Category Archives: Judaism

Hebrew heart

Apparently, I never posted on something very important I learned in Torah study several years ago.

For ancient Hebrews, the heart did not signify what we assume it does, reading it today. We assume the heart is what feels. But for them, the heart was not the seat of emotion. The soul — nephesh, the breath — was what feels emotions. The heart — levav — was the seat of understanding.

So when Pharaoh was said to be heard of heart, this did not mean he was unfeeling. It meant that he was unable to conceive things in any way except his. He had hardness of understanding, and this inability to understand made him unable to empathize.

Jewish home remedy

For any Jewish progressives suffering from chronic upset stomach since the worldwide eruption of anti-Israel sentiment following the October 7th pogrom, I prescribe the following remedy:

  1. Find a copy of any book by Ibram X Kendi, Ta Nehisi Coates, Robin DiAngelo or equivalent, and grind it into a fine power.
  2. Mix the powdered book with water.
  3. Drink it down.
  4. Having renounced ideoidolatry, recommit to Judaism.

 

Some happy weirdness

I’m reading flaky stuff these days. The exact material is nobody’s business, but it’s even more shocking than you’d guess. It inspired the following spew.


I just found a parallel between two of the books I’m poking around in and my own sacred pamphlet, which is more or less visualized enceptions of my personal faith. (It was not easy to find my genre.) …

In the first book, it is suggested that our worldviews naturally close in on themselves and form vicious logical and interpretive circles. To open the the circle is to form a holy spiral. The opening of that circle is Shabbat. In my tradition it is understood that Shabbat punches a 24-hour diameter hole in time, through which flows Eternity and the Shekhinah (a feminine facet of the Divine), and establishing, for those with the senses to perceive it, Malchut, the Kingdom of Heaven. In this space we are invited to suspend the cranking of our automatic thoughts and behaviors and to open out to the world in its glorious profusion of overlapping orders.

In the second book, a figure is presented, a triangle with a center point. Each point is a letter of the Tetragrammaton. Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh. Yod is the active principle, the potential to do. The first Heh is the material upon which Yod may act. Vav is the result of the action upon the material, the child of the Yod-Heh intercourse. The second Heh is the center of the triangle , the entirety of the triangle rooted from the center, which I am inclined to understand as the transcendent being of the triad. This transcendent being of the second Heh then becomes the Yod of another triangle. I am inclined to understand Yod as a transcendental subject whose being is only manifested when it acts upon the first Heh. But the action of Yod and its result ultimately produces the second Heh, which is a transcendent subject. In my understanding then, the triangles are linked by transcendent subjects who found new transcendental subjects.

Some old insights that feel feel alive to me today: Opening the circle into a spiral not only allows it to open onto what transcends its outer limits — to extend outwardly to embrace more and more reality — that  same opening permits the spiral to intend inwardly and enter into its own heart, at the center of which lives the divine spark. But some of this reality is the reality of other people. Two spirals can coil together as a double spiral, as can three, four … myriad. A closed circle implies the question, who contains whom? Spirals are egalitarian.

A new Jewish thought. Torah famously ends open-endedly. Moses never enters the land. The Torah is several essential loops of the spiraling story of the Israelites. Past Torah, beyond Deuteronomy, outspirals Talmud, the application of Torah to practical and communal life. But the inward coiling of Torah beneath Genesis, further into the weird heart of the faith inspirals Zohar.


The opposite spirality, who self-referentially thinks about thinking about thinking, and experiences the experiences of our experiencing, is the self choking beast, the Gorging Ouroboros.

Bite!

A young shepherd I saw, writhing, gagging, in spasms, his face distorted, and a heavy black snake hung out of his mouth. Had I ever seen so much nausea and pale dread on one face? He seemed to have been asleep when the snake crawled into his throat, and there bit itself fast. My hand tore at the snake and tore in vain; it did not tear the snake out of his throat. Then it cried out of me: “Bite! Bite its head off! Bite!” Thus it cried out of me — my dread, my hatred, my nausea, my pity, all that is good and wicked in me cried out of me with a single cry. … The shepherd, however, bit as my cry counseled him; be bit with a good bite. Far away he spewed the head of the snake — and he jumped up. No longer shepherd, no longer human — one changed, radiant, laughing! Never yet on earth has a human being laughed as he laughed!

 

 

Destructive misconceptions of justice

Sam Harris and Yoval Harari had a remarkable conversation on Harris’s podcast Making Sense. Harari seems to, at least to some degree, share Matthew Yglesias’s perspective on Netanyahu’s destructive role in this conflict.

Two quotes from Harari stood out to me as profoundly true:

As a historian, I tend to be cautious about drawing historical analogies. But what I can say, from a broader perspective, is that in most ethnic conflicts around the world, both sides tend to be victims and perpetrators at the same time. And this is a very simple and banal fact, that, for some reason, most people seem incapable of grasping — that it’s very, very simple — You can be victim and perpetrator at one and the same time. And so many people just refuse to accept this simple fact of history. And in thinking binary terms, that one side must be 100% evil and one side must be 100% pure and just, and we just need to pick a side.

