A Realist’s View of Heaven; or Just, “Heaven, Really!”

The universe, we like to imagine, encompasses two categories of reality: the heavenly and the earthly. We know what the earthly is – science has been studying it for centuries. But what, exactly, is the heavenly? The usual explanations are often unenlightening – they just replace one problematic word (heavenly) with others (divine, Godly, spiritual, and so on), leaving us pretty much where we started: wondering if “heavenly” is anything real altogether — anything more, that is, than a wishful figure of speech.

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra objects to this evasion of clarity. In the portion of Torah called Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32) — which Jews read in synagogue this coming week — for example, Moses calls on heaven and earth as witnesses (v. 32:1), and Ibn Ezra disparages interpretations that identify “the heavenly” as angels, or even rain. Yes, the angels must live in heaven and yes, rain comes from on high, but neither term tells us anything about heaven itself. “Actually,” he concludes, “heaven and earth” denote the two categories of “everything that has permanent existence.”

Let’s start there: we have two categories of existence that are permanent: the heavenly and the earthly. What can we add, without lapsing into dubious metaphysics?

The earthly is familiar to us. Over four centuries of scientific analysis has built up massive sets of laws describing it. Unfortunately, these laws are stunningly amoral – they explain the phenomena of nature, but without regard for good and bad, right and wrong. Philosopher John Stuart Mill captured the problem by observing: “Nature impales men… burns them to death… starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold…. A single hurricane destroys the hopes of a season…. All this Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice.”

So religion adds a category: the heavenly, something equally real, albeit not amenable to scientific measurement. We should not think of “the heavenly” as a separate realm, however, some actual space somewhere or other. It is just another perspective on the same phenomena that we study with science. It too looks at nature but from the perspective of human empathy, and the consequent demand for mercy and justice.

The earthly perspective of science provides an unsympathetic calculus of how the universe works: how hurricanes happen, for example. The heavenly perspective of empathy evaluates the way that universe affects the lives of those who live in it: not the science of how hurricanes happen, but sympathy for the way a hurricane devastates this ruined farmer or that grieving mother whose child was crushed under a falling tree. “Science and the earthly” measure truth; “empathy and the heavenly” allocate kindness.

The two perspectives coalesce in our concept of life. From a scientific perspective, the various forms of life come and go; Darwinian selection favors continuity of the species, but cares not one whit about any given instance of it. By analogy, sociology or economics, say, can rightly be called “sciences” insofar as they study the laws by which human organizations and the economy operate – without, however, any necessary sympathy for the poor, the sick, and the victimized in the systems that they study. When economists or urban planners actually decide to address these unfortunates, they adopt the perspective of the heavenly.

Thank God for the heavenly perspective that supplements scientific knowledge with kindness. But thank God for scientific understanding too – without it we wouldn’t know how to alleviate the misery that empathy uncovers.

Scholars tell us that the last three portions of the Torah (Deuteronomy 31-34, that is) follow from the portion before them, Nitsavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20), which Jews read in synagogue just two weeks ago (and which Reform Jews read on Yom Kippur as well). There, Moses also summons heaven and earth (v. 30:19), this time to witness the claim that we are given life and death, and the insistence that we choose life. But who wouldn’t choose life? Why remind us about the obvious?

The point must be that in choosing life, we risk choosing only one of the two perspectives on it. We actually need both: the scientific laws on how life works, and the empathic kindness toward the way those laws impact the less fortunate among us.

Quite rightly, Moses calls both heaven and earth as witnesses to history. Either one alone, science without empathy or empathy without science, will ruin us.

Blame it on Coffee


Serious coffee drinkers know that coffee preceded Starbucks. Arthur Godfrey sold it on black-and-white TV in the 1950s, and they say that it was first discovered in 9th-century Ethiopia. By the 16th century, it had reached Jews in Israel, where it helped revolutionize Judaism.

Prior to coffee, people went to bed early. Once they became wired on coffee, however, they stayed up late, a challenge that led kabbalists to invent nighttime rituals, like midnight prayers. To this day, Jews gather on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah for S’lichot. Traditionally, the service is held at midnight. And yes, I kid you not: it is the result of coffee!

At least the midnight placement of that service is. The idea of such a preparatory penitential service came earlier, but it was held at sunup Sunday morning. Under the impact of coffee, it was moved to midnight the night before.

