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

Why does the Talmud warn us against teaching our children Greek?

Chanukah is sometimes thought of as a more minor holiday in the traditional Jewish calendar. Yet it gives us a way to understand a challenge Jews continue to face as they to try to thrive in the modern world: the seductions of “Greek” philosophy.

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

Why does the Talmud forbid teaching Greek?

The last page of the Talmud tractate Sotah brings to a climax the apocalyptic portrait of the decline of Jewish generations, spirit, learning and virtue after the destruction of the Temple. It marches through a long, dispiriting list of the horrible things that happen as the generations decline and have to abandon customs that could only be kept alive when there was a spiritual center in Jerusalem. In the middle of this lamentation (called the Yeridas HaDoros – “descent of the generations”)the Talmud warns somewhat mysteriously that fathers shouldn’t teach Greek to their sons.

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

What did the Sages have in mind? They can’t have meant Greek language, because the Rabbis were conversant with Greek, spoke it in the streets of Jerusalem, and it had displaced Hebrew as the lingua franca among the educated classes. In various places in the Talmud, Greek is praised as the only language into which the Torah can be elegantly translated, as Akiva asked Onkelos to do (the Targum). In the commentary, we read the lament of Shimon ben Gamliel, the great Sage (50 CE), who boasts of the Greek wisdom in his father’s yeshiva:

There were a thousand pupils in my father’s house; five hundred studied Torah and five hundred studied Greek wisdom.

Chanukah: Greek vs. Hebrew Part I

The events we celebrate on Chanukah happened following Jerusalem’s conquest by the Greeks in 332 BCE. Around 167-165 BCE,  the Greek king Antiochus II, as part of his general purging of the Greek empire of foreign influence, outlaws Judaism and defiles the Temple. Matisyahu, Judah the Maccabee, recaptures and purifies it. He lights the lamp of the Temple, and miraculously one night’s worth of oil stays lit for eight nights. Chanukah miracle of lights because it is an eternal reminder of the re-assertion of Jewish holiness over Greek idolatry and materialism.

In 76-67 BCE – Hyrcanus and Aristobulus great-grandnephews of Judah HaMaccabee, split the kingdom between the Seleucid [Greek] faction, seeking to accommodate Hellenism, and the Pharisees, separatists who wanted to protect the purity of Jewish ritual and the Temple from these modern influences. Aristobulus seizes Jerusalem and the Temple. Hyrcanus besieges him. The Talmud tells the aggadah (story) of an old man inside the walls of Jerusalem who communicated via secret code, Greek, who betrayed the defenders of Jerusalem to their Greek besiegers:

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

Sotah 49b [This aggadah [story] is repeated in Bava Kamma 82B and Menachot 64b]

What is the deeper meaning of this story? The placement of this prohibition against Greek wisdom in the dramatic end of Sotah, the selection of this story of the traitor who betray Judaism from within Jerusalem by means of secret Greek wisdom, the quaking of all of Eretz Yisroel, draw our attention to deeper currents. What are the Rabbis warning us against? What is the historical context? What do they mean by “Greek wisdom”?

Rashi [1040-1105 CE] explains that “Greek wisdom” refers to a set of cryptic expressions of gestures understood only by the paladin (palace dwellers), not by common people. But what was this secret code? The answer lies in the parallel track of philosophy preserved by Christianity that they inherited from the Greeks: Pythagoreanism.

Pythagoras and the Neo-Pythagorean revival in the Talmudic Era

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

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

Pythagorean Essentials

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

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

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

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

So we can see what the Talmud is concerned about. Pythagoreanism was a seductive and powerful philosophy, a form of secular/pagan theology that would have been, and was, attractive to Jews, with their love of learning and wisdom and esoteric knowledge. Indeed, between the second century BCE and second century CE, as the Talmud begins, Pythagoreanism enjoys a huge revival in Roman culture, what we now call neo-Pythagoreanism. Cicero, the famous Roman senator, and his good friend in the Senate, Nigidius Figulus, lead the revival around 50 BCE. Nigidius writes a 27-volume treatise of mathematics, grammar, astronomy and magic that becomes a classic, along with Cicero’s work, for centuries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greek wisdom, the secret Pythagorean code, represented the hoof of the swine touching Jerusalem’s walls in the fight between traditionalists and Greek modernists, and the betrayal and defeat by the latter of the former, the Pharisee’s tradition that would later become rabbinic (Talmudic) Judaism. The smallest contamination shakes the entire foundation of Israel itself.

Perpetual Chanukah in the West: From Pythagoras to the Holocaust

All this would be just an interesting historical exercise showing the historical entwinement between Greek and Talmudic thought if it weren’t for the fact that, in clear purity of form, Pythagoreanism still holds sway today.

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

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

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

If we trace the history of this contrast between Greek and Hebrew, between Seleucids and Pharisees, between Pythagoreanism and the Talmud even until today, we see there is ongoing violence in the hyphen that the sages of the Talmud anticipated. Indeed, this story of the betrayal of Jerusalem by Greek wisdom and the prohibition against teaching it is prophetic. The story of the Temple sacrifice befouled by a swine, the story of the shaking of the walls of Jerusalem, are warnings that reach back to original Chanukah – already a couple of centuries old when the Talmud story is told – and forward to all of Western philosophy, including postmodernism today. The subtle but fundamental incompatibility between these two philosophies leads to what I call “philosophical violence in the Judaeo-Christian hyphen.” With the burning of the Talmud throughout Europe and the many trials Jews have suffered under the rule of Christianity, including the Holocaust, this violence is not just philosophical.

The twentieth century begins with work by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica, “showing” that all thought can be reduced to mathematically rigorous logic. Russell later wrote that “the European tradition … consists of a series of footnotes to  Plato.” [Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929)]. Even later, in his History of Western Philosophy (1945), Russell declares Pythagoras the greatest of all philosophers. Interestingly, Russell’s last act, literally, in his life, is meant to shake the whole land of Israel. Though a pre-State supporter of Zion, his final political statement, read the day after his death in 1970 in Cairo, condemns Israel’s aggression against Egypt in 1967 and demands retreat to pre-1967 borders.

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

However, two recent works of scholarship suggest the prescience of the Talmud’s warning in Sotah. Victor Farias, in Heidegger and Nazism (1987) and Emanuel Faye in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (2005) show how Heidegger, who was an unapologetic and avowed Nazi, introduced Nazi violence into the scene of contemporary Western philosophy. In the 1980s, his chief heir and leader of the Yale school of deconstruction, Paul DeMan, was exposed as having been a Nazi collaborator and writer during WWII. The monumental French thinker Jacques Derrida, himself an Algerian Jew, rose to DeMan’s defense in a shameful chapter in the history of postmodern thought.

Reconciliation through “Jewish Physics”: Quantum Cosmology

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

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

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

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

-or –

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


David Porush, Mountain View, CA

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 [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.

Who will be better for the Jews, Clinton or Trump?

(I wrote this Sept 12, but it was too hot and drove my friends nuts and made my enemies spew intolerable amounts of hatemail, so I protected it behind a password.  I outed it today because there continues to be a lot of crazy hysteria about the Trump Presidential transition team coming from the sore-losing and fearful left. This is not the sort of resistance that will defend us against Trump’s rising tide. Trump’s deeper pull stems from deeper currents. The usual noise in the mediasphere, slapstick attack and panic, empty reassurances and rational defenses and denials, didn’t help avert his rise to power and won’t stop its inevitability now.

