“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.

“In the Penal Colony” describes an elaborate torture device that tattoos the naked body of a convicted criminal with his “sentence” en route to killing him. This “sentencing machine” uses sharp needles and the victim’s own blood to inscribe, in an extremely ornate, elaborate (and therefore even more excruciating) script, the victim’s “sentence” on his skin.Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 4.44.29 PM Indeed, the words of the sentence itself is written only on a narrow band across the torso; the rest of the body is tortured by tattooed by exquisite curlicues, flourishes, and embellishments. We view the sentencing machine through the eyes of an Explorer who has landed on the Penal Colony. He is being given a tour by the officer in charge of administering justice and operating the machine.

“Here stands his apparatus before us. It consists, as you see, of three parts…the Bed, the upper one the Designer, and this one is the middle that moves up and down is called the Harrow. …The Harrow is the instrument for the actual execution of the sentence'” [FN1]

The officer invites the Explorer (and Kafka and the reader) to “look beyond the harrow” to where the true significance of the machine lies.

“‘And how does the sentence run?” asks the Explorer.

The officer, showing the absurdity of his own narrow faith, expresses surprise at the Explorer’s knowledge about the tenets of his creed:

“You don’t know that either?'” he asks. He goes on to explain its operation. When he is finished, the Explorer is ready to move on to the next sight.

Now I know all about it,” said the explorer as the officer came back to him. ” [FN4]

All except the most important thing,” he answered, seizing the explorer’s arm and pointing upwards: “In the Designer are all the cogwheels that control the movements of the Harrow, and this machinery is regulated according to the inscription demanded by the sentence. I am still using the guiding plans drawn by the former Commandant. Here they are” – he extracted some sheets from the leather wallet – “but I’m sorry I can’t let you handle them, they are my most precious possessions. Just take a seat and I’ll hold them in front of you like this, then you’ll be able to see everything quite well.” He spread out the first sheet of paper. The explorer would have liked to say something appreciative, but all he could see was a labyrinth of lines crossing and recrossing each other, which covered the paper so thickly that it was difficult to discern the blank spaces between them.

“Read it,” said the officer.

“I can’t,” said the explorer.

“Yet it’s clear enough,” said the officer.

“It’s very ingenious,” said the explorer evasively, “but I can’t make it out.”

“Yes,” said the officer with a laugh, putting the paper away again, “it’s no calligraphy for schoolchildren. It needs to be studied closely. I’m quite sure in the end you would understand it too.”* Of course, the script can’t be a simple one; it’s not supposed to kill a man straight off, but only after an interval…So there have to be lots and lots of flourishes around the actual script; the script itself runs around the body only in a narrow girdle; the rest of the body is reserved for the embellishments.” [148-149].

Later the officer tells the Explorer, “This procedure and method of execution which you are now having the opportunity to admire, has at the moment no longer any open adherents in our colony. I am its sole advocate, and at the same time the sole advocate of the old Commandant’s tradition.” [153]

The Explorer learns that one of the most refinements of the penal process is that the convicted does not have any prior idea of his sentence – for instance, “Honor Thy Superiors” as punishment for disobedience – nor even that he has been sentenced. The punished is supposed to “learn” about his sentence by reading it as it is transcribed painfully upon his own body. The subject is thus forced to “read” his own body as pain, the sentence dawning on the subject slowly, over the course of the hours it takes for this writing machine to do its work before bleeding its victim to death..

This is an exquisite turn, for it makes the prisoner’s reading of “the sentence” into an exercise in transcendental “illumination” (in both senses, as an enlightenment and as an embellishment of a medieval manuscript), while it forces the subject into a very strange relationship to his own body. The subject achieves a religious cognizance of his own crimes, as if the message were signaled from another world, while the skin becomes the palimpsest for a strange ritual, a kind of papyrus or better yet, a parchment, like the parchment of the scrolls of the Torah, which are also made of very fine and sensitive animal skins. Further, the punishment has to be finely adjusted, for it is no good if the victim doesn’t “get” the sentence before he is killed. The officer, recalling the good old days, says, “How we all absorbed the look of transfiguration on the face of the sufferer, how we bathed our cheeks in the radiance of that justice…” [154].

The religious tenor of Kafka’s portrait is underscored by the language of the officer. reveres the former Commandant and portrays him in messianic terms.

“[T]he organization of the whole penal colony is his work. We who were his friends knew even before he died that the organization of the colony was so perfect that his successor, even with a thousand new schemes in his head, would find it impossible to alter anything, at least for many years to come. And our prophesy has come true; the new Commandant has had to acknowledge its truth. …”

The officer also seems to be intriguing against the new Commandant, who doesn’t share the officer’s religion, his fervor for the old Commandant’s fundamentalist sense of justice. In fact, the explorer’s advent at the colony has precipitated a crisis in the officer. Banking on the Explorer’s sense of justice and as a disinterested observer, the officer is planning a public demonstration meant to strip the New Commandant of his authority. “If my indictment doesn’t drive him out of the hall it will force him to his knees to make the acknowledgment: “Old Commandant, I humble myself before you.” [159]

However, the officer’s coup fails, and in despair and defeat, the officer consigns himself to punishment – and transport – by the Sentencing Machine. The officer takes his place on the bed, the Harrow starts to work, and only then the officer notes that “a wheel in the Designer should have been creaking; but everything was quiet, not even the slightest hum could be heard. Because it was working so silently the machine simply escaped one’s attention.” [164]

The Designer starts popping open, wheels pop out and roll out until it is quite empty and then the Harrow stops writing, it “merely jabs. …leading to a horrible end, the body suspended over the pit, skewered.” The explorer looks into the face of the corpse and sees there .”no redemption, no exquisite torture…only murder.” They look for a place to bury the officer, come to the teahouse, which has the air of an ancient place, evoking old days long past “an historic tradition of some kind with the power of old days” [166]…and then they come across the humble grave of the Old Commandant, whose epitaph reads: ” “Here rests the old Commandant. His adherents, who now must remain nameless, have dug this grave and set up this stone. There is a prophecy that after a certain number of years the Commandant will rise again and lead his adherents from his house to recover the colony. Have faith and wait!'” [167].

This tale suggests several interlaced interpretations, but most Kafka scholars agree that it is at once deeply Jewish and profoundly authorial or textual in a furtively Jewish way. Kafka began his deepening involvement with Judiaism around 1911, when he was 28, partly as a more general struggle to find a foundational intellectual heritage, partly in rebellion against his father, who was decidedly secular and assimilationist. [FN6] When he wrote “In the Penal Colony” in 1914, he had just completed Kierkegaard’s lacerating Book of the Judge, his statement of absolute faith in God. Under Kierkegaard’s influence, Kafka seemed to be grappling with the penal and judgmental qualities of Judaism, a struggle we can also discern in his stories “Before the Law,” The Trial, andThe Castle.

In the context of Kafka’s more general involvement in Judaism, it is easy to discern the many references in “In the Penal Colony” to the minority position of European Judaism. The entire Penal Colony seems like a ghetto, while the officer is the only remaining adherent of the old faith. It is also simple to read in the officer’s description of the mutually exclusive and strained relationship between the New Commandant and the Old Commandant, in allusions to the messianism of Judaism, and the zealous behavior of the officer himself a more general parable of the strained relationship between Christianity and Judaism and even of Judaism’s subversive, submissive, and eventually self-destructive posture vis a vis Christianity. But in this essay I will confine my considerations to the scribal concerns of Kafka in the context of Judaism and not so much the social or cultural Jewish context but its metaphysical one.

Kafka is expressing in “In the Penal Colony” his passionate reaction to Judaism. Judaism’s intense, insistent, labyrinthine textuality becomes the metaphor of a punishing writing machine that both inscribes and renders judgement on the guilty. But even through its indictment of Judaism, it also reflects Judaism as a route to understanding through texts that is decidedly non-Western.

Judaism has a unique relationship between Divine revelation and acts of reading and writing, of textuality. The history of Judaic metaphysics can be understood from this perspective as a series of “en-textualizations,” a complex dance between the incomprehensibility of divine Intention and the insistence that this intention is embodied in written words, in texts, not oral prophecy or pronouncements nor in the physicality of the human body. For instance, a Jewish mystical tradition holds that Torah was written before Creation itself. God was both its Author, yes, but also its First Reader. He read the Torah as a blueprint for the universe. Moses’ revelation of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai is first inscribed in stone by God’s finger. Orthodox Jews believe that the Mosaic revelation was actually the complete written Torah, the entire Five Books of Moses that Jews today read from scrolls unfurled in the synagogue during religious holidays, and three days a week, including every Sabbath. Written with ink on very fine animal skins stitched together and rolled onto two scrolls, it is ceremonially unfurled and held before the public reader.

Other strains of Judaism take more historical views, understanding the Mosaic revelation as the first in a series of transcriptions and redactions which produce the Tanakh, the canon of the entire Old Testament, including the Five Books of Moses, Prophets, Kings, and the Scriptures (Books of Esther, Job, Psalms, etc.) codified before the second century BCE.

But the texts and religious literacy that best captures the sensibility in which Kafka writes is the Talmudic tradition, a unique product of Diaspora Judaism. The Talmud was bred in the hothouse Jewish cultures of the diaspora after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. It records the disputes of rabbis engaged in an ongoing symposium about the inner meanings of the Torah and the orally transmitted laws of the Sanhedrin (the Mishnah), the Jewish Supreme Court that was also destroyed with the Temple. Around 200 CE, Rabbi Judah haNasi (the Prince)  redacted the oral law in a telegraphic and elliptical fashion. Commentaries and debates in the academies of Babylon and Palestine, and then across Northern Africa and Europe were recorded through the fifteenth century [FN7]. One of the world’s most elaborate texts, it was composed collectively, and at times anonymously, by rabbis and commentators working in the academies first of Babylon, and then of Alexandria, Cairo, Persia, Spain, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere from the first century A.D. onwards, all in correspondence with each other. Even today there are modern efforts to re-codify the Talmud and add on its margins even newer commentaries. [FN8]. By contrast with the familiar and spare stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeccah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron, the Talmud gives us a mixture of close reasoning, folklore, and tales that fill in the blanks of the commandments and stories found in the Torah, It elaborates structures that define Jewish ritual and the interpretation of law for changing conditions. The Talmud represents a babble of voices. It is infamous for its hair-splitting distinctions, notorious for its detailed reasoning and torturous logic based not in classical Greek reasoning (though influences of it appear) but in a devotion to the problems and ambiguities posed by the original Hebrew phrasings of the text according to its own rules of exegesis.

One simple icon of the differentness of Jewish reading practices is the page of the Talmud itself. Captured ingeniously by Daniel Bromberg, a Viennese printer in the 16th century, the layout here both untangles the multivocal nature of the talmud symposium and announces its elaborate multi-vocality and multivalence.

page of talmud
A typical page of the Talmud

Indeed, examining both the layout of the a typical page of the Talmud and its markedly non-Western interpretive practices reveals that the Talmud is almost certainly what Kafka had in mind when he described the work of the Penal “sentencing machine.”

 

First there is the physical layout of the page of the Talmud which would confound the Western reader: a central text is surrounded by columns – margins of crowded commentary and commentary on commentary in successively smaller print, including hypertext-like references to other pages in the Talmud and to external sources. Where does one look first? Where on this page, which seems to unfold marginalia from a central text, does one read first? Our Western training to look for a line of thought, to follow a train of ideas, to seek an authoritative text, is betrayed as much as it is on reading a computerized hypertext.

