics in the last century, and a mere fraction of the Jews who are busy in the field of quantum mechanics and theoretical physics. Many of them fled Nazism to seek refuge – and freedom of inquiry – in America
Quantum mechanics has introduced a cosmological question that shakes our understanding of the universe itself as merely deterministic and rational. Put simply, it brings us to a crossroads of our understanding. Either the universe splits into an infinite chaos of uncertain and inaccessible universes every time there is a quantum event, and all sub-atomic events are connected by unproven superstrings of 11 or some other number of dimensions;
There is a Universal Intelligence that turns His face to every event in the cosmos and by His Attention, creates the reality we inhabit. This subject is obviously too broad and deep and abstruse to do justice to here today, but let me gesture at just one small tear in the veil between Western science and Jewish religion: the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson – the so-called “God Particle” – and its measurement at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (France). Suffice it to say for now, science is confronted with the introduction of metaphysics back into physics, this time ushering in an era of what I hope and pray will be the reassertion of Jewish metaphysics into Western cosmology.
David Porush, Mountain View, CA
The Continuity of Pythagoreanism through Christianity and Postmodern Philosophy
570-490 BCE – Pythagoras
428-348 BCE – Plato: Father of philosophy, inspired by Pythagoras
382-322 BCE – Aristotle: says the philosophy of Plato closely followed the teachings of the Pythagoreans
250-120 BCE – Statue of Pythagoras erected in Athens then torn down because it was a challenge to the State religion
Talmud coincides with Neopythagorean Revival
50 BCE – Nigidus and Cicero (Roman Senator) lead Roman revival of Pythagoreanism,
50 CE – Shimon ben Gamliel: “There were a thousand pupils in my father’s house; five hundred studied Torah and five hundred studied Greek wisdom.”
50 CE – Pythagorean Basilica at Porto Maggiore (Rome), underground necropolis/temple mixes Pythagorean and Christian elements: apse, nave, paganism, numerology, astrology, pantheon of Greek gods. Shows connection between Pythagoras and Christian theology.
70 CE – Destruction of the Temple by Titus [Chorban]
60-120 CE – Nicomachus (Jerasa, Jordan) Theology of Arithmetic: Numbers are foundation of all reality
90-168 CE – Ptolemy The Almagest and Geographia and Tetrabiblios: Mathematical models of the universe, Earth, and the means of predicting the future; inspired by Pythagoras
100 CE – Nechunia ben Hakanah, Tanna, author of The Bahir, gilgulim, Olam Habaah, theodicy – early Kabbalah (?)
200 CE – Mishnah redacted by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi
250 CE – Golden Verses of Pythagoras: “Know the numerical essence of the immortal gods and immortal men/How it pervades everything and everything is ruled by it.”
1180 CE – Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed: Aristotle was almost a prophet.
1249-1310 – Menachem Meiri, Bet HaBechira: “Greek language, as we have described in Megilla, is one of the richest languages, yet it is prohibited to study their wisdom since it attracts the heart of men and destroys many of the foundations of religion.”
1240 – Pope Gregory, Paris orders burning of Talmud
1264 – Pope Clement IV orders burning of Talmud
1431 – Talmud banned by Church Synod of Basel
1492 – Spanish Inquisition
1553 – Pope Julius III orders Talmud burned
1592 – Pope Clement II prohibits Talmud study in any form
1910-1913 – Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell: Principia Mathematica “Western philosophy is nothing more than a series of footnotes to Plato.” Applies mathematics to logic (symbolic logic) and thus all that can be known
1927 – Martin Heidegger: Being and Time (1927). Brings Greek metaphysical thought into modern philosophy, coherence from Plato to Descartes.
1945 – Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy: Pythagoras was the greatest of all Greek philosophers. Though a pre-State supporter of Zion, his final political statement, read the day after his death in 1970 Condemns Israel’s aggression against Egypt in 1967 and demands retreat to pre-1967 borders.
