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.

 

The Quantum Theology of Matzah: Science delves the spiritual mysteries of yeast

What’s the difference between bread and matzah?

 

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 11.16.48 PMThe youngest child at the Passover seder asks, “Why on other nights do we eat bread or matzah but on this night only matzah?”  The Torah says that the matzah didn’t have time to rise before the slaves had to flee Egypt, so Jews focus on this inflation and all its many symbolisms: inflation of self, of ego, of pride, of valuing material achievements, Pharaoh’s  tyrannical sense of himself as a deity, and so on.

But this answer skips over a more fundamental question: Isn’t matzah really, after all, just bread? Both matzah and bread are just flour, and water, so aren’t they just versions of the same thing?  If they’re different, what’s the difference? What makes bread bread and matzah matzah? Why do we say an extra prayer over matzah?

The simplest answer is yeast. But what does yeast do? Yeast makes flour and water into bread. Yeast makes bread rise. It also makes grapes into wine. 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. Wine leavens our spirit. Bread sates. It’s no wonder humans worshiped bread and wine for thousands of years and even now many religions still sanctify them and use them to sanctify us. And it’s no wonder the Passover haggadah calls matzah “the bread of affliction.” Matzah is dead bread. Yeast adds life to inert foodstuffs, transforming them magically into something spiritual. By ingesting wine and bread, we take some of that magic into us.

Humans recognized and harnessed the magical properties of yeast millenia before they learned to write 5000 years ago, but we are now just discovering the truly mysterious – even mystical – properties of  yeast, and these new scientific discoveries seem to answer our questions about matzah. In other words, science gives us a window into the spiritual mysteries of yeast.

The quantum biology of yeast and enzymes: gateway between life and death

Yeast is a single-celled living creature. When we let these creatures feed on their favorite food – sugar or carbohydrates – they digest it into sugar’s components: energy, alcohol, carbon dioxide, and some residue molecules that add flavors. Even pre-literate cultures were in awe of the way yeast brought bread and wine to life and worshiped it as divine. Now, modern biology is coming to grips with this ancient wisdom: yeast is the gateway between the living and the inert. But how, precisely, does it perform this trick? After tens of thousands of years, the new science of quantum biology has finally given us a glimpse of how yeast performs its magic.

The process the ancients observed as a result of yeast’s action is bubbling, rising fermentation – chemists call it catalysis. In the cooler processing of wine, the alcohol is retained in the liquid for our pleasure. Carbon dioxide is partly released when wine is moved in barrels. Some winemakers leave some of this carbon dioxide in the wine, and wine with lots of it is nicknamed “bubbly- like champagne – but most wine is “degassed.” When we bake bread, we don’t get drunk on it because the higher heat of baking evaporates the alcohol, but like it does in wine, the carbon dioxide gas creates bubbles. These expand and burst in the sticky dough, giving bread its texture.

High school chemistry labs often use yeast 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.”

Enzymes are present in all living things. They are incorporated into every living cell on Earth and are essential in every process that sustains life: digestion, neural action, making new cells and repairing old ones (growth and healing), reproduction, and so on. They’re not organisms, but no organism or living process survives without them. In short, they’re a good battleground for the eternal philosophical war 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 illustrates the problem and limitation of materialism: how does our experience of having a mind arise from mere stuff? 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. And although there’s plenty of fake news and overheated press that periodically announces it, no one has ever created life from non-living stuff. No frankensteins, though the dream and nightmare of achieving godlike powers haunts humanity.

Yeast is so powerful a stage for this contest between mechanism and vitalism because although it is a living thing, science until recently seemed confident it was purely a chemical machine. True, how yeast and other enzymes brought life to non-living stuff so efficiently was still mysterious, but in the debate, yeast offered the best proof for the materialist view of life. It seemed to explain how life is introduced into inert matter without resort to purely non-mechanistic explanations. Until now.

It turns out that enzymes require quantum effects to do their work, and quantum mechanics defy a strictly materialist view of the cosmos. Quantum physics defies logic, though we’ve learned to use it in MRIs and computer chips, and most scientists and engineers simply put aside the way quantum mechanics rattles the foundations of science. In the majority version of quantum theory, every quantum process requires an aware being, an observer, to watch it work in order for it to become real. This has mind-boggling implications, not least of which is it hints at the essence we invoke when we say the extra prayer over matzah. In order for me to explain, I first need to review the craziness of the quantum world.