Beyond this physical confoundment there is the semantic or literacy problems posed by the relationship between an apparently central text – in these cases the sentence delivered by the Harrow written in a narrow band, or the basic text that occupies the center of the page of the Talmud – and the elaborations on that sentence. The “flourishes” and “embellishments” seem inessential to the Western eye but capture the essence of the script, its meaning, to the trained reader. You have to labor over the script to read it, find the hidden and occult paths through the labyrinth, and in that pain and in that labor arises special acts of reading which render true, even metaphysical meaning, hidden meaning.[FN10] Unlike a technical manual or much of the Western tradition of writing for clarity, the Talmudic text and the Sentence of the Harrow are not meant to be transparent; they are meant to be vehicles for revelation. The officer exhorts the Explorer “to look beyond the Harrow for the true meaning of the sentence.”This very particular style of hermeneutics and episteme arises and is encouraged uniquely by Hebrew readership. The Hebrew alphabet, developed among Hebrew slaves in the South Sinai in the 16th century BCE, is extremely inefficient.

Hebrew was in fact the very first phonetic alphabet, and all subsequent phonetic alphabets stem from it. Yet though it has been surpassed many times in its efficiency – the Greeks or Phoenicians added vowels, the Latins some letters – even today modern Hebrew in Israel lacks vowels. This absence of vowels gives rise to a comparatively extreme occurrence of ambiguity, much more so than English or any other Latinate language, which in turn makes the act of deciphering written Hebrew quantitatively more difficult and qualitatively different. For instance, try deciphering any simple sentence in English with the vowels removed and you quickly multiply possible meanings for each word which may not be resolved until you look at the whole sentence or even paragraph or consider the context of the text. Not only is decipherment slowed, but the reader must refer to the context more persistently than he or she would in reading a more efficient alphabet.The consequences of this simple inefficiency in Hebrew, as I argue in greater detail elsewhere, is an entire culture of literacy uniquely devoted to disambiguating difficult texts and at the same time uniquely tolerant of ambiguity. One can see how relying on Hebrew as the Talmud does (it is the compilation of dialogues among scholars often in different countries whose only common language was written Hebrew while speaking many different languages) would also induce an obsessive focus on the potential meanings of individual words – paronomasia – and even on the meaning differences contained in individual letters. Over the centuries, reading Hebrew also gave rise to an enormous, even transcendental, sense of playfulness and punning. For the great Midrashists (Talmudists), punning on a word to reveal an association between two meanings was a legitimate source of knowledge, a way of revealing what was a hidden but an intended connection. To complicate the picture, Hebrew letters also stand for numbers (aleph = 1, bet= 2, gimel = 3 and so on, through taf, the final letter of the alphabet = 400). This promoted a parallel tradition called gematria or numerology, in which rabbis look for correspondences between the values of related words and their meanings. Indeed, treating “mere” wordplay and numerology – their apparent coincidences and inessentiality – as legitimate epistemological systems, as essential to finding ou;the truth – is quite alien to the practice of Western reason since the Renaissance, and as much as anything explains the core differentness of Jewish thought. In fact, this essential difference in treating accidents of text as the source of metaphysical truth underscores the problem with explaining Western culture as “Judaeo-Christian.”

The hyphen in this case is, to say the least, problematic, perhaps even violent. Yet, as those familiar with skeptical, postmodern challenges to Western reason – like those captured in Pynchon’s oeuvre explored in the next column- we find a resurrection of such reasoning portrayed as a route to transcendent knowledge – in many senses truer knowledge – than those provided by the failed and deficient systems of science – the rational machines of tree-structure logic – persistently critiqued in postmodern novels. Deleuze and Guattari understand this aspect of Kafka’s metaphysics, and its postmodern quality, when they describe it as “a negative theology” and his corpus of works as a “rhizomatic writing machine” in Kafka: For a Minor Literature (1975). [FN11] As Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow, (1973) “there’s high magic to low puns.”

The Talmud’s postmodern challenge to Western reason encourages a kind of superstition, in which coincidences – “tristeros” – lead characters and readers bent on deciphering difficult texts down the route to revelation. Such revelations are generally frustrated when pursued by rational means (for instance, plotting the sites of bombings during the blitz of London). But does postmodernism reject all routes to knowing? Or is knowledge, perhaps of a metaphysical or mystical nature, permitted, accessible, even encouraged?

Vineland continues Pynchon’s romance with the feedback loop between communication technology and humans. Pynchon favors machines as metaphors for his own authorial acts and the epistemological/ontological condition of his searcher-heroes: always keeping readers and characters in suspense, caught up in the gears of a machinery of knowledge-seeking, rational epistemologies, while caught up in the complex operations of worlds that are incomprehensible and whose foundations are apparently mystical. These searcher-characters survive in the face of systems of knowledge (forms of machinery) that are always woefully incomplete and never quite work to bring revelation. At the same time, language and communication are themselves forms of machinery enacted in the texts we are reading that also leave the characters, their author, and his reader grasping for more.

In his early story “Entropy,” for instance, Pynchon uses John Clerk Maxwell’s hypothetical machine for illustrating the Second Law of Thermodynamics to portray himself, the author of the text we are reading, as an incarnation of Maxwell’s Demon. In V., Mondaugen monitors “‘sferics” on his radio and picks up a code which contains a reference to Wittgenstein’s famous proposition from the Tractatus, “Die welt is alles was der falles ist.” [FN2]. However, this novelistic contrivance is so acute that we know Mondaugen has somehow tuned into the voice of the being who has authored the text he inhabits.

In The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Oedipa Maas wonders if she shouldn’t strive to become “the dark machine in the centre of the planetarium, striving to bring the estate into pulsing stelliferous Meaning all in a soaring dome around her.” [FN3] In Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the metaphor is the V2 rocket itself whose parabolic flight brackets the entire novel – or more precisely, the schwarzgerat in its nose cone, the mysterious black box guidance system – which comes to mean everything, including Desire, the searches of his characters, and not least, Pynchon’s own mysterious authorial imagination. In Vineland (1990) Pynchon has brought this theme to a new level as the theme obtains special potency, a kind of comic superstition or encouragement of beliefs in transcendental realms.

The two significant technologies in Vineland are the computer and the Puncutron Machine. Both add incontrovertible proof that Pynchon, somewhat paradoxically, sees technology and technique – including his own technique as author and the technologies of a novel (writing, printing, publication, dissemination, communication) – to be potential means to transcendence. When reading Pynchon, one always feels the ground of the literal threatens to give way in favor of the system of interlocking, subterranean meanings implied in those metaphors. Any significant phrase might resonate through the whole book, or act like a palimpsest on which other readings might be written. This creation of the feeling that “everything is connected” and that everything might refer both outside the text and to another part of the text creates a kind of “infra-intertextuality” which lies at the heart of the Pynchon technique, hallmark of his singular genius. Nor is this tactic a mere mechanical application; rather, it is the place where Pynchon’s style meets his message, the place where epistemology meets ontology: the place where the desire to know and the desire to survive collaborate to achieve transcendence.

Such a collaboration between machine and transcendence is oxymoronic, like the idea of a transcendental machine. But Pynchon has always favored such self-contradictory metaphors: he even named his magnum opus using one to signify the collaboration between the calculus of a rocket’s trajectory and God’s promise to redeem the earth, “gravity’s rainbow.” Indeed, as William Plater noted in his fine study of Pynchon’s work The Grim Phoenix, even Pynchon’s use of metaphor itself implies a yearning for transcendence, for it “permits the poet a mode of existence that is a self-conscious delusion, almost like the paranoid’s structure, without the obligations to believe it.” [FN 5]

In Vineland, Pynchon’s calls it “crossing between worlds,” hearkening back to his definition of a metaphor in The Crying of Lot 49 as an intrusion of one world into another. One need only count the number of occasions when one character experiences another, irrational world as a form of transcendence to get the message. The hero, Prairie, yearns to use the computer to cross over into her mother’s ghostly world of the past. The Thanatoids – ghosts – eventually take Brock over to their side just as he is about to commit his most heinous act at a family reunion. Van Meter visits the Thanatoid hotel with his Fender guitar. Weed Atman finds that upon every mysterious visit to his dentist he was “back across a borderline, invisible but felt at its crossing, between worlds” [228]. Prairie opens the refrigerator of the Sisters ….. and imagines that the food isn’t dead but sleeping, and the chill “sent her back out into the less clearly haunted world” [189]. The woge – spirits in the tale of the Yuroks – withdraw to another world, leaving the forests up above Humboldt haunted, always threatening to come back and teach humans how to live in the world if they fuck up too badly [186]. The kidnappings from the Kahuna Airlines. The worm songs DL hears from the future, transmitted by the shade of Weed Atman. And finally, Sister Rochelle lays the big daddy of these “tales of crossing over” on Takeshi as he lies helpless in the grips of the Puncutron Machine.

For instance, take the contrast between analog and digital, one of those clean and simple dialectics that lie beneath much of Pynchon’s complexities. Here it applies to the good and the bad, the Sixties and the Nixon Repression that ensued. The metonymy for the analog is Mucho Maas’ stereo system, which stands for what it delivers, rock and roll, which in turn stands for the Revolution. Ushered into Mucho Maas’ mansion, Zoyd, baby Prairie in arms, on the lam from his failed marriage, finds “…here was period rock and roll, over audio equipment that likewise expressed, that long-ago year, the highest state of the analog arts all too soon to be eclipsed by digital technology” [308]. In Pynchon’s pantheon, CD’s represent the eclipse of the rock Ôn roll analog gods.

The avatar of the digital is the computer. Pynchon’s codewords are the “zeroes and ones” to which he alludes throughout this text, carried over from that magnificent – and oft-analyzed – image in for Oedipa Maas’ paranoid situation: (you recall: Oedipa feels herself to be walking “among the matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above …. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth.” [FN6]) In the Pynchon mythography, the whole nexus of conceits – communication systems, codes of hidden meaning, technologizing of the Word, the reduction of options, the alliance between tech and Death, especially the alliance between tech and death – all resolve onto the image of flashing electronic gateways, meant to imitate and somehow excite the shining paths (neurons) of the human brain. Pynchon re-writes the remarkably prophetic metaphor from his 1966 novel in a passage that deserves as much attention. After her husband’s desperately-needed paycheck has been stopped by the computer, Frenesi meditates on the extent to which her own life has been expunged by the computer:

“If patterns of ones and zeros were ‘like’ patterns of human lives and deaths, if everything about an individual could be represented in a computer record by long strings of ones and zeros, then what kind of creature would be represented by a long string of lives and deaths? It would have to be one level up at least – an angel, a minor god, something in a UFO. It would take eight human lives and deaths just to form one character in this being’s name – its complete dossier might take up a considerable piece of this history of the world. We are digits in God’s computer, she not so much thought as hummed to herself to a sort of standard gospel tune, And the only thing we’re good for, to be dead or to be living , is the only thing He sees. What we cry, what we contend for, in our world of toil and blood, it all lies beneath the notice of the hacker we call God.” (90-1)

Frenesi imagines the Big Brother computer controlling her destiny as a hacker God. In fulfillment of her reverie – or in answer to her dark prayer – Pynchon sends Prairie, Frenesi’s angel of redemption, her own daughter, not quite as remote and unregistering as her God, but nowhere as deep into the ones and zeroes as she is. Prairie – descendent of all of Pynchon’s anti-heroic searchers – plays the computer keyboard, searching for her mother.