I believe this prediction is as true today as it was two years ago. I don’t think Trump has an ideology other than Trump. He is not an anti-Semite or philo-Semite. He is not anti- or pro-Muslim or -Hispanic or -birth-control or anything else. He stands for nothing but his own self-regarding gaze in this postmodern panopticon of buzz and power. Since I am the only person in the world who opposed Trump and explained that his win was inevitable and also why (in my Trumposaurus Rex Acts 1, 2, and 3 in March, May and July of 2016) this one may be right, too. – DP

trillaryThe Trillary (Photo: Imgur)

Based on my 99.6% success in predicting the path of Trump so far, my pals have asked me to weigh in on the subject most on their minds (after the question of whether Trump can really win, to which I answer, as I have since February, “Yup.”)

That is, Who is gonna be better for the Jews, Clinton or Trump?

Well, if you’re seeking the definitive answer, you’ve come to the right place. I won’t keep you waiting.

It’s BOTH.

Clinton might be better for the Jews in America in the short-term but much worse for Israel and thus Jews in the long term.

Trump might be better for Israel, but probably much worse for the Jews in America.

To the extent you believe the fate of Jews is entwined – mystically, sociologically, historically, whatever – with the fate of Israel, you can weigh this in getting the right answer and making your final choice. I think the real question is, Who is gonna be worse for the Jews, Clinton or Trump? 

Clinton bad for Jews

Clinton is gonna be bad for Israel. She is most likely to do nothing to derail the crooked, inconceivably awful, deceptive, delusional, insanely bad, bad, bad not-good atrocity of the Iran nuclear deal, in which President Barry “Bags O’Baksheesh” Obama gave murderous Iranian ayatollahs a pathway to the Bomb plus $150 billion above the table and $1.3 billion (as of today) in unmarked foreign bills on a night flight to Tehran below the table. With the money, Iran will continue to prosecute its promise to wipe out Israel. It will continue to sponsor terror attacks on Jews in the Diaspora directly and through its Shi’a terror proxies like Hizbullah, to show that Israel can’t protect Jews around the world and just because they hate Jews anyway. When they get their Shiite Terror Bomb in ten years or so, they will diminish Israel geopolitically. The Very Bad Iran Nuclear Deal, along with miserable calls in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Ukraine, has already diminished the U.S. on the world stage.

Iran will nip at Israel’s heels in the hope of provoking a conventional war with Israel some time in 2026. With my incredible powers of super-prophesy I predict it will be on a Tuesday. They will quickly escalate rhetoric and provocations so they can rattle their nuclear sabers and the nerves of everyone in the world.

Heck. Who knows. Maybe the Ayatollahs are just fuck-nuts crazy enough with Jew-hatred and apocalyptic zealotry to drop the Big One.

Clinton good for the Jews?

On the other hand, Clinton’s brand of rational, left-of-center failed policies are soothing to the hereditary home-brewed religion of many American Jews: racial tolerance, investment in education, and social liberalism. Trouble is, it’ll be done the Clinton Way: you’re gonna have to pay to play, this time pouring trillions down the gullet of failed programs in ever-more-expensive health care, taxes, and education for your children, and trillions in  foreign debt to make trade friends with our sworn global enemies like China. When you wake up to find your wallet slimmer and your children’s future mortgaged – it will be a Tuesday – it will be too late. And no matter what Jews believe now, if Israel is weakened or destroyed, they will be put in jeopardy sooner or later as long as they continue to identify themselves as Jews.

Trump bad for Jews

Trump, well… who knows what Trump will do? He will do no more and no less than what any president would do. As long as that president is a fat, bullying, lying, self-absorbed, defensive, never-been-spanked eight-year-old with over-developed gonads and poor impulse control, who can’t believe his luck at having awoken in the body of a greedy, bloated, pathologically narcissistic billionaire in bed with a naked Melania.

I don’t believe Trump is anti-Semitic or has any plans whatsoever to hurt Jews. He’s almost mishpachah, with his kids’ entanglements and all. In fact, I don’t think Trump has any plans at all except to bask in the panoptic reflection of the entire world holding a mirror to his self-absorption. Why should he think or do much of anything, since he is already getting heroin-grade bumps to his one passion, hearing his name and seeing his image every minute of every hour of every day in every media outlet on TV or in print since at least last November?

Insofar as the sober adult part of Trump is interested in getting more money to build more pyramids to the glory of his name, he knows those hits promise the MORE FOR ME that comes with media attention, as he learned from his apprenticeship in reality on tv, no matter what the outcome in November (BTW, I predict it will be on a Tuesday). What a wet dream this has been for him!

But here’s the rub. His brand of demagoguery has throughout history been bad for Jews.

Lacking any rational plan or ideology or even what would pass as cognition at all, his authenticity and the boastful promises that spill from him are alluring to hopeful haters. Narcissists like Trump summon lizards. The lizard brain riding the body known as The Donald has sung to the awfullest and most ignorant instincts in us all. This doesn’t mean you’re awful or ignorant if you hear the lizard’s jungle drums. I know some fabulously rich, fabulously educated, and fabulously savvy folks who are going to vote for Trump because they can’t stand another minute of Clinton’s garden-variety venality or inauthenticity or lies, or can’t bear another minute of Obama’s failures  and betrayal of America and lies which they sense Clinton will continue, and they are willing to roll the dice.

On the other hand, if they start telling me they know what Trump is going to do, I call them liars. I’m the only super-prophet in town, and Trump’s policy paths are dark, dark, foreclosed even to my 20-20 future vision.

Trump good for the Jews?

Trump will be good for the Jews because he will, thank God, take away their pain at watching the failure and fecklessness of Obama and the Democratic Party.

Also, they will no longer have to answer the embarrassing question: “Without using the word ‘Trump’, name one thing Hillary Clinton has done that’s worked out for America or for you?”

On a personal note

All the red-faced screaming confrontations from friends and hate-mail I’ve received (discounting the run-of-the-mill Jew-hating ones) have been from Democrats who believe I’ve endorsed Trump. When I respond with saintly patience that though many months ago I described and explained the Trump phenomenon on a scientific basis with reference to the pathogenesis of resonant cybernetic feedback loops between public and private limbic regions of the cortex, I absolutely have never endorsed Donald Trump for President.

But the problem with my Democrat friends is they believe explaining is excusing. I explained Trump, therefore…

Their other problem is that I merrily attack Democrats like Obama, Kerry, and Clinton. They can’t bear it. This illustrates why Trump might very well win: Democrats are babies. They are so enraged by him (again, a flip side of The Lizard Brain Phenomenon I described), they cannot engage in any reasonable discourse that might admit that for all her rationality, Clinton is a woefully damaged, crooked, venal, compromised and possibly criminal politician who has done nothing right for the public good in light of which even reasonable people are looking for an alternative, even a bag of vanity like Trump. No, they say, only deplorable ignoramuses will vote for Trump.

Me, I’m waiting for Tuesdays to stop. I hate being right all the time.

