The literary genius of Torah is cloaked in a single word

“God works through great concealment”- R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Daas Tevunos 146
joseph_and_potiphars_wife_1
׳Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife’ by Guido Reni (1631)

Immortal literary works by mortals reveal a density of play with themes, images, words, sounds, hidden meanings and interconnections that leave us in awe of their genius even as they strike to our hearts and arouse our passions. But the Torah involves all this and more. It recruits individual letters in its significance, and even letters as numbers (gematria), to create skeins of arithmetic-semantic puns, while hinting at mysteries and depths beyond our ken. It is so complex, even a skeptic would call it divinely inspired.

Most people when they read the Bible see that its epic stories don’t fit modern standards of artistic coherence. Great dramas are interrupted by anticlimactic lists of genealogies. Completely disparate segments are roped together or interrupt each other without apparent rhyme or reason. In the middle of a gripping biography of a major figure, we get distracted by jarring digressions and non-sequiturs. All this feeds more intense scrutiny by textual and linguistic scholars, especially over the last century or so, who note changes in tone, inconsistencies in lexicon, even names for God. They have theorized that the Five Books of Moses is a concatenation of texts redacted – put together – by several editors over centuries. These authors had other axes to grind, such as laying claim to Israel as the Promised Land or affirming the political power of the priests in the Temple. Collectively, this challenge to the belief that Moses wrote the Torah as a transcription of God’s revelation to him is called the Documentary Hypothesis.

On the other hand, as centuries of explication uncloak the Torah’s hidden meanings, thematic, even transcendent, integrity come into view. It has yielded its secrets slowly. Themes continue to emerge over centuries of interpretation with an intensity and and subtlety that cannot be simply explained away as the projections of eager scholars over-scrutinizing and over-interpreting a text like Shakespeare’s plays. Subtleties ripple backward and forward across the whole text of the Bible and tie the whole text together. They are cloaked so well, so deeply buried, and it has taken so many centuries to unearth them, that it is hard to believe they were placed there by human authors seeking to score political or rhetorical points. Even today, the Torah, especially in its original Hebrew, continues to reveal a poetry, a literary depth, and an integrity or coherence that almost demands we acknowledge a single intelligence at work keeping  all parts in mind from beginning to end. At the same time, the cross-references and layers of meaning seems so complex and layered, that it seems to speak of a talent beyond what seems possible from a mortal mind, however inspired.

Eight hundred years after Moses putatively wrote it, the Torah was divided into fifty-four weekly parshiot (segments, singular = parsha, not to be confused with numbered chapters used in all Bibles today) during the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE). Keepers of the faith worried the Jews were losing touch with the story of their peoplehood and nation, and so instituted weekly public readings. But we can thank them, because the chapters often focus the reader’s attention on themes that we otherwise might miss. One of these deeply buried bits of linguistic archeology lies buried in the chapter Vayyeshev – “And He Settled” (Genesis 37:1-40:23).

Joseph’s story

Vayyeshev tells the biography of Joseph from the time he lived with his eleven brothers, the sons of Jacob (later named Israel). It’s a kind of familiar picaresque tale or bildungsroman, like Tom Jones, about a boy of hidden noble birth who is orphaned into the world, claws his way out of adverse circumstances, and rises to heroic adulthood.

Jealous of the fact that he is Jacob’s favorite (he gets a multi-colored coat), and worse, a “dreamer,” they throw Joseph in a pit, consider murdering him, and instead sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelites. He is carried to Egypt and sold again. His new owner, Potiphar, recognizes Joseph is blessed in everything he does and elevates him to his CEO. Unfortunately, Joseph catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife. She grabs at his coat and begs him for sex. He refuses. As revenge, she gets him thrown in jail, claiming he tried to rape her. He gets out by interpreting the dreams of his cellmates, Pharaoh’s butler and baker, in prophetic manner.

This neat story has all the makings of a beautifully coherent literary gem. We can see the movie version spun out on a big screen. However, there’s a problem: the tale is interrupted for no apparent reason by a lurid digression about one of Joseph’s brothers, Judah. [1]

Judah and Tamar

Judah has three sons. The eldest marries Tamar but dies. The second, Onan, fulfills his legal obligation to marry his brother’s widow, but because he knows any children will not be counted as his, he “spills his seed,” for which God also kills him. The third son, Shelah, is too young for marriage. Judah tells Tamar to stay in the household only until Shelah grows up and then she must leave. Judah is worried that if Tamar marries Shelah, his last son will also die.

But Tamar seeks to right this wrong, being deprived of a levirate marriage that will save her honor and status. She disguises herself as a whore, snares Judah on a trip, and gets pregnant. She confronts him with a signet and a staff he gave her as collateral for her services. He admits his responsibility and praises Tamar for seeking justice.

This is also a nice story, but what’s it doing here? It could make a cool movie, too, maybe shorter than Joseph’s, but a neat romcom. It even has a happy ending.

Veyyeshev’s literary coherence

On closer inspection, the literary eye is caught by a remarkable oddity. The Torah is notoriously frugal with its description and gives few extraneous details. Because there’s so little other color, when props are brought on stage, they get our attention. In fact they unavoidably seem like metaphors or symbols of … something else.

The single prop that stands out in the first part of Joseph’s story is his coat. It is the object of his brothers’ envy and symbolizes everything they think is wrong with Joseph.  (And yes, as if to prove the metonymic point, it even becomes the title of a Broadway musical, and then movie, “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”) After they’re rid of Joseph, they dip his torn coat in goat’s blood and present it to their father, Jacob, to prove that Joseph has been eaten by wild beasts. Jacob responds by tearing his own garment (which becomes the sign of wordless Jewish bereavement forever after). [2]

The props that stand out in the detour to Tamar and Judah are also wardrobe items. Judah’s signet and staff are accessories that might be found in any good Canaanite clothing department, but then there’s Tamar’s disguise. The Torah takes the time to tell us Tamar “takes off her widow’s clothing” in order to don a prostitute’s costume and veil. She puts her widow’s garb back on to testify against Judah.

Beged, the macguffin

The Torah returns to the second part of Joseph’s story. Again, the prop for the story – what screenwriters call a MacGuffin,” an object used to advance the plot (like the titular black statue in the 1941 movie, “The Maltese Falcon”)  –  is an article of clothing. Potiphar’s wife lusts after Joseph so much she “grasps at Joseph’s coat.” He flees so quickly, he leaves it in her grasp. Again, like any good plot device, the coat returns as she stages it for Potiphar, arranging it by her bedside, proof of her claims Joseph tried to rape her.  We can’t help but notice the episode mirrors Tamar’s ruse in the preceding story. But where Tamar has justice on her side. Potiphar’s wife’s trick is a treacherous lie. Yet it also works. Joseph lands in jail. And somewhere in there we have a allegory of justice perverted. Hold that thought. We will return to it later.

