The LORD is greater than or equal to the expression involving f(y)
Evening, May 13, 2017
“We’ll try this again,” said Sohu. “Look into my eyes.”
I looked, I listened, I let myself fall into a trance.
[Walls of Kujiracho] came a voice from afar.
[What?] I asked. [Sohu?]
A feeling of surprise. [Aaron?]
[Oh,] I said. [Hi, Ana.]
[Aaron?] came a different voice, differently flavored. [What’s going on?]
As best I could, I tried to send thoughts and memories through the two links. To Ana, an explanation of where I was and what was going on. To Sohu, memories of my relationship with Ana. Both of them started talking at once. I mentally pushed Sohu to one side, concentrated on the quieter link.
[I can’t feel Sohu,] Ana told me.
[And I can’t feel Erica,] I answered. [I don’t think kabbalistic marriage is transitive.]
[I can barely feel Erica myself. Last I got from her she was trying to join BOOJUM.]
[!!! Really ???]
[We shouldn’t be so surprised. She always wanted to burn the euphemizing system to the ground. I just didn’t expect it to be so literal. This is the problem with being a theodicy student. When people tell you that the world is horrible and needs to be destroyed, you expect them to end with ‘So let’s discuss different interpretations of this fact for the next several decades.’]
[Speaking of theodicy – Ana, have you ever heard of Elisha ben Abuyah?]
[Oh man, that name really brings back memories!]
[You say that like you went to prom with him or something.]
[Pfffft. No, I was just – got really interested in that story freshman year of college. It kind of brings everything together.]
[I remember I once had a teacher who asked me what would have to happen before I believed God was utterly unjust. How bad would things have to get before I admitted there was literally no possibility that the evil in the universe has a reason? I told him it was a stupid question. The magnitude of the world’s evil is so much that anyone who could be convinced of divine injustice by a specific amount of evil was already convinced. The only people who could possibly be hanging on were the ones who were literally willing to accept anything.
He told me it didn’t work that way. Everyone’s willing to dismiss the evil they’ve already heard about. It’s become stale. It’s abstract. People who say they’ve engaged with the philosophical idea of evil encounter evil on their own, and then suddenly everything changes. He gave the example of all of the Jewish scholars who lost their faith during the Holocaust. How, they asked, could God allow six million of their countrymen to perish like that?
But read the Bible! Somebody counted up all the people God killed in the Bible, and they got 2.8 million. It wasn’t even for good reasons! He kills three thousand people for worshipping the Golden Calf. He kills two hundred fifty people for rebelling against Moses’ leadership. He kills fourteen thousand seven hundred people for complaining that He was killing too many people, I swear it’s in there, check Numbers 16:41! What right do we have to lose faith when we see the Holocaust? “Oh, sure, God killed 2.8 million people, that, makes perfect sense, but surely He would never let SIX million die, that would just be too awful to contemplate?” It’s like – what?
The lesson I learned is that everybody has their breaking point, the point where they stop being able to accept things for philosophical reasons and start kicking and screaming. Did you know there was an Orthodox rabbi, Irving Greenberg, who after the Holocaust declared that God had unilaterally broken His covenant with the Jewish people, and should be considered in breach of contract, and until He, I don’t know, reverses time and un-Holocausts Europe no one is under any obligation to follow any of the divine commandments? And if God doesn’t like it then tough because no punishment could be worse than the one He had already inflicted? There were rabbis saying this sort of thing, Aaron. That’s what happens when you break. Some people break when the death toll is six million instead of two point eight million. Other people break when something they’d previously only read about in books happens to them in real life – have you ever heard that Dr. Seuss poem:
You say you have problems as great as my own
I am forced to admit it is true
But the thing is that my problems happen to me
Whereas yours only happen to you.
That’s why I love the Acher story. He’s a crazy old coot, but I love him. Everybody has their breaking point, and for Acher it was seeing a kid grab a bird out of its nest. He’s a famous rabbi, he’s read all about Noah’s Flood drowning everyone in the world, and God killing all the innocent Egyptian babies, and euphemism, he’s living in second century Judaea, where the Romans are basically torture-killing anyone they can get their hands on, and thoughout all of this he’s wise and equanimous and tells his disciples to bear their sufferings gracefully, and then finally he has a bad day and sees a kid snatch a bird and he just flips, he’s like, you know what’s a completely proportional response to this? DECLARE WAR ON GOD AND TRY TO DESTROY EVERYTHING. Most of us have to go through a Holocaust before we get to that point, but he grasped it immediately.]
