When the Hebrew Bible was first transcribed, the Jews used the newly-invented alphabet to write it. No matter whether you believe it was simply the Ten Commandments or the entire Five Books written in fire on stone by the Finger of God that Moses brought down from Sinai, or even if its core was fabricated by a bunch of authors in the 13th-8th centuries BCE, the medium must have been the alphabet.
Earliest archeological evidence, like the stone idol from Serabit el-Khadem, places the origin of the alphabet in the South Sinai (!) about sixty miles north of Mount Sinai, around the 15th-14th C BCE (!), just when tradition places the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.
Hebrew for about four centuries after remained a primitive alphabet, lacking vowels, or spaces between words, or punctuation of any kind. It was scrawled boustrophedon – as the ox plows the field – that is, left to right until the end of the line, then right to left, and so on.
In short, the Torah that Moses brought to the Children of Israel was one long, breathless, written word. It awaited an oral enunciation to place the cuts between words and determine their meaning.
To quickly illustrate this, how would you read the following letters?
It would take some puzzling and context and familiarity to recognize this as
“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”
But lacking complete authority and assurance – nothing short of playing telepathy with the author – any reading would admit of several competing interpretations, including some that may seem at first nonsensical but may hide lurking messages if you stare at them too long:
In the big, no-nagged court doth have nine, death, or thee.
Hebrew readers to this day read texts without vowels and have to disambiguate individual words either by familiarity, or context, or memorizing them with the aid of another text with vowels. Consider the word in Hebrew דבר – DBR. The consonants could mean dvar (word), dever (plague), davar (thing), daber (speak), dibbur (speech), and others besides.
In short, even individual words in Hebrew invite – even demand – that the reader play this puzzling game. This is the sort of game English students come into contact with in literature classes when they are asked to interpret opaque or dense poetry (John Donne’s works are my favorite) or literature filled with word play and deliberate punning, like Joyce’s Ulysses.
But I would draw a nuanced distinction and say because Hebrew words lack vowels, they are not -yet-words. This is true even when we consider the words as instructions for speech: consonants are the hard sounds stuck in the mouth that await the explosive of a vowel to be pronounced. Try to pronounce ‘T’. All you have is the instruction for placing the tongue at the top of the mouth, behind the upper teeth, waiting for a vowel for it to burst forth.
Because all words in Hebrew are to some extent not-yet-words, lambent with meanings that are always becoming, emergent, not-yet-utterable, then all Hebrew texts written without vowels – even a grocery list (see A Canticle for Liebowitz, for instance) – are a form of literarature, one might even say poetry: difficult, opaque, demanding interpretations.
Compared to the ideal of clarity we inherited from the Greeks, who perfected the alphabet by adding vowels, Hebrew without vowels is a hopeless muddle. When the eminent Yale scholar of the transition from orality to literacy in ancient Greece, Eric Havelock, declared that the ancient Hebrews could not hope to create a true (read “Greek”) literature, he was right, though for the wrong reasons. His assumption was that the primitiveness of the Hebrew mind and social organization, and the impoverishment of its alphabetic script, could not allow for the elevated thinking, clarity, and expressiveness of classical Greek.
Yet, armed with our understanding of the essential ambiguity-generating early Hebrew script, we can see that vowelless Hebrew is already a form of literature, inviting interpretation of almost every word. Indeed, the question What is literary? makes no sense as we try to apply a Greek understanding to a Hebrew communications technology and textuality. We need a whole new word for the kind of discourse engendered by these letters which form words that are never-quite-words.
Letterature… and prayer
In reading Hebrew, I propose that we are perpetually reading a kind of letterature, where sense is suspended between our decoding of the letter and our reading of the word, as we shuttle back and forth in interpretive suspense attempting, often vainly, to be sure of the intended meaning. This is really literary reading tending not towards clarity but dyslexia. As Amos Oz quipped, “There is no word in Hebrew for fiction.”
Perhaps even the truth value of any text is suspended between the ever-threatening catastrophe of ever-promulgating interpretations that at the first reading defeats the illusion of telepathy – clearly understanding what’s in the Mind of the Author, but at another opens hailing frequencies to a very animated and dynamic metaphysical and cognitive plane.
I don’t know about how you take your literature (or should I say, how your literature takes you), but this sure feels how I take and am seized by mine, in all its debilitating pleasure and transporting joy. A good poem or a dense novel exiles us for a time to an inward realm. We read and get lost somewhere in the wilderness between multiple competing possibles and mutually-enriching meanings. If we linger there long enough and if we climb the mountain, then perhaps revelation will come.
Reading Hebrew thus becomes the Ur-type of literary reading: a devotional, a form of prayer, and the engagement with its letterature a form of liturgy.
What is the status of prophecy today? Can we communicate directly with God and speak for Him? Are those who claim to be modern prophets, though they speak with inspiration and profound insight, really channeling the Divine, or are they mistaking personal inspiration for the real thing? Continue reading “Prophecy in Exile? We Are All Esther”→
Yes, I was in DC for the Trump speech, and Hillary’s, Cruz’s and Kasich’s, to the 18,000 folks at AIPAC.