As we unpack its imagery, Vayyeshev starts looking like a vaudeville trunk: open it, stand it on its side, and you get a whole wardrobe of costumes.

One of the Hebrew words for clothing is beged [בגד – B-G-D]. It rings like a bell through the chapter. Jacob tears his beged (Gen 37:31-32). Tamar takes off her widow’s beged (Gen 38:14) to play the whore and then puts it on again to testify against Judah. Potiphar’s wife tears Joseph’s beged off him in lust as he flees, then arrays it next to her bed when she plays the injured party to prove Joseph’s guilt. In all, Beged recurs six times just in this part of the chapter (Gen 39:12-18), and twelve times throughout Vayyeshev. As words go, it’s a real lexical macguffin.

Sure enough, lurking inside it lies the key to a transcendent understanding of the Torah’s intention: beged means both ‘clothing’ and ‘treachery’ (as in ‘cloaked motives’, ‘deceit’). As the word rings through these verses, it explains why the interruption about Judah and Tamar, far from being a mere digression from the story of Joseph, may actually explain it.

Once we see it, the theme of treachery ripples out to embrace and tie together larger swaths of the chapter. Joseph’s brothers commit an act of terrible treachery when they first consider murdering Joseph, then sell their brother into slavery. They then heartlessly deceive their father into thinking his favorite son is dead.

Judah cheats Tamar by shielding Shelah from marrying her. She repays him by deceiving him.

Potiphar’s wife is doubly treacherous, too. She first begs Joseph to commit adultery and then lands him in jail on false charges.

In each incident, the occurrence of the word beged signifies both an article of clothing and its metaphorical twin, deceit. In fact, the word beged is self-referential: it exemplifies the capacity of a word to veil, cloak, disguise, or hide another meaning. It’s a pun, squared. [3]

Once we tug at this thread, we unravel entanglements with other double meanings that weave the text together:

So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil, and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife. (Genesis 38:14)

What article of clothing implies disguise and deceit? A veil. What does “the entrance to Enaim” mean? Literally, ‘the opening of the eyes’. [4] There’s a poem about appearances here.

Eyes open, we now see treacheries involving garments billow out to implicate other events, not just in this portion, but in the rest of Genesis. As a result of her tryst with Judah, Tamar gives birth to twins. She uses another article, a red string, to mark the twin that emerges first. It seems obvious she is trying to avert a repetition of the drama of contested twinship that lurks in their legacy from Jacob. But fate is stronger. Just as she ties the string to avoid getting entangled in God’s apparent script, the first twin is pulled back and the second twin emerges first, tangling things again. The Torah, to paraphrase Mark Twain about history, doesn’t quite repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

A tangled web of deception, disguise, and punning disguised in a word

The thread of beged brings the play between clothing, disguise, and treachery to center stage. It unlocks the deepest genealogy of the patriarchal family, and makes us look at a destiny that goes to the most complex moral paradoxes in the origin stories of the Hebrews. The treachery of brothers begins with the snake in the Garden of Eden. Cain slays Abel and denies it. Treachery runs through Noah’s family after the flood (his sons uncover his nakedness). It echoes in Abraham and Lot, and becomes the fulcrum of God’s history as He chooses Isaac over Ishmael. Laban tricks Jacob into laboring for him for twenty years so he can finally wed his true love, Rachel. Joseph’s brothers commit a terrible deception to wipe out the whole city of Shechem after its prince abducts and rapes their sister, Dina.

But the word first occurs in the Torah in the earlier drama between Jacob and Esau. This event originates the calculus of deception that seems to be working itself out like an algebraic proof through the generations after these twins.

Jacob is able to fool Isaac into cheating Esau of his blessing because Rebekah, their mother, has dressed Jacob for the part. She cooks Esau’s best recipes for venison for Jacob to bring his father and then disguises Jacob in Esau’s finest clothes: begado (Gen 27:15). To prove the deceit worked, when the real Esau comes too late to Isaac to get his blessing, the blind old man is inspired in that blessing by the smell of Esau’s clothing (begadiv). The Sages are alert to the duality of the word. “Read this not as ‘clothes’ but as ‘betrayers’.”[5]

In the end, though Jacob and Esau reconcile in an elaborate display of peacemaking, they are irreconcilable. They embrace, but must live far apart. This mutual exile leads to the first word of this chapter, Vayeishev: ‘and he settled’: The flavor of the original Hebrew implies that Joseph dwells in the land where his father had to live as a foreigner because he was avoiding Esau and all his descendants, the Edomites. whose elaborate tribal genealogy is recounted in the verses just before this chapter begins.

The evolution of beged and Design in the Torah

The cycles of deceit and family drama among Abraham’s seed don’t end until Moses takes the stage. It’s as if only receiving the Torah can heal the pathological family structure of the Hebrews. Whispering this transformation in its own small way, beged’s meaning change as it moves from Genesis to Exodus. When beged appears dozens of times throughout Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, it is only to signify the holy garments of Aaron and his priestly descendants, or garments that need to be washed to be holy or purified, or regal clothing signifying elevation, or garments with fringes on their corners (tzitzit) that Jews are commanded to wear in order to control lust (Recall Judah. Now recall Joseph’s restraint with Potiphar’s wife) and remind them of Torah. (Numbers 15:38). The word mysteriously simplifies by losing its alternative, cloaked meaning.

Beged’s other sense as ‘treachery ‘only occurs once more, soon after the events of Joseph, before it disappears forever.

“If she please not her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed: to sell her to a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he has dealt deceitfully with her.” (Exodus 21:8)

We are subtly being reminded of Vayyeshev. A man cheats a woman under his control out of what’s owed her by marital rights, as Judah did Tamar. The verse also singles out a pretty odd example of the many ways a husband might cheat a wife out of her due, by selling her to a foreign nation, which happens to be exactly what Joseph’s brothers did to him.

The word beged then does something even stranger: when we reach Deuteronomy, it seems to disappear entirely from the Five Books of Moses, with only one remarkable exception:

“You shall not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless; nor take the widow’s raiment as pledge (collateral).” (Deuternonomy 24:17)

The word calls out here, without prefix, suffix, or declension. It appears in its simple noun form without adornment. Beged. It has already shed its alternative meaning of ‘disguised motives’ or ‘treachery’. Now, though, it is transmuted, elevated to a symbol of justice. The Torah warns judges: apply justice evenhandedly, to the stranger and the orphan. Show mercy: don’t take collateral from the widow. “The widow’s raiment” calls back loudly and clearly to the story of that other widow from four books ago, Tamar

This one recurrence of the word, by its singularity, seems to trumpet a moral evolution through the other four Books of Moses. We have left the first family treacheries behind us way back there in the Book of Genesis. We have been instructed elaborately on the mechanics of holiness and purification, especially involving clothes, in three books that follow. And now, through a solitary instance in the final book, we understand the ultimate obligation is to activate those aspirations by connecting the divine to humanity through justice.

