The Quantum Theology of Cheese

Abrtaham + 3 Angels eeckhout 1656
Abraham and the Three Angels”  Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1656)
“[Abraham] then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.”
– Genesis 18:8

Consider the miracle and mystery of cheese. You take milk. You combine it with the sloughed-off lining of the stomach of a calf called rennet. Store it away and in a few days or weeks and voila! We got cheese!

Neolithic tribes worshiped cheese. Since then, cheese has been intimately entwined with civilization. But for Jews, cheese poses a special problem. The Torah forbids Jews to cook the meat of the kid with the milk of the mother, possibly because of its intrinsic cruelty. In the mystical tradition, milk represents mother’s nurturing and it comes from sheep and cows and goats, animals we domesticate and nurture. Meat requires spilling blood. It is predatory and reminds us of our bestial natures. Milk, then, needs to be protected from meat. They should never touch, and when they have to interact, Jews erect barriers in time and space to separate them. Over the centuries, this has evolved into an elaborate system of kosher rules separating all meat foods from anything that has touched milk. So while serving our body’s need for sustenance by eating milk and meat, kosher laws remind us of the sources of our food. We discipline our cognizance and actions in eating them at separate times off of separate dishes and cooking them in separate pots. Kosher eating is mindful eating.

With all this invested in the barrier between the two realms, then how is it possible that cheese, made with lining from a cow’s stomach, somehow gets an exemption?  The sages of the Talmud give us what seems like a technical reason, but as Aeschylus said, “Wrong should not get by on a technicality.” If we look closely though, we’ll see that the technicality anticipates discoveries only recently made by science. The details of their apparent foreknowledge suggests that the Torah is a channel for knowing things that are only slowly revealed over the millenia by science. To put it more simply, though as a rational modern I resist this conclusion, it seems science is catching up to wisdom revealed thousands of years ago to the Jews. To see that this is more than just a coincidence and the Talmud’s technicalities reveal a true understanding of the science of cheese, we’ll have to dip into we’ve learned more recently about the science behind the magic of cheese.

Gateway between life and death: the quantum biology of yeast and enzymes

Even before the Jews, the ancients worshiped cheese for more than its exquisite taste and texture. Milk seems to come alive in its transformation, as Paul S. Kindstedt shows in in his epic treatment, Cheese and Culture (2012). Modern chemistry explains the source of that transformation. Milk turns into cheese because rennet contains a key enzyme that breaks down one of the proteins in milk and curdles it, making it edible in another, richer form. Although the ancients recognized this magic, and chemistry defined the essential process, it is only now in the 21st century through the new science of quantum biology that we are beginning to understand the way enzymes actually do work to be the gateway between the living and the non-living that Neolithic people marvelled at.

In high school chemistry, you probably used yeast as an example of enzymatic activity (enzyme is just Greek for the things that are “in yeast”). Yeast is made up of single-celled living creatures. When we let these creatures feed on their favorite food – sugar or anything that contains sugar or carbohydrates – they carry in them the enzymes that digest it into sugar’s components: alcohol, carbon dioxide, energy, and some residue molecules that add flavors. Neolithic observers could see bubbling, rising fermentation (chemists call it catalysis) that introduced life into inert matter.

Enzymes are present in all living things, in every living cell on Earth and in every process that sustains life: digestion, neural action, making new cells and repairing old ones (growth and healing), reproduction, respiration and so on. Enzymes are not organisms, but no organism or living process can survive without them. In short, because they sit astride the border between animate and inanimate, they’re a good battleground for the eternal philosophical war between materialists and vitalists.

Materialists (or mechanists) believe the universe and everything in it, including humans and human consciousness, is a vast machine. The cosmos is made up only of physical things and the physical processes or forces between them. Most of science is a form of fundamentalism. It believes that ultimately everything can be explained by rational descriptions of matter and the forces acting on matter. 

Arrayed against them are those who argue that there is a meta-physical force in the universe that animates all life, a force that cannot be reduced to mechanical explanations. Religious fundamentalists argue that the metaphysical force is God.

(This is obviously an over-simplification of the debate that is at least as old as Classical Greece and has many names and versions; if you want to check out a sophisticated summary, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, “Reductionism in Biology“)

Quantum weirdness invades our world

Although yeast is a living thing, enzymes seem to be purely chemical machines. In the debate between materialists and vitalists, enzymes have been one of the best proofs of the materialist view of life. They seem to explain how life is introduced into inert matter without resorting to magical explanations. But how exactly they brought stuff to life was still a mystery until quantum biology gave us a way to explain its action.  What would be a further victory for scientific materialism, however, comes with a price: quantum physics is weird, so weird that since it was conceived out of early 20th century physics, it persistently invited metaphysical speculations. In the 1970s, it got so challenging that the editor of the prestigious Physics Today was forced to impose a ban on all metaphysical and philosophical discussions of quantum mechanics.