1987, 2005 – Victor Farias, Heidegger and Nazism and Emanuel Faye, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy
In recent years, matzah seems tastier to me. I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve got so many good associations with the other tastes of the holiday, including brisket, matzah brie, gefilte fish, and macaroons. Or maybe the shmurah (super-orthodox watched-while-it’s-baked) matzah we now get is better than Manischevitz of yore. But I’m probably fooling myself. Matzah really is the bread of affliction. It’s dusty, dry, brittle, tasteless, mean fare. Every year, I ask the ancient theological questions plaguing the Jews, “Does matzah ever go stale? Would anyone know? Why would such a dispiriting food be so central to the most delightful, and perhaps the most important, Jewish holiday? Why is matzah so important that even the Torah calls Passover The Holiday of Matzahs?“
Matzah is itself and an invitation to interpretation
Like many things in Jewish ritual, matzah is both itself and symbolic of many other things all at once. When we eat matzah, we collapse the 3330 years between us and our slave ancestors by reliving the sensation of the Children of Israel, who ate matzah on the night before the Exodus. They then ate it a second time when they didn’t have time to let the bread rise before we exited Egypt. We can taste what it’s like to be slaves who cannot choose the bread they eat. Matzah means itself.
For something so flat, matzah also has so many layers of meaning that it seems to be a paradox about layering. It is flat but infinitely deep. During the seder, we focus on the difference between bread and matzah and bring out the symbolism that makes it the centerpiece of Passover. This is one of the beauties of the seder: along with teaching children the central story of our people, it also teaches them a way of thinking. The matzah and the other objects on the seder plate multiply meanings, which we somehow hold in parallel in our minds like a symphonic theme weaving in and out of different instruments and keys through the course of a performance. Somehow, the meanings don’t clash. They magically harmonize and make each other grander. Even more amazingly, after all the sermons, the things in front of us, the egg, greens, bitter herbs, matzah, charoset and wine remain fully themselves. In the end, though, we still get to eat them, to ingest the sermon.
Even at my grandfather’s home, where he blazed through the seder in Hebrew (he was born in Jerusalem in 1899), Passover seemed like deliverance from the slavery of school. Compared to the arguments of the seder, school was all rote learning and dull algebra, a race to get the one right answer. In school, the signifier meant one thing only, a simple tune played on a three-penny pipe. The seder was a tutorial about the promised land of full-throated, orchestral argument, where even children are urged to join in. The other grand traditions of our seder – the red-faced shouting about politics and the cutthroat 25 cent pinochle game at the end – all seemed to flow from the sages in Bnei Brak who tried to one-up each other over the number of plagues. Such disagreements, as Rav Kook said, are a noisy route to universal peace.
That’s why this year I was so childishly excited to discover a new sermon in matzah that harmonized with all the others. By looking at the most literal physics of its nature, this is what I saw:
Matzah is a sermon on God’s absence. By noting matzah is not bread, we open a door, inviting Him to enter the home during the seder. It is the secret twin of Elijah’s Cup, asking the same question left by the untouched wine in Elijah’s cup: Where is He?
The Matzah Sermons
The Matzah Sermon has many versions.
We forego bread because the difference between bread and matzah is inflation, the chewy fullness that grants satisfaction. We should beware our own puffed-up egos and liberate ourselves from enslavement to the things that make us too swollen with pride and arrogance.
The difference between bread and matzah is our taste for sensuality, so beware enslavement to material things that give us sensuous pleasure. As the Zohar says, the Hebrew word for “taste” – tam – also means “reason.” Don’t let temptations of the body blind you to the truths that come from your higher intellect.
The difference between bread and matzah is time: if you let even flour and cold water sit for eighteen minutes, it will begin to ferment. Matzah was hurried because the Israelites had to stay small in the night. So they ate humble bread while the terrible tenth plague, the slaying of the first born, passed over. Then they had to hurry because the next morning they were rushing out of Egypt. They made and ate matzah a second time. Rush towards redemption. Yearn for freedom.