What author had the wit to devise this complex and subtle web of signification woven across so many chapters? How did that author layer so many puns, echoes, cross-references, intertextual reflections, and doubled meanings on one word? Or hide so many clues so deeply that they may never have had any hope of being discovered without a concordance and a computer? When every fragment of a whole seems to contain all the information of that whole, we call it a hologram. How did that author show such great artistry, to grow and alter the meaning of the word itself, to lose its furtive duality, to evolve its significance in parallel with the much broader arc of the Children of Israel as they evolve from idolatrous Hebrew nomads to a holy nation? Who devised this hologram? Why does one word seem to multiply across Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but then seem to be forgotten in Deuteronomy except for one, exquisitely resonant occasion that ripples back and colors all its predecessors?

Are these all signs of inconsistency, proving the Torah was stitched together by many authors across centuries? Or is it proof of such incredible subtlety, integrity, and transcendent coherence in the Torah that only a single Author could possibly have held it in His mind?


ENDNOTES

[1] Rashi, among many other commentators, flags this intrusion, “Why is this section placed here thus interrupting the section dealing with the history of Joseph?” (Genesis Rabbah, 85:2).

[2] The sages *almost* make the connection that Joseph’s torn clothing makes between parts 1 and 2 of the Joseph story: “A savage beast devoured him. This is a reference to Potiphar’s wife, who would attempt to seduce him.” Midrash Rabbah 84:19.

[3] The technical word for this is “paronomasia.”

[4] Rashi on Torah.

[5] Midrash Rabbah Bereishit,


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I am grateful, again, to my neighbors Michael Morazadeh, Jonathan Choslovsky, and Ron Kardos, members of my informal chavrusa, who challenged me to take a hard look at the Documentary Hypothesis (that the Torah was written by many authors across several centuries instead of by God and Moses). This blog and several before and after were inspired by their challenge. I am also grateful to Rabbi Yale Spalter of Chabad Northern Peninsula for noting what some of the sages had to say about these matters.

The direct inspiration for this treatment of beged came during a celebration of the 19th of Kislev at Chabad of Palo Alto (where I was also accompanied by R. Spalter and Messrs. M, C, & K.). Rabbi Menacham Landa of the Novato Chabad was darshening about Joseph’s incident with Potiphar’s wife and it occurred to me that Joseph seemed to have a habit of losing his clothing in dramatic circumstances. Rabbi Levin of Chabad Palo Alto said, almost off the cuff, that the word beged had a weighty meaning worth looking into.


AUTHOR’S NOTE

It is hard to believe a set of authors across the centuries BCE posited by the various Documentary Hypotheses could have anticipated a tool like Strong’s Concordance of the Bible, or the potent combination of the computer, Internet and hypertext. These open the entire text of the Torah and all its commentaries to inspection, cross-reference and explication, especially via the genius of Sefaria.org.  And only this level of inspection enables us to completely appreciate the depth and number of layers of meaning in, and coherence of. the Torah. Why would human authors have embedded and hidden these intertextual gems if they had no conception of how those connections might have been unearthed and appreciated, if at all? This is my way of saying I’m grateful to these tools and their authors.

It will take another prolix blog to explain why I am biased against the Documentary Hypothesis from the get-go and then expose the many holes in it. I will only say here it offends my literary sensibilities to suggest that disparate human authors, writing in a committee separated by centuries, cultural contexts, and goals could achieve such artistic complexity and coherence in a text. It also insults whatever rationality I have left, inculcated by decades of scholarship and an MIT education. The number of symbols, meanings, metaphors and cross-references that exist in the text of the Torah is so exponential, it suggests an intellect vaster than anything humanly comprehensible was at work composing it. The whole DH affair seems a desultory, cynical and arrogant attempt to sacrifice the inspired poetry of the original Hebrew on the altar of what passes for scholarship and so called philological science. Not to mention, suck the spiritual life out of it.

I also think rejecting Divine Authorship of the Bible dooms Jews – or any culture or civilization – to drift and inevitable extinction. It’s a bad business model for any religion to suggest that moral behavior comes solely from human judgements and imperatives. It leads ultimately to moral relativism and chaos. We humans, unmoored from any allegiance to an Authority beyond our ken, inevitably fall to bickering over the meaning and application of terms like justice.

Hell for Jews? The Case of the Epikoros

How do Jews get to hell?

The short answer is they don’t, because Jews don’t really have a hell, at least not in the sense of the fiery, eternal torture chambers Dante elaborately portrays in The Inferno (1321). Instead, they have a very Jewish idea of eternal punishment: call it a hell for the disputatious.

Gustave Dore 6th ring Dante Inferno
Gustave Dore, 6th Circle, Dante’s Inferno (Paris: Hachette, 1861) from Open Culture

In Canto X, Dante and Virgil, his tour guide, find the sixth ring of hell is filled with open graves, perpetually burning the still conscious bodies in them. Dante asks why the graves are open, and Virgil says,

 “They’ll all be shuttered up
when they return here from Jehosaphat
together with the flesh they left above.

Within this region is the cemetery
of Epicurus and his followers,
all those who say the soul dies with the body.

Later, Dante interviews one of the corpses in hell, and the zombie says,

“…  our awareness
will die completely at the moment when
the portal of the future has been shut.” [Digital Dante]

In other words, they will not be resurrected with the rest of the dead when the time comes (Jehosaphat is a euphemism for the Catholic messiah, who shares his initial). Their immortal souls, their “awareness,” will die when the they are summoned for final judgement. Epicurean souls won’t be reunited with their bodies with the Resurrection of the Dead. They die forever.

Dante seems to be deriving his ideas from a very specific discussion among Jews from a thousand years earlier. In the Talmud, rabbis discuss how heretical Jews can lose their souls forever, and they single out the “epikoros” for particular doom.  Though he didn’t know Hebrew or Aramaic and didn’t read the Talmud, Dante really knew his Catholic theology, which took a good deal from the Jews, and Dante is channeling it here. But where Dante takes the epicurean connection literally – Epicurus is one of the souls he sees – the Jews have a very different notion of hell, one revealed by their funny refusal to acknowledge Epicurus.  [1]

The three eternally fatal heresies

Jews, as in other religions, will be resurrected to go to the World to Come, but if they do one of three things, they’re dead meat [2]

#1 Deny that the Resurrection of the Dead is promised in the Bible [Torah]

#2 Deny that the Bible’s Author is Divine

#3: Be an “epikoros”

When we first encountered this list, my classmate Dr. Jack Brandes noted that it doesn’t make much sense. Why does denial that “resurrection of the dead is to be found in the Torah” take precedence over the denial that the whole Torah is Divine? Surely denial of the whole is more fundamental than any single proposition and should come first.

