The Not-So-Hidden Future History of the Jews

When Jews of all peoples don’t realize they are in history, then they inevitably drown in it.

This week’s section of the Torah, Vayelech, the shortest of the year, lays it all out in front of us as a simple straightforward, unambiguous deal. It is Moses’ last day. He has been delivering his final, long speech to the Jews as they are about to enter Israel and conquer it. His passion and concern for the Hebrews transcends the pathos of his impending punishment: he is not allowed to enter Israel with the people he liberated and guided for forty years. His focus in his 35-day exhortation is on reminding them over and over of the terms of the deal: if you abandon G-d, then G-d will abandon you to the predations of other nations. To make it even simpler, Moses in this last day doesn’t demand obedience to all 613 commandments. He cautions against violating only one: worshipping something other than G-d. Betray Him, and He will stop paying attention to you with the special care He has shown you. He liberated you from Egypt, made you literate, gave you the Torah, fed and clothed you in the wilderness, and now brought you to this Promised Land, despite the many times you’ve tested His patience. He’s kept his end of the bargain. All you have to do is avoid worshiping the petty gods of other nations.

And then he’s done with his speech. But before Moses launches into his famous song, a soaring bit of inspired poetry and love song to the relationship between G-d and Israel, G-d takes him aside. He tells him, confidentially, I know these people. They are going to betray me and follow the gods of other nations, even ones they don’t yet know. 

וְחָרָה אַפִּי בוֹ בַיּוֹם־הַהוּא וַעֲזַבְתִּים וְהִסְתַּרְתִּי פָנַי מֵהֶם וְהָיָה לֶאֱכֹל וּמְצָאֻהוּ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת וְצָרוֹת וְאָמַר בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא הֲלֹא עַל כִּי־אֵין אֱלֹהַי בְּקִרְבִּי מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת הָאֵלֶּה׃

Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them. They will be easy prey, and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they will say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.”

וְאָנֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא עַל כָּל־הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה כִּי פָנָה אֶל־אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים׃

Yet I will keep My face hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods. [Deut 31:17-18]

The root of the words G-d uses to describe His exit from – or at least His disappointment in – His part of the deal – S-T-R – is very particular. It is used once in the first verse and then doubled for emphasis in the next. G-d will hide His facehastair astere [הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר].  This root word and the image it conjures is used only six times before in the Bible, always to note something about a contract that has gone or will eventually go sideways:

  • Cain cries out when he realizes his awful fate for killing Abel: Cain realizes G-d will hide His face from him as he roams the Earth as a vagrant. (Gen 4:14)
  • As Jacob finally parts from his uncle after twenty-one years of deception, Laban, the paragon of deceit and distrust, erects a monument to make sure Jacob will hold up his end of their treaty, “So G-d will watch between you and me even when we can’t see each other.”
  • Moses hides his face on Sinai as G-d reveals Himself as the same One who made a deal with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (Ex 3:6)
  • If a wife commits adultery “undetected” but her husband becomes suspicious, it initiates a serious breach in the social order (in primitive societies it is still the source of revenge or “honor” killings) that can only be healed by a special judicial process for the sotah. (Num 5:13)
  • G-d will send hornets to destroy those who hide from (abandon) Him, a poetically just punishment since hornets are so personal and particular when they sting. (Deut 7:20)
  • Hidden (private or secret) sins are [to be left] to G-d. (Deut 29:29)

Together these uses of the root “S-T-R” – hide – resonate with each other across the tapestry of the Hebrew Bible and the history of the Hebrews. Every partnership, relationship, marriage has an aspect of distrust in it. That’s the nature of relationships, and that’s why we have contracts and ketubahs spelling out responsibilities and penalties for not fulfilling those responsibilities. As in human relationships, the contract between Israel and G-d requires both parties paying attention to each other. “Hiding your face” and therefore your gaze from the covenant, turning to foreign gods and idols, breaks it. The consequence is G-d will hide His face from you.

This would be a mere academic exercise in clever wordplay around the root image, except that G-d’s use of the word transcends the text, and history, to prophesy the future unmistakably.  Until now it was sprinkled sparsely through the rest of the Torah, but now it occurs three times in two verses and twice, emphatically, together, like trumpet blasts demanding our attention. To what?

A secret vision is revealed to Moses, signaled in this word for hiding. The Talmud nails it. Rav Mattana tells his students that G-d is alluding to the events “involving Esther” and Purim centuries later.