The difference between bread and matzah is we eat bread three times a day through the year, but “on this night, only matzah.” Beware enslavement to routine habits or desires.
Matzah is bread without spirit, its golem. Beware idolatries, worshiping things that are mere flat objects, empty of true dimension or inner meaning, else you will become like matzah, flat and de-spirited.
Many hosts answer the invitation to interpret by writing fashionable causes du jour into their Haggadah. Fifty years ago, the spirit of Passover helped fuel the civil rights movement. Now, almost every homegrown haggadah now includes passages about Martin Luther King, or genocide and slavery in other regions of the world, or calls for equality for transgender people and an end to the oppression of animals by us Pesach carnivores, or analogies between an unpopular president and pharaoh, or even, chas v’chalilah, insanely misguided pleas for Israel to end its so-called apartheid.
For that reason, the sermons that move me the most are not political but ones that drive to mystical implications. Matzah reminds us that God himself intervened in nature and time to free us. Because in Egypt we had only flattened slave-perception, we, and the world, had to witness His miracles firsthand to be convinced. At other times, He works only through nature, quietly if ubiquitously. In the kabbalistic tradition, matzah represents the absence of this true knowledge and understanding of God.
Metaphysics in the physics of matzah
It was my idolatrous love of sushi that drove me to look at the physics of matzah.
This year, I thought we would fulfill the theme of liberation by “going Sephardi”: giving ourselves permission to eat rice on Passover. Since Talmudic time, all Jews who follow strict practices have agreed to avoid the five grains that expand when cooked – oats, barley, spelt, wheat and rye. But a schism arose in the last five centuries between the Ashkenazi, Jews of Europe and the Sephardi, Jews descended from exiles from the Spanish Inquisition (and then most Arab countries in Northern Africa and the East). Maybe because they lived where the weather made them grumpier, Ashkenazi Jews constructed the anti-inflation rule strictly and also forbad lentils, beans, corn, and rice. The Sephardi continue to enjoy them. I voted for rice, largely because I had a fantasy about kosher for Passover sushi.
I lost. But to defend my unpopular position, I was driven to science to try to find out what exactly caused the dread “inflation.” What I discovered didn’t help me win my case, but it opened up an incredible vista about the difference between bread and matzah incarnated in the biophysics of yeast.
Matzah and bread both are essentially wheat flour and water. Outside the seder, on Passover we can add eggs and salt for flavor, and some matzahs that are KLP (kosher for Passover) even include oil, honey, juice, or even wine, as long as they don’t make the dough rise. But during the seder proper, we are supposed to eat only “poor matzah”: flour and water. To make bread, you need yeast.
Humans recognized and harnessed the magical properties of yeast even before they could write. Yeast makes flour and water into bread. It also makes grapes into wine. It seems to add life to inert foodstuffs, transforming them magically into something else alive. Grape juice is just a soft drink. But wine is literally a spirit. A cracker is a good delivery platform for dip, but bread is the staff of life itself. By ingesting wine and bread, we take some of that magic into us. Bread sates. Wine leavens our spirit. It’s no wonder bread and wine were worshiped by the ancients and are central to many religious rituals.
Though the technology of yeast has been perfected, the science of yeast still holds mysteries and surprises. To put it another way, we know the mechanics of how yeast work down to the molecular level, but we’re not completely sure how it performs its magic.
The quantum physics of yeast
Yeast is a single-celled living creature. When we let these critters feed on their favorite food, sugar or anything that contains sugar or carbohydrates, they digest it into sugar’s components: energy, alcohol, carbon dioxide, and some residue molecules that add flavors. The process the ancients observed was bubbling, rising fermentation. When we bake bread, the heat evaporates alcohol produced by the yeast into gas bubbles that expand and burst, contained by the sticky dough. This gives bread its texture. In the cooler processing of wine (and beer), the alcohol is completely contained in the liquid for our pleasure.