Gift of the Desert

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

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 8.47.34 PMThe chapter of the Torah called Chukat [Numbers 19:1-22:1 – “Statutes”] is disastrous, filled with confusion, contradiction, and despair. It begins with a brain-bending formula for purification which no one has convincingly explained: the red heifer. It is followed by calamity after calamity.  Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ sister and brother, two of the greatest prophets, die. This is a national tragedy for the Israelites but an inconceivably painful personal loss for Moses. I have one brother and one sister. I can only imagine what Moses felt. Yet, his grief isn’t even mentioned, maybe because the story has to move on to a lot more dismal news for Moses. In the same chapter, God delivers what is tantamount to Moses’ own death sentence: he will die before entering the Promised Land.

Meanwhile, the well which sustained Israel in their thirty-eight years of prior wandering in the desert dries up when Miriam dies. When the people protest their thirst, Moses loses his patience. “You rebels!” he yells at them and strikes a rock. Although water gushes forth, and we can imagine the duress Moses was under in his grief not to mention after facing four decades of rebellion, God counts Moses’ anger as a failure: He commanded Moses merely to talk to the rock. Thus the death sentence. Seems like a petty infraction, right?

Wait, there’s more! The Israelites look for access to the Promised Land through the Edomites, the Amalekites, Sihon and Moab, but they are met at every turn with opposition and refusal. The Kings of Sihon and Arad even wage war against them.

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

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

The Chukat Countercurrent of Water

But if we look closely at Chukat, there is a counter-theme which courses and babbles and carves a redemptive streambed through the story, revealing a hidden depth and a surprising counter-narrative. The central scene is emblematic of this countercurrent: Moses strikes the rock twice and water miraculously gushes forth.

Further, this is in stark contrast to the parched chapters directly before and after, Korach and Balak. The rabbis of the Talmud are troubled both by Chukat’s lack of internal consistency and its lack of narrative logic following the events of the preceding chapter Korach [Numbers 16:1-18:32]. Korach is a desperate, parched story that climaxes when the earth swallows the leader of a rebellion and 250 of his followers. The symbol of that parsha is fire: Aaron shows his superiority to Korach with a test of firepans; Aaron is commanded to expiate Israel by offering incense on the firepan; fire erupts from the earth and swallows 14,500 of Korach’s followers. Korach’s rebellion burns with the heat of a mob. Water is mentioned zero times in Korach.

Water is mentioned only three times in Balak, and then only in one sentence in Bilaam’s extended blessing of Israel.

Chukat by contrast is like the rock from which water gushes forth. Water, mayim, is mentioned 22 times in the course of the parsha. The section of the red heifer tells us to bathe, cleanse, wash, sprinkle, and dip. There are wells, rivers, brooks, springs, tributaries, and wadis. As if to identify the Israelites with water, when Moses begs the kings of Edom and Sihon for peaceful passage through their territories, he promises them that neither the Israelites nor their cattle will drink their water. The chapter ends with the Children of Israel poised within view of the salvation for which they have thirsted for forty years, at the east bank of the Jordan River.

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

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

The 614th Commandment: “Sing, O Israel!”

Towards the end of Chukat, the Torah celebrates water:

Gather the people together [at the Well of Be’er], and I will give them waterThen Israel sang this song: 

Spring up, O well

sing ye unto it.

The princes dug the well,

the nobles of the people dug it,

by the direction of the Lawgiver,

with their rods.

And from the desert it is a gift.

Num 21:16-18

The Torah uses the imperative: “Sing, O Israel”! And although this isn’t one of the 613 commandments (mitzvot), it should be the 614th, or maybe the zeroth, because it is the premise for all the others. To sing in praise of water would be the ultimate chok, springing from rocky sources beyond rational inspection like the red heifer formula. The red heifer seems to be dissolve the clear line between the tamei (contamination) of death and tahor (purity) of life, but the line between life and death described in the ritual of the red heifer isn’t a solid barrier, to be overcome by a mechanical ritual. It is a flow overspilling sacred boundaries and categories washed away by a torrent of paradox.

Life is filled with want and strife and contradiction. We fail ourselves and those we’re responsible for, flaring in anger when quiet patience will do. Babies wail. Wells dry up. Enemies block the paths to quench our thirst and reach our goals. We try to get by, but nations wage war on us. Danger, like poison snakes, emerge out of nowhere to torment us. Innocents and great people and loved ones die. Though we try to keep the faith, how can we, when we can’t even comprehend the rules for rejoining the community after death contaminates us? The world is senseless and violent. If God is so wonderful and perfect, why did He even invent death, let alone slaughter hundreds, thousands, millions  at a time?

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

According to the Rabbinic tradition (Midrash On the Death of Moses, Petirat Moshe) Moses himself exemplifies this lesson. At the end of his turbulent life, 120 years old, you would think he would be reconciled, even ready, to succumb to death. If anyone has earned the right to rest from rocky conflict and dismay and disappointment, he has. Yet he is still defiant and begs God for more life.

L’mayim chaim!

Literature, Letterature, Liturgy

When the Hebrew Bible was first transcribed, the Jews used the newly-invented alphabet to write it. No matter whether you believe it was simply the Ten Commandments or the entire Five Books written in fire on stone by the Finger of God that Moses brought down from Sinai, or even if its core was fabricated by a bunch of authors in the 13th-8th centuries BCE, the medium must have been the alphabet.

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 6.20.09 PMEarliest archeological evidence, like the stone idol from Serabit el-Khadem, places the origin of the alphabet in the South Sinai (!) about sixty miles north of Mount Sinai, around the 15th-14th C BCE (!), just when tradition places the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.

Hebrew for about four centuries after remained a primitive alphabet, lacking vowels, or spaces between words, or punctuation of any kind. It was scrawled boustrophedon – as the ox plows the field – that is, left to right until the end of the line, then right to left, and so on.

In short, the Torah that Moses brought to the Children of Israel was one long, breathless, written word. It awaited an oral enunciation to  place the cuts between words and determine their meaning.

To quickly illustrate this, how would you read the following letters?

nthbgnnggdcrtdthhvnndthrth

It would take some puzzling and context and familiarity to recognize this as

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”

But lacking complete authority and assurance – nothing short of playing telepathy with the author – any reading would admit of several competing interpretations, including some that may seem at first nonsensical but may hide lurking messages if you stare at them too long:

In the big, no-nagged court doth have nine, death, or thee.

Hebrew readers to this day read texts without vowels and have to disambiguate individual words either by familiarity, or context, or memorizing them with the aid of another text with vowels. Consider the word in Hebrew דבר – DBR.  The consonants could mean dvar (word), dever (plague), davar (thing), daber (speak), dibbur (speech), and others besides.

In short, even individual words in Hebrew invite – even demand – that the reader play this puzzling game. This is the sort of game English students come into contact with in literature classes when they are asked to interpret opaque or dense poetry (John Donne’s works are my favorite) or literature filled with word play and deliberate punning, like Joyce’s Ulysses.

Not-yet-words

But I would draw a nuanced distinction and say because Hebrew words lack vowels, they are not -yet-words. This is true even when we consider the words as instructions for speech: consonants are the hard sounds stuck in the mouth that await the explosive of a vowel to be pronounced. Try to pronounce ‘T’. All you have is the instruction for placing the tongue at the top of the mouth, behind the upper teeth, waiting for a vowel for it to burst forth.