Yes, it must have been scary for you to see thousands of highly educated, mostly well-meaning and politically sophisticated Jews of all stripes stand and cheer for Donald Trump.
I don’t know what they televised, or what the cameras focused on, but I saw and heard some things that few seem to be talking about. What I saw gave me an insight into the Donald Trump phenomenon, and why – and maybe how – it can be stopped. Certainly, all other efforts so far have failed and, if anything, have helped his inexorable march to the White House. And yes, K., I think he can defeat the anti-telegenic Hillary Clinton. But how is it a buffoon who couldn’t pass a tenth grade civics test might be the next President of the United States?
As you know, because you so roundly berated me, I was looking forward to Trump’s speech hoping that there was more there there. I was hoping that Trump had some kind of plan, or strategy, to disrupt politics as usual with a populist and centrist vision, run the government as a rational business, reduce the debt, show strength to allies and enemies abroad, undo the Iran nuclear deal, and pick his way sensibly and free of party ideology or lobby money through domestic issues.
I came away convinced we’re on the cusp of a dangerous moment in history, one to which Jews should be especially alert.
The Verizon Center venue for AIPAC was perfect for Trump. We might as well have been attending a Wizards game, or the Barnum and Bailey Circus (which was there all this week). A runway from the locker room led to a slowly-rotating circular center stage. Hillary, Cruz, and Kasich simply walked unaccompanied down the long bull run and mounted the stage to standing ovations. Trump, ever the showman, made his entry surrounded by beefy private bodyguards, each as large as an NFL linebacker, wearing sunglasses and black suits. They weren’t Secret Service. Everyone had already entered the arena through Secret Service and Israeli security. He was entering the ring as if for a WWF bout. It was ridiculous, because he was trying to communicate … what? His life was in danger from these 18,000 Jews? He was more important than the others? More powerful? Was this a prizefighter, a rap star, a Mafia boss? Or maybe he really is a coward and needed the extra layer of protection.
The entry with cartoon bodyguards also told us that Trump profoundly misunderstood the setting he was in, his audience, and the occasion. It reminded me of D.B. Norton, the newspaper tycoon in Frank Capra’s “Meet John Doe.” The movie should be required viewing for everyone in this election season. Norton raises a private police force in preparation for hijacking the John Doe populist movement and running for the presidency. His plan is to begin a fascist regime in the U.S. The 1941 movie is clearly reflecting on the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. Capra is warning America that we are vulnerable to the same forces at home.
As Trump took the stage about 15 yards away, I found myself both looking at him directly and also watching his Wizard of Oz magnification in the four enormous overhead monitors. Trump’s weird head was blown up even more than it is on tv. His crazy, swooping owlish comb-over, comb-forward and comb-back “do” is a doesn’t: it doesn’t hide his baldness when lights shine from atop. He’s fat. The blubber on his face, rippling like Jabba the Hutt’s, doesn’t seem to be connected to any muscle or bone, and certainly not to any emotion except self-satisfaction. The tanning bed orange face and white around the eyes are fluorescent. He’s an alien. You wouldn’t invite him back to the party unless it was to have something to titter about the next day, because he looks like the guy who eats all the hors d’hoeuvres. He might also make a play for your wife.
Imagine you told our sons when they were 10 years old to go up on stage in front of their friends and pretend to be president or emperor. They’d thrust out their jaws, tilt their chins up at an absurd angle, shake their jowls, purse their lips, puff themselves up, and nod in imperial self-affirmation. “Yes. That’s right. I’m the President. Uh-huh! That’s me. I’m the President. Do this! Do that! Drop some bombs. I’m smart! I have a good brain!” They’d have us howling.
One of Trump’s tics is to say, “Believe me. Believe me!” The more he said it, the more the crowd giggled. The broadcast mikes may not have picked it up. We giggled because he was so unbelievable and obvious a liar.
Then, at one point, the crowd lost it and howled in spontaneous unison. His script – and amazingly he read from a script, unprecedented in Trump world – had him claim that he read the Iran deal. But his compulsion to inflate took over and jumped out of its cage. “Yes, I read the whole thing,” he ad libbed. “That’s right. In fact, I know more about it than anyone else.” The AIPAC crowd had been living and breathing the Iran deal for at least a decade and had heard every manner of expert. They hooted. Trump, as is his wont, interpreted the derision as affirmation. “That’s right, that’s right!” he went on, misinterpreting the rolling laughter, his jowls quivering in delight.But then, I saw the Trumposaur. It had been let out to feed.
The Trumposaur is to blame for the moment that has given ammunition to the anti-AIPAC press. Trump’s script said, “And in this, the last year of Obama’s presidency …” Another ad lib erupted from Trump’s lips, one syllable: “Yay!” The crowd laughed, this time with him. The Trumposaur had awoken. “Obama is the worst thing that has ever happened to Israel,” it declared, totally winging it. The crowd rose to its feet in approval.