All this you probably learned in high school chemistry as an example of enzymatic activity. But what they didn’t teach us, because chemistry isn’t etymology, is that “enzyme” is just the Greek for “in yeast.” And what you didn’t learn, because chemistry didn’t know, is how yeast, or enzymes, are the gateway between the living and the inert, literally life and death.
The new science of quantum biology has started to answer the question of how yeast performs this magic.
Yeast is the ur-type of all enzymes. Enzymes are present in all living things, in every living cell, and in every process that sustains life: digestion, neural action, making new cells and repairing old ones (growth and healing), reproduction, and so on. There is an eternal philosophical battle between materialists and vitalists. Materialists believe the universe and everything in it, including humans and human consciousness, is a vast machine. It is made up only of physical things and the physical processes or forces between them. Vitalists argue that there is a meta-physical force in the universe that animates all life, a force that cannot be reduced to mechanical explanations. Human consciousness particularly illustrates the problem and limitation of materialism. Fundamentalist materialists argue that everything can be explained ultimately, by self-consistent systems of reason, like logic or mathematics. Religious vitalists argue that the metaphysical force is divine.
Although yeast is a living thing, enzymes have until recently seemed to be purely chemical machines. In the debate between materialists and vitalists, enzymes have been the best proof for the materialist view of life. They seem to explain how life is introduced into inert matter without resort to non-mechanistic explanations. Until now.
It turns out that enzymes require quantum effects to do their work, and quantum mechanics defies the materialist view of the cosmos. At its best, quantum mechanics defies logic, though we’ve learned to use them in MRIs and computer chips. At its worst, every quantum process requires an aware being to watch it work in order for it to be real.
I know to most of you unfamiliar with it this claim for quantum mechanics seems just weird. There’s no way to explain any quantum process without over-simplifying it or resorting to analogies which dangerously distort its actual, full-on weirdness. Many have tried and some have succeeded. (See a very spare reading list at the end of this blog of some I think do the best job.) Let’s just say the quantum is profoundly counter-intuitive. But here are a few of the weird facts that you will need to know as we continue with our discussion of matzah. I leave it to you to discover whether you buy any of it yourself:
- Sub-atomic entities behave like both waves of energy and particles at the same time.
- A sub-atomic entity isn’t in any one specific place until you observe it. Then it seems to settle on one. (Uncertainty)
- A single sub-atomic particle can be in two places at once. But if you affect one, its other self will react, even if they are separated by millions of miles. (Superposition)
- They can pass through otherwise impassible-seeming barriers (quantum tunneling) and “travel” faster than the speed of light.
- When a subatomic particle is observed or measured, it “collapses” from its various possible quantum states into one state. Ie, it stops behaving quantumly and starts behaving classically. (Measurement)
To understand the quantum theology of matzah, the last aspect is the most important. Until now, biologists have been fairly content to leave the weirdness of the quantum world among physicists. They assumed there was an unbreachable barrier between the sub-atomic world of quantum weirdness and the macroscopic world of biology obedient to classical laws of physics. Thankfully (they believed) micro monkey business collapsed when it poked its head up into an organism because the complexity of the organism automatically “measured” (observed) it (though no one specified how). They now seem to be really wrong. It’s uncomfortable.
Resurrected by water, living yeast seems to make the inert come alive. Yeast works enzymatically to ferment the sugars in flour. It explodes the flat mound of dough and makes it rise as little bubbles of alcohol explode inside. It adds tastes by creating new molecules. But what was once thought to be a classical, if incompletely understood, mechanical process (catalysis) we now know requires quantum tunneling.
Quantum tunneling in yeast
Here’s the technical explanation: an enzyme in yeast takes a positively charged sub-atomic particle, the proton from the alcohol it has created, and transfers it to another molecule. This new molecule, with the addition of its extra proton, now has a positive charge. Like a magnet, it now attracts molecules carrying a negatively charged particle, the electron. So the new molecule the yeast created (called nicotinamide alcohol dehydrase or NADH) becomes a very effective carrier and releasor of electrons. With NADH, the ingredients can now perform their actions very quickly and efficiently. It’s like the brew now has an electric current running through it, with electrons able to hitch a ride and jump off when a chemical reaction needs an extra jolt of energy to make it happen.