Five weird things about quantum mechanics

There’s no way to explain quantum processes without over-simplifying it or resorting to analogies that may not do justice to its actual, full-on weirdness. But here are a few of the facts that you will need to know as we continue to delve the mysteries of cheese:

  1. Sub-atomic entities behave like both waves of energy and particles at the same time.
  2. You can’t know the precise location and momentum of a sub-atomic entity because it doesn’t have one until you look at it. Then it seems to settle. (Called “the Uncertainty Principle”)
  3. 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. (Called “Superposition”)
  4. They can pass through otherwise impassible-seeming barriers and travel faster than the speed of light, and both backwards and forwards in time. (Called “Quantum Tunneling”)
  5. When it is observed or measured, it “collapses” from its various possible quantum states into one state. It stops behaving “quantumishly” and starts behaving classically. (Called “Measurement”)

Quantum biology of cheese

If you can stomach it (sorry), here’s the technical explanation:

Calves require a special enzyme to break down otherwise indigestible milk contained in its fourth stomach. Adult cows don’t need it. Take ordinary milk from a cow. Scrape rennet from the calves’ stomach and out it in the mother’s milk. Let it sit for awhile, and the milk curdles into cheese.

The indigestible part of the milk is protein. The rennin has a protease, chymosin, helps the calf break down the milk by taking a positively charged sub-atomic particle, a proton, and shifting it between seven different hydrogen bonds to break them. So far so good. This is all safe, mechanical chemistry. (If you’re really interested, see Dexter B. Northrop, “Follow the Protons:  A Low-Barrier Hydrogen Bond Unifies the Mechanisms of the Aspartic Proteases,” Acc. Chem. Res.200134 (10), pp 790–797.)

The problem for classical biology is that the speed at which protons work here cannot be explained by classical chemistry. Classical calculations are slower by a couple of orders of magnitude. Researchers focusing on the problem discovered that to achieve its wizardry, chymosin deploys quantum tunneling, number three on our list of weird quantum effects above. Using its superpower of quantum tunneling, it makes protons disappear from one place and reappear instantly on the other side. It performs this magic trick on millions of molecules in the milk, speeding the process thousands, if not millions, of times faster than classical mechanics can explain.

But this introduces another huge problem for classical biology: In order for the transport of the proton to really occur, it can’t remain a cloud of probability, it has to be collapsed into reality by being observed or measured (the “Measurement Problem,” #5 above). Quantum Uncertainty – the proton can be here or there and this or that and therefore nowhere at all, really – Stop fooling around!  – has to become classically real: I see you now. The range of possible states the particle can occupy collapses into one. 

Until now, biologists, scientists, and other materialists have been content to leave the weirdness of the quantum world among physicists because they thought they were immune to it. They assumed there was an unbreachable barrier between the sub-atomic world of quantum weirdness and the macroscopic world of biology, which conveniently remained obedient to the mechanics of physics and chemistry. They believed subatomic monkey business thankfully already disappeared when it poked its head up into an organism, because the sheer size and complexity of the organism automatically “measured” (observed) it, though no one specified how. They now seem to be really wrong.  The argument no longer holds water because enzymes drag quantum action and weirdness into the scene. It’s awkward, because enzymes just don’t act on cheese, they are ubiquitous in every process of every cell in every organism. They seem to be implicated in 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

This is an eloquent tribute to enzymes, but the last question still hangs there unanswered: who or what has performed the measurement? Who’s looking in on the enzyme’s protein magic to create the reality of the cheese?

…and what does that have to do with cheese being kosher?

This blog made some big claims in the beginning about how knowledge in the Old Testament anticipates all this science. Here’s a proposition: the answer to the question still hanging  is in the Torah’s acceptance of cheese as kosher: God is observing the proteins, and the Torah somehow knows it.

In the centuries after the Jews are dispersed by the Romans in the first century CE after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem,  the sages of the Talmud explain the formulation that makes cheese OK dairy. The Talmud puts rennet into a special category called pirsha or “refuse.” Another example of pirsha is dung (not that you’d want to eat it, of course). The root of the Hebrew word is “separate from.” It is used to designate a category of organic matter, stuff from living beings, that intrinsically changes its nature. It undergoes a categorical transformation into another kind of thing entirely.