“She already knew about how literal computers could be – even spaces between characters mattered. She had wondered if ghosts were literal in the same way. Could a ghost think for herself, or was she responsive totally to the needs of the still-living, needs like keystrokes entered into her world, lines of sorrow, of justice denied?…But to be of any use, to be “real,” a ghost would have to be more than only that kind of elaborate pretending….” [114, ellipses in the original]

Prairie powers down the computer, having found a picture of her mother and DL that was “sharpened up pixel by pixel into deathlessness.” To seal this conceit of the merging of the super- and sub-lunary worlds through the computer, Pynchon shifts our focus to the DL and Frenesi of that picture.

“Back down in the computer library, in storage, quiescent ones and zeroes scattered among millions of others” [115]. Pynchon then uses this crossing among terms of a metaphor to cross over to the story of their, and the nation’s, 1960s experiences.

By contrast with the computer and in keeping with the general farce of Vineland, the Puncutron Machine is a comic device, designed to “get the chi flowing back the right way” [164]. The very name is laden with echoes of and allusions to Pynchon’s name, the diacritics of writing itself, and to piercing through the veil of illusion we call reality. Takeshi, Japanese agent and schlemiel, victim of other people’s plots, can’t quite accept that DL, the consummate Ninjette, has laid on him the Ninja Death Touch. A short summary of the tangled plot will help us here: Since her girlhood, DL had trained in the Eastern martial arts, apprenticing herself finally to Inoshiro Sensei, who teaches her the Death Touch among other mystical procedures. After refusing Mafia don Ralph Wayvone’s offer to assassinate Brock Vond – the Darth Vader of Vineland – and fleeing his wrath, she is kidnapped, taken to Tokyo, and auctioned into white slavery by the Yakuza. This all turns out to be engineered by Wayvone, who also is the highest bidder. Placed in a notorious Tokyo whorehouse, Haru No Depaato, and seeing no other recourse, DL prepares to put the Death Touch on Brock Vond after all.

Unfortunately, Brock Vond has somehow gotten wind of the plot and he, in turn, kidnaps Takeshi, who is Vond’s Oriental double (a fact we are supposed to accept at face value, so to speak). Takeshi is put into DL’s embrace in Brock’s stead. She is too out of focus to detect the switch, and in the act of intercourse puts the evil touch on him, which is now destined to work its black magic on Takeshi’s bladder for a year and a day until he dies or some cure can be found. In a fit of remorse, DL persuades Takeshi to take refuge among an order of Eastern-mystical nuns-ninjettes, The Sisterhood of Kunoichi Attentives who run “‘a sort of Esalen Institute for lady asskickers'” [107] where DL had completed her training. The Sisters try to heal Takeshi and correct DL’s error by an application of spiritual and mechanical technologies: they bond DL to him as a sort of karmic bodyguard and at the same time use a mysterious therapeutic technology on him: the “Puncutron Machine,” designed to correct the imbalance in a subject’s karma. The language in which Pynchon registers Takeshi’s first impression of it might easily be a gloss on the complex plot of Vineland and a parody of the reader’s intended role as a talmudic-style interpretant:

“It was clear that electricity in unknown amounts was meant to be routed from one of its glittering parts to another until it arrived at any or all of a number of decorative-looking terminals, ‘or actually,’ purred the Ninjette Puncutron Technician who would be using it on Takeshi, ‘as we like to call them, electrodes.’ And what, or rather who, was supposed to complete the circuit?

“Oh, no,” Takeshi demurred, “I think not!” [164]

Again, we can’t avoid noting the self-reflexive turn. Pynchon uses a technological metaphor for the e-talmud-like hypertextual circuit he has built, a circuit of interpretation completed when the reader hooks into the text. Pynchon often makes us feel as if we are caught in a servo-mechanical loop of interpretation.)

Subsequently, Takeshi wonders if the elaborate Puncutron sessions and everything they imply weren’t just a plot to get him to purr into transcendence (op. cit., above). In other words, if we take the analogy seriously, the machinery of Pynchon’s plot aids the reader in crossing between worlds, just as the Puncutron aids the reader’s avatar, Takeshi, in striking a karmic balance.

By contrast with this grim fable of a writing machine, and finally, in relief of our curiosity, on nearly the last page of the novel, we get a glimpse of the workings of the Puncutron Machine itself as it operates on Takeshi. It seems clearly Pynchon’s answer to Kafka:

“…the Head Ninjette had managed to corner him while he was on the Puncutron Machine, all hooked up with no escape, and while an inkjet printer moved along the meridians of his naked skin, laying down trigger-point labels in different colors, adding reference numbers and Chinese ideograms, and a Seniro Ninjhette Puncutech stod by with an ivory fescue, noting and commenting…” [382]

Here the machine is not a punishment, as it is in the Penal Colony, but a reward and healing, a means to a happier transcendence: the text of Takeshi’s body gets punctuated with a chart of his chi nodes in preparation for acupuncture. However, Sister Rochelle “as so often in the past, now socked Takeshi with another of her allegories, this time about Hell.” Despite the differences – comic and parabolic – to which their authors put them, the two writing machines strike to the core of their respective authors’ purposes: to point to the transcendent. The numerous collisions of the transcendent with the mundane in Vineland – whether through direct allusion to the transcendental or through metaphorical machinery – further signify (or model) a more macrocosmic posture: the only hope for redemption from pedestrian but ubiquitous evil is to abandon rationality and plunge into the transcendental, to suspend the quest for certainty (as Prairie learns to do) and to give up simply surviving and immersing (as Zoyd is forced to do) in favor of recognizing deeper and unutterable truths. In short, to believe in magic.

This revelation does not come all at once, and neither Prairie nor Zoyd particularly embrace the transcendental by tale’s end. But it does come piecemeal. Sister Rochelle’s advice to Prairie during her stay among the Attentives might as well serve as Pynchon’s caveat to his reader: “Knowledge won’t come down all at once in any big transcendental moment” but by paying attention, “out at the margins, using the millimeters and little tenths of a second, you understand, scuffling and scraping for everything we get” [112].

This message might as well be a warning to the hungry reader about the structure of Pynchon’s anti-rational method in constructing Vineland. The novel, any novel, especially one devoted to untangling a mystery, may be a procedural machine, but this one is a machine for the production of transcendental meaning. We can even discern -in the retrospective light shed when we read it in this way – this existential, and perhaps mystical, position evolving through Pynchon’s previous works, especially when he meditates on technology. With this context, we can finally read Takeshi’s experience in the Puncutron Machine.

Like many other Pynchon characters who find themselves caught in the toils of plots that go beyond their ken or capacity for accepting incontrovertible data, while he is strapped into the machine and it works on him, Takeshi finds himself entering a peculiar state of paranoid rapture:

“Most of the time he couldn’t believe she had really Done It to him, because even this long way down the line he still had trouble believing in his own death. If she’d killed him, why stick around? If she hadn’t, why put him, a complete stranger, through all this? It was driving him toward what, in fairly close to it now, he could detect as some state of literally mindless joy. There was no way he knew of to experience such joy and at the same time keep his mind. He wasn’t sure this might not be her real mission – to make of his life a koan, or unsolvable Zen puzzle, that would send him purring into transcendence” [180].

This passage also could just as easily describes Pynchon’s own textual play with the reader throughout his works, his penchant for posing paradoxes and unsolvable puzzles. Perhaps Pynchon’s purpose all along was to send us “purring into transcendence.”

This passage above also becomes emblematic for a whole series of other passages that surround it. Indeed, in virtually every scene from the time DL enters the Kunoichi retreat with Prairie circa 1983 to officially begin her search for her mother [109], to the time that the narrative returns to the “present” of 1984 [294] the reader is treated to a long and complex and varied system of gestures at transcendent or magical realms. When Prairie first meets Sister Rochelle, Head Ninjette of the Kunoichi Attentives, she discovers that the Sister Superior has learned how to make herself invisible (“she could impersonate the room in its full transparency and emptiness” [111]. Then, Prairie accesses the Attentives’ computer, and its elaborate data bank, “a girl in a haunted mansion, led room to room, sheet to sheet, by the peripheral whiteness, the earnest whisper of her mother’s ghost”[114]. DL’s training in the martial arts leads her to “discover that all souls, human and otherwise, were different guises of the same greater being – God at play” [121]. DL receives “another message from beyond, no doubt. She saw a pattern” [124]. And so on throughout those middle pages: the intertwined stories of Takeshi and DL’s Death Touch, Brock Vond and Frenesi; Frenesi and DL and the 24fps film crew; the revolution at PR3 and its sabotage by Vond and Frenesi; the murder of Weed Atman; Takeshi and DL’s encounters with the Thanatoid … Stories of the sixties unfold, each tinged by its own hint of the mystical and of levels or world beyond and outside the realm of perception, worlds of secret motives and irrational operations and death beyond life and karma and ESP (a lot of ESP). In Vineland, “something waited over a time horizon that not even future participants could describe” [222].

These ineffable narratives include thoroughly implausible but longed-after worlds of magic, of living spirits and intuitions fulfilled, but also worlds of dark revelation lurking just beyond our senses, of secret and inexplicable acts hatched in realms beyond our reach. Interestingly, this magic middle of the Vineland timeline also concerns the fertile years roughly 1962 to 1972, the years which bracket Pynchon’s writing of V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1967) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the essential Pynchon. If we take this correlation as more than mere coincidence, then we might conclude that the happy and transcendent ending of Vineland in 1984 has some subtle autobiographical significance: perhaps something happened that year to permit Pynchon to write again, to shake off, somehow, the demons of the Nixonian Repression and, in the dead middle of the Reagan years, re-discover “the magic.” Just as Reagan unwittingly calls his CIA dog Vond off the backs of the Wheelers and the Gates, so perhaps something — whether belonging to official reality or Pynchon’s own imagination one can only guess – lifted. If this is at all true, then the transcendental references in Vineland also signify something essential about Pynchon’s imaginative sources and his feeling about a newfound freedom to invent. But whatever its deeper significance, the exploration here of a new metaphysical or transcendental possibility, through technology is intriguing.

 

There’s an implicit comparison in these two texts between the tradition of talmudic routes to knowledge and those that arise in postmodernism. The Jewish circuitous, dense, exacting, complex, multi-vocaal skeptical, non-Western episteme is revealed through a reading of Kafka’s reading of the reading practices induced in the Talmud as represented “In the Penal Colony” by the sentencing machine. Pynchon in Vineland gives us an obvious re-reading of Kafka’s sentencing machine, updating it for a cybernetic age and revising it to fit his own epistemological and metaphysical (as well as comic) views: a postmodern counter-episteme incarnated as a puncutron machine.

The comparison illuminates a relatively under-explored territory in postmodern criticism, the metaphysics of postmodernism and the religious or superstitious feeling it inspires. Despite the fact that Kafka uses his machine as a critique of Judaism and Pynchon uses his machine as a point of farce, both writing machines offer compelling images. They both work on the body. that most literal aspect of our being, in order to bring the subject to awareness of forces that move beyond the physical and the beyond conventional structures of thought. Both suggest alternative routes to knowing.