And we can add to Jack’s query, what the heck is an epikoros anyway? Why does it have its own word, one that hardly occurs anywhere else in Talmud and is named after a Greek pleasure-seeker? Why is he so singularly bad? After all, we’ve just come from pages of the Talmud that discuss rebellious sages and false prophets, and they seem much more worthy of eternal punishment than a common garden-variety sensualist or atheist, yet they are only condemned to mortal death. The epikoros, by contrast, faces eternal death. Where’s the equity here? “Lo fair!” as my son’s classmates used to shout in kindergarten in Israel, “No fair!”

Worse, when the rabbis finally get around to describing the epikoros nine pages of Talmud later,[3] they seem to have saved up their greatest outrage for him in a self-serving festival of indignation. What does the epikoros do that’s so bad? Why, he has the temerity to make fun of those same rabbis and Torah scholars. He mocks them for being useless or self-serving, or questions the absurdity of their rulings or disparages them for making senseless rules that make life harder just to keep themselves busy (“They forbade us the raven but let us eat dove”). He insults them in front of others. The over-sensitivity of the sages to even the merest slight leaves plenty of room for cynicism. It looks like they’ve constructed a great, self-serving Catch-22: if you make fun of us and our authority, like for instance for defining an epikoros as someone who mocks or questions us, then you are one, and you are going to die an eternal death.

Yet, by contrast, the section (Cheilik – “Portion” –  in Sanhedrin) has some of the most elegant and monumental displays of exegesis and story-telling in the Talmud. The rabbis’ eloquence is warranted because here they aren’t just adjudicating civil or capital penalties in this world, they are describing awesome cosmic events like the resurrection of the dead, when the Messiah comes, and the ultimate fate of your immortal soul.

So maybe when they come to the matter of the epikoros we should look at their condemnation as more than just an extended fit of self-serving peevishness.

Indeed, if we delve this strange word more closely, it tells a deeper story, one that reveals a startling unity to these seemingly mismatched list of three big sins. It uncovers a hidden sophistication carrying so much theological power that our cynical view of the rabbis as a bunch of racketeers protecting their turf is replaced with admiration for these learned mortals who have undertaken the dauntless task of trying to read the Divine Mind.

How to lose your portion in the world to come

Sometimes transliterated apikoros, apikorsis, apicorsis, epikores, or even ‘apikoyris’ with a Yiddish inflection, the word epikoros sticks out in the lexicon of the Talmud. It isn’t Hebrew and it doesn’t have an obvious precedent in Aramaic but seems obviously to come from the Greek philosopher Epikouros or as we know him, Epicurus.

Epicurus (341-270 BCE) taught that death was the end of both the body and the soul. He insisted that only the material world is real and he denied the existence of God or Heaven as logically absurd. After all, what kind of supreme being would introduce so much pain and misery into the world? For what purpose? Anyway, who has ever brought back a shred of proof of an afterlife where the soul receives reward or punishment?  All we get is this one go-round in the material world, so we better make the best of it. The proper role of philosophy is not to guide humans into good behavior that will ennoble their spirits and please the gods for some reward in the afterlife, but to teach them how to fulfill the ultimate goal of life: seek pleasure and avoid pain, especially the physical and psychic suffering that attends death.[3] In short, Epicurus was the very archetype of the heretic.

But if it is obvious their idea of a heretic refers to him or his followers, the rabbis are confoundingly silent about it. True, maybe their silence is because of their general reluctance to acknowledge Greek sources. They even warn against teaching Greek (see Perpetual Chanukah in the West – or – Why the Pythagorean Theorem is More Than Just Math). Greek philosophy was especially dangerous since its intellectualism and soaring embrace of knowledge of the universe was naturally appealing to the Jewish mind, just as science and philosophy are today, and Epicureanism certainly seduced many Jews over the centuries.) So perhaps the rabbis were simply following their policy of not acknowledging Greek thought.

Yet, they not only avoid any mention of the connection, they pun around it, as if to efface its source. They use an Aramaic word with similar spelling – apkayrousa – to define an irreverent Torah student (Sanhedrin 100a). Later commentators seem to contort themselves to follow this lead to a completely different and much less plausible etymology. Rashi, (1040-1105) expands the Talmud’s version by saying it alludes to “epkorousa,” [אפקרותא – disrespect]. Meir Abulafia (1170-1244, known as the Ramah), and Maimonides (1138-1204, known as Rambam) both agree the word derives from hefker, abandoned property that’s up for grabs. (Their agreement is even more remarkable because Ramah called Rambam a heretic for denying the Resurrection of the Dead.) In turn, Rambam explains his derivation of the word most completely. “The word epikores is Aramaic,” he insists. “Its meaning is one who abandons (mafkir) and denigrates the sages or a specific Torah scholar or denigrates his teacher.”[7] We can see where he’s coming from. Both words share three root letters: P-K-R, פקר. Mafkir comes from hefker. By connecting it with disrespect for a teacher, it gives a new and profound sense of walking away from your half of a transcendent teacher-student relationship, Indeed, in his next sentence, Maimonides gives more examples of heresy, and then just a few sentences later he announces his Thirteen Principles of Faith, one of the most influential codifications of Jewish belief ever written.

Is it possible they ALL were unaware of the popular Greek philosopher of pleasure? No.

Epicurus is counted as one of the greatest of the Greek philosophers, rivaling Plato. Plutarch and Cicero wrote about him in the 1st century CE. In the 3rd century CE, contemporary with the rabbis holding forth in the Talmud, he’s treated in a bestselling work, The Lives and Opinions of the Greek Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, and he was well-known throughout the Medieval period (witness Catholic theology and Dante).  Maimonides was well aware of Greek philosophy in general as a follower of Aristotle, and mentions Epicurus several times in his Guide for the Perplexed (1190).

For a thousand years these heavy hitters are insisting on a hidden meaning of the word, purposefully ignoring the obvious, to get at something else. What gives? What are they after?

Breaking the circuit

The surprising answer lies, I believe, in going back to the original Greek name. The main part of epikoros is the Greek χορός – chorus or koros – a circle of singers, probably part of an ancient ritual. In classical Greek theatre, it evolved into the group of players who stand together, sometimes in a ring, and dance across the stage back and forth singing verses of point and counterpoint to the theme of the play or actions of the main players. Koros in turn is traced back to the Proto-Indo-European[8] root gher, meaning “trap” or “catch,” a core concept signifying the containment around something. It is easy to see how it also evolves into the Greek cognate of chorus, χόρτος – khórtos, meaning “enclosure”[9] like an animal pen or corral. To evoke this shared primitive origin of the concept, have you ever sung a well-rehearsed song with others in a tight circle? You were probably moved beyond mere geometry to experience a spirit of solidarity, intimacy.