In AIPAC’s defense, because it’s hard to imagine this gang of thousands of Jews utterly losing its senses in unison, many if not most there did think the statement is patently true. Even The Washington Post has called Obama out for the disaster that is the Iran deal. Obama is the worst President for Israel since the Jewish State was founded. The applause erupted unanimously and spontaneously. We would have applauded had anybody said it. So don’t overestimate or misunderstand the applause or ovations for this line. These were not Trump supporters. It is AIPAC’s tradition to cheer for good rousing lines. Standing ovations are not endorsements. On the other hand, you can see how the cameras may have shown us being turned into a Trump mob. And maybe we were. Maybe you would have stood and cheered, too. Yet at the very moment I became part of the mob, I had this sudden schizoid flash of rational clear sight into Trump. I saw, I mean really saw, the Trumposaur in its naked, primitive state.
The Trumposaur is not a reasoning beast. It’s dumb, really. It neither plots nor plans. It leaps on every perceived threat or prey. It is impatient. Its antediluvian grotesquery is there in plain sight. It’s too big to hide and too big to need to hide, after all. It is all instinct and impulse and appetite and forward lurch.
You would think a hunter would need to be aware of its surroundings and have keen sight, but it’s almost blind, which explains Trump’s inability to see what’s in the mirror.
When he perceives an attack, his hearing is quite keen, but he is mostly deaf, which explains his dumbfounding inability to hear howls of execration, his shouting over others, his inability to hear a question asking for specifics. It explains his David Duke excuse (the sound was muffled) and his even more astounding string of idiot lines whenever he’s asked a question about the real world outside himself, about hot button issues like abortion or immigration, about foreign or domestic policy requiring knowledge of the actual workings of the Supreme Court, executive branch, policy, or precedent. NYC cabbies and newly-minted citizens understand the U.S. government better.
The Trumposaur’s primary sense is olfactory. It not only smells the rising blood of the mob, it knows how to bring it out, to get it flowing, to let it bleed, the better to sense its prey and feed. Its only goal is to get bigger and stay big. And to this end, to get the blood flowing, almost any rising emotion will do: fanaticism, hatred, outrage, revenge, envy, adulation, injustice, and, this is critical, fear. Fear is very effective.
Fear summoned the Trumposaurus in the first place. In the very earliest stages of the campaign, when Trump was just running a test flag up the flagpole, before even Fox gave him any significant air time, CNN seized on Trump. It gave him billions of dollars of free media coverage. I don’t know what they were thinking. Maybe they thought Trump was the most ridiculous of the clowns coming out of the Republican Party clown car. Maybe they thought Trump was a good boogey man who would sell a lot of airtime, like his cousin Godzilla. Maybe they thought if they could prop up Trump as a presidential candidate they would deliver the presidency to Hillary. But like any good Greek chorus, they amplify what “The Donald” says, even when they think they are providing counterpoint. The lead story of CNN virtually every hour of every day for months has been Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. They’re doing a great job making him President.
Even Obama berated the press (March 28, 2016) for its irresponsibility in feeding the Trumposaur. CNN became furious and defensive. Yesterday, they turned on their favorite son to defend themselves. One of their anchors defended the coverage of Trump’s campaign because it was like their coverage of Obama in 2008. But no matter. The effect has been, and continues to be, pumping up the Trumposaur. Trump is catnip to the media and he knows it. The media just blink and bloviate in surprise and dismay at his success, caught like deer in the headlights, unwilling to admit they’re feeding him.
The Trumposaur has no idea who he is or how to behave in his guise as a candidate or even as a person. He sees everything and anyone coming at him as either enemy or food. His two modes are fight or feed. Like a frightened boy who happens to be a bit slow and gigantic for his age, he has no idea how he really looks or why people respond to him the way they do. Some edge away slowly when they see the Trumposaur. He’s found by using his size, and puffing himself up even larger, and making loud noises, he can scare away much of the opposition. Those who still come at him he pounces on or eats. On tv, Trump responds to threats by yelling louder, interrupting, bullying.
The beast fills its human host with pathological vanity, narcissism, insensitivity, appetite, and fear. It bloats his belly and distorts his features. It invades his brain so that his world is seen through lizard eyes as a jungle of predatory deals, lawsuits, bankruptcies, deceitful associates, partners, and wives. Look at his pathetic trail of lawsuits in his bio on Wikipedia. Like Mussolini, though he’s had multiple wives and lovers and boasts about them, you have the feeling his promiscuity is just lizard promiscuity. He lurches to mate with any woman who enters his field of vision. He tried to court Princess Diana.
To survive, the human Donald Trump has had to create a character, a skin, a persona, to enable the Trumposaur to interact with its terrifying environment. This persona also gives voice, if barely articulate, to the impulses of the Trumposaur. It serves as bait for its prey. It explains why the persona is always interrupting himself with some boastful, mindless ad lib. It is the Trumposaur trying to sound human. Meet “The Donald.” And I really mean the scare quotes.