Because all words in Hebrew are to some extent not-yet-words, lambent with meanings that are always becoming, emergent, not-yet-utterable, then all Hebrew texts written without vowels – even a grocery list (see A Canticle for Liebowitz, for instance) – are a form of literarature, one might even say poetry: difficult, opaque, demanding interpretations.

Compared to the ideal of clarity we inherited from the Greeks, who perfected the alphabet by adding vowels, Hebrew without vowels is a hopeless muddle. When the eminent Yale scholar of the transition from orality to literacy in ancient Greece, Eric Havelock, declared that the ancient Hebrews could not hope to create a true (read “Greek”) literature, he was right, though for the wrong reasons. His assumption was that the primitiveness of the Hebrew mind and social organization, and the impoverishment of its alphabetic script, could not allow for the elevated thinking, clarity, and expressiveness of classical Greek.

Yet, armed with our understanding of the essential ambiguity-generating early Hebrew script, we can see that vowelless Hebrew is already a form of literature, inviting interpretation of almost every word. Indeed, the question What is literary? makes no sense as we try to apply a Greek understanding to a Hebrew communications technology and textuality. We need a whole new word for the kind of discourse engendered by these letters which form words that are never-quite-words.

Letterature… and prayer

In reading Hebrew, I propose that we are perpetually reading a kind of letterature, where sense is suspended between our decoding of the letter and our reading of the word, as we shuttle back and forth in interpretive suspense attempting, often vainly, to be sure of the intended meaning. This is really literary reading tending not towards clarity but dyslexia. As Amos Oz quipped, “There is no word in Hebrew for fiction.”

Perhaps even the truth value of any text is suspended between the ever-threatening catastrophe of  ever-promulgating interpretations that at the first reading defeats the illusion of telepathy – clearly understanding what’s in the Mind of the Author, but at another opens hailing frequencies to a very animated and dynamic metaphysical and cognitive plane.

I don’t know about how you take your literature (or should I say, how your literature takes you), but this sure feels how I take and am seized by mine, in all its debilitating pleasure and transporting joy. A good poem or a dense novel exiles us for a time to an inward realm. We read and get lost somewhere in the wilderness between multiple competing possibles and mutually-enriching meanings. If we linger there long enough and if we climb the mountain, then perhaps revelation will come.

Reading Hebrew thus becomes the Ur-type of literary reading: a devotional, a form of prayer, and the engagement with its letterature a form of liturgy.

Trumposaurus Rex, Act III: How to Defeat the Beast

Dear S.

You asked, “If you are so sure Trump is going to make a credible play for the election, how can he be defeated?” Here’s my answer. You may not like it. Before I’m done, I’m gonna call you part of a mob and tell you to stop being so damned rational and smug and immune to the Truth of the Trump. And I’m gonna tell you I think he still might win.

Here’s why: No rational attempt to defeat the Trumposaur has done anything but propel him. You think being rational will save the republic, but it only feeds the beast.Trumposaurus mouth That’s because the Trumposaur has primitive magic. He turns citizens into swine, the populace into a mob. But that’s the level, the primitive level of the unconscious, where we have to fight the beast. Instead of just turning up our noses at the stink he creates, we need to look at the dogpiles he has exposed and clean up our messes

Yesterday, President Obama, Clinton, The Washington Post and much of the media ganged up on Trump because of his new outrageous statements about assault rifles and Obama’s stance – or non-stance – against Islamic terrorists at home and abroad after the attack on the Orlando LGBT nightclub. Today, the bloviators on CNN are back at it again, quoting poll after poll and spinning scenarios showing why Trump can’t, won’t, isn’t going to win, repeating every mistake they made during his march on the Republican nomination. I don’t know how his numbers will do, but I’m still not betting against him. Everyone who has until now has lost. And the other routes to fighting him in his own jungle are quickly closing down.

They could have starved his monstrous narcissism. That would require CNN and Fox and even PBS and all other media obsessed and addicted to him to ignore Trump, take the needle out of their arms, turn the cameras off him and cure their addiction to the ratings his name produced for them. Ain’t gonna happen.

We might have hoped the Republican party had the wit and courage to turn away Trump’s assault through its own arcane nomination procedures. As Lindsay Graham said early in this election cycle, “The Republican party may have to lose an election to save the Republic.” And by some miracle, it still may happen in July as some pathetic folks in the press are hoping out loud, but Do you want to leave the fate of the nation to the wisdom and courage of a political party? 

We can hope the nine-year-old self-absorbed bullying boy-man who drives the Trump psyche realizes he never wanted to be president anyway because it’s too damned hard, and he’ll go home to steal more cookies and kick the cat, but his megalomania is being pleasured too much for that to happen. Maybe we could have turned the tide a few months ago. It’s too late now.

We might have hoped the Trumposaur would be exposed by the broadcast media more convincingly than he already has been, but I don’t see how. They’re trying awfully hard with little success at finding the line between coverage that exposes him and coverage that only gives him more exposure and gets him more votes. Every stab at really wounding him – especially and merely just by quoting his outrageous broadsides, inanities, and lies –  just makes him bigger. The New York Times and CNN and Fox and The Washington Post and the more stately newspapers and news channels that disapprove of Trump in attempt to quell his rising force has so far demonstrably, empirically had the opposite effect. His voter base has kept growing.  

Trump Truths

And the reason is simple: inside all his crazy salvos are kernels of truth. Here are a few.

Yes, Obama and his Secretaries of States Clinton and Kerry have betrayed US allies, diminished US standing in the world, monumentally failed in the Mideast, lied in order to push through an incredibly bad Iran deal, and let Russia grow aggressive without opposition. They have made the world worse by their weakness.

Yes, health care in America is broken and Obamacare made it worse, not better.

Yes, the fight against the Muslim terrorists is easier if you name the enemy. Nazis would have been harder if we didn’t call them Germans and Nazis. And yes, most of Islam is inimicably opposed to Western culture.

Yes, letting our borders remain porous does make us less safe.  Yes, turning a blind eye to illegal immigration tears down respect for law and is expensive.

Yes, blacks in America have done no better, and maybe worse, under Obama.   

Yes, The Washington Post lied when its first headline bleated that Trump accused Obama for the slaughter in Orlando, and then showed its cowardice when it scurried to hide behind freedom of the press.

Yes, in his speech after Orlando, Obama reserved more anger and outrage for Trump than for the Muslim terrorist who slaughtered those folks

Yes, our political process is rigged against open democratic voting as Bernie Sanders also discovered.