So far so good. This is all safe, mechanical chemistry.
As it turns out, though, the speed at which electrons get transferred from alcohol to NAD+ to make NADH cannot be explained by classical chemistry. On the other hand, quantum tunneling, number three on our list of weird quantum effects above, can. Again, at the risk of over-simplifying, a subatomic particle can help an electron travel across barriers instantaneously by using its superpower of quantum tunneling. As this effect occurs among millions of molecules in the dough, it speeds up the process enough for biologists to say it must be involved. 
This neat explanation of the quantum role in enzymatic action leaves one huge mystery, though: In order for the transport of the electron to occur, it can’t be just a probability, and in order for it to be more than a probability, it has to be observed or measured. The probabilistic quantum behavior – the electron can be here or there and therefore nowhere at all, really – has to become classical behavior. I see it now. Until now, biologists, scientists and other materialists have maintained that the macroscopic bulk of the organism in which the quantum action occurs collapses any quantum craziness. I.e., the fact of the organism itself performs the “observing.” But that argument no longer holds water and even seems like a tautology, fabulous circular reasoning, because enzymes involve quantum action. Enzymes, and the quantum, is ubiquitous in every process of every cell in an organism. In fact, it seems to be the essence of life itself.
“Enzymes have made and unmade every living cell that lives or has ever lived. Enzymes are as close as anything to the vital factors of life. …. [T]he discovery that enzymes work by promoting the dematerialization of particles from one point in space and their instantaneous materialization in another provides us with a novel insight into the mystery of life.”
– Johnjoe McFadden, Jim Al-Khalili, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (Broadway Books, Jul 26, 2016) p. 97
There’s simply too much quantum funny business going on everywhere in a living being to say one part of the organism is classical and collapses the other part that’s quantum.
Another way materialists banish the quantum: the Many Worlds Hypothesis
Scientists have resolved the measurement problem another way. They hypothesize that instead of collapsing the quantum into the classical through observation, every time a quantum event collapses into a classical one, other universes are spawned. All the other probabilities that didn’t occur here does occur there, in these new universes.
This hypothesis is mathematically satisfying and sidesteps any suggestion of metaphysics. But there are a virtually infinite set of quantum events occurring everywhere at every instant everywhere in an organism, let alone the whole universe. Each of them would create an incalculable set of alternate universes. You do the dizzying math. Or alternatively, ask yourself: Which is the more ridiculous vision of the cosmos? This vision creates an even crazier and more incomprehensible cosmos than the one we have.
But who knows? That’s what they said about quantum theory in the twentieth century. And that’s what most well-educated, modern, rational sophisticated people say about God.
Quantum theology of matzah
Quantum theology is a term used by a few but growing number of theologians and mystics. Many of their essays and speculations are plagued by vagueness, weak understanding of science, and an over-heated, optimistic leap into the irrational analogies between quantum science and mysticism to prove God’s existence. Their “proofs” often require taking analogous-sounding mysteries as equivalents. Quantum theology is largely the provenance of well-educated fundamentalists.
The case of yeast is different. In this dance between the material and the vital, between science and faith, the science leads us to conclude something mystical is happening in bread that doesn’t occur in matzah. That matzah has been promising something like this is lurking in its layers of meaning is a deligthful coincidence. Even on its own terms, though, the new science of quantum biology shows quite specifically how the process of life itself depends on quantum action. In every possible process where life is created or sustained, enzymatic action is involved. And with quantum action comes the requirement that someone or something is observing the process. The nose of the quantum camel has entered the tent of biology, but it was summoned by the biology. In fact, the tent is the camel. Something or someone has to be observing omnipresent quantum events in enzymes to make them operative in life. Someone or something has to be operating life. Omnisciently.