No rational attempt to defeat the Trumposaur has done anything but propel him because the Trumposaur has primitive magic. His call summons its prey, the voting, democratic populace on which the Trumposaur, like any good populist demagogue, feeds – otherwise known as the mob. When “The Donald” in one of the earlier debates said, interrupting himself, “I LOVE the uneducated!” he really, really meant it.
And the secret of a mob is that we are all candidates for the mob while denying we could ever be part of one. Are you going to point to a roomful of people and single out exactly who belongs to the mob? Are you sure membership in the mob is reserved for those others, hose _________ (fill in the blank): uneducated, unwashed, hillbilly, redneck, naïve, young, Southern, Western, Midwestern, Rust Belt, urban, working class, unemployed, union members, seniors, veterans, working poor, rural, Texans, racists, sexists, soccer moms, angry white men, Republicans, disenfranchised …? No, we’re too educated, sentient, refined, knowing, and civilized to be part of that mob.
But we’re wrong. Trump has the numbers to prove it. His constituency is growing, cutting across all classes and the neat little demographic niches pollsters and pundits love, including the educated, some lifelong Democrats, women, and even some minorities. That’s why all the syndicated columnists, party fathers, analysts and smart broadcasters not only get it wrong, but are FEEDING THE BEAST. I know PhD’s, billionaires, doctors and lawyers who say they’re going to vote for him. If you don’t know anyone who will, you’re living in a bubble.
That’s becaus we all carry a lizard brain around in us. It’s there, waiting for the right signal to emerge. Yes, we spend a lot of time filtering it, caging it, burying it, forgetting it. But it’s there. Why else do democracies persistently vote themselves into tyrannies? Why do mobs form? Against all reason.
Acknowledging this is the secret to the defeating the Trumposaur. There are only a few routes left to slaying the Trumposaur, now. The first is to starve him. That would require CNN and Fox and even PBS and all other media obsessed and addicted to him to ignore Trump, take the needle out of their arms, turn the cameras off him. Ain’t gonna happen.
The second is procedural and bureaucratic: to hope the Republican party has the wit and courage to turn away Trump’s assault through its own arcane nomination procedures. As Sen. Lindsey Graham said to AIPAC, the Republican party may have to lose an election to save the Republic. Do you want to leave the fate of the nation to the wisdom and courage of the Republican Party? Anyway, as I watch (3.25pm PST Mar 30, 2016) Trump has emerged from his meeting with the RNC. I bet he’s cut a deal with them.
We might hope the Trump is exposed as a clown by the broadcast media more convincingly than he already has been, but I don’t see how. They’re trying awfully hard with little success at finding the line between negative coverage that just gets him more votes, and really wounding him. The posture of The New York Times and CNN and Fox and The Washington Post and all the stately newspapers and news channels that disapprove of Trump openly, is disgustingly pathetic, unconvincing, and misses the point. Forget about my name-calling. The attention they pay to him in attempt to quell his rising force is demonstrably, empirically having the opposite effect. His voter base is growing. He even plays the victim and appeals to how unfairly he’s being treated, poor guy, by the media, the RNC, his opponents, debate moderators … whoever. It works to get him more votes because it feeds everyone’ sense of outrage at the powers that be, that hazy “Establishment.”
We can hope Trump realizes he never wanted to be president anyway, and goes home to parlay his success into more money and fame, but his megalomania is being pleasured too much for that to happen. Maybe we could have turned the tide a few months ago. It’s too late now.
The real solution is much harder. In some senses, it has nothing to do with Trump. It has to do with everyone, you and me and the media as individuals, and all our friends. We have to stop being astonished, like deer in the headlights, stop pretending we’re confused, and stop being dismayed, and stop being so goddamned superior than those Others who are voting for Trump. We have to stop supposing that all the millions of people who have already voted for Trump are simply ill-informed or stupid or credulous fools. We have to stop thinking We are not Them. We need to dig deep, introspectively, to feel the draw of The Donald, the pull of his authoritarianism, his promise of dark redemption. We need to tune in and commune with the lizard brain inside us. We need to feel the logic of his allure beyond logic and stop being so goddamned civilized. We need to admit, before it’s too late, that “The Donald” is an ultimate disruptor. He defies all civilized or political wisdom and decorum because he defies all logic. Then, and only then, can we steel our instincts and sharpen our weapons to fight The Beast in its own jungle. History, and Trump’s march, prove fairness and objectivity and reason and dignity and elitist judgments and the decorous belief we’re above the fray are no match for a tyrannical bully, a Trumposaurus Rex. We have to join the fray.
The alternative, I’m afraid, ends tragically as it always does when the beast summons the mob. First, the Muslims. Then the Mexicans. Then the blacks. Then the Jews. Or maybe the Jews go before the blacks. Then other enemies of the state. Then his personal enemies. How many times do we have to see the film? Don’t think his Jewish grandson will protect Jews, any more than all the Jewish philosophers and scientists and Jewish good Germans saved themselves from Hitler. Once you unleash the lizards in all of us, no one is safe.