Looking back, we can see what happened: once nighttime hours were discovered as something to enjoy – not just something to sleep through — Jews learned to outfit them with spiritual potential.

Such spiritual and moral lessons mark other cultural breakthroughs as well. Martin Buber popularizes the account of the Hasidic rebbe who learned from the telegraph that every word is counted and charged; and from the telephone, that what is said here can be heard there.

So I wonder: what might we learn from technology today? Here’s my short list to take into S’lichot this Saturday night.

From e-communication advances like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, I learn that we human being are all connected, one to another. Way back in the 6th century BCE, (Babylonian exile) our biblical ancestors concluded that all human beings are children of one God. “Why does the Torah provide the story of Adam and Eve?” the Rabbis asked. Answer: to teach us that all humanity is descended from a single set of parents.

From Twitter, I learn that in hardly any words at all, it is possible to bring great joy, but also enormous hurt. I love the way our most central Jewish prayer, the Amidah, opens with, “God, open my lips that my mouth may declare your praise”; and the way it concludes: “My God, keep my mouth from speaking evil and my lips from spouting deceit.” Like God at the moment of creation, we too bring whole worlds into being by what we say. Just a few words can augment the world’s beauty, harmony and promise; or pollute us all in a haze of violence, filth and despair.

From the icloud, by which I save pretty much everything I ever write, think or record, I conclude that what we say and how we act do not so quickly disappear into oblivion. Generations after us will draw on the moral foundation that we leave behind. When Marc Antony eulogized Julius Caesar, he thought, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” The Rabbis, by contrast, believed it is the good that naturally remains behind. The very name of those we memorialize can be a blessing — according to the Yerushalmi, because, “The words of the wise are an everlasting memorial.”  Long before computers, Judaism directed us to preserve our people’s wisdom as a legacy for tomorrow.

These are not new lessons to Judaism, actually.

  • Rosh Hashanah was already the most universalist of holy days: a time to celebrate God’s rule over a marvelously diverse yet interconnected human family.
  • We human beings are uniquely “creatures of speech,” the Rabbis say, who can use our gift of speaking to fashion a world rich with promise.
  • Throughout the days of awe, especially, we are urged to leave our own personal legacy of lessons that will be a blessing.

From S’lichot  warmup to the end of the Yom Kippur, we get time to marvel at the way old lessons become truer over time; and how they call us to make life matter.



The Inevitability of “Alone”

“Do you have what it takes to survive by yourself in the wild?” So goes the come-on for the hit reality show, Alone, where “hard core survivalists” spend a year in the wilderness – all alone.

Judaism’s spiritual parallel is Yom Kippur. Not exactly “the wild” or “wilderness,” and only for a day, but despite the Kol Nidre crowd, it’s all about being alone with just yourself; and even (to trust the liturgy) surviving. Are you capable of spending even a day alone confronting everything you’d rather not admit: how fast you’re aging, what you have amounted to so far; and whether you have it in you to change. Preparation for Yom Kippur began this week with the reading that introduces the penitential month of Elul: “See,” it proclaims, “I set before you blessing and curse.” Though addressed to all of Israel, the verb “See” is in the singular, leading commentators to explain, “Spoken to each and every person, singly”– as if alone.

The shofar is blown daily during Elul, just a single lonely blast, quick and piercing to the individual soul – because the commandment to hear the shofar is addressed to each of us, alone: No one else can hear it for us.

And no one can confess for us on Yom Kippur. Though our confession sounds communal (“For the sin which we have sinned…”) the Rabbis instruct us to confess in our own words as well.

Jews are not good at being alone. We like talk, not quiet. Even the so-called “silent” prayer (the Amidah) is noisy. We like to hear each other, to know we’re not alone.

But we are.

Daily moments of aloneness arrive with choices of conscience, decisions no one knows about except ourselves. They wink at us each morning from the bathroom mirror, reminding us of who we really are, before we dress up to look our best. They hammer on our consciousness when we are sick, depressed, or weary – when people say, “I know how you feel,” but we know they don’t.

If we are lucky, we will get time to age: another case of being alone, this time in progressive disengagement from responsibilities and schedules; from assistants and associates who once answered beeps and sent us daily emails; and eventually, as loss of memory and mental competence sets in, from friends and family too.