A modern expert on the science of kosher, Rabbi Meir Gershon Rabi, explains it this way, relying on a chain of authority before him:

When a food becomes disassociated from its origins, it is Nishtaneh (fundamentally changed); and if it has both chemical changes to its structure and also a change in its taste it is no longer associated with its original identity. Thus, the many foods produced by fermentation in which the final product is changed in both taste and form from the feedstock, would qualify as Nishtaneh and be permissible even if they originated from non-Kosher foods.

Rabbi Meir Gershon Rabi, “Identity Change”

Waste or dung or refuse shed from an animal is one kind of pirsha. But it also describes  an egg once it is laid by a hen. It begins its life as part of the hen, but attains its own status once dropped in the nest. Another pirsha is honey: You can’t eat a bee if you want to keep kosher, but honey is part of the Jewish New Year table. And as Rabbi Rabi explains further, all sorts of cosmetics and medicines are kosher because they are made using pirsha from non-kosher sources.

Finally, there is the strange case of that most mysterious of transformations: the ritual of the Red Heifer. The Torah describes how the impurity of death is finally erased: the Red Heifer is al pirsha yisrof, “on its own entrails burnt.” As Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman suggests in his essay “Exploring the Zero Sum,” the two words pirsha and yisrof come from inversions of the same root letters – PRSh – SRF [P and F are the same in Hebrew; Sh and S, are too].  The inversion, he says, is meant to remind us of the paradox of life that makes the Red Heifer magic so impenetrable: purity and impurity are bound together, flip sides of the same coin, always equaling out in the spiritual calculus of the world.

As a cow was the source of sin and the cutting off of Israel from its life source in the incident of the Golden Calf, so too a cow is now shown as the vehicle for the restoration of that life-affirming connection.

Pirsha and Transcendence

Throughout Jewish ritual, we have an analogy to this process. Wine, produced by fermentation, intrinsically – and spiritually – attains a different, elevated status from mere grape juice. That fermentation, produced by yeast, also introduces quantum processes. Bread, too, is a product of yeast and its quantum fermentation process. Yeast is what makes bread out of matzah. Every year, Jews celebrate the redemption out of death-like slavery by eating matzah to remind them what they were like without the magic life-giving properties of bread that has risen. And urine was used to make the mystical incense, the ketores that was used to transform the air of the Temple at the end of the sacrifice ceremony.  The ketores produced a transformative scent. It influenced all who smelt it and bound them together. Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman says it symbolizes chesed: like acts of kindness, it emanates and spreads throughout the congregation and out into the world in unforeseen ways that bind humanity together and elevate us. The exotic technical formula for making it is still recited at the end of the most important part of the Sabbath service in many congregations. Its essential ingredient is an enzyme in urine. Urine is pirsha yet becomes the essence of the spiritual experience. The Catholic Church still uses it in its traditional ceremony.

Wine, bread, cheese, incense. In all these cases, a process involving an enzyme transforms the inert and even degraded into something alive and holy. Along with this transformation comes quantum processes. And with the quantum comes the implication of a Divine consciousness that turns its attention to everything in the cosmos simultaneously, collapsing the improbable welter of possibilities into our reality and creating life.


Hearing vs Reading the Bible

The play between orality and literacy in Jethro

When did the Israelites become literate?

If you piece the clues together, the Torah tells us pretty clearly that Moses received the alphabet from God on Sinai.  It happens during the same sequence of revelations that begin with the burning bush and the revelation of God’s Name during their first encounter. God tells Moses to return to Egypt and instruct the elders of Israel in “the signs” or “letters” that God shows him.  Moses quails at his assignment..

“If they don’t heed the voice of the first sign, they will listen to the voice of the last sign,” God assures him.

The Aleph Tav
The first and last signs in Hebrew.

The first and last signs might refer to the silent conjuror’s tricks of turning a rod into a snake or turning Moses’ hand leprous that God has just shown Moses. But more sensibly, the “voice of the signs” refers to the first and last symbols for vocalizations, the core breakthrough that made the phonetic alphabet a monumentally disruptive invention.  Signs, instead of being pictures for words as in hieroglyphics, are instructions for the voice to make sounds, like musical notes. God is telling Moses: show the Israelites back in Egypt this new invention, these letters, and free them. Continue reading “Hearing vs Reading the Bible”

“The Hacker We Call God”: Transcendent Writing Machines in Pynchon and Kafka

“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 karmaand 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”

Telepathy: A personal note

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.