And this, of course, links to these fantasies of perfect justice, of absolute justice, which I can say, from a historical perspective, are always destructive. The idea that you can achieve absolute justice in this world, usually, or almost always leads to destructive places — to more violence and war. Because no peace treaty in the history of the world, provided absolute justice. All peace treaties are based on compromise. You have to give up something. You won’t get absolute justice, in the way you understand it.

and

And I think this is a choice in every ethnic conflict, whether you look to the past, or you look to the future. And I will say one more thing about it as a historian: I think the curse of history is the attempt to correct the past, to save the past. “If we could only go back to the past and save these people.” And we can’t. We can’t go back to the past and save the people who were massacred on the seventh of October in Israel, or go back to the Holocaust… No, it’s impossible. And we can’t go back to the past and try to do a different narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What we need to do is stop using the injuries of the past as an excuse for fresh injuries in the present, and instead, to think constructively about how we can heal the injuries and create peace — which will not give absolute justice to anybody, but will create better future for everybody.

Totalitarian word worlds

Hannah Arendt again, from Origins of Totalitarianism:

Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations. The force possessed by totalitarian propaganda — before the movements have the power to drop iron curtains to prevent anyone’s disturbing, by the slightest reality, the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world — lies in its ability to shut the masses off from the real world. The only signs which the real world still offers to the understanding of the unintegrated and disintegrating masses — whom every new stroke of ill luck makes more gullible — are, so to speak, its lacunae, the questions it does not care to discuss publicly, or the rumors it does not dare to contradict because they hit, although in an exaggerated and deformed way, some sore spot.

The most efficient fiction of Nazi propaganda was the story of a Jewish world conspiracy. Concentration on antisemitic propaganda had been a common device of demagogues ever since the end of the nineteenth century, and was widespread in the Germany and Austria of the twenties. The more consistently a discussion of the Jewish question was avoided by all parties and organs of public opinion, the more convinced the mob became that Jews were the true representatives of the powers that be, and that the Jewish issue was the symbol for the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the whole system.

The actual content of postwar antisemitic propaganda was neither a monopoly of the Nazis nor particularly new and original. Lies about a Jewish world conspiracy had been current since the Dreyfus Affair and based themselves on the existing international interrelationship and interdependence of a Jewish people dispersed all over the world. Exaggerated notions of Jewish world power are even older; they can be traced back to the end of the eighteenth century, when the intimate connection between Jewish business and the nation-states had become visible. The representation of the Jew as the incarnation of evil is usually blamed on remnants and superstitious memories from the Middle Ages, but is actually closely connected with the more recent ambiguous role which Jews played in European society since their emancipation. One thing was undeniable: in the postwar period Jews had become more prominent than ever before.

Eichmann and cliches

Following is a selection of comments Hannah Arendt made about cliches, culled from Eichmann in Jerusalem. The highlights are mine:

The German text of the taped police examination, conducted from May 29, 1960, to January 17, 1961, each page corrected and approved by Eichmann, constitutes a veritable gold mine for a psychologist –provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny. … It was funny when, during the cross-examination on the Sassen documents, conducted in German by the presiding judge, he used the phrase “kontra geben” (to give tit for tat), to indicate that he had resisted Sassen’s efforts to liven up his stories; Judge Landau, obviously ignorant of the mysteries of card games, did not understand, and Eichmann could not think of any other way to put it. Dimly aware of a defect that must have plagued him even in school — it amounted to a mild case of aphasia — he apologized, saying, “Officialese is my only language.” But the point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché. (Was it these clichés that the psychiatrists thought so “normal” and “desirable”?

To be sure, the judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was “empty talk” — except that they thought the emptiness was feigned, and that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts which, though hideous, were not empty. This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.


Eichmann’s astounding willingness, in Argentina as well as in Jerusalem, to admit his crimes was due less to his own criminal capacity for self-deception than to the aura of systematic mendacity that had constituted the general, and generally accepted, atmosphere of the Third Reich. ‘‘Of course” he had played a role in the extermination of the Jews; of course if he “had not transported them, they would not have been delivered to the butcher.” “What,” he asked, “is there to admit?” Now, he proceeded, he “would like to find peace with [his] former enemies”a sentiment he shared not only with Himmler… but also, unbelievably, with many ordinary Germans, who were heard to express themselves in exactly the same terms at the end of the war. This outrageous cliche was no longer issued to them from above, it was a self-fabricated stock phrase, as devoid of reality as those cliches by which the people had lived for twelve years; and you could almost see what an “extraordinary sense of elation” it gave to the speaker the moment it popped out of his mouth.

Eichmann’s mind was filled to the brim with such sentences. His memory proved to be quite unreliable about what had actually happened; in a rare moment of exasperation, Judge Landau asked the accused: “What can you remember?” (if you don’t remember the discussions at the so-called Wannsee Conference, which dealt with the various methods of killing) and the answer, of course, was that Eichmann remembered the turning points in his own career rather well, but that they did not necessarily coincide with the turning points in the story of Jewish extermination or, as a matter of fact, with the turning points in history. (He always had trouble remembering the exact date of the outbreak of the war or of the invasion of Russia.) But the point of the matter is that he had not forgotten a single one of the sentences of his that at one time or another had served to give him a “sense of elation.”