Taken together, and used to illuminate each other – perhaps like two columns of text side by side or like the two cylinders of a Torah scroll held open before us, immanent but somehow elusive in their calligraphy – the two images of transcendental writing machines reveal that both authors have constructed a machinery of narrative devoted to convincing us that a transcendental realm lies beyond both epistemology and ontology (which dissolve into each other, again like two columns of a text which turn out to be parts of the same scroll), a transcendental realm which Kafka critiques and asks us to dread, but which Pynchon salutes and asks us to laugh at.

Both these transcendental technologies anticipate a virtual technology where machinery will literally inscribe “fictitious” experiences on our bodies in order to achieve transcendental effects in our minds. Taken in this way, Kafka and Pynchon lie on a vector whose trajectory is towards the increasingly telepathic and neurological. Undoubtedly, as authors like William Gibson who envision this virtual future have already suggested, these transcendental effects will lead to the construction of a new metaphysics and new gods.

ENDNOTES

1. “In the Penal Colony” p. 141-142All excerpts from Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories edited by Nahum N. Glatzer (Schocken Books New York 1971 transl. by Willa and Edwin Muir.
2 “The world is all that is the case.”
3 The Crying of Lot 49, p. 136
* Much like the condened man who comes to understand his sentence at about the sixth hour of his “sentencing”
I.e., “understanding” the script — reading it through the body in this case, but equally through talmud torah — is equivalent to death.
4 William Plater, The Grim Phoenix: Reconstructing Thomas Pynchon (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978) p. 228.
5 The Crying of Lot 49, p. 58
6 For a refractory view of this struggle and its inherently Jewish nature, see Kafka’s “Letter to My Father,”
7For some of these Jewish readings of Kafka, see Martin Buber, “Kafka and Judaism,” in Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays ed R. Gray (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1962); Maurice Friedman, Problematic Rebel rev. ed. Chicago.; Nahum N. Glatzer, “Franz Kafka and The Tree of Knowledge,” Arguments and Doctrines, ed. A. Cohen. New York, 1970. Clement Greenberg, “The Jewishness of Franz Kafka,” Commentary XIX (1955); Jean Wahl, “Kafka and Kierkegaard,” in The Kafka Problem, ed. A. Flores. New York, 1963; Harry Zohn, “The Jewishness of Franz Kafka,” Jewish Heritage (Summer 1964). See also John Updike’s Foreward to Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories (1983). For an incisive and critical look at Kafka’s metaphysical stance, see Walter Benjamin’s “Max Brod’s Book About Kafka and Some of My Own Reflections, Illuminations transl. by Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973; German orig. 1936).
8 Mostly by Rabbi Adin Stenisaltz.
* Much like the condemned man who comes to understand his sentence at about the sixth hour of his “sentencing”
I.e., “understanding” the script — reading it through the body in this case, but equally through talmud torah — is equivalent to death.
9 See Michael Joyce’s The Poetics of Hypertext (University of MIchigan Press, 1995).
10 Kafka seems here to be making a clear reference to Jewish schooling: Jewish schoolchildren spend an inordinate amount of time huddled over texts of the Talmud. The primacy placed on reading and deciphering in Jewish education is well known, and anyone who has seen an Orthodox Ôcheder’ or schoolroom would be struck both by the intensity of reading and the apparent commotion or babble as the students practice reading and discuss meanings.
11Kafka: For a Minor Literature (1975) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. As Ronald Bogue clearly explains it in Deleuze and Guattari (London: Routledge 1989), D&G define a rhizome “as the antithesis of a root-tree structure or Ôarborescence.’ the structrural model which has dominated Western thought from Porphyrian trees to Linnean taxonomies to Chomskyian sentence diagrams. Arborescences are hierarchical, stratified totalities which impose limited and regulatewd connections between their components. Rhizomes, by contrast, are nin-hierarchical, horizontal multiplciites which cannot be subsumed within a unified structure, whose components form random, unregulated networks in which any elelment can be connected with any other elelemnt. The Kafka corpus, as a rhizome, therefore, has no privileged point of entry” (107).

Telepathy: The evolution of media

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

Dreams of artificial intelligence, telepathy and its other sisters, virtual reality, creating artificial life, finding alien life, colonizing other planets … all have their roots in racial strivings.  Imagine technologies able to upload and share brains and minds, now a commonplace of pop culture and start-up ventures.

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Jellyfish at the Monterey Aquarium, 2006

Communication technologies evolve on an upward sloping line, asymptotically, toward the essential urge that powers it: pure mind-to-mind communication. Telepathy, like artificial intelligence, lies just out of reach, beckoning us. Our desire for telepathy mapped onto the history of our media tells us what we wish to be the thing we are turning ourselves into.

But even these TMTs, Technologically-Mediated Telepathies, are just way stations on a line trending towards some impossible vanishing point that we wish to reach: truly intersubjective beings, transmitting pure thought, sensation, and experience to each other instantaneously and without mediation or translation.

 

Telepathy Beyond Literature, Science and Ideology

This exercise has another virtue. It returns us, ironically, to a classical and I think noble idea of reading and writing as freighted with a responsibility. Telepathy implies a way of reading. It’s a discipline that should be fundamental to any literary theory. Applying the ideal of telepathy to our reading teaches us a way to read beyond ideology and psychology and history and sociology and philosophy and all the other pressures placed upon interpretation in postmodern culture. Reading becomes an act of intimacy between the author and me. I answer an invitation. I submit to entering and being possessed, sometimes totally, by another’s mind. But it comes with a certain responsibility that accompanies all acts of conjugation: reading telepathically means accepting the obligation to really try to decipher what the author is thinking and intending before finding in the text confirmation of my own prior bias or theory or pretext. I submit to the invitation to try to read what is in the author’s mind. First, I am trying to read faithfully, in good faith, like a prayer beyond prejudice. All signalling, all lettering, all letterature is literature, and all literature, even the most profane is liturgy. Every time we try to make ourselves understood or try to understand another, there is a divine hope and uncertainty.

The science of telepathy is entwined in numerous disciplines: neuroscience, brain-computer interface, ethology, and the technolgies implicate even more, such as linguistics, natural language processing, AI, computing, cybernetics, signal processing, electrical engineering, signal processing… Obviously, many of the “soft” sciences are there, too: cognitive psychology, clinical psychology, sociology, anthropolgy, ethology. Besides the fact that they are each their own genre – channels – for enabling and constraining communication, I believe telepathy is prior to and informs them all, as well as being informed in structured ways by them that allow me to make plain how the future will unfold, I think. My shorthand for this priority is a phrase I return to: the technologies that try to get us to be telepathic “exteriorize the nerve net.”

Finally, 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. We all enact and aspire to telepathy. To use Price’s phrase “It is the thing we are trying to turn ourselves to.”

******

A PERSONAL NOTE ON THE HISTORY OF THE TELEPATHY  PROJECT:

In the coming months and years, I intend to pick up threads of telepathy I started to follow during my academic career. I published large swaths of what became the Telepathy Talmud project after a sabbatical year as a Fulbright scholar at the Technion in Israel (1993-94).

A very telegraphic hypertext 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 U journal.)

My thoughts then and now delve the origin of the alphabet as a model for understanding revolutions in communication technologies, the special idea of interpretation and  telepathy with the Mind of God that the Hebrew alphabet initiates, flowering in several aspects of Jewish culture, but quintessentially the Talmud. I also travel down byroads about the special meaning of the Hebrew letters aleph and tav, the conquest of the electromagnetic spectrum, some science fictions that I believe help us chart the future, some other works of literature that illustrate that residue of ecstasy and denial of telepathy in reading, some very close and perhaps heretical or at least under-informed readings of the Talmud, and  also some analyses of the very current future and far flung future of media. I will try to avoid politics, although some entries in this blog are inevitably political, although I was led to these rants, I promise, from my investigations of telepathy in ways I am glad to explain.

I originally explored versions of this material with a doctoral class in literature at Rensselaer in 1994. In all I am indebted to them for their skepticism and indulgence of these “porushian studies,” as they mockingly called my rants, and with good reason. I thought it was clever to call the project a “talMUD” after the new notion of a Multi-User Domain and pun on the etymology of my name. That shows you that though wisdom be eternal, cleverness is fleeting, and probably narcissistic. I have been accompanied by and stand on the work of Jacques Derrida, Nicholas Royle, Freud, and always return for inspiration to the gaps and failures of some philosophers like Kant, Spinoza and Heidegger. My many Talmud teachers and classmates past and present immeasurably enrich my life and thinking.

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 am especially grateful to my wife, Sally, for her deep and abiding forbearance and to my granddaughter Siona for gazing into my eyes for long minutes.

I am inviting you to get lost in this labyrinth, dear telepath, in this web, and if you have the time, like a fellow spider, 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 Seven-Day Week: 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? Seven days seems so arbitrary. In fact, it would make more sense if the week were five days long. Then at least there would be a regular number of weeks in the year – 73, not 52.142857. And wouldn’t it be cool, and probably healthy, to have a four-day work week followed by a fifth day off 73 times a year? Yet every country in the world counts a week as seven days and takes one or two days at the end of each cycle to relax from work. Where did this random-seeming idea 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 in pursuing them his army is drowned in the Red Sea. Safely across, Moses leads the Children of Israel, now a horde of several million, into 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 seem quite to fit with the don’ts (commit adultery, murder, covet, bear false witness, steal, worship idols, have other gods, or abuse My Name) and the only other do (honor your parents), which is personal. Yet, the Sabbath is one of Judaism’s holiest concepts, the foundation of how Jews measure time. Further, 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 day 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, the calendar 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, 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 rather than lose a fixed, certain Sabbath. They even add an extra whole month every two or three years rather than violating the rhythm of the week, which of course also commemorates the seven days of Creation. 

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 to distinguish the start of something different from the mundane and ordinary, to welcome something soulful into our hectic lives, was the only perfectly consistent ritual we observed throughout my children’s lives. 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 and delightful and 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.

 

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

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

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

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


August 2017

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

Perpetual Chanukah in the West: Philosophical violence in the Judeo-Christian Hyphen

 

With thanks to classmates Boris Feldman, Josef Joffe, and Sam Tramiel. And  special thanks to Rabbi Yitzchak Feldman
Pythagoras traveled through the Middle East for twelve years, imbibing Egyptian philosophy.

Why does the Talmud forbid teaching Greek?

The last page of the Talmud tractate Sotah brings to a climax the apocalyptic portrait of the decline of Jewish generations, spirit, learning and virtue after the destruction of the Temple. It marches through a long, dispiriting list of the horrible things that happen as the generations decline and have to abandon customs that could only be kept alive when there was a spirtual center in Jerusalem.- the In the middle of this lamentation (called the Yeridas HaDoros)the Talmud inserts an injunction which seems out of place and somewhat mysterious: it commands fathers not to teach Greek to their sons.

DURING THE WAR OF TITUS [Chorban 67-70 CE] THEY [the Sages] DECREED AGAINST THE USE OF CROWNS WORN BY BRIDES AND THAT NOBODY SHOULD TEACH HIS SON GREEK. …….

What did the Sages have in mind? They can’t have meant Greek language, because the Rabbis were conversant with Greek, spoke it in the streets of Jerusalem, and it had displaced Hebrew as the lingua franca among the educated classes. Akiva even asked Onkelos to translate Bible into Greek (Targum). Indeed, in the Gemara [commentary] to this page in Sotah, we read the lament of Shimon ben Gamliel, the great Sage (50 CE):

There were a thousand pupils in my father’s house; five hundred studied Torah and five hundred studied Greek wisdom.” And in various places in the Talmud, Greek is praised, including being characterized as the only language into which the Torah can be elegantly translated.