[Holy frick Ana I’ve never heard you send a thought that complicated through the trance before.]
[And then there’s that whole thing about the voice. The one that boomed from the heavens saying ‘Repent, children of Israel, and the Lord will forgive you. Except for you, Elisha ben Abuyah’. What was with that?
There’s a legend that goes that Acher was predestined to be evil from the very beginning. The week after he was born, his father threw a big party for his circumcision, and Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua showed up. While everyone else was getting drunk, the two rabbis decided to talk Torah, and they became so engaged in their discussion that miracles started happening around them. Wreaths of fire danced around their heads, thunder sounded in clear skies, nearby water started spontaneously turning into wine. Acher’s father begged them to stop lest the whole house burn down, and the rabbis apologized profusely and said that they would try to be more mindful of the power of Torah from then on.
And Acher’s father remembered that, and he pushed Acher to go into Torah so that he too could be powerful and call down fire from the heavens. But that was the wrong reason to study Torah, and so all his life Acher was cursed to think of Torah as just a means to an end. Learn some Names, smite some enemies, boil oceans if there are any oceans around that need boiling, live forever, that kind of thing. And when he saw the child take the bird from the tree, it was easy for him to forsake God, because for him God was beside the point, you could boil oceans whether you believed in God or not.
And then when Rabbi Meir was trying to convince him to repent, well, there he was, the supreme pragmatist. He didn’t want to go to Hell, he didn’t want to lose the powers that his Torah knowledge gave him, so he would make a tactical retreat back into orthodoxy until he could come up with a better plan. God realized that Acher was going to repent for the wrong reason, so He declared that Acher’s repentance would do no good, have no consequences, made sure there was no instrumental justification for atonement. Just like God had thought, Acher said “Okay, then screw this” and forgot about it.
In fact, there’s a story about Rabbi Dov Ber, that one day he was praying for a sick member of his congregation to recover, and he prayed so much and so long that God got really annoyed and told him he was going to Hell for praying too much. And Rabbi Dov Ber answered: “Well, now that I have nothing to lose I can really start praying!” And of course God laughed it off and healed the sick guy. If Acher had done the same – if he’d said okay, I have nothing to gain and nothing to lose, that means I have to make the choice according to my own principles, and I choose repentance – then God would have laughed it off, same as he did with Rabbi Dov Ber, and everything would have been okay. But since instead Acher was obsessed with the consequences of repenting, the road was closed to him. ]
[So the only way Acher could get the good consequences of repenting was by not doing it for the consequences?]
[Oh God, that’s so annoying. No wonder he was so angry all the time.]
[???], Ana thought at me.
[I’ll give you fifty dollars if you clap your hands, BUT you have to be clapping your hands for a reason other than to get the fifty dollars.]
[I hardly think that worshipping God, Lord of the Universe, whose wisdom spanneth the heavens and whose mercy endureth forever, because you are awed by His mighty works and consumed with a desire to praise His Most Holy Name, is the same as getting fifty dollars if you clap your hands.]
[Yes, well, if I ever make a universe, I’m not putting in any sneaky “You can get this reward, but only if you don’t want it” clauses.]
[If you ever make a universe, you can do what you want.]
I was broken out of my trance by screaming.
“NO YOU CAN’T MARRY ME!” Sarah was shouting.
“It’s not marriage,” said Sohu. “It’s just a ritual that gives me a certain connection to you so I can get things out of your mind. Everything in Aaron is so garbled I can’t make any sense out of it. You must have the memories of what you did to him. If I can just get at them – ”
“I WON’T DO IT I WON’T MARRY YOU!” said Sarah.
I put my hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “Sarah,” I said. “Remember what we said about doing the right thing?”
“She can’t have me,” said Sarah, sulkily. “I’m yours.”
“Of course you are,” in the most patient voice I could manage. “And that’s why I need you to cooperate with Sohu. The same way I cooperated with Sohu. To help me.”
“Everyone is getting married except you and me!”
“It’s not even a real marriage. It’s just a connection ritual.”
For a second I couldn’t tell if she was going to try to kill us, or try to speak the Vanishing Name, or what. Finally, with this awful glare in her eyes, she said “I’ll do it.”
God is One and His Name is One and we are One and so forth. Sohu stared into Sarah’s eyes, tried to read her electronic brain. Sweat poured from her forehead. Wrinkles formed on her tiny face.
I let my mind wander.
[Are things okay over there?] asked Ana.