The secret of the mob

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Here’s the secret of a mob: when we contemplate it, it’s always made up of others. But the fact is, at the very moment we deny we could ever be part of one, we are all candidates for the mob. Point to a roomful of people and single out exactly who belongs. Are you sure membership in the mob is reserved for THEM – the uneducated, unwashed, hillbilly, redneck, naïve, young, Southern, Western, Midwestern, Rust Belt, urban, working class, unemployed, union members, seniors, veterans, working poor, rural, Texans, racists, sexists, soccer moms, angry white men, Republicans, disenfranchised, longshoremen, beer drinkers, churchgoers, gun-toters? Are you too educated, refined, knowing, and civilized to be part of the mob?  Then how about the PhDs, lawyers, teachers, doctors, billionaires, stockbrokers, self-made businessmen, programmers, women and men I know who say they will vote for him? How about the real estate brokers, Rotarians, Elks, Chamber of Commerce types, believers in God, atheists, and quiet neighbors I know who will vote for him? How about the Buddhists, Jews, Christians, and Hindis I’ve heard pledge their loyalty?  The baseball, basketball, hockey and football fans? The Uber drivers and Uber passengers?

We all carry a lizard brain around in us. It’s back in there, waiting to emerge. Yes, we spend a lot of time filtering it, caging it, burying it, forgetting it. But it’s there.  Why else do democracies persistently vote themselves into tyrannies? Why do mobs form? Against all reason. Acknowledging the lizard within us is the secret to defeating the Trumposaur.

See, the real solution has nothing to do with Trump. It has to do with everyone, you and me and the media as individuals, and all our friends. We have to stop being astonished, like deer in the headlights. We have to stop pretending we’re confused, and stop being dismayed, and we certainly have to stop being so goddamned righteous and contemptuous and superior to those Others who are voting for Trump. All  you people so eager to stomp out hatred really hate all the people you think are voting for Trump. We saw the anti-Trump haters stomping on cars in California. We have to stop supposing that all the millions of people who have already voted for Trump are simply ill-informed or stupid or credulous fools. We have to stop thinking We are not Them.

To do this, we need to dig deep, introspectively, to feel the draw of The Trumposaur, the pull of his authoritarianism, his promise of dark redemption. We need to admit the extent to which his lies hide truths, and find the middle between our team and his. We need to tune in to and commune with the lizard brain inside us. We need to feel the logic of his allure beyond logic and stop being so freaking civilized. We need to admit, before it’s too late, that The Trumposaurus Rex is an ultimate disruptor because he simultaneously exposes the truth and breaks all the rules of the game.

History, and Trump’s march, prove that elitist judgments and the decorous belief we’re above the fray are no match for a tyrannical bully, a Trumposaurus Rex. We have to join the fray by admitting we are the fray.

The alternative, I’m afraid, ends tragically as it always does when the beast summons the mob. First, the Muslims. Then the Mexicans. Then the blacks. Then the Jews. Or maybe the Jews go before the blacks. Then the press and other enemies of the state, which include anyone who insults him.

How many times do we have to see the film? Don’t think Trump’s Jewish grandson will protect Jews, any more than all the Jewish philosophers and scientists and Jewish good Germans saved themselves.  Once you unleash the lizards, no one is safe.

Stephen Berk, Professor of History at Union College, has shown that throughout the Diaspora, with the precision of a machine, every four generations after Jews immigrate to a country they are slaughtered or expelled or both. That usually means an enlightened, tolerant government has failed. By my count, Jews are in the Fourth Generation in America.

I’d say cheers as I usually do, S., but let us leave the cheers for the mob.

Love,

David

June 14, 2016

Prophecy in Exile? We Are All Esther

What is the status of prophecy today? Can we communicate directly with God and speak for Him? Are those who claim to be modern prophets, though they speak with inspiration and profound insight, really channeling the Divine, or are they mistaking personal inspiration for the real thing?
Continue reading “Prophecy in Exile? We Are All Esther”

Trumposaurus Rex: What I Saw at AIPAC

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Trumposaurus Rex

March 30, 2016

Dear K.,

Yes, I was in DC for the Trump speech, and Hillary’s, Cruz’s and Kasich’s, to the 18,000 folks at AIPAC.

Yes, it must have been scary for you to see thousands of highly educated, mostly well-meaning and politically sophisticated Jews of all stripes stand and cheer for Donald Trump.

I don’t know what they televised, or what the cameras focused on, but I saw and heard some things that few seem to be talking about. What I saw gave me an insight into the Donald Trump phenomenon, and why – and maybe how – it can be stopped. Certainly, all other efforts so far have failed and, if anything, have helped his inexorable march to the White House. And yes, K., I think he can defeat the anti-telegenic Hillary Clinton. But how is it a buffoon who couldn’t pass a tenth grade civics test might be the next President of the United States?

As you know, because you so roundly berated me, I was looking forward to Trump’s speech hoping that there was more there there. I was hoping that Trump had some kind of plan, or strategy, to disrupt politics as usual with a populist and centrist vision, run the government as a rational business, reduce the debt, show strength to allies and enemies abroad, undo the Iran nuclear deal, and pick his way sensibly and free of party ideology or lobby money through domestic issues.

I came away convinced we’re on the cusp of a dangerous moment in history, one to which Jews should be especially alert.

The Verizon Center venue for AIPAC was perfect for Trump. We might as well have been attending a Wizards game, or the Barnum and Bailey Circus (which was there all this week). A runway from the locker room led to a slowly-rotating circular center stage. Hillary, Cruz, and Kasich simply walked unaccompanied down the long bull run and mounted the stage to standing ovations. Trump, ever the showman, made his entry surrounded by beefy private bodyguards, each as large as an NFL linebacker, wearing sunglasses and black suits. They weren’t Secret Service. Everyone had already entered the arena through Secret Service and Israeli security. He was entering the ring as if for a WWF bout. It was ridiculous, because he was trying to communicate … what? His life was in danger from these 18,000 Jews? He was more important than the others? More powerful? Was this a prizefighter, a rap star, a Mafia boss? Or maybe he really is a coward and needed the extra layer of protection.

The entry with cartoon bodyguards also told us that Trump profoundly misunderstood the setting he was in, his audience, and the occasion. It reminded me of D.B. Norton, the newspaper tycoon in Frank Capra’s “Meet John Doe.” The movie should be required viewing for everyone in this election season. Norton raises a private police force in preparation for hijacking the John Doe populist movement and running for the presidency. His plan is to begin a fascist regime in the U.S. The 1941 movie is clearly reflecting on the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. Capra is warning America that we are vulnerable to the same forces at home.

As Trump took the stage about 15 yards away, I found myself both looking at him directly and also watching his Wizard of Oz magnification in the four enormous overhead monitors. Trump’s weird head was blown up even more than it is on tv. His crazy, swooping owlish comb-over, comb-forward and comb-back “do” is a doesn’t: it doesn’t hide his baldness when lights shine from atop. He’s fat.  The blubber on his face, rippling like Jabba the Hutt’s, doesn’t seem to be connected to any muscle or bone, and certainly not to any emotion except self-satisfaction. The tanning bed orange face and white around the eyes are fluorescent. He’s an alien. You wouldn’t invite him back to the party unless it was to have something to titter about the next day, because he looks like the guy who eats all the hors d’hoeuvres. He might also make a play for your wife.

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Jackie Oakie as Mussolini in Chaplin’s”The Great Dictator” (1940)

Imagine you told our sons when they were 10 years old to go up on stage in front of their friends and pretend to be president or emperor. They’d thrust out their jaws, tilt their chins up at an absurd angle, shake their jowls, purse their lips, puff themselves up, and nod in imperial self-affirmation. “Yes. That’s right. I’m the President. Uh-huh! That’s me. I’m the President. Do this! Do that! Drop some bombs. I’m smart! I have a good brain!” They’d have us howling.