The other part of the name is more familiar, the prefix epi– , meaning “on top of,” commonly used for words that survive intact from ancient Greek like epiphany (a shining or appearance from above, a manifestation or revelation of heavenly presence), or in science for technical terms like epidermis (the top layer of skin) or epicenter (the point above the enter of an earthquake). But the prefix can also carry a sense of contrast, opposition, something after, above, atop, or even against – in short, different from – the root. An epi-gone is an inferior successor, like Fredo the weak brother in The Godfather, or like the imitators of the great artist Caravaggio to whom the term was applied.[10] 

Epikoros might well have chosen the name for himself: a radical who broke out of – superceded – the circle of Platonic belief. (The little we may know of him makes him sound like a compulsive self-aggrandizing rebel, rejecting his teacher Democritus and other predecessors, including Plato and Pythagoras, to claim he was self-taught).

In his treatment of the word, David Curwin, author of the brilliant Hebrew etymology website Balashon, notes

… hevker is related to bakar בקר – “cattle,”, and was so called because cattle would graze in abandoned or ownerless land, … this goes back to a general association between cattle and property [11]

Imagine cattle herded into a pen. One breaks out and gets lost, to wander ownerlessly. There’s our Jewish epikoros: someone who opposes or breaks out of the closed circle to embrace a terrible fate. Like, Maimonides’ mafkir, the epikoros acts willfully, intentionally.

Epikoros cuts the circuit between heaven and earth. What you do on Earth has no consequences, because there’s nothing else, so seek pleasure. He is the archetype of the radical denier, that wise guy who has to say that one other, defiant thing, the pathologically compulsive skeptic whose goal is to break the circle of belief in anything that he can’t grasp with his appetites or senses. But his behavior, the rabbis are warning him, has led him to abandon his soul.

I believe the rabbis are not disingenuous here but are knowingly digging deeper to get at this more ancient, resonant aura around the word epikoros. But how does that explain their fixation on their own pride and sensitivities? And though they are excellent linguists to be sure, how would they have gotten access to etymology pieced together only recently by centuries of painstaking archeology and philology?

One explanation is a mystical one that goes to the root of their belief in their own authority: they are transmitting knowledge preserved in the Oral Torah that Moses also received on Sinai, antedating Epikoros by 1000 years. When they invoke “epikoros” as derived from hefker, they do so with the confidence preserved by an oral tradition that is much deeper and older than mere superficial cultural allusions.  If their word play is more than a cynical effort to protect their monopoly on Torah authority, then it’s a test of our status, too: either we are heretics, or we believe this tenet on which rabbinic Judaism rests.

The road to Jewish Heaven is paved by scholars

At first glance, the epikoros’ offense seems the least dire of the three Big Ones and the one mostly driven by the very earthly concerns of defensive rabbis.

But when viewed through this deeper meaning, the list of three offenders defines three versions of the same form of heresy: they all break the circuit of authority from God through Moses into the Oral and Written Torah and from thence into the Mishnah and to Gemarah (the discussions of the rabbis of mishnah) that comprise the Talmud.

Who is the epikoros?  His transgression is the most personal, immediate, and pedestrian of the three Big Ones, but in some ways that makes his sin the most dreadful of them all. He diminishes, even in apparently slight ways – he slights – the authority and respect due the sages and teachers who interpret and transmit the Torah. Why is this worthy of the ultimate penalty? Because their authority is absolutely equivalent to the Torah’s Divine authority. In fact, the two are indistinguishable. Offense Number One is to deny that the Torah tells us that the dead will be resurrected after the messiah comes, even though it doesn’t, at least in any literal way. Then how do we know?  We’ll show you! And immediately the rabbis put on virtuoso performances of exegetical brilliance proving the case. The sages’ job, and the project of the Talmud, is to unfold the hidden meanings in the text of the Torah. Though they are human and imperfect, as the varying interpretations show, they are acting in good faith, they’re pros at what they do, and their conclusions have the force of Divine law.

By rejecting the superficial meaning of epikoros to invoke the deeper more ancient one, they are actually enacting the lesson: the apparent surface meaning of the Torah doesn’t say anything about resurrection of the dead, but our elaborations show it does incontrovertibly. Epikoros sounds like it refers to one thing, but it really means another. Watch this …

If you deny our reading, as arcane and incredible as it first seems, it is as serious as denying the Torah comes from God. And just as you must build a fence around the Torah, you must also protect not only the dignity, authority and majesty of our rabbinic project of unfolding its hidden meanings, but also our personal dignity, authority, and majesty, even if it makes us look like a mafia and even if we are only human. In short, the sages’ bravura performance in Cheilek, this famous awesome chapter in Sanhedrin, achieves transcendent coherence. It’s a meta-text that both renders a proof and performs the meaning of that proof.

The proper translation of Olam HaBah is not the static “World to Come” but the dynamic “World that is Coming”: Heaven is unfolding, approaching, in process, and we’re always on the way to It. The Talmud and our earthly interpretation of Torah is its accomplice and mirror, also always in process, always unfolding, revealing the hidden vectors of an Olam HaBah that’s approaching us. The two are coming to greet each other on the road. Mock the authority on which the belief rests, become too disputatious, and you’ve become an epikoros. Renounce ownership of your place in it, and your very soul will be destined to roam Ownerlessly, orphaned in a desolate, unnamable space with no hope for redemption. For Jews, that’s really hell.

David Porush

San Mateo, CA 2018


ENDNOTES

 

[1] My purpose here is not to highlight the differences between Jewish and Christian concepts of hell, a subject that’s been explored extensively and well by others. See J. Harold Ellens’ Heaven, Hell and the Afterlife [2013]; Alan Bernstein’s Hell and Its Rivals [2017].