Couple the biophysics with the metaphysics of the matzah and we get a powerful sermon. Matzah is bread without attention, perhaps without the attention of a Cosmic Consciousness. It represents enslavement to inert material. It is both literally the bread of affliction, the food of slaves, and symbolically life without redemption from our inner Egypt, the body without a soul. Matzah invokes a God who redeemed the Children of Israel from slavery more than three thousand years ago and Who continues to operate the universe today by attending to its every quantum event. He is an incomprehensibly vast God Who observes every infinitesimal event, all the infinite infinitesimal events that occur every instant to sustain each living cell of each living organism. This is a God that watches everything actively. This God expands and unfolds His Cognizance as much as the universe imagined by the Many Worlds Hypothesis multiplies infinitely bubbling alternatives, only this God gives it life and an elegant unity. I like this God and this idea of Him.
One of the sermons on matzah is a kabbalistic one. Isaac Luria, the 16th century mystic of Safed, explains that the three matzahs on the seder plate represent Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom. Matzah invites us to stretch our scientific wisdom to its fullest extent beyond enslavement to our preconceptions. Matzah also contains a sermon about the liberation of science from its prejudices.
 Prof. Judith Klinman of UC Berkeley first suggested that quantum processes were involved in the enzymatic action in 1987. She has more recently found experimental evidence for it. See, for instance, Judith P. Klinman and Amnon Kohen, “Hydrogen Tunneling Links Protein Dynamics to Enzyme Catalysis,” Annual Rev Biochem. 2013; 82: 471-496.
In memory of my father, Avraham ben Shlomo Zalman, Z”L“
The chapter of the Torah called Chukat [Numbers 19:1-22:1 – “Statutes”] is disastrous, filled with confusion, contradiction, and despair. It begins with a brain-bending formula for purification which no one has convincingly explained: the red heifer. It is followed by calamity after calamity. Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ sister and brother, two of the greatest prophets, die. This is a national tragedy for the Israelites but an inconceivably painful personal loss for Moses. I have one brother and one sister. I can only imagine what Moses felt. Yet, his grief isn’t even mentioned, maybe because the story has to move on to a lot more dismal news for Moses. In the same chapter, God delivers what is tantamount to Moses’ own death sentence: he will die before entering the Promised Land.
Meanwhile, the well which sustained Israel in their thirty-eight years of prior wandering in the desert dries up when Miriam dies. When the people protest their thirst, Moses loses his patience. “You rebels!” he yells at them and strikes a rock. Although water gushes forth, and we can imagine the duress Moses was under in his grief not to mention after facing four decades of rebellion, God counts Moses’ anger as a failure: He commanded Moses merely to talk to the rock. Thus the death sentence. Seems like a petty infraction, right?
Wait, there’s more! The Israelites look for access to the Promised Land through the Edomites, the Amalekites, Sihon and Moab, but they are met at every turn with opposition and refusal. The Kings of Sihon and Arad even wage war against them.
Poisonous snakes arise out of nowhere to attack and kill them.
In short, from start to finish, Chukat is a hard and dispiriting slog through the wasteland, especially after decades of wandering dispossessed, besieged by enemies from without, plagued by rebellion within, tortured by private despair and grief, and perhaps worst of all, confounded by God’s incomprehensible commandments like the Red Heifer. More than any other parsha, it communicates the despair and pessimism of the desert.
The Chukat Countercurrent of Water
But if we look closely at Chukat, there is a counter-theme which courses and babbles and carves a redemptive streambed through the story, revealing a hidden depth and a surprising counter-narrative. The central scene is emblematic of this countercurrent: Moses strikes the rock twice and water miraculously gushes forth.