One of Trump’s tics is to say, “Believe me. Believe me!” The more he said it, the more the crowd giggled. The broadcast mikes may not have picked it up. We giggled because he was so unbelievable and obvious a liar.

Then, at one point, the crowd lost it and howled in spontaneous unison. His script – and amazingly he read from a script, unprecedented in Trump world – had him claim that he read the Iran deal. But his compulsion to inflate took over and jumped out of its cage. “Yes, I read the whole thing,” he ad libbed. “That’s right. In fact, I know more about it than anyone else.” The AIPAC crowd had been living and breathing the Iran deal for at least a decade and had heard every manner of expert. They hooted. Trump, as is his wont, interpreted the derision as affirmation. “That’s right, that’s right!” he went on, misinterpreting the rolling laughter, his jowls quivering in delight.But then, I saw the Trumposaur. It had been let out to feed.

The Trumposaur is to blame for the moment that has given ammunition to the anti-AIPAC press. Trump’s script said, “And in this, the last year of Obama’s presidency …” Another ad lib erupted from Trump’s lips, one syllable: “Yay!” The crowd laughed, this time with him. The Trumposaur had awoken. “Obama is the worst thing that has ever happened to Israel,” it declared, totally winging it. The crowd rose to its feet in approval.

In AIPAC’s defense, because it’s hard to imagine this gang of thousands of Jews utterly losing its senses in unison, many if not most there did think the statement is patently true. Even The Washington Post has called Obama out for the disaster that is the Iran deal. Obama is the worst President for Israel since the Jewish State was founded. The applause erupted unanimously and spontaneously. We would have applauded had anybody said it. So don’t overestimate or misunderstand the applause or ovations for this line. These were not Trump supporters. It is AIPAC’s tradition to cheer for good rousing lines. Standing ovations are not endorsements. On the other hand, you can see how the cameras may have shown us being turned into a Trump mob. And maybe we were. Maybe you would have stood and cheered, too. Yet at the very moment I became part of the mob, I had this sudden schizoid flash of rational clear sight into Trump. I saw, I mean really saw, the Trumposaur in its naked, primitive state.

The Trumposaur is not a reasoning beast. It’s dumb, really. It neither plots nor plans. It leaps on every perceived threat or prey. It is impatient. Its antediluvian grotesquery is there in plain sight. It’s too big to hide and too big to need to hide, after all. It is all instinct and impulse and appetite and forward lurch.

You would think a hunter would need to be aware of its surroundings and have keen sight, but it’s almost blind, which explains Trump’s inability to see what’s in the mirror.

When he perceives an attack, his hearing is quite keen, but he is mostly deaf, which explains his dumbfounding inability to hear howls of execration, his shouting over others, his inability to hear a question asking for specifics. It explains his David Duke excuse (the sound was muffled) and his even more astounding string of idiot lines whenever he’s asked a question about the real world outside himself, about hot button issues like abortion or immigration, about foreign or domestic policy requiring knowledge of the actual workings of the Supreme Court, executive branch, policy, or precedent. NYC cabbies and newly-minted citizens understand the U.S. government better.

The Trumposaur’s primary sense is olfactory. It not only smells the rising blood of the mob, it knows how to bring it out, to get it flowing, to let it bleed, the better to sense its prey and feed. Its only goal is to get bigger and stay big. And to this end, to get the blood flowing, almost any rising emotion will do: fanaticism, hatred, outrage, revenge, envy, adulation, injustice, and, this is critical, fear. Fear is very effective.

Fear summoned the Trumposaurus in the first place. In the very earliest stages of the campaign, when Trump was just running a test flag up the flagpole, before even Fox gave him any significant air time, CNN seized on Trump. It gave him billions of dollars of free media coverage. I don’t know what they were thinking. Maybe they thought Trump was the most ridiculous of the clowns coming out of the Republican Party clown car. Maybe they thought Trump was a good boogey man who would sell a lot of airtime, like his cousin Godzilla. Maybe they thought if they could prop up Trump as a presidential candidate they would deliver the presidency to Hillary. But like any good Greek chorus, they amplify what “The Donald” says, even when they think they are providing counterpoint. The lead story of CNN virtually every hour of every day for months has been Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. They’re doing a great job making him President.

Even Obama berated the press (March 28, 2016) for its irresponsibility in feeding the Trumposaur. CNN became furious and defensive. Yesterday, they turned on their favorite son to defend themselves. One of their anchors defended the coverage of Trump’s campaign because it was like their coverage of Obama in 2008. But no matter. The effect has been, and continues to be, pumping up the Trumposaur. Trump is catnip to the media and he knows it. The media just blink and bloviate in surprise and dismay at his success, caught like deer in the headlights, unwilling to admit they’re feeding him.

The Trumposaur has no idea who he is or how to behave in his guise as a candidate or even as a person. He sees everything and anyone coming at him as either enemy or food. His two modes are fight or feed. Like a frightened boy who happens to be a bit slow and gigantic for his age, he has no idea how he really looks or why people respond to him the way they do. Some edge away slowly when they see the Trumposaur. He’s found by using his size, and puffing himself up even larger, and making loud noises, he can scare away much of the opposition. Those who still come at him he pounces on or eats. On tv, Trump responds to threats by yelling louder, interrupting, bullying.

The beast fills its human host with pathological vanity, narcissism, insensitivity, appetite, and fear. It bloats his belly and distorts his features. It invades his brain so that his world is seen through lizard eyes as a jungle of predatory deals, lawsuits, bankruptcies, deceitful associates, partners, and wives. Look at his pathetic trail of lawsuits in his bio on Wikipedia. Like Mussolini, though he’s had multiple wives and lovers and boasts about them, you have the feeling his promiscuity is just lizard promiscuity. He lurches to mate with any woman who enters his field of vision. He tried to court Princess Diana.

To survive, the human Donald Trump has had to create a character, a skin, a persona, to enable the Trumposaur to interact with its terrifying environment. This persona also gives voice, if barely articulate, to the impulses of the Trumposaur. It serves as bait for its prey. It explains why the persona is always interrupting himself with some boastful, mindless ad lib. It is the Trumposaur trying to sound human. Meet “The Donald.” And I really mean the scare quotes.

No rational attempt to defeat the Trumposaur has done anything but propel him because the Trumposaur has primitive magic. His call summons its prey, the voting, democratic populace on which the Trumposaur, like any good populist demagogue, feeds – otherwise known as the mob. When “The Donald” in one of the earlier debates said, interrupting himself, “I LOVE the uneducated!” he really, really meant it.

And the secret of a mob is that we are all candidates for the mob while denying we could ever be part of one. Are you going to point to a roomful of people and single out exactly who belongs to the mob? Are you sure membership in the mob is reserved for those others, hose _________ (fill in the blank): uneducated, unwashed, hillbilly, redneck, naïve, young, Southern, Western, Midwestern, Rust Belt, urban, working class, unemployed, union members, seniors, veterans, working poor, rural, Texans, racists, sexists, soccer moms, angry white men, Republicans, disenfranchised  …? No, we’re too educated, sentient, refined, knowing, and civilized to be part of that mob.