[2]  Sanhedrin 10B; 90A et seq. Sanhedrin 99b-100a

[3] See the entry on Epicurus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/

[7] Rambam on Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1. (https://www.sefaria.org/Rambam_on_Mishnah_Sanhedrin.10.1?lang=en )

[8] The forebear of most European and Near Eastern language from the Early Bronze Age, about 4000 BCE

[9] [https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%CF%87%CE%BF%CF%81%CF%8C%CF%82#Ancient_Greek  ]

[10] See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/caravaggios-imitators-pale-beside-the-painters-irresistable-geni/

See https://www.etymonline.com/word/epi- and https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E1%BC%90%CF%80%CE%AF#Ancient_Greek

[11] “According to Tur-Sinai’s note in Ben Yehuda’s dictionary,…” David Curwin, “Epikoros,” in Balashon  https://www.balashon.com/search?q=epikoros

Torah as Song

“Now therefore write down for yourselves this song [shirah], and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be my witness … for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed”  Deutoronomy 31:19-21

“Sing every day, sing every day,” – Rabbi Akiva quoted in Sanhedrin (99a)

The first letters of the Torah when rearranged say שיר תאו  [‘shir ta’ev’] “A song of desire.” – Attributed to R. Isaac Luria

 

When great poems get canonized in anthologies for college courses, they usually come thick with stuff that is supposed to help the student: short introductions, footnotes, annotations, guides, accent marks. They disambiguate inscrutable lines, point out cross-references and themes within the poem, and note the allusions to other texts and events that make the poem otherwise impenetrable. But the very density of these aids may have the opposite effect on the poor student. It also says, There’s even more of this out there. You gotta be a pro to really get it. Maybe that’s why most people can go very merrily through their whole lives without reading another poem after graduating high school.

The Torah is also like this. The newbie coming on the scene of the Jewish interpretive tradition stares down 73 volumes of the Schottenstein Talmud and millions of pages of other commentaries. Where do you begin? How can any human scale the mountain of interpretation?

But what if we approach the Torah, that densest of texts, like music? What if we treat it not first and foremost as a history of the birth of a nation or as a collection of dos and don’ts, or not even an elaborate assemblage of narratives, myths, and laws in prose, but rather as one very long song? And what if it even tells us so itself, I’m a song. Write me down and sing me through all your generations? Our assignment, to achieve enlightenment, becomes easier, less discouraging, and even joyful.

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 5.25.13 PMTorah sings its own birth

The Torah is the first and greatest document written in the new technology of the phonetic alphabet. It is only natural that a new disruptive communications tech, exulting in its new-found powers of expression, would narrate its own birth story (“Mr. Watson. Come here. I want to see you”), show off what it can do, and surround its revolution with transcendent awe.

So one of the recurring themes of the Torah is the power and centrality of writing in the birth story of the Jews. God writes the first tablets that Moses brings down from Mount Sinai with His Own finger. Moses writes the second version, taking dictation from God. Every king is commanded to write two Torah scrolls, one for himself and one for his people. We each have to write the words and keep them as frontlets between our eyes and next to our hearts, and write them on the doorposts of our homes, perhaps imitating the first act of literacy by a general population, the smear of a secret sign in blood on the doors of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt so the Angel of Death would read it and pass over.

And finally all Jews are commanded to “write down for yourselves this song [shirah] and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be my witness” (Deut 31:19-21). This commandment comes as part of Moses’ farewell address and might be taken to refer to the Moses’ final song of victory and admonition he will soon sing. But it seems more likely, and becomes so much more powerful, if the Torah is here referring to itself as a whole. This is, after all, the very last of the Torah’s commandments. Doesn’t it make sense that the Torah’s author is ensuring that His words “shall not be forgotten”? Wouldn’t the Torah want itself to stay an eternal best seller and remain always number one on the hit parade by commanding everyone to write it themselves and then commit it to memory by singing it?

If we take this “song” to refer to the Torah itself, it is also encapsulates the entire monumental revolution that the Torah has staged: an illiterate, oral culture of Hebrew slaves becomes a nation forged by writing almost overnight, and that act of writing is the transcription of a song.

Exodus tells us God’s original pronouncement is one long utterance from atop the mountain, like one long shofar blast. But it’s too mind-boggling to be comprehended by the newly-liberated slaves, so they beg Moses to write it down for them.

A scholarly approach to the Torah’s media revolution

As I have noted elsewhere, even from a scholarly perspective, it is not farfetched at all that the Torah is the story of the moment the Children of Israel convert from an oral to literate culture and marks the birth of its own means of transmission, the first alphabet. Exodus is now a story we can relate to today in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Moses is staging a media revolution! He brings a new, disruptive tech, the phonetic alphabet, that is so powerfully new that it seems divinely inspired.  He then he delivers it exclusively to a huge population of slaves. The alphabet is so simple to learn, needing only 22 signs to master, that a newly literate population is armed with a new power almost overnight. It poses a viral, plaguey, counter-cultural threat to Pharaoh’s hegemony which is founded on a hierarchical, hieroglyphic-based communications, one that has become ossified and enslaved to an obsolete, 1000-symbol writing system controlled by a narrow class of scribe-priests.

Moses stages a war of writing apps in Pharaoh’s court, a demo of the alphabet’s superiority, besting the hieroglyphic scribes, who throw up their hands to declare, “This must be the Finger of [a superior kind of] God!” He then leverages the threat of this dynamic weapon, this new communications technology, to liberate the slaves.  Pharaoh realizes, against his own will, that he cannot resist this upwelling tide, and for the first and just about the only time in history, an absolute ruler lets a huge slave population go, even at the risk of imperiling his empire. Imagine putting the iPhone in the hands of every slave in the Old South, but denying it to their masters. America might have been spared the Civil War.

The phonetic alphabet, like a smart phone, also grants to the Hebrews new powers of imagination and communication. They conjure a new kind of abstract God, completely the opposite of the many, image-dependent, literal idols of the cumbersome, pictographic Egyptian culture. It gives the Hebrews access to feel as if they can read the will of that God directly, as He expressed it Himself in the Torah, in their native tongue, written in the new medium.

That archeologists trace the most likely birth of the alphabet to slave scrawls in the South Sinai (at Serabit el-Khadem) during the 14th century BCE, about the same time of Moses in the Hebrew chronology of the world (1312 BCE) makes this story compelling and vital.

It is also not farfetched to think that the Torah was one long song of 23,000 verses that was meant to be committed to memory. One of the great breakthroughs in understanding Homer’s epic poetry is that it also marked the moment the Greeks became literate in the 8th century BCE. Harvard professor Milman Parry studied the balladeers of the illiterate cultures of Serbo-Croatia of the 1930s. Able to recite thousands of lines from memory, these singers told epic tales of heroes and wars. They mixed the distant past with current memory and family genealogies like those in the Torah. They reciting the shared cultural histories of the tribes and towns they entertained and connected it to their audience personally.

Parry showed that the structure of these epic songs – their repetition of musical themes, melodies, consistent line lengths and accented syllables, rhyming patterns, stock phrases, and larger thematic patterns — all worked together as mnemonics, enabling the stupendous feats of memory by these illiterate troubadours. His student, Albert Lord, then elaborated Parry’s insight in a 1960 book, The Singer of Tales, showing that the structure of Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, more than 15,600 and 12,000 lines long respectively, deployed the same interwoven devices of song. The conclusion was clear: the singer of the ancient Greek epics was oral and probably illiterate, and the epics were transcribed by someone in the newly-literate Hellenic tribes.