“The verse states… “And I will hide [haster astir] My face on that day for all the evil which they shall have done by turning to other gods.”[1]

Though R. Mattana doesn’t elaborate, we see immediately what he means. Esther’s name derives from the same root, hidden. She’s a crypto-Jew. Even her own husband, King Ahashveros,  doesn’t know. Further. G-d Himself is famously hidden in the Megillah. He is never mentioned.

With this key, we see G-d sketch the entire story of the Jews of Persia for Moses. Haman has sent a decree to all the 127 satraps (states) of Persian Empire telling the citizens to kill all the Jews, man woman and child. We don’t tend to pay attention to it as we focus on the genocidal Haman, but the premise for his plot must be that the Jews were in fact living in all those paces, spread out across the Persian Empire.

In other words, if not completely assimilated, Jews were surely well-integrated and mixed with the host culture freely. And they were doing so willingly. Before the events of Purim, Cyrus liberated the Jews from their Babylonian captivity and sent them back to Jerusalem. He even helped erect the Second Temple there. By definition many, maybe the majority, Jews rejected Cyrus’ lovely invitation and chose to remain behind in Persia. They were too comfortable, too settled to go back to Zion. Was it any accident that after inviting them to leave, Persia threatens to completely eliminate them? Or is it fulfillment of G-d’s dire consequences to the Jews of forgetting their deal, one we see over and over again whenever we assimilate: “They will be easy prey …”? Disguised as the oldest, deepest hatred erupting in historical events, it may be hard to see G-d’s actions hiding beneath the surface, the Megillah and this prophecy in Torah tell us He’s there.

Whether by sloth or lack of spirit or lack of faith, Persian Jews broke the covenant with G-d. We don’t know how steeped in idolatry they were. We can only imagine. Epicurus, who invented the idea of a moral, secular atheism in sophisticated Greece, hadn’t yet been born.[2] So it is hard to imagine the Jews there just believed, as many do now, in no god at all. Even if it was just material comfort and assimilation they were after, they chased after other gods.

On the threshold of the fulfillment of His promise to the Hebrews, G-d brings Moses into His confidence and shows him a vista not only in space but in time. He predicts the far-flung, even eternally-recurring future drama of the Jews wherever they are in exile, not just in Persia. Esther’s hidden identity as a Jew foreshadows the status of Jews many times in the Diaspora, even in America. Here we find ourselves more free to identify as Jews anywhere ever since the fall of the Temple, except Israel, but too many of us simply don’t care to. By now, wouldn’t you think we’d know how this is going to work out for us?

When G-d hides His face from the Jews, we have no protection from the forces of hatred and Haman and Hitler that inevitably erupt in our host nations. History is the teacher here. We don’t need to resort to mystical explanations, or the rationalization G-d Himself predicts we will use: “Oh, He broke the deal. Our troubles came because He withdrew.”

As I write these words, it is the afternoon before Shabbat Shuvah, 5780. I am racing the clock. Yom Kippur is next week. So let me end on a note of redemption.

Purim and Yom Kippur are mystically connected, flip sides of the same spiritual coin. R. Joseph Soloveitchik notes the holidays are only superficially different. Beneath, they are the same:

 “Purim is a call for Divine compassion and intercession, a mood of petition arising out of great distress…. The pur, the goral of Purim and the casting of lots [for choosing the goats] on Yom Kippur both speak to man’s basic condition of vulnerability, insecurity, and fickleness.”[3]

The two holy days also speak to our ability to choose which way we turn our psyche. I hope and pray that individually and collectively we find the conviction, if not from transcendent words of Torah then from the lessons all around us, to turn back, to do teshuvah, to the covenant we made with G-d. The message of Yom Kippur is that it is never too late to turn our faces to Him so He will keep His loving, indulgent, forgiving face turned to us.

 

Porush

Simchateo, CA 5780


ENDNOTES

[1] Chulin 139b

[2] To this day, Persian culture doesn’t have a sophisticated idea of secularism. You are either Muslim, Zoroastrian, or identified with another religion.

[3] Quoted in R. Eliyahu Safran, “Purim and Yom Kippur: An Odd Couple?” OU [https://www.ou.org/holidays/purim/purim_and_yom_kippur/]

 

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 Matzah [long]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Matzah Sermons

The Matzah Sermon has many versions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metaphysics in the physics of matzah

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

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

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

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

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

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

The quantum physics of yeast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quantum tunneling in yeast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another way materialists banish the quantum: the Many Worlds Hypothesis

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

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

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

Quantum theology of matzah

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

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

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

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


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