Further, this is in stark contrast to the parched chapters directly before and after, Korach and Balak. The rabbis of the Talmud are troubled both by Chukat’s lack of internal consistency and its lack of narrative logic following the events of the preceding chapter Korach [Numbers 16:1-18:32]. Korach is a desperate, parched story that climaxes when the earth swallows the leader of a rebellion and 250 of his followers. The symbol of that parsha is fire: Aaron shows his superiority to Korach with a test of firepans; Aaron is commanded to expiate Israel by offering incense on the firepan; fire erupts from the earth and swallows 14,500 of Korach’s followers. Korach’s rebellion burns with the heat of a mob. Water is mentioned zero times in Korach.
Water is mentioned only three times in Balak, and then only in one sentence in Bilaam’s extended blessing of Israel.
Chukat by contrast is like the rock from which water gushes forth. Water, mayim, is mentioned 22 times in the course of the parsha. The section of the red heifer tells us to bathe, cleanse, wash, sprinkle, and dip. There are wells, rivers, brooks, springs, tributaries, and wadis. As if to identify the Israelites with water, when Moses begs the kings of Edom and Sihon for peaceful passage through their territories, he promises them that neither the Israelites nor their cattle will drink their water. The chapter ends with the Children of Israel poised within view of the salvation for which they have thirsted for forty years, at the east bank of the Jordan River.
So which is it? Is Chukat a dispiriting narrative of defeat, death, and despair? Or is it a tale of thirst slaked and pilgrims rewarded? Is it meant to afflict us with the feeling of wandering desolated wasteland, or is it fertile with flowing waters, mayim chaim, ‘living water’ as the Torah calls it here?
The answer of course is both, but if we read the calculus of themes correctly, I believe the Torah tells us – even commands us with the force of a transcendent and mystifying statute – to trust in and celebrate the water of life. Or to put it more plainly, to see the cup at least as half full, if not overrunning, with life.
The 614th Commandment: “Sing, O Israel!”
Towards the end of Chukat, the Torah celebrates water:
Gather the people together [at the Well of Be’er], and I will give them water. Then Israel sang this song:
Spring up, O well
sing ye unto it.
The princes dug the well,
the nobles of the people dug it,
by the direction of the Lawgiver,
with their rods.
And from the desert it is a gift.
The Torah uses the imperative: “Sing, O Israel”! And although this isn’t one of the 613 commandments (mitzvot), it should be the 614th, or maybe the zeroth, because it is the premise for all the others. To sing in praise of water would be the ultimate chok, springing from rocky sources beyond rational inspection like the red heifer formula. The red heifer seems to be dissolve the clear line between the tamei (contamination) of death and tahor (purity) of life, but the line between life and death described in the ritual of the red heifer isn’t a solid barrier, to be overcome by a mechanical ritual. It is a flow overspilling sacred boundaries and categories washed away by a torrent of paradox.
Life is filled with want and strife and contradiction. We fail ourselves and those we’re responsible for, flaring in anger when quiet patience will do. Babies wail. Wells dry up. Enemies block the paths to quench our thirst and reach our goals. We try to get by, but nations wage war on us. Danger, like poison snakes, emerge out of nowhere to torment us. Innocents and great people and loved ones die. Though we try to keep the faith, how can we, when we can’t even comprehend the rules for rejoining the community after death contaminates us? The world is senseless and violent. If God is so wonderful and perfect, why did He even invent death, let alone slaughter hundreds, thousands, millions at a time?
But Chukat prescribes the cure to this nihilism and despair. It commands us to sing our joy and celebration in and by and of water even in the most parched desert. It is the gift of the desert. Though we are left poised, in suspense, at the end of our journey, on the expectant side of the River Jordan, there it is, the water of life, promise, and redemption. And here we are alive against all odds, ready. It’s still too early to have lost all hope.
According to the Rabbinic tradition (Midrash On the Death of Moses, Petirat Moshe) Moses himself exemplifies this lesson. At the end of his turbulent life, 120 years old, you would think he would be reconciled, even ready, to succumb to death. If anyone has earned the right to rest from rocky conflict and dismay and disappointment, he has. Yet he is still defiant and begs God for more life.