The Gemara tells the aggadah (story) of an old man inside the walls of Jerusalem who communicated via Greek “secret code” to betray the Pharisees of Aristobulos’s faction protecting Jerusalem and the Temple, including the purity of its sacrificial rites, to the Hyrkanos faction (Seleucids – Greek accommodators) who besieged them.

SOTAH 49b GEMARA: A Baraisa provides historical background:

AND THAT NOBODY SHOULD TEACH HIS SON GREEK. Our Rabbis taught: When the kings of the Hasmonean house fought one another, Hyrcanus (Seleucid) was outside of Jerusalem and Aristobulus (Pharisees) was on the inside. Each day those within the city would let down dinarim [coins] in a pouch over the city wall and Jews of the Hyrkanos faction would in return send up for them lambs for the daily communal sacrifice.  There was within Jerusalem a certain old man who was familiar with Greek wisdom, and he communicated surreptitiously with the besiegers in the language of Greek wisdom saying to them, “As long as those within the Jerusalem walls engage in the sacrificial service, they will not be delivered into your hands.” On the morrow, they lowered the dinarim in a pouch, but the besiegers following the advice of the old man and, seeking to prevent the service, sent them up a swine. When the swine reached midway along the wall and stuck out its hooves into the wall, Israel quaked over an area of four hundred parsahs [1600 square miles]. At that time, they declared, “Cursed be the man who shall raise pigs and cursed be the man who shall teach his sons Greek wisdom.”

[This aggadah [story] is repeated in Bava Kamma 82B and Menachot 64b]

These events related by the Talmud are historically verifiable. The events we celebrate on Chanukah happened in 167-165 BCE. Antiochus outlaws Judaism, defiles The Temple. Matisyahu, Judah the Maccabee, fights to recapture the Temple and purify it. We rehearse the Chanukah miracle of lights because it is an eternal reminder of the re-assertion of Jewish holiness over Greek idolatry and materialism.

In 76-67 BCEHyrcanus and Aristobulus great-grandnephews of Judah HaMaccabee, split the kingdom between, Seleucid [Greek] faction, seeking to accommodate Hellenism, and Pharisees representing the purity of Jewish ritual and the Temple. Aristobulus seizes Jerusalem and the Temple. Hyrcanus besieges him.

What is the deeper meaning of this story? Nothing in the Talmud is there by accident, so the placement of this prohibition against Greek wisdom in the dramatic end of Sotah, the selection of this story of the traitor who betray Judaism from within Jerusalem by means of secret Greek wisdom, the quaking of all of Eretz Yisroel, draw our attention to deeper currents. What are the Rabbis warning us against? What is the historical context? What do they mean by “Greek wisdom”? Rashi [1040-1105 CE] explains that Greek wisdom refers to

“Greek wisdom” refers to a set of cryptic expressions of gestures understood only by the paladin (palace dwellers), not by common people.

To what could he be referring?

Pythagoras and the Neo-Pythagorean revival in the Talmudic Era

Pythagoras is the father of Greek philosophy. His influence over all of Western thought, even into our twenty-first century, has remained strong in a way I will explain in a moment. But first, who was Pythagoras beyond the inventor of the Pythagorean Theorem we learned in middle school? What did he believe? And why is his philosophy so important?

Here’s what we know: Pythagoras (570-490 BCE) is the son of Greek nobility. Around 550 he travels around the Middle East and Mediterranean for twelve years. He travels to Egypt. On his way back, he stops at Mt. Carmel to visit Elijah’s cave for several weeks. He then journeys to Babylon at a time that would have coincided with the Jewish exile. Inspired the wisdom and mysticism of these other cultures, he returns to Greece and founds a mystic-scientific-communal brotherhood preaching asceticism, mystical number theory, the “divine” tetractys, and the transmigration of souls.

Pythagorean Essentials

  • Reality is ONLY that which can be measured and understood, delved by rational numbers. Our mastery of their secrets enable humans to become “gods.”
  • He invents word “philosophy” – that is, lover of knowledge
  • He inspires Plato’s distinction between being and becoming: the notion that the universe is fixed and constant.
  • In turn, he inspires Aristotle’s rational, orderly vision of cosmology: the universe can be arranged and ordered into a complete, coherent, unified system. It is governed by logic. Reason is the highest attribute of human nature. To be rational is also to be ethical and therefore, divine.
  • Cosmology: The universe is ruled by rational numbers and their manipulation (mathematics)
  • The sign of the cult is the mystical Tetractys…
The Tetractys was a mystical symbol for Pythagoreans. that arranged the ten ordinal numbers in four rows.

…seems to be an idea of numbers Pythagoras melds with the Jewish Tetragrammaton, the Four Divine Letters of God’s Name, that he might have picked up on his journey through ancient Israel.

  • Pythagoras instituted a dominant theory or discipline of Arithmetika theologomena, virtually equivalent to the Jewish gematria, the system of calculating Hebrew letters as numbers to discover further meaning, God’s intention, in the Torah. The entwinement of the two concepts is intimate; maybe Pythagoras imported it from his contact with Judaic mysteries in Israel and Babylon. It should also be noted, though, that the word gematria has a Greek origin: it is a cognate of ‘gamma + tria’ and bears etymological relationship to geometry and grammar
  • He believed in the Transmigration of souls – a Jewish concept of gilgulim. The soul is to be freed from the “muddy vesture of decay” of the body by ascetic practices and secret wisdom. Matter is evil.
  • Contemplation of the universe from reason – rational thought – is the highest human activity.

Pythagoreans also communicated via a system of secret signs, numerical codes, and hand gestures which they used while enforcing their famous discipline of ascetic silence. One of these signs, in fact the only one we know of for sure that survives to today, is the same as the split-fingered gesture of the Kohanim, which Pythagoreans used for “salut,” a deep concept signifying cleanliness, purity, ethical truth, and blessing or greeting. Maybe this is precisely the secret code the traitorous old man used to betray Jerusalem to the Greek sympathizers.

So we can see what the Talmud is concerned about. Pythagoreanism was a seductive and powerful philosophy, a form of secular/pagan theology that would have been, and was, attractive to Jews, with our love of learning and wisdom and esoteric knowledge.

Indeed, between the second century BCE and second century CE, precisely during the era of the Talmud,  Pythagoreanism enjoys a huge revival in Roman culture, what we now call neo-Pythagoreanism. Cicero, the famous Roman senator, and his good friend in the Senate, Nigidius Figulus, lead the revival around 50 BCE. Nigidius writes a 27-volume treatise of mathematics, grammar, astronomy and magic that becomes a classic, along with Cicero’s work, for centuries.

In the first century CE, the sect of neo-Pythagoreans construct a Pythagorean Temple underground, at Porto Maggiore in Rome. It combines elements of paganism and Christianity. It is the site of secret sacrificial rites, necromancy, and is filled with images of the Greek gods. At the same time, it has an apse and nave, a new architectural form built with the Pythagorean ‘golden mean’ but is meant to represent the cross, the same architecture we see in the great cathedrals of the Christian Europe and even in the humblest wooden Baptist churches today.

But the connection is more than architectural. With its notion of the perfectability of man, the notion that matter is evil and corrupt from which reason needs to be freed, you can see that this Pythagorean Greek wisdom lays the groundwork for the flowering of Christian theology soon thereafter.

At the same time, the allure for Jews must have been great. Here for instance, is a vow pledged by the Roman Neo-Pythagoreans which echoes the Tetragrammaton (the four Hebrew letters of God’s Name):

 A Neo-Pythagorean Oath from the 1st c CE: “By that pure, holy, four lettered name on high/nature’s eternal fountain and supply/the parent of all souls that living be/by him, with faith find oath, I swear to thee.”

The essence of neo-Pythagoreanism is a way of thinking that we would find very comfortable as 21st century moderns:

  • The universe is ruled by rational numbers and logic.
  • All that is known is only that which can be touched and measured and calculated and observed.
  • Humans can become divine by application of reason.

Because there are so many similarities to Jewish concepts, one could see how the Seleucid Jews would find assimilation so attractive, and why Jewish thinkers and students could be seduced, even from within the walls of Jerusalem itself. Indeed, the Rambam, in Guide for the Perplexed, calls Aristotle half a prophet. But which half? Why half? Rambam says Aristotle fell short because he equated human nature with rationality alone. Aristotle’s ‘thinking being’ strives to rule the world through subjugation and calculation; Maimonides “praying being” can be king of the world by elevating it. “When there’s nothing higher than intellect, intellect has no guiding light.”

Greek wisdom, the secret Pythagorean code, represented the hoof of the swine touching Jerusalem’s walls and its concomitant betrayal and defeat of Talmudic Judaism. The smallest contamination shakes the entire foundation of Israel itself.

Perpetual Chanukah in the West: From Pythagoras to the Holocaust

All this would be just an interesting historical exercise — and somewhat repugnant because it is a favorite exercise of secular historians to show this entwinement between Greek and Talmudic thought in order to devalue Talmud’s religious authority — if it weren’t for the fact that, in clear purity of form, Pythagoreanism still holds sway today.

Pythagoreanism is the fundamental constant across the history of Western culture. It connects the Hellenic culture of 5th c BCE of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle with Roman culture. It connects Roman philosophy that dominated in the time of the Destruction of the Temple with Christianity in the centuries soon to follow. Pythagoreanism represents a continuous tradition of the perfectability of humans and the basis of the universe and everything in it as reducible to rational, deterministic, unified laws.

Greek philosophy institutes a vision of the deities who created a clockwork universe of perfection, instituting immutable, static laws of physics and nature. The gods set it motion and let it run. This is a scientific cosmology that still holds sway today in the common mind. It keeps us from awakening from the great cybernetic delusion of our last century, that we can create an artificial intelligence, mind, or neshama through the application of computer codes and algorithms. It still governs most of what we’re taught in school and our still Newtonian-Pythagorean concept of the universe. But this conception has nuanced, though absolutely critical, differences from Jewish metaphysics.

Contrast Greek philosophy to our Jewish cosmology of an unfolding universe. HaShem, whose Face is always receding and hidden, creates the cosmos. (As opposed to the Christian concept, in which Word – Logos – becomes flesh and utterly knowable and personal.) The Divine Attention of HaKodesh Borechu continuously sustains an unfolding universe. Even the method of Jewish hermeneutics – how we argue and discourse to arrive at the truth – contrasts sharply with the Greek. You need only compare a page of any conventional Western book with a page of the Schottenstein Talmud to get the idea. One signifies a simple, clear stream of letters marching in lines across the page as the story proceeds in orderly fashion from beginning to middle to end. Open any page of the Talmud, however, and you are plunged into a hypertextual jumble: a noisy symposium capturing voices and commentaries and commentaries on commentaries separated by centuries and hundreds of miles and cultures. The choppy sea of Talmud exemplifies what Plato scorned as chaotic, subjective “aesthetika” and “rhetorika” as opposed to his orderly “logos.”

And if we trace the history of this contrast between Greek and Hebrew, between Seleucids and Pharisees, between Pythagoreanism and the Talmud even until today, we see there is ongoing violence in the hyphen that Chazal anticipated. Indeed, this gemara of the betrayal of Jerusalem by Greek wisdom and the prohibition against teaching it are prophetic. The story of the Temple sacrifice being befouled by a swine, the story of the shaking of the walls of Jerusalem are warnings that reach back to Chanukah and forward to all of Western philosophy, including postmodernism today.