Final aloneness arrives with death, “the stoppage of circulation, the inadequate transport of oxygen to tissues, the flickering out of brain function, the failure of organs, the destruction of vital centers” (says medical expert Sherwin B. Nuland in How We Die). Others watch; even hold our hand; but we alone must face the awful fact of being, really, “here today” but “gone tomorrow.”      Our model for aloneness is Moses himself, as human a character as ever lived. Moses leads as we wish we could, but errs as we know we do. He loses his temper (kills the taskmaster); suffers self-doubt (needs Aaron as his spokesman); is not your ideal parent or family man.

But he knows what it is to be alone. As a solitary desert shepherd, he sees the burning bush. Alone atop the mountain, he receives the Torah. And alone again, atop another mountain, he will die.

Or Hachayyim thinks Moses himself is saying “see,” instructing us the way God instructed him: in lonely solitude. “We all inherit a spark from Moses,” says the Zohar: the spark of knowing how to be alone.

But the spark needs fanning – for which we have Elul: to try each day to disengage, at least a tiny bit, from the din of daily wear and tear; to reflect each day on who we are and who we want to be. To arrive at Yom Kippur, prepared to be alone, as if it were the day of death itself. Do that, and it won’t be so bad even on the day we really die. Like anything else, dying too needs practice. And it’s never too soon to start.

Whose Words Are These?

“These are the words” (eleh d’varim). So starts this week’s Torah reading and the entire book Deuteronomy, which it introduces. But whose words are they, God’s or Moses’s? Many of our finest commentators suspect the latter, wondering, as a consequence, whether Deuteronomy is even God-given altogether. To be sure, says Abravanel (1437-1508), “There is no book in all of holy writ that Moses wrote all by himself,” but still, he opines, it does seem that “’These words’ are the words of our master Moses” albeit intended as explanations of commandments given by God elsewhere.

Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) goes further, however, by (famously!) pointing to passages Moses could not have written, like the verses at the end of Deuteronomy that presuppose Moses’s death, and had to have been composed by someone else (probably Joshua, Ibn Ezra concludes). We look back on Ibn Ezra as pioneering early “biblical criticism” – a scientific approach that sees Torah not as a singular revelation given word for word to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but a brilliantly edited set of documents that evolved over the course of centuries, culminating in a final version after the return from Babylonian exile.

So whose words are they — the words of Torah, I mean: all the words, not just those of Deuteronomy? If the scientific study is correct, they are the words of human writers over time.

Jews properly differ on the matter. Abravanel devotes a lengthy discussion to the issue and concludes, “This holy book [Deuteronomy] in its entirety and all its parts came directly from God who commanded it be written down word for word just like the rest of Torah.” The Malbim (1809-1879) is even clearer: “It was all written by God. On his own accord, Moses wrote nothing, not even the tiniest dot.”

Most Jews today side with Ibn Ezra – and with science – but maintain that the text remains sacred, no matter how it came into being. Attributing it all to God, they say, is troubling theologically, not just stylistically. If God indeed wrote every word, then every word must be correct; yet God appears sometimes as vengeful, cruel, and the author of some laws that boggle the modern mind (like “an eye for an eye” [Exodus 21:24] and stoning the rebellious child [Deut. 21:18-21]).

And not just the modern mind: the Talmud itself denied the literal validity of such things, “correcting them” with the notion of an oral law that successive generations of Torah scholars are said to intuit and then use to interpret the “real” meaning of the written text.

Modern scholarship can be seen as an extension of this rabbinic principle: revelation should be reimagined as ongoing throughout time.

What unites both sides of the debate is the assumption that divine truth comes from the study of Torah, no matter how it came about. Jews gather for Torah study, the way other faiths meet to meditate or pray. We start meetings with a d’var torah (“a word of Torah”), the way others cite the tales of Jesus, a statement from the Quran, or the American Constitution. What would a Jewish newspaper be without a column on “the portion of the week”?

Christianity left Judaism not when it proclaimed its faith in Jesus as a messiah – Jews have had many “messianists” over time without their becoming separate religions. Christianity left when it stopped reading Torah as the primary source of wisdom and began instead to read the Gospel portraits of Jesus as its tale worth telling and interpreting for all time.