Jellyfish at the Monterey Aquarium, 2006

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.


About Me:

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

The Origin of the Weekend: The Slave’s Lesson

shabbat candles in the windIt‘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, intercalating an extra day at the beginning or end of certain months. They even add an extra whole month every two or three years rather than violating the rhythm of the week, 

Considering that the new (or full) moon is the most evident regular marker of time, and there is nothing in nature to suggest anything special about a seven-day week, the abstraction of the Sabbath arising in an agrarian world seems yet more remarkable. It also defeats any argument that some previous culture had anything like it. In fact, it 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 even is part of the traditional proof of the validity of Judaism.

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. The Rabbi 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)

The Kuzari is still studied by Jews as an essential testament of faith.

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, lighting the candles distinguished the start of something different from the mundane and ordinary in a way even the kids, when they were babies, instinctively understood. We also called it 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. I see it in my grandchildren, all under five years old. I hope and pray they also grow up to appreciate the other lesson of Shabbat, the slave’s lesson, that time is precious and transcendent. Our freedom to do with it as we choose is one of the sweetest things in life.

Almost really real: What the curious etymology of the word “virtual” tells us about the future of VR   

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: What the curious etymology of the word “virtual” tells us about the future of VR   “

One century on Rav Kook Street, yearning for Klal Yisroel

People mistakenly believe that peace in the world means that everyone will share common viewpoints and think the same way. True peace, however, comes precisely through the proliferation of divergent views. When all of the various angles and sides of an issue are exposed, and we are able to clarify how each one has its place — that is true peace. The Hebrew word shalom means both ‘peace’ and ‘completeness.’ We will only attain complete knowledge when we are able to accommodate all views — even those that appear contradictory – as partial perceptions of the whole truth. Like an interlocking puzzle, together they present a complete picture.”      – Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, Ein Eyah

3983304098My grandfather was born in Jerusalem in 1899. He was the eldest son of a religious Zionist family. When he moved to Brooklyn in the 1920s, he lost the black attire and strict orthodoxy of his family, but not his Zionism, and we grew up in love with Israel. This summer, my brother and sister decided on a whim that the three of us would go together, sans spouses or children. It would be the most time we spent together since 1969.

    We AirBnb’ed our digs and found a sleek condo in a new building on Rechov HaRav Kook, just a few steps from Jaffa and Ben Yehuda Streets, the heart of the modern Jerusalem. At the time, I remember thinking there was something auspicious about it, since our great-grandfather was Rav Kook’s assistant.
    On Shabbat, I intended to walk to the Chabad synagogue in the Old City. I took one step outside and was blasted by heat that was extraordinary even for Jerusalem this early in the morning. At the last minute, I chickened out and went next door to Beit HaRav Kook where visitors to our building were invited to Shabbat services.
  Beit Ha Rav Kook, circa 1930. Arabs smartly huddle in the shade while a British soldier stands guard and another exercises in the midday heat.  As Kipling said, “Only mad dogs and Englishmen…”
    I climbed the stairs to the shul. Pictures of HaRav Kook and testimonials to him lined the hallway. After all, he was one of the greatest rabbis of the twentieth century, known in the religious world for his mystical writing and saintliness, and became the first Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Palestine. He created an inclusive vision of religious Zionism, reaching out to all the Jews – Klal Yisroel – settling Palestine, not just the zealously Orthodox Jews of the Mea Shearim or B’nei Brak. While religious Jews kept the flame alive for two thousand years by yearning to reclaim Zion and rebuild the Temple, in reality it was the secular pioneers that were actually doing the work of building Israel. These mostly non- and sometimes anti-religious men and women in shorts and bush shirts drained the swamps of Tel Aviv, created the kibbutzim, and died fighting the British and the Arabs. Rav Kook likened them to the original builders of the Temple. He viewed them as part of the Divine plan that would create Zion and hasten the coming of the Messiah. For my family, this mighty legacy trickled down as the ferocious Zionism we imbibed from Pop: Israel was the fundamental mission of the Jews, a project so large and daunting it needed all of us, no matter what we eat or how we dress or pray.
    When I got upstairs to the sanctuary at Bet HaRav Kook, I saw a mixed congregation of about 50, mostly Americans, Canadians, South Africans, and a few local yeshiva bochers.


Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 8.27.46 AM
Beit Harav Kook. (photo credit:MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST). The condo building where we stayed is shown on the left.