The subtle but fundamental incompatibility between these two philosophies leads to what I call “philosophical violence in the Judaeo-Christian hyphen.” With the burning of the Talmud throughout Europe and the many trials Jews have suffered under the rule of Christianity, including the Holocaust, this violence is not just philosophical.

The twentieth century begins with work by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica, “showing” that all thought can be reduced to mathematically rigorous logic. They also say “Modern philosophy is nothing more than a footnote to Plato.” Later, in his History of Western Philosophy (1945), Russell declares Pythagoras the greatest of all philosophers. Interestingly, Russell’s last act, literally, in his life, is meant to shake the whole land of Israel. Though a pre-State supporter of Zion, his final political statement, read the day after his death in 1970 in Cairo, condemns Israel’s aggression against Egypt in 1967 and demands retreat to pre-1967 borders.

In the 1920s, Martin Heidegger reinserts Pythagoreanism, an updating of the Greco-Christian Being vs. Becoming duality, into the heart of philosophy. Without going into his extraordinary influence over the twentieth century, including the postmodernism and deconstruction, suffice it to say that virtually every thinker and theorist since has to grapple with Heidegger and has been influenced by him.

However, two recent works of scholarship have exposed the truth of the Talmud’s prophesy in Sotah. Victor Farias, in Heidegger and Nazism (1987) and Emanuel Faye in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (2005) show how Heidegger, who was an unapologetic and avowed Nazi, introduced Nazi violence into the scene of contemporary Western philosophy. His chief heir and leader of the Yale school of deconstruction, Paul DeMan, was exposed as having been a Nazi collaborator and writer during WWII. The monumental French thinker Jacques Derrida, himself an Algerian Jew, rose to DeMan’s defense in a shameful chapter in the history of postmodern thought.

Reconciliation through “Jewish Physics”: Quantum Cosmology

But let me end on a note of reconciliation. Realizing there is violence in the hyphen paves the road to recognizing the dead end of Pythagoreanism philosophy. The recent works by Farias and Faye expose the link between Nazism and empty philosophies of materialism, constructivism, deconstruction and moral relativism that have lain at the core of Western thinking itself, philosophies that lead to mechanization and disregard for the sanctity of all human existence. It is the same Greek chochma [wisdom] that lies in the heart of the traitor of Jerusalem and is the source of ongoing Jewish assimilation to Western culture.

In our newfound skepticism about the darkness at the heart of postmodernism, there is hope for a new deepening. This is especially true because the philosophical turn has been accompanied by a revolution in our scientific concept of how the universe works. Together, the two revolutions hold promise for how Jewish thinking may influence the future of Western civilization.

For a century, our scientific understanding of the fundamental principle of the universe has been grappling with what we can call “Jewish Physics.” In calling it this, I am echoing the notorious propaganda of Nazis in the 1930s, who called it “Jew Physics.” (See Klaus Hentschel and Ann Hentschel, Physics and National Socialism. Springer, 2011). This revolution has been led by Jews, starting with Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton in the 1920s, and includes Niels Bohr, Eugene Wigner, James Franck, Otto Stern, I.I. Rabi, Wolfgang Pauli, Robert Hofstadter, Richard Feynmann, Murray Gell-Mann, Sheldon Glashow, Steven Weisenberg, Jerome Friedman, Martin Lewis Perl, Frederick Reines, David Gross, Adam Riess, Saul Perlmutter, Serge Haroche, and Francois Englert. These are just half of the Jewish winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics in the last century, and a mere fraction of the Jews who are busy in the field of quantum mechanics and theoretical physics. Many of them fled Nazism to seek refuge – and freedom of inquiry – in America

Quantum mechanics has introduced a cosmological question that shakes our understanding of the universe itself as merely deterministic and rational. Put simply, it brings us to a crossroads of our understanding. Either the universe splits into an infinite chaos of uncertain and inaccessible universes every time there is a quantum event, and all sub-atomic events are connected by unproven superstrings of 11 or some other number of dimensions;

-or –

There is a Universal Intelligence that turns His face to every event in the cosmos and by His Attention, creates the reality we inhabit. This subject is obviously too broad and deep and abstruse to do justice to here today, but let me gesture at just one small tear in the parochet between Western science and Jewish religion: the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson – the so-called “G-d Particle” – and its measurement at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (France). Suffice it to say for now, science is confronted with the introduction of metaphysics back into physics, this time ushering in an era of what I hope and pray will be the reassertion of Jewish metaphysics into Western cosmology.


David Porush, Mountain View, CA

dporush@yahoo.com

5774

 


 

The Continuity of Pythagoreanism through Christianity and Postmodern Philosophy

 

 

570-490 BCE – Pythagoras

 

428-348 BCE – Plato: Father of philosophy, inspired by Pythagoras

 

382-322 BCE – Aristotle: says the philosophy of Plato closely followed the teachings of the Pythagoreans

250-120 BCE – Statue of Pythagoras erected in Athens then torn down because it was a challenge to the State religion

Talmud coincides with Neopythagorean Revival

 50 BCENigidus and Cicero (Roman Senator) lead Roman revival of Pythagoreanism,

50 CE – Shimon ben Gamliel: “There were a thousand pupils in my father’s house; five hundred studied Torah and five hundred studied Greek wisdom.”

50 CE – Pythagorean Basilica at Porto Maggiore (Rome), underground necropolis/temple mixes Pythagorean and Christian elements: apse, nave, paganism, numerology, astrology, pantheon of Greek gods. Shows connection between Pythagoras and Christian theology.

70 CE – Destruction of the Temple by Titus [Chorban]

 

60-120 CENicomachus (Jerasa, Jordan) Theology of Arithmetic: Numbers are foundation of all reality

 

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

 

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

 

200 CEMishnah redacted by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi

 

250 CEGolden Verses of Pythagoras: “Know the numerical essence of the immortal gods and immortal men/How it pervades everything and everything is ruled by it.”

 

1180 CERambam, Guide for the Perplexed: Aristotle was almost a prophet.

 

1249-1310Menachem Meiri, Bet HaBechira: “Greek language, as we have described in Megilla, is one of the richest languages, yet it is prohibited to study their wisdom since it attracts the heart of men and destroys many of the foundations of religion.”

 

1240 – Pope Gregory, Paris orders burning of Talmud

1264 – Pope Clement IV orders burning of Talmud

1431 – Talmud banned by Church Synod of Basel

1492 – Spanish Inquisition

1553 – Pope Julius III orders Talmud burned

1592 – Pope Clement II prohibits Talmud study in any form

 

1910-1913Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell: Principia Mathematica “Western philosophy is nothing more than a series of footnotes to Plato.” Applies mathematics to logic (symbolic logic) and thus all that can be known

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

1945Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy: Pythagoras was the greatest of all Greek philosophers. Though a pre-State supporter of Zion, his final political statement, read the day after his death in 1970 Condemns Israel’s aggression against Egypt in 1967 and demands retreat to pre-1967 borders.

1987, 2005Victor Farias, Heidegger and Nazism and Emanuel Faye, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy

 

The Quantum Theology of Matzah [short]

What’s the difference between bread and matzah?

 

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

But this answer begs a question. Why does the seder prescribe an extra prayer over the matzah? Is it or isn’t it really bread? If it isn’t, what’s the difference? What makes bread bread and matzah matzahSince both matzah and bread are just wheat flour and water, are they just versions of the same thing, or are they essentially different? 

The simple answer is yeast. But what does yeast do?Yeast makes flour and water into bread. 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 sanctify them and use them to sanctify us. And it’s no wonder the Passover Haggadah calls matzah “the bread of affliction.” Matzah is bread that is dead. 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.

But though humans recognized and harnessed the magical properties of yeast even before they learned to write 5000 years ago, 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. 

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 anything that contains sugar or carbohydrates – they digest it into sugar’s components: energy, alcohol, carbon dioxide, and some residue molecules that add flavors. The process the ancients observed as a result of this action (it’s technical term is catalysis) is bubbling, rising fermentation. In the cooler processing of wine (and beer), 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 called champagne, but most wine is “degassed.” When we bake bread, we don’t get drunk on it because the higher heat evaporates alcohol. Instead, the carbon dioxide gas create bubbles in the sticky dough that expand and burst. This gives 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.” 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, and enzymes generally, are the gateway between the living and the inert. After tens of thousands of years, the new science of quantum biology has finally suggested how yeast performs this magic.

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 particularly illustrates the problem and limitation of materialism. Fundamentalist materialists argue that everything can be explained ultimately, by self-consistent systems of reason, like logic or mathematics. Religious vitalists argue that the metaphysical force is divine.

Although yeast is a living thing, enzymes have until recently seemed to be purely chemical machines, although how they added life so efficiently was still mysterious. In the debate between materialists and vitalists, enzymes have been the best proof for the materialist view of life. They seem to explain how life is introduced into inert matter without resort to non-mechanistic explanations. Until now.

It turns out that yeast is the ur-type of all enzymes, just as its buried etymology suggests, in that enzymes seem to introduce an inexplicable element of life onto the stage of mechanics. 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 them in MRIs and computer chips, and most scientists and engineers bracket out the way quantum mechanics rattles the foundations of science. In one version of these debates, every quantum process requires an aware being, an observer, to watch it work in order for it to become real, and this might be the essence we invoke when we say the extra prayer over matzah.

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 exaggerate or distort 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 aspect is the most important. Until now, biologists 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 classical laws of physics. Thankfully (they believed) subatomic monkey business had already disappeared when it poked its head up into an organism, because the complexity of the organism automatically “measured” (observed) it, though no one specified how. They now seem to be really wrong. It’s awkward.

Resurrected by water, living yeast seems to make the inert come alive. Yeast works enzymatically to ferment the sugars in flour. It explodes the flat mound of dough and makes it rise as little bubbles of alcohol explode inside. It adds tastes by creating new molecules. But what was once thought to be a classical, if incompletely understood, mechanical process, we now know requires quantum tunneling.

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. In fact, it seems to be the essence of life itself.

“Enzymes have made and unmade every living cell that lives or has ever lived. Enzymes are as close as anything to the vital factors of life. …. [T]he discovery that enzymes work by promoting the dematerialization of particles from one point in space and their instantaneous materialization in another provides us with a novel insight into the mystery of life.”

 – Johnjoe McFadden, Jim Al-Khalili, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology  (Broadway Books, Jul 26, 2016) p. 97

There’s simply too much quantum funny business going on everywhere in a living being to say one part of the organism is classical and collapses the other part that is quantum.

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 have popularly suggested 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 hypothesis is mathematically satisfying and sidesteps any suggestion of metaphysics. But there are a virtually infinite set of quantum events occurring everywhere at every instant everywhere in an organism, let alone the whole universe. Each of them would create an incalculable set of alternate universes. 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 an even crazier and more incomprehensible cosmos than the one we have.

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

Couple biophysics with the metaphysics of matzah and we get a powerful sermon. Matzah is bread without attention, perhaps without the attention of a Cosmic Consciousness. It represents enslavement to inert material. It is both literally the bread of affliction, the food of slaves, and symbolically life without redemption from our inner Egypt, the body without a soul. Matzah invokes a God who redeemed the Children of Israel from slavery more than three thousand years ago (3330 to be exact) 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. 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 atheism. From the outside looking in, all the attempts to bracket out 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 they saw Elijah’s cup was always empty 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 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.