Hence, whenever, during the cross-examination, the judges tried to appeal to his conscience, they were met with “elation,” and they were outraged as well as disconcerted when they learned that the accused had at his disposal a different elating cliche for each period of his life and each of his activities. In his mind, there was no contradiction between “I will jump into my grave laughing,” appropriate for the end of the war, and “I shall gladly hang myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth,” which now, under vastly different circumstances, fulfilled exactly the same function of giving him a lift.

These habits of Eichmann’s created considerable difficulty during the trial — less for Eichmann himself than for those who had come to prosecute him, to defend him, to judge him, and to report on him. For all this, it was essential that one take him seriously, and this was very hard to do, unless one sought the easiest way out of the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them, and declared him a clever, calculating liar — which he obviously was not. … Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.


…As far as Eichmann was concerned, these were questions of changing moods, and as long as he was capable of finding, either in his memory or on the spur of the moment, an elating stock phrase to go with them, he was quite content, without ever becoming aware of anything like “inconsistencies.”


Justice, but not mercy, is a matter of judgment, and about nothing does public opinion everywhere seem to be in happier agreement than that no one has the right to judge somebody else. What public opinion permits us to judge and even to condemn are trends, or whole groups of people — the larger the better — in short, something so general that distinctions can no longer be made, names no longer be named. Needless to add, this taboo applies doubly when the deeds or words of famous people or men in high position are being questioned. This is currently expressed in high-flown assertions that it is “superficial” to insist on details and to mention individuals, whereas it is the sign of sophistication to speak in generalities according to which all cats are gray and we are all equally guilty.

Another such escape from the area of ascertainable facts and personal responsibility are the countless theories, based on non-specific, abstract, hypothetical assumptions – from the Zeitgeist down to the Oedipus complex – which are so general that they explain and justify every event and every deed: no alternative to what actually happened is even considered and no person could have acted differently from the way he did act. Among the constructs that “explain” everything by obscuring all details, we find such notions as a “ghetto mentality” among European Jews; or the collective guilt of the German people, derived from an ad hoc interpretation of their history; or the equally absurd assertion of a kind of collective innocence of the Jewish people. All these clichés have in common that they make judgment superfluous and that to utter them is devoid of all risk.


I remember back in the wake of 9/11, especially after the United States invaded Iraq, I was unnerved by the similarity in logic and speech pattern of supporters of the invasion, and those who didn’t quite support it but played devil’s advocate on why maybe we should be over there. I felt like I was hearing some other being speaking through the mouths of these people. They were some kind of  mouthpiece for a collective being. It gave me the deepest kind of creeps.

I feel the same way today both about Progressivists and QAnon types.

I think people who think primarily in words and spend a lot of time in their verbal representations of the world instead of in direct contact with with various realities are susceptible to this kind of semi-solipsistic mass-mind possession. The moving parts of these possessions are cliches, ready-made arguments and tokens, which are less abstractions from reality than they are tokens that stand in for intuited truths.

For me, the best kind of thinking and the best thoughts are responses to real situations, situations where our intuition has failed us and needs assistance. We experiment and reflect on our failures and successes until we  once again can get traction. The practical understanding developed through this process can be formulated in language and used to interpret and guide our future actions and be taught to others. This kind of intuition-rooted, practice-forged understanding works more like an interface with the world than a representation of it.

Susan and I have been collaborating on a way to talk about these different relationships with reality. We’ve been calling these two world-relationships “word world” versus “intuited world”.

Struggle

My favorite liberal is also a Muslim.

Last night I confessed to him that if it weren’t for him, I would be an Islamophobe.

This is not because I believe the tradition of Islam is invalid, only that it seems exceptionally vulnerable to fundamentalist perversion. My Perennialist perspective of traditional religions views these traditions in gradations of esoteric and exoteric understanding. The esoteric core of religious traditions converge toward a single transcendent truth. The exoteric diverges into increasingly incompatible difference. Islam’s exoterism seems to lean violent. I want to know why. Is this caused by its scripture, as Sam Harris claims? Is it the devastation wrought by the oil economy? A vestigial trait of nomadic herdsmen culture?

Susan asked my friend to explain jihad.

My friend said jihad means struggle. He quoted a verse from the Quran:

Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you. But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.

Susan and I immediately had the same insight and recalled the same verse:

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, two maidservants, and eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Yabok. He took them and crossed the stream with them and then brought across all that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until dawn. When he saw that he could not overpower him, the man wrenched Jacob’s hip in its socket so that the socket of Jacob’s hip was strained as he wrestled with the man. “Let me go,” said the man, “for dawn is breaking.” But he replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” “What is your name?” asked the man. “Jacob,” he replied. “No longer will your name be Jacob, but Israel,” said the man, “for you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name. But he said, “Why do you ask my name?” and he blessed him there.