Our pal Stephen Berk (Professor of History at Union College) has shown that throughout the Diaspora, with the precision of a machine, every four generations after Jews immigrate to a country they are slaughtered or expelled or both. By my count, we’re the Fourth Generation in America.
I’d say cheers as I usually do, K., but let us leave the cheers for the mob.
After the end of the Sabbath service meant to recall the sacrifices in the Temple, we recite a curious addendum. It’s a recipe taken from the Talmud (Kereisos6b) for a kind of incense that was used in the Temple. It required eleven ingredients in specific measures, including “galbanum,” a terpentine-smelling extract of gum plants, and “Carshina lye,” which is toxic and can be substituted for by urine. Indeed, it sounds altogether foul, although if you knew the ingredients of the most expensive perfumes out of Paris, you’d turn up your nose, too. Likewise, together these eleven substances produced a divine smell. Furthermore, the mixture was so sacred, violating the formula by one jot was punishable by death.
Although the Amidah is meant to substitute for the Temple service, and the spreading of smoky incense was the conclusion of the service, this technical, arcane process from a relatively obscure Talmudic passage seems out of place. The rest of these Shabbat prayers are about holiness, peace, and the greatness of God. The fact that it is so insistently technical, earthy, materialistic and sensory, even more so than the original in Exodus30, makes it jarring.
Kabbalists connect ketores to the kabbalistic sefira (aspect) of God called chesed, usually translated as “kindness,” but meaning much more.  The ketores produces a transformative scent. It influences all who smell it. Reading is solitary. Hearing is transient, instant. Seeing shifts. But smell lingers and suffuses.. It creates an alter, changes the ecology of a room. Sharing a scent in the air binds people together. The kabbalistic analogy is clear: Like acts of kindness, ketores emanates and spreads throughout the congregation and out into the world in unforeseen ways that bind humanity together and elevates them.
It naturally makes ones think of the concept of entanglement in quantum mechanics. Ok, that’s weird. Let me try to explain.
Quantum Biology Breaches the Wall of Our Reality
For the last century, most physicists treated the troubling and enigmatic implications of quantum mechanics as something to be banished to the realms of philosophy and metaphysics, trying to keep the nose of the consciousness camel out of the tent of strictly causal and objective physics. Physics still largely quarantines the absurdity of subatomic shenanigans from the observable macroscopic world we live in by claiming the two realities are unconnected. The world we experience continues to behave in an orderly, Newtonian, commonsensical fashion. Things don’t change each other by magic. Reality is there whether someone’s looking at it or not. Stuff can’t be in two places at once and no where at all.
But in the last decades, this quarantine has become increasingly difficult to maintain. Science itself has stormed its own comfortable cliches with experimental results that show consciousness, human or at least intelligent consciousness, is implicated in determining reality even in the macroscopic world we experience directly through our senses. Experiments in the 1960s and 1980s have shown that two objects separated by any conceivable connection, even at other ends of the universe, are entangled and somehow affect each other instantaneously. Still, physics had a whole armory of ways to wall off these disturbing phenomena from commonsense reality. saying that when the quantum world interacted with a macroscopic phenomenon, that macroscopic entity “observed” the probabilistic quantum, collapsing it into a stable realism. Its formal name is “Decoherence.”
But in the last ten years, quantum biology has shown that behaviors in our familiar world of nature are directly connected to and reliant on quantum processes. The orientation of migrating birds. The operation of genes. Photosynthesis. The comfortable quarantine that has kept our sense of reality simple and free from philosophy and metaphysics has now collapsed. And that collapse is utter and complete. It can’t be confined, because it is now likely to be shown that the whole universe interacts at all levels with quantum weirdness.
One of those quantum phenomena that is impossible to ignore at the macroscopic level is entanglement: the spooky coordination between the behavior of objects that have no material, physical or any other possible connection either invisible or theoretical. Even objects – photons – that are traveling apart at the speed of light or are separated by vast distances instantaneously coordinate their reality. When one is tickled, its entangled twin across the universe laughs.
Perhaps we can get comfortable with the way this betrays our commonsense notions of reality for photons, because they are weird little buggers to begin with, both wave and particle, expressions of a probability formula that ineluctably shows they don’t even really exist in any proper sense of the word until they are observed. But entanglement isn’t confined to photons and other sub-atomic particles. As two physicists explain in a recent book:
“We talk in terms of twin-state photons because that situation is readily described and subject to experiment. In principle, however, any two objects that have ever interacted are forever entangled. The behavior of one instantaneously influences the other. An entanglement exists even if the interaction is through each of the objects having interacted with a third object. In principle, our world has a universal connectedness.
“Quantum entanglement for large objects [like chairs or people] is generally too complex to notice. But not always.”
Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, QUANTUM ENIGMA: PHYSICS ENCOUNTERS CONSCIOUSNESS (Oxford UP, 2006)
This wasn’t written by tripped-out tree-hugging Zen Juddhist ecstatic hippies, but by two well-respected tenured physicists at UC (admittedly, it is Santa Cruz, but nonetheless…). Their book, published by the well-respected Oxford University Press, chronicles how orthodox physics has suppressed those enigmatic but unavoidable conclusions of quantum mechanics. And the most disturbing of these enigmas is the conspiracy between human consciousness and the way it binds our reality to the spookiness of the quantum level. Once things including human things, interact with quantum weirdness, it is entangled with it. And, by the way, everything in the universe interacts.
These aren’t just mystic metaphors They are the serious and real, if often censored, consequences of quantum physics. They troubled Einstein and generations of brilliant physicists since, but experimental evidence shows they are incontrovertible.
The science that studies how quantum mechanics breaches the wall of biology is called Quantum Biology. One of the known ways that behavior in our natural, observable world is actually produced by quantum events is the navigation of birds. Another is photosynthesis. A third is enzymatic reactions, including those that transform the nature of one organic substance into another, like milk into cheese via rennet, or juice into wine via yeast, or flour and water into bread, also via yeast. These have rituals attached to them in many cultures. But in Judaism, the metaphysics of their physics (or organic chemistry) is revealed, if we read it through this lens, by the halacha attached to them: cheese, wine, bread.
Another event that relies on quantum biology, and all the metaphysical implication it brings, is smell.
I always wondered why ketores is recited after the end of the Musafamidah. It seems like such an odd and specific intrusion in the climax of the service. But connecting the incense with chesed brings it all together. When we recite these technical instructions for making the incense as a prayer, we are reminded of the elaborate instructions for building the Mishkan, the Sanctuary of the Temple from which these verses are taken. We both remember and look forward to rebuilding it. Ketores is designed to create the most beautiful, pungent, memorable, unique, and transporting scent, wafted on smoke to fill the Temple. We’re supposed to remember that Divine smell – or rehearse the rabbis’ memory of it – and also remember their pain at its loss. As Proust knew, no sense evokes memory more than smell. We are supposed to long for that smell as we long for the Temple, with the curious admixture of ache and inspiration, in the hope of the time when we can smell that smell again in the rebuilt Temple. This is an ultimate nostalgia, nostos algia, pain for home.
Metaphysics in the physics (and chemistry) of incense
The recipe for ketores specified in the Talmud, specifically the part of the formula that will produce an emanating smell I believe, is an enzymatic reaction produced by lye, which as I said above, relies on quantum mechanics. Lye, which is highly alkaline, catalyses and binds all the other ingredients into an active, dynamic new compound that transcends the sum of its parts. The siddur specifies that urine could be substituted for lye to rpoduce the same outcome, but it is undignified for use in the Temple. It makes sense: it would introduce the same highly alkaline catalysis, depending on the diet of the donor. (At the risk of boring you, lye is produced by a membrane cell chloralkali process, which is itself a quantum biological process.)
When we learn that ketores means chesed because it spreads out and connects all of us in unseen and ineffable ways, it is not just metaphorical. It is literally true at the level of physics.
From the viewpoint of orthodox science, the ultimate heretical implication of quantum mechanics is what I would call the “Quantum G-Hypothesis.”
THE QUANTUM G- HYPOTHESIS
The universe is sustained by an unimaginably dynamic and omniscient Universal Consciousness.
It (or properly, Who) observes every one of the infinite number of infinitesimal quantum events occurring everywhere in every sub-nanosecond.
This continuous observation by a Universal Consciousness enables reality to unfold.
The Quantum G-Hypothesis actually does away with some fairly absurd and, so far, unprovable assertions (think of them as contortions designed to preserve logic in the face of experimental and mathematical proofs that show logic’s limitations): The Many Worlds Hypothesis, String Theory, A Universal Robot Consciousness; Decoherence; Random Collapses of the Wavefunction, and some other gyrations too technical to delve here.
These still dominate the way orthodox physics is taught today. I predict they will be short-lived.
On the other hand, embracing the G-theory explains plenty of scientific mysteries without introducing any idea not consistent with what science itself has shown. It explains the “Unreasonable Efficacy of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” as Eugene Wigner described it in his 1960 paper. It explains the otherwise unreasonably, inexplicable, and statistically far-fetched coincidence of constants in the universe that have enabled life to arise: Planck’s Constant, the strength of electromagnetic, gravity, and weak forces, among others. It solves philosophical problems, too. It explains how Free Will and Determinism can both exist without contradiction. And it explains how consciousness arises from matter.
At the same time, this vision – or scent – of a Quantum-Mechanical, Reality-Unfolding, All-Observing God moves in the opposite direction, from science to an appreciation of spiritual matters. It gives us a pretty good understanding of what Jewish mystics see in God: an Unfolding Ever-Present Consciousness observing every infinitesimal event in the universe, even at the ineffable and impossibly infinite quantum level.