After prayers, the crowd dwindled until there were just a few of us left around a table. I introduced myself to the Rabbi – his name was Mermelstein – and the others. One woman launched into the story of her grandfather. He had been a student of Rav Kook’s before emigrating to Canada around 1925. With tears in her eyes, she said how moved she was to be there. It dawned on me that this must have been Rav Kook’s original home in Jerusalem, thus the street named after him. In the mid-1920s, Rav Kook created a yeshiva here (now at another site in Jerusalem, Mercaz HaRav – Center for the Multitude; a Palestinian terrorist massacred eight students there in 2008), but for the last year Rabbi Mermelstein has been reviving Rav Kook’s home and the yeshiva, hoping to create a spiritual and learning center at this site dedicated to his memory and teachings. 

    “Your grandfather and mine must have been mates,” I told the Canadian woman.
    I weighed in with the story of my own grandfather. Pop’s father, Rav Menachem Porush, was Rav Kook’s assistant. As the eldest son, Pop was being groomed to be his father’s successor. But then, Pop lost his young wife in childbirth. He was only 19. Unable to overcome his grief and at odd ends, he went to Rav Kook for advice.
    Rav Kook told him to travel to Paris to visit his uncle, Itzchak Porush, and return after a few months. Pop followed part of the advice and indeed went to Paris, but he never did return. Instead of going back to his family, Pop went on to New York. Why? The question became one of those legendary family mysteries, Pop’s Lost Years, that we raised again and again, each time with ever more exotic speculations. Meanwhile, he eventually met my grandmother Dora Morowitz in Brooklyn and started another family. 

    He kept another secret from us, one that we didn’t discover until almost half a century later: a child had survived his wife’s death, a daughter named Rivka. The grieving father, before he left for Paris, had given his newborn daughter to his parents to watch and as it turns out, raise as one of their own. When he didn’t return, Rivka was brought up thinking she was just the youngest of many siblings, the eldest of whom had disappeared in America. She was, after all, only about a year younger than my grandfather’s youngest actual sister. But a family portrait is coming into focus, one with a genetic disposition for keeping secrets.
    Pop kept his secrets from his sons, my father and uncle, and of course his grandchildren. He never hinted to any of us anything about the story of his dead wife and living daughter. After we find out, we suspected that Bubby Dora knew all along, the two of them adamantly silent co-conspirators. On the rare occasions Pop referred to Rivka he called her “my sister.” He did send money to the family in Jerusalem regularly, even through the Depression when he could hardly feed his own family. Even when things were better, it couldn’t have been easy for a man who, though he spoke six languages, had worked as presser since 1927 and never even owned a car. Yet, no one realized it was actually child support. 
    In the summer of 1970, as I was getting ready to visit Israel for the first time, Pop gave me the address of Rivka in Jerusalem and made me promise my first stop would be to visit her. Even then, knowing he was surely about to be exposed, he called her “my sister.” I landed at Lod (now Ben Gurion) Airport at 4 in the morning and hitched a ride with a grizzled sabra in a beat-up Austin Mini-Cooper. After hauling me all the way to Jerusalem, he dropped me off inexplicably on a side street about three blocks from my aunt’s address on Rechov Bar Ilan. I was jet-lagged and had no idea where I was, so I wandered the empty streets in a daze for another hour.
    A donkey-drawn milk cart filled with rattling bottles clip-clopped by.  I shouted out in my execrable American accent, “Rechov Bar Ilan?” to the Yemeni driver. He squinted at me, his face framed by long payess and a kippah, and I saw in his eyes how alien I must have seemed: a long-haired, bearded pseudo-derelict in bell bottom jeans and t-shirt, carrying a large, neon yellow backpack. I following behind the milk cart down the middle of quiet, pre-dawn Jerusalem streets, stopping as he made his deliveries at every door. It must have seemed like a scene out of Fellini, not that there were many showings of Fellini films in Jerusalem in those days.
    Finally, I came to 24 Rechov Bar Ilan and knocked softly. After a few moments, a startled woman opened the door, two grown sons behind her. For a moment she was shocked, then it dawned on her who I was – Pop had written ahead to warn her – and she screamed, laughed and cried at the same time, clapping her hands to her face and then together and then reaching out to hug me and bring me inside. After all, I was the first-ever visitor from her American family, even if I was a hippie with a yellow backpack.
    Although my Hebrew was bad, I understood clearly one of the first questions she asked me after fixing me tea and cookies: “How is my father Shlomo.” I didn’t ask her to re-state the question, my first impulse.
    “Fine,” I responded. “Tov.
    Over the next few days, I tried to clear up my confusion without seeming stupid, and in bits and pieces I heard the whole story of Pop and his flight from Jerusalem from Rivka’s son, Dani. He was about my age, was on leave from the Israeli army, was more “moderni,” and we quickly hit it off. 
    “My mother grew up thinking she was Saba (grandfather) Shlomo’s sister,” he told me. “Then when she was sixteen, a stupid girl told her she was adopted and her father left her. My mother cried a lot. Stupid girl.” 
    Hiding behind my deficient Hebrew, I tried not to let on that it was all news to me, although I’m pretty sure Dani suspected the truth. Then he asked the mournful, angry question, a question that must have burnt through the generations of my Jerusalem family since 1920: “Why didn’t he come back?”
    I didn’t say, “That’s what we all want to know, too.”
    From the Egged bus station a few days later, I sent a telegram to my father. He and my uncle came over soon after to visit their new-found half sister and nephews and nieces. I know my uncle held and as far as I know still holds a grudge against my grandfather for his secrecy. My father was more philosophical about it, though when I tried to talk to him he just gave me a look and a nod, as if finding out the truth had explained a lot about my grandfather.
    I told a brief version of this story at the kiddush table at Bet HaRav Kook. After hearing it and the Canadian woman’s saga, Rabbi Mermelstein said, “Come with me.” He led the us to the front of the building and we stood before two tall, narrow wooden shutter-doors. He unhooked an old wooden latch and opened them, like the doors of an ark. A velvet rope hung across the entry to a spare, almost ascetic, office. He pulled apart curtains and sunlight streamed into the room, flooding a small desk and bookcases with light.
    “This was Rav Kook’s home office. As you can see, it’s been preserved just as it was since his death in 1935.” He unhooked the rope, and we crowded inside the room. “Dignitaries from all over the world came to visit him right here, including Chagall and even Einstein!”
    He took down a volume of Talmud from the bookcase and opened it on the desk, pointing to Rav Kook’s own commentaries scrawled in the margins. As sunlight splashed across the fine, small handwriting, an entire century condensed into one thick and heavy moment, like a collapsed star. As a young man, my grandfather might have sat in this very office, in that very chair, when Rav Kook gave him that fateful advice to go to Paris, setting in motion a chain of events and secrets that led, a century later, to my presence in this room on Rechov HaRav Kook.