But we’re wrong. Trump has the numbers to prove it. His constituency is growing, cutting across all classes and the neat little demographic niches pollsters and pundits love, including the educated, some lifelong Democrats, women, and even some minorities. That’s why all the syndicated columnists, party fathers, analysts and smart broadcasters not only get it wrong, but are FEEDING THE BEAST. I know PhD’s, billionaires, doctors and lawyers who say they’re going to vote for him.  If you don’t know anyone who will, you’re living in a bubble.

That’s becaus we all carry a lizard brain around in us. It’s there, waiting for the right signal to emerge. Yes, we spend a lot of time filtering it, caging it, burying it, forgetting it. But it’s there.  Why else do democracies persistently vote themselves into tyrannies? Why do mobs form? Against all reason.

Acknowledging this is the secret to the defeating the Trumposaur. There are only a few routes left to slaying the Trumposaur, now. The first is to starve him. That would require CNN and Fox and even PBS and all other media obsessed and addicted to him to ignore Trump, take the needle out of their arms, turn the cameras off him. Ain’t gonna happen.

The second is procedural and bureaucratic: to hope the Republican party has the wit and courage to turn away Trump’s assault through its own arcane nomination procedures. As Sen. Lindsey Graham said to AIPAC, the Republican party may have to lose an election to save the Republic. Do you want to leave the fate of the nation to the wisdom and courage of the Republican Party? Anyway, as I watch (3.25pm PST Mar 30, 2016) Trump has emerged from his meeting with the RNC.  I bet he’s cut a deal with them.

We might hope the Trump is exposed as a clown by the broadcast media more convincingly than he already has been, but I don’t see how. They’re trying awfully hard with little success at finding the line between negative coverage that just gets him more votes, and really wounding him. The posture of The New York Times and CNN and Fox and The Washington Post and all the stately newspapers and news channels that disapprove of Trump openly, is disgustingly pathetic, unconvincing, and misses the point. Forget about my name-calling. The attention they pay to him in attempt to quell his rising force is demonstrably, empirically having the opposite effect. His voter base is growing.  He even plays the victim and appeals to how unfairly he’s being treated, poor guy, by the media, the RNC, his opponents, debate moderators … whoever. It works to get him more votes because it feeds everyone’ sense of outrage at the powers that be, that hazy “Establishment.”

We can hope Trump realizes he never wanted to be president anyway, and goes home to parlay his success into more money and fame, but his megalomania is being pleasured too much for that to happen. Maybe we could have turned the tide a few months ago. It’s too late now.

The real solution is much harder. In some senses, it has nothing to do with Trump. It has to do with everyone, you and me and the media as individuals, and all our friends. We have to stop being astonished, like deer in the headlights, stop pretending we’re confused, and stop being dismayed, and stop being so goddamned superior than those Others who are voting for Trump. We have to stop supposing that all the millions of people who have already voted for Trump are simply ill-informed or stupid or credulous fools. We have to stop thinking We are not Them. We need to dig deep, introspectively, to feel the draw of The Donald, the pull of his authoritarianism, his promise of dark redemption. We need to tune in and commune with the lizard brain inside us. We need to feel the logic of his allure beyond logic and stop being so goddamned civilized. We need to admit, before it’s too late, that “The Donald” is an ultimate disruptor. He defies all civilized or political wisdom and decorum because he defies all logic. Then, and only then, can we steel our instincts and sharpen our weapons to fight The Beast in its own jungle. History, and Trump’s march, prove fairness and objectivity and reason and dignity and elitist judgments and the decorous belief we’re above the fray are no match for a tyrannical bully, a Trumposaurus Rex. We have to join the fray.

The alternative, I’m afraid, ends tragically as it always does when the beast summons the mob. First, the Muslims. Then the Mexicans. Then the blacks. Then the Jews. Or maybe the Jews go before the blacks. Then other enemies of the state. Then his personal enemies. How many times do we have to see the film? Don’t think his Jewish grandson will protect Jews, any more than all the Jewish philosophers and scientists and Jewish good Germans saved themselves from Hitler.  Once you unleash the lizards in all of us, no one is safe.

Our pal Stephen Berk (Professor of History at Union College) has shown that throughout the Diaspora, with the precision of a machine, every four generations after Jews immigrate to a country they are slaughtered or expelled or both. By my count, we’re the Fourth Generation in America.

I’d say cheers as I usually do, K., but let us leave the cheers for the mob.

 

David Porush

March 31, 2016

 

Entanglement, Chesed, and the Quantum Biology of Incense

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After the end of the Sabbath service meant to recall the sacrifices in the Temple, we recite a curious addendum. It’s a recipe taken from the Talmud (Kereisos 6b) for a kind of incense that was used in the Temple. It required 11 ingredients in specific measures, including “galbanum,” a terpentine-smelling extract of gum plants, and “Carshina lye,” which is toxic and can be substituted for by urine. Indeed, it sounds altogether foul, although if you knew the ingredients of the most expensive perfumes out of Paris, you’d turn up your nose, too. Likewise, together these 11 substances produced a divine smell. Furthermore, the mixture was so sacred, violating the formula by one jot was punishable by death.

Although the Amidah is meant to substitute for the Temple service, and the spreading of smoky incense was the conclusion of the service, this technical, arcane process from a relatively obscure Talmudic passage seems out of place when the rest of these Shabbat prayers are abstract, about holiness, peace, and the greatness of God.  The fact that it is so insistently technical, earthy, materialistic and sensory, even more so than the original in Exodus 30, makes it more jarring.

On a recent Shabbat (2016), R. Yitzchok Feldman of Emek Beracha in Palo Alto expounded on the mitzvah of the incense used in the Temple, ketores. He explained its connection to the kabbalistic sefira (aspect) of God called chesed, usually translated as “kindness” – but meaning much more. The ketores produces a transformative scent. It influences all who smell it and binds them together in its experience. Like acts of kindness, it emanates and spreads throughout the congregation and out into the world in unforeseen ways that bind humanity together and elevates them.

I naturally thought of the concept of entanglement in quantum mechanics. Ok, that’s weird. Let me try to explain.

Quantum Biology Breaches the Wall of Our Reality

For the last century, most physicists treated the troubling and enigmatic implications of quantum mechanics as something to be banished to the realms of philosophy and metaphysics, trying to keep the nose of the consciousness camel out of the tent of strictly causal and objective physics. Physics still largely quarantines the absurdity of subatomic shenanigans from the observable macroscopic world we live in by claiming the two realities are unconnected. The world we experience continues to behave in an orderly, Newtonian, commonsensical fashion. Things don’t change each other by magic. Reality is there whether someone’s looking at it or not. Stuff can’t be in two places at once and no where at all.

But in the last decades, this quarantine has become increasingly difficult to maintain. Science itself has stormed its own comfortable cliches with experimental results that show consciousness, human or at least intelligent consciousness, is implicated in determining reality even in the macroscopic world we experience directly through our senses.  Experiments in the 1960s and 1980s have shown that two objects separated by any conceivable  connection, even at other ends of the universe, are entangled and somehow affect each other instantaneously. Still, physics had a whole armory of ways to wall off these disturbing phenomena from commonsense reality. saying that when the quantum world interacted with a macroscopic phenomenon, that macroscopic entity “observed” the probabilistic quantum, collapsing it into a stable realism. Its formal name is “Decoherence.”