Explaining antisemitism

I have several explanations for antisemitism.

I’ve heard that if you are trying to explain yourself, one explanation is more persuasive than several. But I am not trying to persuade. I am trying to understand, and I think there are multiple reinforcing factors.

The first explanation is based on Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. The Jewish people have a deep, intense enduring love for Adonai, for their tradition and for their homeland. Other groups have imitated these loves, and have claimed the relationship, the tradition and the land for themselves, to the exclusion of the Jewish people. But the Jewish people refuse to give these things up, so a scapegoat is needed. Every pogrom is a dark communion — a reenactment of the crucifixion.

The second explanation concerns love and dread, the compelling pull and the repulsive push of the transcendent. The Jewish people began as one more tribal sacrificial cult, but over many generations of stubborn refusal to die out, has iteratively rebirthed its own culture into something so sublimely transcendent that, now, very few people can enter and understand from it. Everything Jewish is haloed with a love-dread aura. It is alien and transcendent, but, worse, it has a strange attitude toward alienness and transcendence — it loves the stranger and welcomes the strange. Which makes Judaism both strange and meta-strange. Religiously sensitive non-Jews love-hate it. They can’t get it out of their heart. They cannot leave it alone, but nor can they grasp and accept it. They need to have it, or control it, or failing that kill it and keep it.

The third explanation is boring. Because the Jewish tradition values parenting and education, many Jews are smarter and better parented than their peers, and consequently excel, and become objects of envy, especially in times of rampant mediocrity and vanity. When a self-esteem pandemic hits, Jews make folks feel like something the cat dragged in. And, this might be a separate point, they make very poor objects of pity, because they just aren’t, as a group, pitiable. People addicted to compassionate condescension can’t do that with Jews, even when Jews are dramatically persecuted.

The fourth explanation is even more boring. Jewish culture values honesty and directness over saccharine softness. Jewish honesty runs confrontational, argumentative, brusque and sometimes flat-out harsh, and people get their precious feelings hurt. Envious and offended people get resentful, and resentment can infect whole generations.

The fifth explanation concerns the role of Jews in history. Primarily because of the first reason, the uneasy centrality of Jews in other peoples’ religions and hostility consequent to this centrality, for much of history Jews have been excluded from land-ownership and participation in reputable trades. They were forced into disgraceful trades like finance. Nobody likes their lender, so that has been a problem. But worse, Jewish financiers — all of whom spoke Hebrew and were therefore able to partner with Jews in other regions — were the financiers of the aristocrats who founded the modern European nation-states. The tradition of hostility of one’s own nation-state contains a thick red strand of Jewish international finance paranoia.

The sixth explanation is so obvious I almost hate to include it. Jews refuse to stop being Jewish. Many learn Hebrew and can speak to one another in a language unknown to suspicious folk who wonder what exactly is being said. And what is going on in those houses of worship? What is going on in their homes and the backrooms of their prosperous businesses? What are those weird people scheming about? Jews are conspicuously alien and for that reason inspire paranoia in the paranoid.

There’s probably more, but this list suffices to account for the phenomenon. And this same list also helps account for why Judaism is my religion.

Ex infinitio

Genesis does not begin with nothingness. Creation is not ex nihilo.

Genesis begins with more than everything. Creation is ex infinitio.

As with scripture, so it has been in that already-in-progress life inside which you awoke, from the chaos of infancy.


Somethingness — toomuchness — is primal. In the beginning is chaos.

Nothingness is abstract. It is an advanced abstraction that, once it possesses us, is thrust beneath the primordial toomuchness — an artificial ground, upon which we cannot stand, but within which we stiffen ourselves in epistemic rigor mortis.

Inside this self-inflicted vacuum we stiffly tumble end-over-end, nowhere, vacuous.


An infinite welter and waste is articulated by spirit.

Objects emerge from the encounter of subject and chaos.

Light against dark against mottled grays? Mom, dad, grandma, grandpa against a muddled mixture of suffering and comfort.

Division of this and that — always against the undivided all. Definition of this, in contrast that — both always against the irrelevant field of everything else.


We define against infinitude, but infinitude is so omnipresent we confuse it with nothingness itself. Just as you, sitting wherever you are, focusing on whatever focal object occupies your attention, define the object of your attention against everything else.


Every subject emerges in the midst of undifferentiated chaos.

You did. I did. Our infant subjects learned to recognize our first given objects.

When we learned new subjects, new given objects emerged. Our mathematical subject learned that one apple and one block shared a characteristic: one. And one block and another block shared something with one apple and another apple. From chaos came quantities of whatever.

We learned the subject of manners. We learned to say “please” when desire emerged and to say “thank you” when desire was gratified. We learned the subject of morality. Some actions were rewarded, some punished.

Every subject articulates new given objects. Those objects are articulated from chaos.


Then there is the sheer bullshit of social construction. You take a class on Derrida in college and get it in your head that you can invent reality. If you practice your bullshit invention long enough it will become familiar. If you force other people to adopt your bullshit long enough, they too, will see it as familiar.