Five weird things about quantum mechanics

To most, even sophisticated scientists, quantum mechanics seems just weird. There’s no way to explain quantum processes without over-simplifying or resorting to analogies which only dimly picture its actual, full-on weirdness. But here are a few of the facts that you will need to know as we continue with our discussion of matzah. I leave it to you to decide how, or even if, you want to grapple 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. (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. A subatomic particle holds multiple possible logically exclusive properties at the same time. When it is observed or measured, it “collapses” from its various possible quantum states into one state. I.e,. it stops behaving quantumly and starts behaving classically. (Called “Measurement”)

Quantum tunneling in yeast

To understand the quantum theology of matzah, the last is the most important. Until now, biologists have been content to leave the weirdness of the quantum world to physicists, because they thought they were immune to it. Biologists 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 classical laws of physics. Thankfully (they believed) subatomic monkey business disappears when it pokes its head up into an organism, because the complexity of the organism automatically “measures” (observes) it, though no one specified how. They now seem to be really wrong. It’s awkward.

Resurrected by water, living yeast seems to make the inert come alive. Yeast 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, we now know requires quantum tunneling (see above, #4).

If you’d rather nap, this is a good time

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 that 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, hundreds of times more 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. Quantum tunneling, number three on our list of weird quantum effects above, can. Again, at the risk of over-simplifying, a subatomic particle like an electron can 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 conclude it must be involved.[1] Since quantum tunneling have been confirmed in the activities of other enzymes, this is more than a guess.

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 quantum Uncertainty – 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 sheer bulk and realism of the organism in which the quantum action occurs somehow collapses any quantum craziness, that the fact of the organism as a macroscopic entity itself performs the “observing.” But that argument no longer holds water and even seems like a tautology, fabulous circular reasoning, because enzymes drag quantum action and weirdness into the scene of the organism at every level. Enzymes, and the quantum, is ubiquitous in every process of every cell in an organism.

Wake up

In short, enzymes seem 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 is quantum just by dint of being a big thing like a fish or a bird.

Another way materialists banish the quantum: the Many Worlds Hypothesis

Scientists have resolved the measurement problem another way. When the wave of quantum possibilities collapses into an actuality, the information contained in those probabilities has to go somewhere. Information, like energy, has its own law of conservation in the universe. Some quantum physicists suggest 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 do occur there, in these new universes. This is the Many Worlds Hypothesis, although I personally think the adjective “many” doesn’t do it justice in its sweep.

The Many Worlds Hypothesis is mathematically satisfying and sidesteps any suggestion of metaphysics. But let’s look at how radical it really is.

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. Now imagine all the quantum processes going on all over the universe every instant, each one spawning an alternative universe of its own, presumably where the same laws of physics apply so they are spawning and infinity of multiverses, too. When I do the dizzying visualization of this scenario, it leads me to ask: Which is the more ridiculous vision of the cosmos, the one where there are unlimited infinities of universes or there is a Single Entity observing everything? In my opinion, the Multiverse Hypothesis creates a vision of the cosmos that is at least as crazy as imagining an unprovable Big Guy in the Sky watching everything.

But who knows? That’s what they said about quantum theory in the twentieth century. And that’s what most well-educated, postmodern, rational, sophisticated people say about God.

Quantum theology of matzah: Where is He?

Quantum theology is a term used by a few but growing number of theologians and mystics. On the other side of this philosophical tug of war, they are eager to seize on quantum theory to prove the existence of God. 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 the mystical. Their “proofs” often require taking analogous-sounding mysteries as literal equivalents. Quantum theology is largely the provenance of well-educated but reductionist fundamentalists.

The case of yeast is different. In this dance between the material and the vital, between science and faith, science leads us to conclude something strange is happening in bread that doesn’t occur in matzah. 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, and the problem of a conscious observer, has entered the tent of biology, but they were summoned by the biology. In fact, the tent is the camel. Something or someone has to be observing quantum events in enzymes to make them operative in life. Someone or something has to be operating life. Omnisciently.