August 2017

[PS: You can donate to help the resurrection of Beit HaRav Kook here

Perpetual Chanukah in the West – or – Why the Pythagorean Theorem is More Than Just Math

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
Pythagoras traveled through the Middle East for twelve years, imbibing Egyptian philosophy.

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.


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.

Pythagorean Essentials

  • 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…
The Tetractys was a mystical symbol for Pythagoreans that arranged the ten ordinal numbers in four rows.

…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;

-or –

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 BCENigidus 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 CENicomachus (Jerasa, Jordan) Theology of Arithmetic: Numbers are foundation of all reality


90-168 CEPtolemy The Almagest and Geographia and Tetrabiblios: Mathematical models of the universe, Earth, and the means of predicting the future; inspired by Pythagoras


100 CENechunia ben Hakanah, Tanna, author of The Bahir, gilgulim, Olam Habaah, theodicy – early Kabbalah (?)


200 CEMishnah redacted by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi


250 CEGolden 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 CERambam, Guide for the Perplexed: Aristotle was almost a prophet.


1249-1310Menachem 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


1910-1913Alfred 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

1927Martin Heidegger: Being and Time (1927). Brings Greek metaphysical thought into modern philosophy, coherence from Plato to Descartes.

1945Bertrand 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, 2005Victor Farias, Heidegger and Nazism and Emanuel Faye, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy


The Quantum Theology of Matzah [long]

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?

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 11.16.48 PMMatzah 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:

  1. Sub-atomic entities behave like both waves of energy and particles at the same time.
  2. A sub-atomic entity isn’t in any one specific place until you observe it. Then it seems to settle on one. (Uncertainty)
  3. 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)
  4. They can pass through otherwise impassible-seeming barriers (quantum tunneling) and “travel” faster than the speed of light.
  5. 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. [1]

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.

[2] 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.

Gift of the Desert

In memory of my father, Avraham ben Shlomo Zalman, Z”L

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 8.47.34 PMThe 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 waterThen 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.

Num 21:16-18

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.

L’mayim chaim!