 This blog was inspired by a Shabbat drash (2016), by R. Yitzchok Feldman of Emek Beracha in Palo Alto in which he expounded on the mitzvah of the incense used in the Temple,
This was a hypertext originally published by Mots Pluriels no. 19, October 2001. It was later redesigned by Reza Negarestani, the amazing post-everything author of Cyclonopedia, whose journey out of Iran and into the center of world discourse is an epic in its own.
The poetry we learn to read in school is famous for its difficulty. The difficulty comes from layers of possible interpretation. For many, the encounter with poetry is thankfully brief, but whether a joyous or horrid experience it introduces us to reading as the opposite of what good communication is supposed to be: clear, unambiguous, efficient.
Now imagine a genre of ultra-poetry, written in an alphabet on beyond zebra, where every word, every letter multiplies possible meanings. Such a literature would invite the reader into a mad tango of interpretation. The promise of unfathomable depths would beckon our imaginations into an embrace with the lure of transcendence, a sacred psychotropic drug. Call it letterature.
The Torah is written in primitive Hebrew. It lacks vowels, which means the same consonants can represent multiple words. As originally written, the Hebrew Bible also lacked spaces between words, so it was in essence one long word. It wasn’t until groups of Jewish scribes, the Masoretes, who worked between the 6th and 10th centuries CE, added definitive breaks, punctuation and vowel marks that the Torah was frozen and reduced into a canonical version. The Masoretes created what was in effect a translation, and all translations are partly treasonous –traduttore tradittore, as the Italians say. Choices of meaning were negotiated based on intense and sacred scholarship from the Talmud, the centuries-long interpretive Jewish tradition. But as negotiations in committee, they cut off alternatives that remained alive in the original text as multiple coexisting potentials and mutually-illuminating layers. That’s why I call the Masoretic project, with all due respect, a “catastrophe.”
So many of the most radioactive words in the original Hebrew -(dbrדבר or etאת) are not-yet-words or something-more-than-simple words. They are lambent with meanings that are always becoming, emergent, autopoetic. In short, almost all Hebrew texts are always already a form of literary, one might even say poetic, expression: difficult, opaque, demanding interpretation.
By the standard of the Greek ideal of clarity, Hebrew without vowels is a hopeless muddle. Walter Ong inOrality and Literacy(1988) and Eric Havelock in The Origins of Western Literacy (1982) both show how perfecting the alphabet as a tool for transcribing and preserving speech brought about massive cultural and congnitive innovation. Indeed, Havelock places this innovation at the root of the origin of Western Civilization. But both scholars have pernicious biases about the origins of literacy among the Hebrews, dismissing Hebrew as primitive and incapable of either inspiration or literature, which is of course laughable in the face of the Bible.
Yet, armed with our understanding of the essential alephtavian style of an ambiguity-generating script, we can see that vowelless Hebrew is already a form of hyper-poetry, generating difficulties and inviting interpretation in almost every word and letter.
Indeed, the whole literary/non-literary dichotomy makes no sense as we try to apply a Greek understanding to Hebrew textuality. We need a whole new word for the kind of discourse engendered by these letters which form words that are never quite words with fixed meaning as the Greek ideal demands.
In reading Hebrew, we are perpetually reading a kind of letterature. Sense is suspended between our decoding of the letter and our reading of the word. We shuttle back and forth in an interpretive frenzy attempting, often vainly, to be sure of the intended meaning. This is really literary reading tending not towards clarity but dyslexia. As Amos Oz quipped, “There is no word in Hebrew for fiction.” Perhaps even the truth value of any text is suspended between the threat and promise of the infinite sign, ever-promulgating interpretations that at the first reading defeats the illusion of telepathy, but at another opens hailing frequencies to a very animated and dynamic metaphysical plane.
I don’t know about how you take your literature (or should I say, how your literature takes you) but this sure feels how I am seized by mine, in all its transports of pleasure, the joy of possibility and the enticement of revelation to come.
A good poem – or a dense novel striving to become a hypertext – exiles us, for a time. We read and we are lost somewhere in the wildness of the possible and the wilderness of mutually-enriching meanings, in bemidbar. The opacity of the text tells us that if we wander there long enough, and if we climb the mountain, then perhaps revelation will come. Reading the Torah then becomes devotional, a form of pray. This letterature is liturgy.
Now, in our age of virtual reality, the fate of this constant assault of multiple mutually self-altering meanings becomes relevant again. Hypertext in its ideal form makes every part of the text central, a hub with spokes to many possible links, and therefore marginal. The principle of hypertext is the intelligence of the reader wandering in a wilderness of texts, each become like a letter in an alphabet that goes on beyond tav, omega, zebra.
The premature insistence on presence and intimacy in our culture has led to the urge for a technology of telepresence or virtual presence or cyberpresence. This urge has metaphysical roots. And it has obvious ramifications. In what sort of voice does God address Moses? Will He again address humanity?