The Quantum Theology of Matzah [long]

In recent years, matzah seems tastier to me.  I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve got so many good associations with the other tastes of the holiday, including brisket, matzah brie, gefilte fish, and macaroons. Or maybe the shmurah (super-orthodox watched-while-it’s-baked) matzah we now get is better than Manischevitz of yore. But I’m probably fooling myself. Matzah really is the bread of affliction. It’s dusty, dry, brittle, tasteless, mean fare. Every year, I ask the ancient theological questions plaguing the Jews, “Does matzah ever go stale? Would anyone know? Why would such a dispiriting food be so central to the most delightful, and perhaps the most important, Jewish holiday? Why is matzah so important that even the Torah calls Passover The Holiday of Matzahs?

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 11.16.48 PMMatzah is itself and an invitation to interpretation

Like many things in Jewish ritual, matzah is both itself and symbolic of many other things all at once. When we eat matzah, we collapse the 3330 years between us and our slave ancestors by reliving the sensation of the Children of Israel, who ate matzah on the night before the Exodus. They then ate it a second time when they didn’t have time to let the bread rise before we exited Egypt. We can taste what it’s like to be slaves who cannot choose the bread they eat. Matzah means itself.

For something so flat, matzah also has so many layers of meaning that it seems to be a paradox about layering. It is flat but infinitely deep. During the seder, we focus on the difference between bread and matzah and bring out the symbolism that makes it the centerpiece of Passover. This is one of the beauties of the seder: along with teaching children the central story of our people, it also teaches them a way of thinking. The matzah and the other objects on the seder plate multiply meanings, which we somehow hold in parallel in our minds like a symphonic theme weaving in and out of different instruments and keys through the course of a performance. Somehow, the meanings don’t clash. They magically harmonize and make each other grander. Even more amazingly, after all the sermons, the things in front of us, the egg, greens, bitter herbs, matzah, charoset and wine remain fully themselves. In the end, though, we still get to eat them, to ingest the sermon.

Even at my grandfather’s home, where he blazed through the seder in Hebrew  (he was born in Jerusalem in 1899), Passover seemed like deliverance from the slavery of school. Compared to the arguments of the seder, school was all rote learning and dull algebra, a race to get the one right answer. In school, the signifier meant one thing only, a simple tune played on a three-penny pipe. The seder was a tutorial about the promised land of full-throated, orchestral argument, where even children are urged to join in. The other grand traditions of our seder – the red-faced shouting about politics and the cutthroat 25 cent pinochle game at the end – all seemed to flow from the sages in Bnei Brak who tried to one-up each other over the number of plagues. Such disagreements, as Rav Kook said, are a noisy route to universal peace.

That’s why this year I was so childishly excited to discover a new sermon in matzah that harmonized with all the others. By looking at the most literal physics of its nature, this is what I saw:

Matzah is a sermon on God’s absence. By noting matzah is not bread, we open a door, inviting Him to enter the home during the seder. It is the secret twin of Elijah’s Cup, asking the same question left by the untouched wine in Elijah’s cup: Where is He?

The Matzah Sermons

The Matzah Sermon has many versions.

We forego bread because the difference between bread and matzah is inflation, the chewy fullness that grants satisfaction. We should beware our own puffed-up egos and liberate ourselves from enslavement to the things that make us too swollen with pride and arrogance.

The difference between bread and matzah is our taste for sensuality, so beware enslavement to material things that give us sensuous pleasure. As the Zohar says, the Hebrew word for “taste” – tam – also means “reason.” Don’t let temptations of the body blind you to the truths that come from your higher intellect.

The difference between bread and matzah is time: if you let even flour and cold water sit for eighteen minutes, it will begin to ferment.  Matzah was hurried because the Israelites had to stay small in the night. So they ate humble bread while the terrible tenth plague, the slaying of the first born, passed over. Then they had to hurry because the next morning they were rushing out of Egypt. They made and ate matzah a second time. Rush towards redemption. Yearn for freedom.

The difference between bread and matzah is we eat bread three times a day through the year, but “on this night, only matzah.” Beware enslavement to routine habits or desires.

Matzah is bread without spirit, its golem. Beware idolatries, worshiping things that are mere flat objects, empty of true dimension or inner meaning, else you will become like matzah, flat and de-spirited.

Many hosts answer the invitation to interpret by writing fashionable causes du jour into their Haggadah. Fifty years ago, the spirit of Passover helped fuel the civil rights movement. Now, almost every homegrown haggadah now includes passages about Martin Luther King, or genocide and slavery in other regions of the world, or calls for equality for transgender people and an end to the oppression of animals by us Pesach carnivores, or analogies between an unpopular president and pharaoh, or even, chas v’chalilah, insanely misguided pleas for Israel to end its so-called apartheid.

For that reason, the sermons that move me the most are not political but ones that drive to mystical implications. Matzah reminds us that God himself intervened in nature and time to free us. Because in Egypt we had only flattened slave-perception, we, and the world, had to witness His miracles firsthand to be convinced. At other times, He works only through nature, quietly if ubiquitously. In the kabbalistic  tradition, matzah represents the absence of this true knowledge and understanding of God.

Metaphysics in the physics of matzah

It was my idolatrous love of sushi that drove me to look at the physics of matzah.

This year, I thought we would fulfill the theme of liberation by “going Sephardi”: giving ourselves permission to eat rice on Passover. Since Talmudic time, all Jews who follow strict practices have agreed to avoid the five grains that expand when cooked – oats, barley, spelt, wheat and rye. But a schism arose in the last five centuries between the Ashkenazi, Jews of Europe and the Sephardi, Jews descended from exiles from the Spanish Inquisition (and then most Arab countries in Northern Africa and the East). Maybe because they lived where the weather made them grumpier, Ashkenazi Jews constructed the anti-inflation rule strictly and also forbad lentils, beans, corn, and rice. The Sephardi continue to enjoy them. I voted for rice, largely because I had a fantasy about kosher for Passover sushi.

I lost. But to defend my unpopular position, I was driven to science to try to find out what exactly caused the dread “inflation.” What I discovered didn’t help me win my case, but it opened up an incredible vista about the difference between bread and matzah incarnated in the biophysics of yeast.

Matzah and bread both are essentially wheat flour and water. Outside the seder, on Passover we can add eggs and salt for flavor, and some matzahs that are KLP (kosher for Passover) even include oil, honey, juice, or even wine, as long as they don’t make the dough rise. But during the seder proper, we are supposed to eat only “poor matzah”: flour and water. To make bread, you need yeast.

Humans recognized and harnessed the magical properties of yeast even before they could write. Yeast makes flour and water into bread. It also makes grapes into wine. It seems to add life to inert foodstuffs, transforming them magically into something else alive. Grape juice is just a soft drink. But wine is literally a spirit. A cracker is a good delivery platform for dip, but bread is the staff of life itself. By ingesting wine and bread, we take some of that magic into us. Bread sates. Wine leavens our spirit. It’s no wonder bread and wine were worshiped by the ancients and are central to many religious rituals.

Though the technology of yeast has been perfected, the science of yeast still holds mysteries and surprises. To put it another way, we know the mechanics of how yeast work down to the molecular level, but we’re not completely sure how it performs its magic. 

The quantum physics of yeast

Yeast is a single-celled living creature. When we let these critters feed on their favorite food, sugar or anything that contains sugar or carbohydrates, they digest it into sugar’s components: energy, alcohol, carbon dioxide, and some residue molecules that add flavors. The process the ancients observed was bubbling, rising fermentation. When we bake bread, the heat evaporates alcohol produced by the yeast into gas bubbles that expand and burst, contained by the sticky dough. This gives bread its texture. In the cooler processing of wine (and beer), the alcohol is completely contained in the liquid for our pleasure.

All this you probably learned in high school chemistry as an example of enzymatic activity. But what they didn’t teach us, because chemistry isn’t etymology, is that “enzyme” is just the Greek for “in yeast.” And what you didn’t learn, because chemistry didn’t know, is how yeast, or enzymes, are the gateway between the living and the inert, literally life and death.

The new science of quantum biology has started to answer the question of how yeast performs this magic.

Yeast is the ur-type of all enzymes. Enzymes are present in all living things, in every living cell, and in every process that sustains life: digestion, neural action, making new cells and repairing old ones (growth and healing), reproduction, and so on. There is an eternal philosophical battle between materialists and vitalists. Materialists believe the universe and everything in it, including humans and human consciousness, is a vast machine. It is made up only of physical things and the physical processes or forces between them. Vitalists argue that there is a meta-physical force in the universe that animates all life, a force that cannot be reduced to mechanical explanations. Human consciousness particularly illustrates the problem and limitation of materialism. Fundamentalist materialists argue that everything can be explained ultimately, by self-consistent systems of reason, like logic or mathematics. Religious vitalists argue that the metaphysical force is divine.

Although yeast is a living thing, enzymes have until recently seemed to be purely chemical machines. In the debate between materialists and vitalists, enzymes have been the best proof for the materialist view of life. They seem to explain how life is introduced into inert matter without resort to non-mechanistic explanations. Until now.

It turns out that enzymes require quantum effects to do their work, and quantum mechanics defies the materialist view of the cosmos. At its best, quantum mechanics defies logic, though we’ve learned to use them in MRIs and computer chips. At its worst, every quantum process requires an aware being to watch it work in order for it to be real.

I know to most of  you unfamiliar with it this claim for quantum mechanics seems just weird. There’s no way to explain any quantum process without over-simplifying it or resorting to analogies which dangerously distort its actual, full-on weirdness. Many have tried and some have succeeded. (See a very spare reading list at the end of this blog of some I think do the best job.) Let’s just say the quantum is profoundly counter-intuitive. But here are a few of the weird facts that you will need to know as we continue with our discussion of matzah. I leave it to you to discover whether you buy any of it yourself:

  1. Sub-atomic entities behave like both waves of energy and particles at the same time.
  2. A sub-atomic entity isn’t in any one specific place until you observe it. Then it seems to settle on one. (Uncertainty)
  3. A single sub-atomic particle can be in two places at once. But if you affect one, its other self will react, even if they are separated by millions of miles. (Superposition)
  4. They can pass through otherwise impassible-seeming barriers (quantum tunneling) and “travel” faster than the speed of light.
  5. When a subatomic particle is observed or measured, it “collapses” from its various possible quantum states into one state. Ie, it stops behaving quantumly and starts behaving classically. (Measurement)

To understand the quantum theology of matzah, the last aspect is the most important. Until now, biologists have been fairly content to leave the weirdness of the quantum world among physicists. They assumed there was an unbreachable barrier between the sub-atomic world of quantum weirdness and the macroscopic world of biology obedient to classical laws of physics. Thankfully (they believed) micro monkey business collapsed when it poked its head up into an organism because the complexity of the organism automatically “measured” (observed) it (though no one specified how). They now seem to be really wrong. It’s uncomfortable.

Resurrected by water, living yeast seems to make the inert come alive. Yeast works enzymatically to ferment the sugars in flour. It explodes the flat mound of dough and makes it rise as little bubbles of alcohol explode inside. It adds tastes by creating new molecules. But what was once thought to be a classical, if incompletely understood, mechanical process (catalysis) we now know requires quantum tunneling.