But in the last ten years, quantum biology has shown that behaviors in our familiar world of nature are directly connected to and reliant on quantum processes. The orientation of migrating birds. The operation of genes. Photosynthesis. The comfortable quarantine that has kept our sense of reality simple and free from philosophy and metaphysics has now collapsed. And that collapse is utter and complete. It can’t be confined, because it is now likely to be shown that the whole universe interacts at all levels with quantum weirdness.

Entanglement

One of those quantum phenomena that is impossible to ignore at the macroscopic level is entanglement: the spooky coordination between the behavior of objects that have no material, physical or any other possible connection either invisible or theoretical. Even objects – photons – that are traveling apart at the speed of light or are separated by vast distances instantaneously coordinate their reality. When one is tickled, its entangled twin across the universe laughs.

Perhaps we can get comfortable with the way this betrays our commonsense notions of reality for photons, because they are weird little buggers to begin with, both wave and particle, expressions of a probability formula that ineluctably shows they don’t even really exist in any proper sense of the word until they are observed.  But entanglement isn’t confined to photons and other sub-atomic particles. As two physicists explain in a recent book:

“We talk in terms of twin-state photons because that situation is readily described and subject to experiment. In principle, however, any two objects that have ever interacted are forever entangled. The behavior of one instantaneously influences the other. An entanglement exists even if the interaction is through each of the objects having interacted with a third object. In principle, our world has a universal connectedness.
“Quantum entanglement for large objects [like chairs or people] is generally too complex to notice. But not always.”

Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, QUANTUM ENIGMA: PHYSICS ENCOUNTERS CONSCIOUSNESS (Oxford UP, 2006)

This wasn’t written by tripped-out tree-hugging Zen Juddhist ecstatic hippies, but by two well-respected tenured physicists at UC  (admittedly, it is Santa Cruz, but nonetheless…). Their book, published by the well-respected Oxford University Press, chronicles how orthodox physics has suppressed those enigmatic but unavoidable conclusions of quantum mechanics. And the most disturbing of these enigmas is the conspiracy between human consciousness and the way it binds our reality to the spookiness of the quantum level. Once things including human things, interact with quantum weirdness, it is entangled with it. And, by the way, everything in the universe interacts.

These aren’t just mystic metaphors  They are the serious and real, if often censored, consequences of quantum physics. They troubled Einstein and generations of brilliant physicists since, but experimental evidence shows they are incontrovertible.
The science that studies how quantum mechanics breaches the wall of biology is called Quantum Biology. One of the known ways that behavior in our natural, observable world is actually produced by quantum events is the navigation of birds. Another is photosynthesis. A third is enzymatic reactions, including those that transform the nature of one organic substance into another, like milk into cheese via rennet, or juice into wine via yeast, or flour and water into bread, also via yeast.  These have rituals attached to them in many cultures. But in Judaism, the metaphysics of their physics (or organic chemistry) is revealed, if we read it through this lens, by the halacha attached to them: cheese, wine, bread.

Another event that relies on quantum biology, and all the metaphysical implication it brings, is smell.

I always wondered why ketores is recited after the end of the Musaf amidah. It seems like such an odd and specific intrusion in the climax of the service. But Rabbi Feldman brought it all into focus by connecting the incense with chesed.  Ketores is designed to created the most beautiful, pungent, memorable, unique, and transporting scent, wafted on smoke to fill the Temple. We’re supposed to remember that Divine smell – or rehearse the rabbis’ memory of it  –  and also remember their pain at its loss. We are supposed to long for that smell as we long for the Temple, with the curious admixture of ache and inspiration, in the hope of the time when we can smell that smell again in the rebuilt Temple. Nostalgia, nostos algia, pain for home. And in the particular technical instructions for making it, we are reminded of the elaborate instructions for building the Mishkan, the Sanctuary of the Temple, in two sections of the  Torah itself. And so we are looking forward to rebuilding it.

Metaphysics in the physics (and chemistry)

The recipe for ketores specified in the Talmud, specifically the part of the formula that will produce an emanating smell I believe, is an enzymatic reaction produced by lye, which as I said above, relies on quantum mechanics. Lye, which is highly alkaline, catalyses and binds all the other ingredients into an active, dynamic new compound that transcends the sum of its parts. The siddur specifies that urine could be substituted for lye to rpoduce the same outcome, but it is undignified for use in the Temple. It makes sense: it would introduce the same highly alkaline catalysis, depending on the diet of the donor. (At the risk of boring you, lye is produced by a membrane cell chloralkali process, which is itself a quantum biological process.)
So when Rabbi Feldman taught that the smell of ketores means chesed because it spreads out and connects all of us in unseen and ineffable ways, it is literally true at the level of physics. If we dug a little deeper, I’m convinced we find equivalence between the kabbalistic meaning of chesed as universal connectedness and emotion – as Proust knew, nothing affects emotion and memory like smell – and this quantum understanding of the process the ketores formula unleashes, its entanglement and not just as a mere metaphor,  but as an actual physical process.
The G-Theory: Orthodox Judaism, Quantum Biology, and the Weakening of Orthodox Science
From the viewpoint of orthodox science, the ultimate heretical implication of quantum mechanics is that the universe is sustained by an unimaginably dynamic and omniscient Universal Consciousness Who observes every one of the infinite quantum events occurring everywhere in every sub-nanosecond and His observation enables reality to unfold. Even our Jewish heretic physicists, Rosenblum and Kuttner, completely avoid mention of the G-word, except in one dismissive, and I believe, self-contradictory sentence (“God may be Omnipotent, but he is not Omniscient” – p. 171).
However, accepting the G-Hypothesis actually does away with some fairly absurd and, so far, unprovable assertions. I think of them as contortions, illogical turns designed to preserve logic in the face of experimental and mathematical proofs that show logic’s limitations. Although these still dominate the way orthodox physics is taught today, I predict they will be short-lived: The Many Worlds Hypothesis, String Theory, and some other gyrations too technical and in the end self-contradictory to delve here (A Universal Robot Consciousness; Decoherence, as I explained above; Random Collapses of the Wavefunction, and others).
On the other hand, embracing the G-theory explains plenty of scientific mysteries without introducing any idea not consistent with what science itself has shown. It explains the “Unreasonable Efficacy of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” as Eugene Wigner described it in his 1960 paper. It explains the otherwise unreasonably and statistically far-fetched coincidence of constants  (Planck’s Constant, the strength of electromagnetic, gravity, and weak forces, among others) in the universe enables life to arise. It opens the door to implicating a Conscious Force in the Creation of the Universe, for which science has no satisfactory theory, and how Free Will and Determinism can both exist without contradiction.
At the same time, this vision – or scent – of a Quantum-Mechanical, Reality-Unfolding, All-Observing God moves in the opposite direction, from science to an appreciation of spirtual matters, for it gives us a pretty good understanding of what the Torah might have meant by His ineffable Name, an Unfolding Ever-Present Consciousness observing every minute event in the universe, even at the ineffable and impossibly infinite quantum level.