What this does, of course, is alienate us from what we experience.

Soon, we are so alienated, we can see images of slaughtered and raped human beings and just view it all as political abstraction. It’s all just concept play.

We are like the little German boys who followed the first World War like a sporting event, described by Sebastian Haffner:

For a schoolboy in Berlin, the war was something very unreal; it was like a game. There were no air raids and no bombs. There were the wounded, but you saw them only at a distance, with picturesque bandages. One had relatives at the front, of course, and now and then one heard of a death. But being a child, one quickly got used to their absence, and the fact that this absence sometimes became irrevocable did not seem to matter. As to the real hardships and privations, they were of small account. Naturally, the food was poor. Later there was too little food, and our shoes had clattering wooden soles, our suits were turned, there were school collections for bones and cherry pits, and surprisingly frequent illnesses. I must admit, all that made little impression. Not that I bore it all “like a little hero.” It was just that there was nothing very special to bear. I thought as little about food as a soccer enthusiast at a cup final. The army bulletins interested me far more than the menu.

The analogy with the soccer fan can be carried further. In those childhood days, I was a war fan just as one is a soccer fan. I would be making myself out to be worse than I was if I were to claim to have been caught up by the hate propaganda that, from 1915 to 1918, sought to whip up the flagging enthusiasm of the first few months of the war. I hated the French, the English, and the Russians as little as the Portsmouth supporters detest Wolverhampton fans. Of course, I prayed for their defeat and humiliation, but only because these were the necessary counterparts of my side’s victory and triumph.

What counted was the fascination of the game of war, in which, according to certain mysterious rules, the numbers of prisoners taken, miles advanced, fortifications seized, and ships sunk played almost the same role as goals in soccer and points in boxing. I never wearied of keeping internal scorecards. I was a zealous reader of the army bulletins, which I would proceed to recalculate in my own fashion, according to my own mysterious, irrational rules: thus, for instance, ten Russian prisoners were equivalent to one English or French prisoner, and fifty airplanes to one cruiser. If there had been statistics of those killed, I would certainly not have hesitated to “recalculate” the dead. I would not have stopped to think what the objects of my arithmetic looked like in reality. It was a dark, mysterious game and its never-ending, wicked lure eclipsed everything else, making daily life seem trite. It was addictive, like roulette and opium. My friends and I played it all through the war: four long years, unpunished and undisturbed. It is this game, and not the harmless battle games we organized in streets and playgrounds nearby, that has left its dangerous mark on all of us.

It may not seem worthwhile to describe the obviously inadequate reactions of a child to the Great War at such great length. That would certainly be true if mine were an isolated case, but it was not. This, more or less, was the way an entire generation of Germans experienced the war in childhood or adolescence; and one should note that this is precisely the generation that is today preparing its repetition.

The force and influence of these experiences are not diminished by the fact that they were lived through by children or young boys. On the contrary, in its reactions the mass psyche greatly resembles the child psyche. One cannot overstate the childishness of the ideas that feed and stir the masses.

Real ideas must as a rule be simplified to the level of a child’s understanding if they are to arouse the masses to historic actions. A childish illusion, fixed in the minds of all children born in a certain decade and hammered home for four years, can easily reappear as a deadly serious political ideology twenty years later.

From 1914 to 1918 a generation of German schoolboys daily experienced war as a great, thrilling, enthralling game between nations, which provided far more excitement and emotional satisfaction than anything peace could offer; and that has now become the underlying vision of Nazism. That is where it draws its allure from: its simplicity, its appeal to the imagination, and its zest for action; but also its intolerance and its cruelty toward internal opponents. Anyone who does not join in the game is regarded not as an adversary but as a spoilsport. Ultimately that is also the source of Nazism’s belligerent attitude toward neighboring states. Other countries are not regarded as neighbors, but must be opponents, whether they like it or not. Otherwise the match would have to be called off!

Many things later bolstered Nazism and modified its character, but its roots lie here: in the experience of war — not by German soldiers at the front, but by German schoolboys at home. Indeed, the front-line generation has produced relatively few genuine Nazis and is better known for its “critics and carpers.” That is easy to understand. Men who have experienced the reality of war tend to view it differently. Granted, there are exceptions: the eternal warriors, who found their vocation in war, with all its terrors, and continue to do so; and the eternal failures, who welcome its horrors and its destruction as a revenge on a life that has proved too much for them. Göring perhaps belongs to the former type; Hitler certainly to the latter. The truly Nazi generation was formed by those born in the decade from 1900 to 1910, who experienced war as a great game and were untouched by its realities.