No wonder the last commandment of the Torah is that every Jew should recapitulate this awesome moment for themselves by writing a personal copy of the song, and then “put [it] in their mouths…for it shall not be forgotten.” Write the song down, then perform its music. In some ways, this is as fundamental to being a Jew as the acknowledgement that God is One and re-enacting the Passover story.

Torah as Art

Reading the Torah as a song also transforms our interpretive approach to it. We know from the beginning that the multiple interpretations of the text aren’t competing for which is truest, but that many or all can be true at once and supplement or complement or even gainsay and negate each other. Like a great poem in the college anthology, that only enhances the awe we have of it. The fruit multiplies and the tree is stronger for it. This isn’t just a manual, or code of laws, or history, or a cryptogram. It’s art.

This explains why the Oral tradition, which gives authority to our millenia-long rabbinic and interpretive traditions, is as important as the written Torah. Reading the Torah as a song embraces our millions of words of scribbled commentaries and much else that liberates us. Scholars read the text and parse every jot and word to discover its original singular intended meaning, playing a millennia-long game of telepathy with its Author. They are trying to read God’s mind. A noble endeavor that keeps Jewish law and tradition alive and ever-growing.

But now we are freed to also embrace a much more accessible and personal job description: the Torah, like a great poem, was also an aboriginal musical performance that we all should try to resurrect and perform.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes many of these points in The Torah as God’s Song,[1] building on Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin’s[2] insight into the Torah as poetic:

Descriptive prose carries its meaning on the surface. The Torah, like poetry, does not. … The whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal . . . remains mysterious and ‘fraught with background.[3]

Rabbi Sack also quotes R. Yechiel Michal Epstein (1829-1908) from his Arukh ha-Shulchan.[1]

The rabbinic literature is full of arguments, about which the sages said: “These and those are the words of the living God.” This is one of the reasons the Torah is called “a song” – because a song becomes more beautiful when scored for many voices interwoven in complex harmonies.

There is room now for the instruction manual version of the Torah, the Shulchan Aruch [4] and its description of how to follow the 613 mitzvot. There is also room for all the many volumes of the Talmud and all its commentaries and footnotes, not to mention the thousands of books, essays, blogs, sermons written since. There is room for this and also that, for Talmudic legislation and its stories – are they mere illustrative anecdotes? Parables? Metaphors? Flights of fancy? Casual comments and throwaway lines? All of the above?

And there is plenty of room – in fact there is a demand for – elucidations of hidden, syncretic, hieratic knowledge like Kabbalah.

Finally, the difference between the performance of a song and its written score is the latter’s silence. This gap opens a vast space not only for all interpretation but for silence, for biting our tongues and for lifting our fingers from the keyboard to withhold saying what we think lurks in the text. There is room for the silence of humility or discretion or doubt. There is room for the silence that comes from the inability to say anything at all in the face of this infinite task.

The Lost Music

Moses was the only human who could hear God’s first original awesome utterance of the Torah and still have the wit to retain and transcribe it. All the other Israelites, assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai, quaked with fear and begged Moses to transform God’s voice into the new medium, like vinyl to MP3, or illuminated codex to printed book. Today, so much of this song has been lost before we even begin to approach the text: the original cadence, rhyme, melody, voice, sound of the original singing. Even if the Torah trope (melody) and the vocalizations given us by the Masoretes are aboriginal from Sinai, we missed that long blast from high.

None of us can be Moses. We are all sentenced to yearn for, but never attain, perfect comprehension. That we can only capture snatches of the original tune demands respect for silence, even as we noisily and merrily try to recreate that sound from Sinai by singing the Torah (trope) and wordless Chassidic melodies (niggunim).

Judaism is a religion of words, and yet whenever the language of Judaism aspires to the spiritual it breaks into song, as if the words themselves sought escape from the gravitational pull of finite meanings. … Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul.[5]

Yet if we do treat the Torah as a song or poem, we can’t perform the original with fidelity. Sadly, musical notation wasn’t included in the revelation on Sinai along with the alphabet, and we weren’t there to hear it. In its stead, though, comes a pleasure of the text, as French critic Roland Barthes[6] phrased it, if we approach the Torah with our ear tuned to its music and poetry.

This pleasure transcends the many joys of scholarship: it opens something prayerful in the primitive Hebrew of the Scriptures that we lose when we erect rational understanding – clarity – as the goal of all interpretation. If the Torah is the Supreme Poem or Song, every syllable has a secret melody.

 

David Porush, San Mateo

Erev Yom Kippur 5779

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Torah as G-d’s Song,” https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/2308716/jewish/The-Torah-as-G-ds-Song.htm

[2] The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin), Preface to Ha’emek Davar, Parag 3

[3] Rabbi Sacks, op. cit.

[4] The Set Table. Codification of the laws of the Torah – halacha – written by Joseph Caro in 1563

[5] Rabbi Sacks, op. cit.

[6] Roland Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte (Editions du Seuil, 1973.

The Quantum Theology of Cheese


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

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

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

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

Hearing vs Reading the Bible

The play between orality and literacy in Jethro

When did the Israelites become literate?

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

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

The Aleph Tav
The first and last signs in Hebrew.

The first and last signs might refer to the silent conjuror’s tricks that God has just shown Moses:  a rod turns into a snake and Moses’ hand turns leprous and back again.

But more sensibly, the “voice of the signs” refers to  the core breakthrough that made the phonetic alphabet a monumentally disruptive invention: signs, instead of being pictures for words as in hieroglyphics, are instructions for the voice to make sounds, like musical notes. The first and last symbols refer to the aleph and the tav, the beginning, the whole of this new invention.  God is telling Moses: show the Israelites back in Egypt this new explosive technology, these letters, and with them you shall set them free. Continue reading “Hearing vs Reading the Bible”

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

“Writing is a form of prayer.” – Kafka in his diaries.

The writing machine in fiction is almost always a metaphor used by authors from Swift through John Barth, Italo Calvino, and William Gibson to explain and display their own techniques, an energized funhouse of self-reflection. I’ve looked at many of these over the decades, since they play on the slippery boundary between reason (mechanics) and irrationality (art) in order to question deep assumptions about how their authors, and their cultures, find and express “truth” in fiction. In this essay, I look at two fictional texts about machines that write directly onto the human body. Both mechanisms work to give their subjects knowledge of realms beyond the ken of sheer mechanics. The first is the Sentencing Machine in Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” (1914), an excruciating device for torturing and executing condemned prisoners by incising tattoos on their bodies . The second is Thomas Pynchon’s much more benign “Puncutron Machine” in Vineland (1990), an electroshock device for adjusting a subject’s spiritual balance, his karmaand send him “purring into transcendence.”  Their comparison shows these two authors’ interest in metaphysics, a territory of twentieth century literature that is curiously under-explored in most criticism. The route to that territory goes from the physical body, through texts written by machines on bodies, to transcendence. Continue reading ““The Hacker We Call God”: Transcendent Writing Machines in Pynchon and Kafka”

The Origin of the Weekend: The Slave’s Lesson

shabbat candles in the windIt‘s only Monday, and I‘m already looking forward to the weekend. But since I’ve got a ways to go, it got me to thinking, Where did the idea of the weekend come from? 