To most readers and others fascinated by VR, nothing could be more remote or uninteresting than the quasi-religious subjects of this blog. As one e-mail correspondent put it, “I wish sleep on the good rabbis and the Church fathers.” In other words, the eyes of most readers are on the future, on a gleaming technological horizon that is seductive and brings with it promises of utopian reorganizations of capital, labor, play, communication, sex, and intimacy, or at very least, interesting new cultural terrain to explore and colonize, interesting new configurations of old relationships.
This blog is exploring a continuity from the time we scrawled on cave walls to the day coming soon when we have a form of art that relies on brain-to-brain communication. This continuity shows that it has always been brain-to-brain communication, or at least mind-to-mind. And the technologies which we so often view as doing something to us, as autonomous forces like The Terminator, are extensions of all our qualities. Our media technologies can even be a form of prayer.
Whether or not one believes that the Hebrew alphabet was a divine revelation to Moses on Sinai, we can understand why the cultural moment of its invention would be recorded as one of the most transformative revolutions in history.
We can see how the conception of an omnipotent, omnipresent and invisible God is coeval with it. We can understand why a powerful leader would want to expel or eradicate those who possess this potent new tech, especially of they were slaves: there’s lots of them and they have an ax to grind with Pharaoh’s rule. We can understand why slaves attribute to it mythologies of redemption, revelation, and revolution. That it coincides with the best evidence we have for the actual historic origins of this new technology of the alphabet lends force to the argument.
As such, the origin of the alphabet becomes a model for other moments in history that were wrought by sudden eruptions and deployment of disruptive technologies, especially technologies of communication, since they inevitably bring a new ethos, new cognitive tools, new arts, new epistemologies, and new gods. Telegraph, telephone, radio, television, the Internet – all were born amid prophesies for their transformation of civilization and even the invention or summoning of new gods.
We’ve seen in previous posts that, if we read the Hebrew closely and cleverly, the Bible tells the story of the origin of the alphabet as a gift from God to Moses on Mount Sinai. God instructs Moses to teach this new disruptive communication technology to the Children of Israel. Moses and Aaron use it to liberate them from slavery in Egypt by showing its disruptive power to Pharaoh in his court.
Whether or not one believes that the Hebrew alphabet was a divine revelation to Moses on Sinai, we can understand why the moment of its invention would be recorded as one of the most transformative revolutions in history. We can see how the conception of an omnipotent, omnipresent and invisible God comes with this new cognitive weapon. We can understand why a powerful leader would let those who possess this new technology would be torn between expelling them and eradicating them. And we can see why a culture of slaves who seem to come out of nowhere attribute to it mythologies of redemption, revelation, and revolution that changes humanity for millenia. That it coincides with the best evidence we have for the actual historic origins of this new technology of the alphabet lends force to the argument.
We’ve seen (in Part 1 and Part 2) that the Bible tells the story of the origin of the alphabet as a gift from God to Moses on Mount Sinai. God instructs Moses to teach this new disruptive communication technology to the Children of Israel and use it to liberate them from slavery in Egypt. He and his brother Aaron then stage a contest of scripts in the court of Pharaoh. Pharaoh summons his hieroglyphic scribes to show that the new writing system is not so special. The war of demos takes the form of magical-seeming transformations and “signs” (the Hebrew word for “thing” “plague” and “word” are the same). Water turn to blood. Frogs crawl out of the slime. But on the third contest, when Moses strikes the “dust of the earth” and summons “lice” all over Egypt, the Egyptian scribes are defeated. They throw up their hands and exclaim, “This is the finger of God!”
But why do the Egyptians give up now after having no trouble matching the transformation of water into blood or summoning frogs from the mud? A clue is in the nature of the transformation. Hieroglyphic signs for frogs and blood are well-known. What are hieroglyphs for dust and lice?
In Egyptian, the spoken word for lice is “tiny” or “diminutive” (the same word used for little girls). But they didn’t have a glyph for it in the older hieroglyphics in use at the time of Moses, nor are there glyphs for any adjective, because they are abstractions, a quality attached to a thing and enormously hard to represent by itself (you could color a tunic or show a small person, but how what is the picture for “smallness”?) Nor does there seem to be a hieroglyph for “dust.” Lice, like dust, are ubiquitous but nearly invisible little nothings. They are like the finger of a ubiquitous but invisible Deity stirring the pot of the universe and history. Kinim [כנם], the Hebrew word here translated as “lice,” is used in Israel to refer also to those tiny gnats that make a buzzing sound but which can’t be seen. In the American South, we call them “noseeums.”
Furthermore, the Hebrew letters for plague are D-B-R [דבר]. By supplying different vowels from those in traditional interpretations, these letters can also signify words or things or statements or even commandments, as in the Ten Commandments. As a word, DBR דבר is, like EHT את, a one-word demonstration of the power and facility of this new script to add abstraction and multiply layers of meanings. Hebrew without vowels, the Hebrew of the Bible, intrinsically adds complexity and even poetryto even simple texts.