[Not really] I answered. [Did Acher ever figure out a way to get the consequences of repenting without doing it for the consequences?]
[You’re really upset by this Acher thing.]
[I think…yeah. It’s the idea of something you can’t think your way out of. Something so slippery that just trying to think your way out of it ensures you’ll fail. It just feels…wrong.]
[I don’t know,] Ana answered. [To me it feels, I guess kind of perfect. Does that make sense?]
[Yeah. I think perfect things feel wrong to me. Remember, I used to do cryptography. The whole point was that every code can be broken. Thought is the universal solvent. My advisor at Stanford, he had a saying on his wall. A Leonard Cohen verse. “There is a crack in everything.” That’s my philosophy too. Things shouldn’t be perfect.]
[God is perfect.]
[No He isn’t! That’s the whole point of Luria. There is a crack in everything. That’s what I mean. There ought to be a crack in God’s denial of salvation to Acher.]
[What about actually being good?]
[That’s not an action you can just…take! If you’re not already good, any impetus to becoming good has to come from wanting the consequences.]
[I think the traditional Jewish answer,] thought Ana [is that you can start by being good for the wrong reasons, but then the changes will stick and make you the sort of person who does things for the right reasons.]
[Then it was kind of crappy for God to specifically close that path to Acher, wasn’t it? Actually, it’s kind of crappy of God in general. Suppose there are good consequences for being good, and that with enough willpower you can force yourself to be good long enough for it to stick. Then why doesn’t everyone do that? Lack of awareness of the consequences? Giving up early? But then we reduce goodness to intelligence and willpower!]
[So how do people ever become good?]
[You have to start with at least a tiny bit of existing goodness. And that gives you the urge to accumulate more.]
[So,] asked Ana [divine grace?]
The overt meaning of “perfect” is “maximally good”.
The kabbalistic meaning is “someone who tries to make moral progress”.
This we derive from the Cathar perfecti. The Cathars believed the world itself was irredeemably bad, the product not of the true God but of a demiurge of pure evil. They thought the true God had sent Christ as an emissary into the world, to introduce a tiny spark of goodness that might catch and spread until the works of the demiurge had been subverted. True believers chose to take on the work of spreading the spark full time, of bringing God to a godless world. A few of these claimed to have prayed so hard that they lost all sense of self, becoming pure vessels for the Holy Spirit. They were called in Latin perfecti, and in French parfait. The Catholic Church declared the Cathars heretics and slaughtered several hundred thousand of them in one of bloodiest and most brutal genocides this side of the Holocaust, apparently satisfied that this was the best way to disprove the proposition that the world was irredeemably evil and its God a murderous tyrant.
But this we also derive from their namesake, philosopher Derek Parfit, who spent his life trying to figure out how to be good. He argued that our common sense views of morality were unjustified and that they would have to be rebuilt by rigorous inquiry. For a philosopher, he was surprisingly humble – he argued not that his discoveries had found the True Morality, but that there was such a thing as progress in moral philosophy as much as physics, and that he was helping to contribute it; he assessed his own contribution only as “reason to be hopeful” about whether or not morality existed. Like the Cathar parfait, after years of deep thought he finally lost all personal identity, saying “I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.” Yet in his own long-winded way, he also rejected his namesakes’s belief in the evil of the universe: “When I consider the parts of the past of which I have some knowledge, I am inclined to believe that, in Utilitarian hedonistic terms, the past has been worth it, since the sum of happiness has been greater than the sum of suffering.”
There are other correspondences. The prophets, who try to turn Israel from its misdeeds to godliness; of Parvati, whose cosmic dance brings beauty to the universe; Providence itself, forever engaged in gathering its own divine sparks and repairing its spiritual machinery.
This, then, is the kabbalistic meaning of “perfect”: someone who tries to make moral progress.
“Aaron?” I heard Sohu’s voice.
[Ana, I just had – I guess an epiphany? I don’t have time to explain it. But it’s basically what I just said before. There is a crack in everything.]
I woke into the regular world. A new stack of books was piled on the table. Sohu and Sarah were giving each other death-glares. I had drooled a little on my shirt.
“Aaron, It didn’t work. I figured out how Sarah confounded the Name. But it’s not a reversible process. You don’t have it. I checked your friend Ana while you were talking, and she doesn’t have it. And now Sarah doesn’t have it. It’s lost, too garbled to be recovered.”
“There is a crack in everything,” I said. “I think I know how you can get the Vital Name.”