The fact is, it took a nation of former slaves, the Jews, to invent the idea around the 14th century BCE. Moses liberates them from bondage in Egypt. They flee as quickly as they can, knowing Pharaoh is likely to change his mind again. He does, and while pursuing them his army is drowned in the Red Sea. Moses leads the Children of Israel, now a horde of several million, safely across into the Sinai desert, the wasteland east of Egypt. They come to Mount Sinai and camp at the bottom while Moses ascends to get further instructions from God. After 40 days, he brings down the Ten Commandments. One of the ten is this incredible innovation: set aside one day a week to rest and worship God and keep the day holy. Since then, the Shabbat, as Jews call it, has become one of the Jews’ extraordinary gifts to world civilization.

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy. It’s an abstract, positive commandment that doesn’t quite seem to fit with the don’ts (don’t commit adultery, murder, covet, bear false witness, steal, worship idols, have other gods, or abuse My Name) nor the only other do (honor your parents), which is personal. Yet, the Sabbath is one of Judaism’s holiest concepts since it commemorates the seven days of Creation. It is the foundation of how Jews measure time, and it originates with them.

This is not an example of cultural borrowing. The Sumerians, Akkadians, nor the Babylonians had nothing quite like it. Although there is fragmentary evidence they may have counted seven day periods from the new moon, their “week,” if it existed at all, was unstable. The Egyptians used a ten-day cycle. The Sabbath was created ab novo by Jews. If you cannot accept that it’s divinely inspired, then it’s admittedly – like those two other Jewish inventions at Sinai, the phonetic alphabet and monotheism – at very least an invention so extraordinary and transformative that it inspires the world.

Jews place such importance on the Sabbath that their calendar is fixed around the stability and sanctity of the seven-day week, and they go to great lengths to preserve it. A lunar cycle is actually 29.53 days. If you don’t add an extra day now and then to the lunar calendar (called intercalation) to catch up with the sun’s rhythms, it will soon be a mess as it gets out of sync with the annual seasons and the solar year. Instead of adding a day to the week, rather than lose a fixed, certain Sabbath, Jews loosen the concept of a month and subjugate it to the week, adding an extra day to certain months. They even add an extra whole month every two or three years rather than violating the sanctity of the week. 

Considering this: there is nothing in nature to suggest anything special about a seven-day week. The Sabbath is a complete abstraction. Further, it arises in an agrarian world where work never ceases and the rising and setting sun or the waxing and waning moon are much more efficient and important markers of time. Why would any other culture adopt it? The Sabbath is so distinctively Jewish, and so intimately bound to the original revelation of God and the Bible that give the Jews their identity, that it is part of the traditional proof of the distinctiveness and validity of their religion.

Around 740 CE, Bulan, King of the Khazars – a vast nomadic Turkic nation controlling all of Eastern Europe – had a mystical revelation that he had to embrace the one true religion. He interviewed a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew. In the end, he chose Judaism and converted his entire people. Four centuries later, Rabbi Judah HaLevi recounted the Jew’s audience with the King in his book, The Kuzari, still studied by Jews as an essential testament of faith.

The Rabbi in his speech to the King makes several arguments defending Judaism, but one of the most persuasive, because it is indisputable, is the worldwide acceptance of the seven-day week culminating in a Sabbath.

Rabbi: Did you ever hear of a nation that does not accept the standard seven-day week, beginning on Sunday and ending on the Sabbath? How is it possible that the people of China agree with the inhabitants of the westernmost islands on this matter, without some initial contact, collaboration, and agreement?

King: It is improbable….unless we are all the descendants of Adam, Noah, or some other ancestor from whom we received the seven-day week.

  • R. Judah HaLevi, The Kuzari (1140)

Even if we regard the Sabbath as a merely cultural practice, devoid of any religious significance, it indisputably marks one of the most monumental social revolutions in history.

By forbidding work on one day every seven, the Sabbath distinguishes humans from beasts, who have a very different notion of time, if they have “notions” at all.

It distinguishes free people from slaves, who don’t control their time or their work. This must have been especially and immediately poignant to the Jews, slaves just a short time before they receive the Sabbath. And now thirty-five hundred years later, its transformations of work, play, time, freedom, and self-determination still resonate globally.

Jews light candles to mark the beginning of the Sabbath at sundown Friday. In my home, we turned down the lights and lit the candles to mark the start of something different from the mundane and ordinary. Even the kids, when they were babies, instinctively understood it. We called it, properly, a birthday party for the world. The Sabbath gave them a sense, even before they could talk, that there may just be something beyond all the material stuff in life, something inexpressible, filled with light. We turned off its competition in light-making, the tv. I now see my grandchildren, all under five years old, getting it. I hope and pray they also grow up to appreciate the other lesson of Shabbat, the slave’s lesson, that time itself is precious and transcendent. Our freedom to do with it as we choose is one of the sweetest things in life.

Almost Really Real: How the word “virtual” deconstructed itself and what its curious etymology tells us about the future of virtual reality and truthiness   

Chasing virtual reality, what we used to call cyberspace, has spawned a multi-trillion dollar worldwide industry, which makes it a pretty sexy phrase, right? But do we really know what we mean when we use it? In normal conversation today, when we say something is virtually true we’re saying something like,

“It’s just about almost perfectly completely and for all intents and purposes as effectively true as truth … but not essentially, really true.” 

So when we call it virtual reality, this technology meant to fool you into thinking you’re experiencing something you’re not, we’re saying it is “almost really” real, or virtually real, don’t we? It’s a beautiful oxymoron, and more or less accurate, depending on how cool your hookup gear and the simulations inside are. 

Since we’ve made a trillion-dollar bet on it, wouldn’t it be valuable to know what we mean when we use it? What deep human urge does it promise to fulfill? What itch is it scratching? Perhaps, armed with that deeper understanding, we may even be able to predict where it’s going. I think we can do that by looking at the curious history of the word virtual Continue reading “Almost Really Real: How the word “virtual” deconstructed itself and what its curious etymology tells us about the future of virtual reality and truthiness   “

One century on Rav Kook Street, yearning for Klal Yisroel

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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


August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Why does the Talmud forbid teaching Greek?

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

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