This was written before the Holocaust. Here is an account from Hannah Arendt on the moral reasoning of one of these boys, grown up into a nice abstract adult:

The member of the Nazi hierarchy most gifted at solving problems of conscience was Himmler. He coined slogans, like the famous watchword of the S.S., taken from a Hitler speech before the S.S. in 1931, “My Honor is my Loyalty” — catch phrases which Eichmann called “winged words” and the judges “empty talk”… Eichmann remembered only one of them and kept repeating it: “These are battles which future generations will not have to fight again,” alluding to the “battles” against women, children, old people, and other “useless mouths.” Other such phrases, taken from speeches Himmler made to the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen and the Higher S.S. and Police Leaders, were: “To have stuck it out and, apart from exceptions caused by human weakness, to have remained decent, that is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written.” Or: “The order to solve the Jewish question, this was the most frightening order an organization could ever receive.” Or: We realize that what we are expecting from you is “superhuman,” to be “superhumanly inhuman.” … What stuck in the minds of these men who had become murderers was simply the notion of being involved in something historic, grandiose, unique (“a great task that occurs once in two thousand years”), which must therefore be difficult to bear. … The troops of the Einsatzgruppen had been drafted from the Armed S.S., a military unit with hardly more crimes in its record than any ordinary unit of the German Army, and their commanders had been chosen by Heydrich from the S.S. elite with academic degrees. Hence the problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering. The trick used by Himmler — who apparently was rather strongly afflicted with these instinctive reactions himself — was very simple and probably very effective; it consisted in turning these instincts around; as it were, in directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!


Life is to be lived in reality, and reality is given to us intuitively in myriad ways. If we receive it, our reflections on it will keep us in relationship with reality.

We can obscure replace reality with words. We can focus on words and play with them. It will all be quite amusing and pleasant. But we will alienate and we will be alienated.

May your wanting be wiser

I was looking in Susan’s copy of The Hero With a Thousand Faces and saw that she wrote in the margin “May your wanting be wiser.” She says she learned it from Rabbi Jeff Roth.

I find it strange how everyone assumes they are, in the state they are already in, qualified to define what a better world should be. And it seems the less experienced an activist is and the more distorted their faith is, the more passionate they are about reshaping the world to match their ideals.

Unless you are wise and your wantings are wise, your vision of a better world will be unwise. If you think you must repair a broken world in order to repair your own brokenness, your vision is broken and your repairs will only make things worse.

Make yourself better, then you will be able to make the world better.

Metanoia and the triad

A problem is coming into view for me.

For the last two decades, it has seemed true to me that we have three fundamental factors that shape our being:

The first factor is intuition, and intuition’s “object”, everyday, immediate givens — those real entities we encounter and interact with in the course of our practical lives. Do we have a clear conception of these givens, that allows us to relate this particular given to other givens? Or is our intuition purely tacit recognition that lies dormant in oblivion until it spontaneously recognizes and responds to some given, and then recedes back into oblivion? All encounters with entities around us, whether conceived or merely recognized, are given to experience. Intuition is the faculty of immediate givenness.

The second factor is will — our own motivated response or nonresponse to what we experience. Do we ignore or attend? If we attend, do we merely observe or do we respond? If we respond, do we respond subjectively by adjusting our understanding or attitude, or do we try to respond objectively by changing that which we experience? Or do we do both at once, and interact — alternating fluidly between acting upon and being acted upon? All response, whether ignorant or attentive, whether observational or active, whether inward, outward, or both is will.

The third factor is metaphysical attitude — our sense of reality and our own place in it and our relationship with it, to it, within it. In fact, it might be the essence of our metaphysic what preposition we prepose when relating self to beyond-self. This metaphysical attitude is an implicit faith, which might or might not be articulated as a metaphysical doctrine, and that articulation might be a faithful expression of the implicit faith or it might be in conflict with one’s implicit faith, which means it is held in bad faith.


This is my best understanding of the great triad. The source of intuitive givens is Earth, who is Prakriti, who is Shekhinah, who is the Virgin. The source of reality within whom we exist is Heaven, who is Purusha, who is Keter, who is YHWH. Between is Man, who is the Ideal Person, the polycentered heart of the world, and the schlub who is each of us.


Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught: “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one: ‘I am a speck of dust,’ and on the other : ‘The world was created for me.’”


If we manage to change our metaphysical attitude, it changes also our intuition and our will. I am talking here about metanoia.

This is not the same thing as coming to authentic articulation of a faith that was misrepresented in bad faith.

Nor is it that more common, much worse reverse case, where we adopt a bad faith that allows us to make coherent articulates sense of things, and share it with others around us — but at the cost of fidelity to our implicit faith and our intuitions. We gain the world(view) but lose our soul (our intuitive and metaphysical connection with reality). This bad faith dooms us to clearly and compellingly positing things rooted neither in our experience nor in our sense of reality.

I am talking about shift in how we tacitly situate ourselves in reality, due to a shifted tacit understanding of reality, a shifted tacit understanding of self and a shifted tacit understanding of relationship between this new self and new reality.

My problem is: In the metanoia experience of rebirth as a new person in a new reality, is it better to think of it as new conceptions — new receptive faculties affording new realities to which, before we were oblivious due to lack of receptive faculties? Or rather, is it registering novel ordered stabilities emerging from the chaos and instability of unordered experience, which we did receive but could not order?

Is metanoia more like being blind but now seeing? Or is it more like becoming able to make out murky forms we see in the shadowy fog? I’ve been inclined to see it as the former.