Quantum tunneling in yeast

Here’s the technical explanation: an enzyme in yeast takes a positively charged sub-atomic particle, the proton from the alcohol it has created, and transfers it to another molecule. This new molecule, with the addition of its extra proton, now has a positive charge. Like a magnet, it now attracts molecules carrying a negatively charged particle, the electron. So the new molecule the yeast created (called nicotinamide alcohol dehydrase or NADH) becomes a very effective carrier and releasor of electrons. With NADH, the ingredients can now perform their actions very quickly and efficiently. It’s like the brew now has an electric current running through it, with electrons able to hitch a ride and jump off when a chemical reaction needs an extra jolt of energy to make it happen.

So far so good. This is all safe, mechanical chemistry.

As it turns out, though, the speed at which electrons get transferred from alcohol to NAD+ to make NADH cannot be explained by classical chemistry. On the other hand, quantum tunneling, number three on our list of weird quantum effects above, can. Again, at the risk of over-simplifying, a subatomic particle can help an electron travel across barriers instantaneously by using its superpower of quantum tunneling. As this effect occurs among millions of molecules in the dough, it speeds up the process enough for biologists to say it must be involved. [1]

This neat explanation of the quantum role in enzymatic action leaves one huge mystery, though: In order for the transport of the electron to occur, it can’t be just a probability, and in order for it to be more than a probability, it has to be observed or measured. The probabilistic quantum behavior – the electron can be here or there and therefore nowhere at all, really – has to become classical behavior. I see it now. Until now, biologists, scientists and other materialists have maintained that the macroscopic bulk of the organism in which the quantum action occurs collapses any quantum craziness. I.e., the fact of the organism itself performs the “observing.” But that argument no longer holds water and even seems like a tautology, fabulous circular reasoning, because enzymes involve quantum action. Enzymes, and the quantum, is ubiquitous in every process of every cell in an organism. In fact, it seems to be the essence of life itself.

“Enzymes have made and unmade every living cell that lives or has ever lived. Enzymes are as close as anything to the vital factors of life. …. [T]he discovery that enzymes work by promoting the dematerialization of particles from one point in space and their instantaneous materialization in another provides us with a novel insight into the mystery of life.”

– Johnjoe McFadden, Jim Al-Khalili, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology  (Broadway Books, Jul 26, 2016) p. 97

There’s simply too much quantum funny business going on everywhere in a living being to say one part of the organism is classical and collapses the other part that’s quantum.

Another way materialists banish the quantum: the Many Worlds Hypothesis

Scientists have resolved the measurement problem another way. They hypothesize that instead of collapsing the quantum into the classical through observation, every time a quantum event collapses into a classical one, other universes are spawned. All the other probabilities that didn’t occur here does occur there, in these new universes.

This hypothesis is mathematically satisfying and sidesteps any suggestion of metaphysics. But there are a virtually infinite set of quantum events occurring everywhere at every instant everywhere in an organism, let alone the whole universe. Each of them would create an incalculable set of alternate universes. You do the dizzying math. Or alternatively, ask yourself: Which is the more ridiculous vision of the cosmos? This vision creates an even crazier and more incomprehensible cosmos than the one we have.

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

Quantum theology of matzah

Quantum theology is a term used by a few but growing number of theologians and mystics. Many of their essays and speculations are plagued by vagueness, weak understanding of science, and an over-heated, optimistic leap into the irrational analogies between quantum science and mysticism to prove God’s existence. Their “proofs” often require taking analogous-sounding mysteries as equivalents. Quantum theology is largely the provenance of well-educated fundamentalists.

The case of yeast is different. In this dance between the material and the vital, between science and faith, the science leads us to conclude something mystical is happening in bread that doesn’t occur in matzah. That matzah has been promising something like this is lurking in its layers of meaning is a deligthful coincidence. Even on its own terms, though, the new science of quantum biology shows quite specifically how the process of life itself depends on quantum action. In every possible process where life is created or sustained, enzymatic action is involved. And with quantum action comes the requirement that someone or something is observing the process. The nose of the quantum camel has entered the tent of biology, but it was summoned by the biology. In fact, the tent is the camel. Something or someone has to be observing omnipresent quantum events in enzymes to make them operative in life. Someone or something has to be operating life. Omnisciently.

Couple the biophysics with the metaphysics of the matzah and we get a powerful sermon. Matzah is bread without attention, perhaps without the attention of a Cosmic Consciousness. It represents enslavement to inert material. It is both literally the bread of affliction, the food of slaves, and symbolically life without redemption from our inner Egypt, the body without a soul. Matzah invokes a God  who redeemed the Children of Israel from slavery more than three thousand years ago and Who continues to operate the universe today by attending to its every quantum event. He is an incomprehensibly vast God Who observes every infinitesimal event, all the infinite infinitesimal events that occur every instant to sustain each living cell of each living organism. This is a God that watches everything actively. This God expands and unfolds His Cognizance as much as the universe imagined by the Many Worlds Hypothesis multiplies infinitely bubbling alternatives, only this God gives it life and an elegant unity. I like this God and this idea of Him.

One of the sermons on matzah is a kabbalistic one. Isaac Luria, the 16th century mystic of Safed, explains that the three matzahs on the seder plate represent Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom. Matzah invites us to stretch our scientific wisdom to its fullest extent beyond enslavement to our preconceptions. Matzah also contains a sermon about the liberation of science from its prejudices.


[2] Prof. Judith Klinman of UC Berkeley first suggested that quantum processes were involved in the enzymatic action in 1987. She has more recently found experimental evidence for it. See, for instance, Judith P. Klinman and Amnon Kohen, “Hydrogen Tunneling Links Protein Dynamics to Enzyme Catalysis,” Annual Rev Biochem. 2013; 82: 471-496.

Gift of the Desert

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

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 8.47.34 PMThe chapter of the Bible called Chukat [“Statutes”] is disastrous, filled with confoundment, contradiction, and despair. It begins with the brain-bending formula for cleansing us from touching a dead body, the red heifer, for which there has never been a rational explanation. Then come calamity after calamity. In this one chapter, Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ sister and brother, two of the greatest prophets, die. This is a national calamity for the Israelites but an inconceivable personal tragedy for Moses, whose grief must have been enormous but is not even mentioned. I have one brother and one sister. I can only imagine what Moses felt at losing both his. Yet, in the same chapter, God delivers what is also tantamount to Moses’ own death sentence: he will die before entering the Promised Land.

Chukat also tells how the well which sustained Israel in their wandering in the desert dries up when Miriam dies. The children of Israel protest their thirst and Moses loses his patience. “You rebels!” he yells at them and strikes a rock. Although water gushes forth, and we can imagine the stress Moses was under in his grief and after forty years of facing rebellion, Moses has failed God, who commanded him merely to talk to the rock.

The wanderings of the Children of Israel intensify as they look for access to the Promised Land through the Edomites, the Amalekites, Sihon and Moab, but they are met at every turn with denial, opposition, and refusal. The Kings of Sihon and Arad even wage war against them.

Poisonous snakes arise out of nowhere and attack and kill them.

In short, from start to finish, Chukat is a hard and dispiriting slog through the wasteland. More than any other parsha, it communicates the despair and pessimism of wandering the desert, dispossessed, besieged by enemies from without, plagued by rebellion within, tortured by private despair and grief, and perhaps worst of all, confounded by God’s incomprehensible commandments.

But if we look closely, there is a counter theme which courses and babbles and carves a redemptive stream through the story. The central scene is emblematic of this percolating idea: Moses strikes the rock twice and water miraculously gushes forth.

Mayim, water, is mentioned 22 times in the course of the parsha. (My friend, Rabbi Jonathan Neril, sees this as a sign of the Torah’s ecological consciousness in http://jewcology.org/resources/parshat-chukat-water-consciousness/). Further, this is in stark contrast to the parched parshiot (chapters) directly before and after – Korach, and Balak. Water is mentioned zero times in Korach. (The symbol of that parsha is fire: Aaron shows his superiority to Korach with a test of firepans; Aaron is commanded to expiate Israel by offering incense on the firepan; fire erupts from the earth and swallows 14,500 of Korach’s followers. Korach’s rebellion burns with the heat of a mob.) Water is mentioned only three times in Balak, and then only in one sentence in Bilaam’s extended blessing of Israel.

Chukat by contrast is a veritable narrative oasis. Indeed, the imagery of water and actions related to it flow throughout. The section of the red heifer tells us to bathe, cleanse, wash, sprinkle, and dip. There are wells, rivers, brooks, springs, tributaries, and wadis. As if to identify the Israelites with water, when Moses begs the kings of Edom and Sihon for peaceful passage through their territories, he promises them that neither the Israelites nor their cattle will drink their water.

The chapter ends with the Children of Israel poised within view of the salvation for which they have thirsted for forty years, at the east bank of the Jordan River.

So which is it? Is Chukat a dispiriting narrative of defeat, death, and despair? Or is it a tale of thirst slaked and pilgrims rewarded? Is it meant to afflict us with the feeling of wandering desolated wasteland, or is it fertile with flowing waters, mayim chaim, ‘living water’ as the Torah calls it here?

The answer of course is both, but if we read the calculus of themes correctly, I believe the Torah tells us – even commands us with the force of a transcendent and mystifying statute – to trust in and celebrate the water of life. Or to put it more plainly, to see the cup at least as half full, if not overrunning, with life.

Towards the end of Chukat, the Torah celebrates water:

…Beer; that is the Well whereof Hashem spoke unto Moshe, Gather the people together, and I will give them mayimThen Israel sang this song: 

Spring up, O well

sing ye unto it.

The princes dug the well,

the nobles of the people dug it,

by the direction of the Lawgiver,

with their rods.

And from the desert it is a gift.

Num 21:16-18

The Torah uses the imperative: “Sing, O Israel”! And although this isn’t one of the 613 commandments (mitzvot), it should be the 614th, or maybe the zeroth, because it is essential, the premise for all the others. To sing in praise of water is the ultimate chok, springing from rocky sources beyond rational inspection. In fact, it is confluent with the mystery of the red heifer, whose message seems to be to dissolve the clear line between the tamei (contamination) of death and tahor (purity) of life. The line between life and death described in the ritual of the red heifer isn’t a solid barrier, effected and erected through a mechanical ritual. It is a paradoxical flow spilling over and effacing boundaries: We live with death.

Life is filled with want and strife and contradiction. Babies wail. Wells dry up. Our paths to quench our thirst are blocked. We try to get by, but enemies wage war on us. Danger, like poison snakes, emerge out of the blue. Innocents die. We fail ourselves and those we’re responsible for, flaring in anger when quiet patience will do. Loved ones pass away, and at the end of the day, we’re left to mourn by ourselves. Though we try to keep the faith, how can we when we can’t even comprehend the rules for rejoining the community after death contaminates us? The world is senseless and violent. If God is so wonderful and perfect, why did He even invent death, let alone slaughter hundreds, thousands, millions of us at a time throughout history?

Chukat prescribes the cure to nihilism and despair. It commands us to sing our joy and celebration in and by and of water. Though we are left poised, in suspense, at the end of our journey, on the expectant side of the River Jordan, there it is, the water of promise and redemption. And here we are alive against all odds, ready. It’s still too early to have lost all hope.

At the end of his life, 120-year-old Moses begs God for more life. If anyone earned the right to rest from conflict and dismay and disappointment, it is Moses. But he knows God invented the prospect of death to make life sweeter. It is the gift of the desert.

L’mayim chaim!