Put biophysics together with the metaphysics of matzah and you get a powerful sermon. Matzah is bread without human attention (shmurah matzah notwithstanding) and 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 vastly, but more comprehensibly, than the universes imagined by the Many Worlds Hypothesis, where every quantum event creates disconnected alternatives, This God gives the universe an elegant unity. His watchfulness also makes life possible. It’s hard not to like this God and this idea of Him. Unless of course you find the very idea of anything not mechanical offensive to reason.

Sermon on Matzah

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, confirmation of our biases. It suggests the liberation of science from its prejudices. Is it really harder to believe in God than in the Multiverse Hypothesis? I don’t think so. The benefits of embracing both the intrinsic beauty of the metaphysical explanation and the elegance of its logic make a pretty persuasive case against scientific atheism. From the outside looking in, all the attempts to exclude a Universal Observer from the quantum situation look like contortions by science to avoid the obvious, the result of a fundamentalist-like commitment to a belief that there must not be a God in the universe.

This message in the matzah makes it the twin of Elijah’s cup, its secret sharer and, perhaps, the answer to the question it poses. One seder decades ago, when my children saw Elijah’s cup standing at the end of the seder, they asked, “Where is he?” The matzah asks the same question about God: “Where is He?” and answers, “Not in this poor, dead bread that we eat because we are slaves. But yes, in everything that lives.”


[1] 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.

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

Why does the Talmud warn against teaching Greek to Jewish children?

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

The last pages of the Talmud volume Sotah brings to a climax the apocalyptic portrait of the decline of Jewish spirit after the destruction of the Temple. It marches through a long, dispiriting list of the horrible things that happen as Jews have to abandon customs that could only be kept alive when there was a spiritual center in Jerusalem and they lived as a nation inside their own borders. In the middle of this lamentation (called Yeridas HaDoros – “decline of the generations”), the Talmud warns somewhat mysteriously that fathers shouldn’t teach Greek to their sons.What did the Sages have in mind?

Continue reading “Perpetual Chanukah in the West – or – Why the Pythagorean Theorem is More Than Just Math”

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.

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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 dporush@yahoo.com.

We Are All Telepaths: The ontogeny of speech recapitulates the phylogeny of civilization

My Granddaughter Siona

As I write this, my granddaughter Siona is just shy of her second birthday, God bless her. She is very communicative and expressive and highly intelligent (aren’t all granddaughters?)

But she doesn’t speak much yet, at least in English. She has a few monosyllables: da, ma, pa, dee, co, ekk, choo, [sniff with nose = flowers], [cluck with tongue = horsey].. and a couple dozen signs: rub tummy for hunger, squeeze hand for milk, put fists together for “more,” thump chest for “teddy,” slap sides for “dog”…

All of us in her life know what these signs mean. And if you look in her eyes, she will hold your gaze and, well… I could write and she is telling volumes. But she makes plain her frustration. She is feeling and wanting to tell sentences, and through series of signs and sounds she is, but we, the adults, are only getting parts.  Telepathy would be so much better.

In Siona’s frustration, you can see she discovered in the last few months that telepathy doesn’t exist. But until recently, she thought it did. Without belaboring the point, we know what lies before her, and though she doesn’t know the particulars, she knows the meaning of it. She will have to labor to learn how to make all the intimates around her understand what is in her head. And the monumental labor, the painful, glorious, fun of the journey in front of her makes me want to cry. It is like watching her getting kicked out of Eden. In fact, it is exactly like getting kicked out of Eden and losing your Adamic prelapsarian language. Siona is now learning she will have to communicate by the sweat of her brow and claw her way back into making people around her understand a vague and veiled version of what was just recently all-at-once known, obvious, and true.

Soon enough, she will experience the catastrophe of the Tower of Babel.

As she slowly adds words and connects them syntactically and begins her voyage through those infinite but constrained channels of spoken language and then written language, she will re-enact the evolution of TMT, and slowly lose her infantile, divine conviction that everyone is telepathic and learn how to play the keyboards of these telepathic technologies we invent.

Siona’s linguistic and media ontogeny will recapitulate the phylogeny of our civilizations. jellyfishflower2And so do all of our personal journeys. So the urge to be telepathic is something we carry with us ontologically, in our own life history. We can excavate and use this desire both to interrogate the history of learning to use language and each individual act of communication.

Every time we speak, write, sing there is at least some residue of desire and urgency to get inside the heads of others and let them into ours. We are all telepaths.

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.
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  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.

 

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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