Stiff-necked fuckups of God

The appropriators of Hebrew scripture and faith read all the terrible things the Jews say about themselves or relate God saying of them, and rejoice in their own superiority.

These successor religion believers could never act like those vicious patriarchs in Genesis, or the wicked persecutors of prophets, or those hypocritical Pharisees.

The secular inheritors of the Judeo-Christian morality beg to differ. All those various religious fanatics of the past did all kinds of injustice and violence in the name of God. They were clearly out for themselves, and using God as a way to delude themselves and others.

But the modern secular moralists, having rejected all the sketchy doctrines of the past, could never act like those fanatics and mistake themselves for moral when acting in their own self-interest. They’ve found ways to objectively, methodically, scientifically neutralize their deepest biases and motivated reasoning. And therefore, they alone ought to teach and administer justice, and those who oppose them should be suppressed.

To me, those people capable of recognizing and acknowledging their wisdom failures are wiser than those who still have not discovered the unwisdom in their wisdom — (not to mention the injustice in their justice, the unfairness in their fairness, the violence in their compassion, the error in their truth, and so on) — still have some collective growing up to do.

I’m sticking with the stiff-necked fuckups of God.

Love, love is a verb

I suppose I could call it a capacity and desire to participate in a transcendent We — and I probably should do that, since the word “love” has been emptied of metaphysical significance and consequently, reduced to an emotional state, all-too-easily confused with infatuation or lust. (Infatuation is only a prelude to love; lust is its miscarriage.)

But if we are able to restore to love its open-edged metaphysical significance, speaking of the Judaic tradition as a religion of love — or as a series of religions of love — can inter-illuminate both love and religion.

I, Polycentric

One of “my” older, stranger and truer insights is this: Being is essentially polycentric. I believe this insight was conveyed to me by S. N. Goenka through his ten day Vipassana courses, but I learned it in a way that was not recognizably “taught” — at least, not recognizable until decades later.

The insight began as a realization that we ourselves are composite beings, a community of intelligences, which I called “homunculi”. The homunculi that make each of us up might self-organize into any number of political orders. A person’s soul might be harmonious and all-inclusive. Or it might be arranged hierarchically with some homunculi leading and others following. Or it might be of two minds, locked in a civil war of mood swings and self-sabotage. Or it might be sheer anarchy.

And the people with whom we associate can change our inner politics. We might find that some homunculi in ourselves are friendlier with and more loyal to certain homunculi in other people, than with other homunculi in ourselves. This is why we feel like a different person in the presence of certain others that we love or hate, or who has some strangely oppressive or inspiring effect on us. And these changes others have on us can estrange us from other people in our lives. Jealousy becomes far more credible when we realize how much we change under the influence of love of different people.

So how can it be that we feel like one person one moment and another the next, yet still feel as if we are and have always been the same person? I would say that it is for the same reason that a chord feels like a single sound despite being multiple overlaid notes, or a complex musical passage feels like a phrase despite its chordal, timbral, rhythmic multiplicity. Except instead of its being a complex object of perception, it is a complex perceiving subject.

Later, some extraordinary life events made me aware that each of us is not only constituted of homunculi but each person is, in a sense, a homunculus who participates intuitively in transcendent persons larger than ourselves. The ethnomethods that guide our social behavior and enable us to understand the behaviors of others and mske our behaviors understandable to them… our built environments and the artifacts we manufacture to furnish our semi-artificial worlds… our language and our repertoires of concepts — these are all participation in being greater than ourselves. We are organs of unknown beings whose being we only intuit. We are regulated by spiritual hormones that we do not know how to explain or control.

We explain these mysteries away with vague language. We understand or don’t understand this and that. We don’t understand, until suddenly “get it” and now we do understand. We are attracted or repelled by beauty or ugliness . We feel moods, vibes, gut sense…

We focus so much on what we know how to say and what we know how to count and calculate — and sometimes only these things for which we can account seem real to us. But really, the opposite is true: the intuitions, the felt unsayables, the immediate experience that cannot be recorded in memory and recalled — only the meager word-shells and a few impressions, negative space where positives ones pressed — these are what is closest and realest.

All the rest — all the words that can be word processed or numbers and formulas that can be locked spreadsheet cells or database records — these are abstracted from these concrete particulars.

When we lose intuition for anything but the symbols we use — which are themselves symbols of… of what? — we become numb to the real. We become alienated, animated processes. We are still participants of a sort, or at least parts — but we lose agency and intellect. We become socially passive and unconscious and perhaps believe this is the only possibility of social existence.

Listen carefully to the testimony of those who claim we are all socially determined — to those who want to wake you up to this supposed fact of the human condition — and realize they are speaking of life as they know it.

But understand: this is only one way to live, and it is not the only way. Alienated being knows only alienated being.

Human being is a kind of being which is chosen and cultivated.

Choose humanity. Try to feel your life, feel your truth, feel your enworldment, feel the world of which you are a part. These things can neither be said nor counted because they are real.

