Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Secret Life of Nonsense

It's commonly believed that along with whatever kernels of wisdom the Talmud (and other Jewish scriptures) may contain is a whole mess of silly old folklore and superstition.  On the surface, this assumption is not without merit for the Talmudic Sages apparently believed things like:

"For a fever that strikes daily, one must take a white zuz (coin) and go with it to a salt evaporator, and weigh against it its weight in salt.  He then must tie the salt by the neck opening of his shirt with a strand of hair.  This will cure him of fever."  Or,

"He must sit at the crossroads and when he sees a large ant carrying something he must take the any and place it into a copper tube.  He must then close the tube with lead and seal it with 60 different types of seals.  He must shake the tube and then say to the ant 'your burden upon me and my burden upon you!'"

Seems like a lot of trouble but what do you expect from such ancient and whimsical people?  To those who have a bit of background in Talmudic and mystical exegesis it may be possible to discern the traces of code-words in these "toil and trouble" formulas.  Could it be that they are actually teaching more than they seem to be?  According to several of the great mystics they are doing just that. According to Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer of Vilna, aka the Vilna Gaon:

"It was decreed that the holy secrets of Moses's teachings would be desecrated by being clothed and hidden in forms such as these strange sounding expositions of the rabbis, rather than being clearly evident.  This is turn, would make it possible for the scoffers of each generation to belittle them."

Why that should be is a longer story but suffice it to say for now that "on the surface the 'Aggadot', the exposition of the rabbis, appear as wasted expressions, God forbid, yet all the secrets of the universe are concealed within them."

How about other discredited beliefs of theses sages such as the belief that the stars are fixed in great spheres that rotate around the Earth or that wine is good for pregnant women or that vermin spontaneously generate?  Doesn't that all call into question everything that they believed?  Actually no, and for three reasons.

The first is that these sages never claimed to possess the totality of human knowledge - rather, they only claimed to have the fundamental tenets of Jewish spirituality.  As such, to have accepted the science of the day (much as we do) or commonly held folk-remedies simply isn't a theological problem.  Had more updated beliefs existed, they would have recorded those.

Secondly, their interest in natural phenomena (science) was largely driven by what baring it had on Jewish law.  Just as everyone knows that there's no such thing as a sunset (as the sun remains still) but doesn't care since it seems to be setting, so too, in a case like spontaneous generation of vermin, inasmuch as it looked to the naked eye that they just sprang up from nowhere, that was enough to base Jewish law off of - the actuality of the matter has no applicable relevance in this case.

Lastly, there is the teaching (along the lines of the Vilna Gaon) that the science of the day that was recorded in the Talmud was actually only intended as a vehicle to teach deeper wisdom.  Consider the words of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto:

"The sages recorded much of the esoteric tradition that they had received in matters relating to nature or astronomy.  In other words, they utilized the knowledge of nature and astronomy that was accepted among gentile scholars of their time in order to transmit something else.  Thus, they never intended to teach physical 'facts' concerning these phenomena, but rather to utilize these facts as vehicles for Kabbalistic secrets.  One should therefore not think that they were wrong because a particular model which they used is no longer accepted.  Their intention was to clothe the hidden tradition in the accepted knowledge of their generation.  That very tradition itself could have been clothed in a different garment according to what was accepted (as scientific fact) in other generations."

Like the music of Schoenberg or the writing of Joyce, to the uninitiated it can all come across as so much gibberish.  Those who have the humility to suspend judgement and have taken the time to investigate beyond a superficial first reading may just discover an unforeseen world of surprising order and insight.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Heisenberg, the Tao and the Unbreakable One

We've all heard it said that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" but what if the reality is even greater than that - what if there are no parts to begin with and that most mistakes that we make in trying to understand the nature of things result from an inability to accurately perceive reality for what it truly is?

One of the most fascinating aspects of Quantum Mechanics is known as Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. The principle essentially states that there is a limit to the precision with which we can know "complementary physical variables" of a particle such as position and momentum. The more we know about the one the less we seem to know about the other. It almost appears to be that the very act of measurement somehow affects the particle and makes it less knowable. One of the fathers of Quantum Physics, Neils Bohr once made the surprising observation that "it is a mistake to think that a particle ever existed prior to our measurement...isolated material particles are abstractions."

So if the particle didn't exist before we measured it, what exactly was it before? According to Werner Heisenberg it was "a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality." Oddly, prior to measurement, the particle is said to exist everywhere, in a state of "superposition" - up until the time that we attempt to locate it - at which point we are able to discern certain qualities that it has but not others.

Some scientists go so far as to suggest that these particles don't exist at all. In an essay entitled "Particles Do Not Exist" by physicist Paul Davies, we find that "the particle concept is nebulous and ideally it should be abandoned completely." John Gribbin agrees and writes that "we call those objects particles, for want of a better name, what they really are, we do not know...the particle concept is simply a crutch ordinary mortals can use to help them toward an understanding of mathematical laws."

Perhaps we can posit that the reason for the strange particle phenomena and our inability to describe what they are is a consequence of attempting to reduce an unbroken whole - a unity - into parts. Particles are what we believe we perceive when we try to grasp a portion of the whole and hold on to it. Fortunately or unfortunately, this is impossible - and always will be. To truly apprehend the All we would need to be that All ourselves. A subunit can never discern the all-encompassing totality of the whole.

C.S. Lewis has suggested that a similar dynamic is at play with spirituality and morality in general. Any attempt to isolate any particular facet of morality or goodness off from the comprehensive unity that it came from will ultimately be self-defeating. Much as trying to make sense of one square millimeter of the Mona Lisa must necessarily limit our ability to see "the big picture," so must cherry-picking certain preferred moral practices thwart our appreciation of the context from which they were drawn. In "The Abolition of Man" Lewis referred to this comprehensive morality as "the Tao."

"This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one of a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory."

According to Lewis there is no way for this moral system to evolve and that any effort made to critique it can only be attempted using elements drawn from the system itself. Once we declare a thing to be right or wrong we are tacitly admitting the existence of an actual right and wrong by which we are able to judge that thing - indeed the terms "right" and wrong" themselves are borrowed directly from the "Tao." Only a full-scale rejection of the system (of the very notions of right and wrong) could suffice to dislodge any particular aspect of it. The only disadvantage of that approach is the necessity of forfeiting the ability to make moral declarations of any sort. As he wrote:

"There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) 'ideologies', all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess."

In Judaic Tradition this concept finds expression in the practice of the twice daily recitation of the "Shema" prayer - which is essentially a meditation on the concept of the ultimate oneness of the Creator. The first line is said while the practitioner covers his or her eyes with the right hand - an indication that it's necessary to stop seeing with the eyes and rather with the mind's eye to block out the apparent (and false) perception of the multifariousness of the universe in favor of the true, unified oneness that it is.

From the search for a "Unified Field Theory" to the creation of the UN to the emergence of holistic medicine, human beings possess a natural drive towards and craving for unity. Perhaps this drive is indicative of an innate ability - to divine within complex systems the true, One, indivisible whole that underpins reality itself.