Intuition versus alienation

Intuition is direct response to experience, unmediated by language.

Confusingly, though, our most spontaneous utterances and immediate responses to language are also intuitive.

When we say “experience-near” this means using words that directly refer to intuited experience. We can use and understand experience-near language intuitively. We do not need to use words to help us use other words. We simply speak, and what we say means what we mean to convey.

Language becomes unintuitive when speaking or understanding requires long intermediating chains of language. We must speak to ourselves inwardly about our speech, and pick our words carefully, word by word. With each layer of meta-talk, the connection between word and experience grows more remote and attenuated. This is what is meant by “experience-distant.”

Destruction of intuition is alienation — from the world, from others, and from oneself. It begins with over-reliance on experience-distant language. Alienation is complete when the experience-distant language detaches from its alleged object and begins to refer only to itself.

In alienation, whatever one experiences is subjected to elaborate interpretive processing and explained in theoretical language. We psychoanalyze ourselves, explain our biological brain states, interrogate our power relations, theorize on how our social conditioning might be distorting our perceptions snd feelings, speculate how we might be perceived by others, and so on, before simply experiencing what we might otherwise experience. Our intuitions are diffused among many fragmentary notions, or redirected into one compulsive direction, away from one’s immediate or thinly mediated experience.

Same with actions. One no longer interacts directly and wordlessly with objects in ones environment. One no longer picks up a pen and writes, or picks up a knife and cuts. One must anticipate, set goals and plan before acting. One must recall directions and then follow them. One must ask what the next best move is, pick it, then execute it. And at each step one must document the move, to provide transparency. The more a person’s actions are of this kind, the less intuitive contact with the world one has. One’s intuitive connection is primarily with one’s own instruction set. There is no craft, just foresight and execution.

Same with speech and interactions among people. Speaking becomes a risky endeavor. People must carefully consider and select every word or gesture before using it. Words become dangerous things to be handled with thick gloves, carefully assembled and inspected unit by unit before any sentence is delivered. Beliefs are charged with extreme moral significance. Asserting the truth of some facts makes one a good person, where denying their truth, or wrongly asserting the truth of false opinions makes one a bad person. We must constantly reassure one another where we stand, and wherever possible demonstrate our true belief of true beliefs.

But personal beliefs are viewed as constructs — conventions acquired through habit, shaped by social conditioning. Beliefs should never be left to personal judgment, but rather determined by ethical experts who can calculate the effects of various beliefs upon society, and select beliefs capable of generating maximum justice for those who most need and deserve it. Bad beliefs are beliefs left to organic distortion or intuition, which, more likely than not, serve only one group or one person.

With sufficient degree and duration of alienation, a person can be made to lose all direct connection with self, with others, with reality beyond one’s alienated language.

And sadly, one cannot avoid alienation from the alienated. In alienated times, those with functioning intuitions must find one another, offer one another refuge, commune with one’s ancestors — and recommit to future generations beyond this human void.


The key is to develop experience-near language that does full justice to the wordless realities we intuit in our midst.

We intuit energies, tones, vibrations around us and emanating from others and concentrated in certain places and objects. What can we do with them, when we intuit them and speak of them in such nebulous language? Nothing. And that is why the alienated world approves of leaving them in such a wispy, flaky, woo-woo state. Belief in energies and vibes has very little pragmatic consequence.

But these realities of which we are unable to speak are the most consequential. They move mountains.

We do not know how to think and speak and share the most crucial realities of our lives. Our language is optimized to physics and technological manipulation. So we talk about our brains and hormones and social conditioning when what really concerns us are our minds, our hearts and our place in the world.

We have it all everted.

Things can and must be otherwise.

Experiencing infinitude

1.

When we are young we are full of potential. We feel immeasurable future before us and we overflow with hope.

When we are older, after living most of a lifetime, looking back on the one narrow path we actually followed through these possibilities, we might feel bitter.

Was all that possibility an illusion doomed to be dispelled by actuality?

No: That possibility was real. We thought we were anticipating our own personal biographies, but now, our maturity reveals it for what it was: In truth, we were savoring the infinitude of God.

This ambient eternity was not over the horizon, but rather, was the sky and air of our lives. And it is still there around us and, if we choose, we continue to breathe it.

Possibilities are valuable whether they are actualized or not.

2.

Human nature is apocalyptic. Every generation feels it in their bones that they are the last generation. And in a sense, they are right. Each generation is the end of existence as they know it.

But this is no reason to surrender to despair. This is just one way we experience our own mortality. When we die, everything as we know it disappears with us. The universe loses one of its universes, even as another infant universe pre-experiences its genesis, or some grace-struck soul is reborn mid-life, ex nihilo.

Nothing is okay, and that is okay.

3.

The hope of potential is the experience of God’s infinitude, filtered through our own finitude.

The hopelessness of apocalypse is the experience of our own finitude, but if we look deeper into the nothingness, we can feel the back-glow of infinitude behind it.

We do not have to be bitter.

4.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught: “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one: ‘I am a speck of dust,’ and on the other : ‘The world was created for me.’”