It really doesn’t matter whether God gave us Deuteronomy through Moses on Mt. Sinai, whether Moses made it up himself, or whether God spoke somehow through the evolution of time to our many ancestors, who, in turn, put the Torah together. What matters is that however it happened, we somehow got it, made it our own, cherished and still cherish it, as the story of who we are and the model for how God wants us still to be.

Donkeys, Tongs, and the Coming of the Messiah

The talking donkey most familiar to Americans these days is the cartoon character “Donkey” from the hit movie Shrek (2001). But Donkey’s predecessor, Francis the talking mule, debuted in a 1946 World War II novel, and then seven follow-up films in the 1950s; and the unbeatable original is a whole lot older still — Balaam’s donkey of Numbers 22.

All three donkeys are noticeably smarter than the people who own them, and maybe that’s the point. A donkey is a jackass, after all, the archetypically stupid beast of burden; granting them intelligence is a favorite artistic strategy

The Rabbis, who think Balaam’s donkey was real, trace its origin to creation itself, when God fashioned a variety of things that history would someday require but put them aside until they were needed. One such item was Balaam’s donkey. Another was the first set of tongs

Yes, tongs!

A quintessential breakthrough in human material culture is metallurgy: first iron, and then the process of heating it above 800 degrees centigrade to “steel” it for tasks where ordinary iron breaks. But to manipulate iron, you need tongs, and in order to make the tongs, you first need other tongs! It follows, then, that alongside Balaam’s donkey, God must also have fashioned a set of primeval tongs, which humans eventually discovered and used to make all the other tongs.

Long before metallurgy, there was fire itself, of course, so another rabbinic tale traces that also to God. This story accents Adam, the human being who discovered it; celebrated its heat and light; thanked God for it; and used it ever after

To tongs and fire as benchmarks in human progress, we should add writing, the means of transmitting knowledge through the generations. Rabbinic tradition ascribes the discovery of writing to Enoch, a descendent of Adam. Legend pictures God allowing Enoch to live among the angels, so that he might attain their mastery of the natural universe, and write it down for humans to learn

The important lesson here is that all these tales picture God as welcoming human discovery — unlike Zeus of Greek mythology, from whom Prometheus, like some primeval industrial spy, has to steal these very secrets (metallurgy, fire and script) and give them to mortals: an act for which he is punished by being shackled to a crag, where every day, an eagle rips open his flesh to devour his liver. The God of the Rabbis, by contrast, willingly creates everything we need – writing, fire, tongs, and even (for a single cameo appearance) a talking donkey: and then glories in our discovering them.

Civilization requires regularized breakthrough inventions, but do we invent them despite creation or does the very plan of creation favor our inventiveness? Judaism’s answer is the latter: the cosmos and we are in sync. God welcomes curiosity. God wants us to uncover the world’s secrets

Judaism views the universe as massive beyond imagination, but created with order and logic – just awaiting human discovery. To be a Jew is to value the art of exploring the unknown. Adam stops to investigate fire; Enoch writes notes on what the angels know; some unknown blacksmith figured out how to use tongs; and Balaam marvels at, and listens to, a talking jackass.

God supplies the world with whatever we might need; we dedicate ourselves to finding it. That, the Rabbis say, is what God wants: we are in league with God in manufacturing progress.

Progress is slow, however, measured only in eons, so we must commit ourselves to this business called life, for the long haul. Only eventually will we, conceivably, discover miraculous solutions for such problems as intractable disease, endemic poverty, ecological disaster and war.

We call that eventuality the messianic age, which tradition describes as a messiah arriving on yet one more donkey. That too, perhaps, is a holdover from creation, deposited in the wings of history and awaiting its turn on the world stage. Stay tuned. Who knows

Things and Their Significances

Jack London (“To Build a Fire”) tells the chilling tale of a solitary hiker traversing the Yukon at 50 degrees below zero. “He was,” says London, “quick and alert in the things of life but only in the things, and not in the significances….The trouble with him was that he had no imagination.” He knew it was cold – knew, in fact, that it was fifty degrees below zero. But he did not then “meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general… and from there … to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.”

Here are two levels of imagination. Elemental self-preservation requires the first: “to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature.” Religion raises the second:  “man’s frailty in general… and the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.”

Religion is a sort of imagination. It is the study of significances. To be religious is to be alive not just to things but to their significances. It is a flight of fancy, but not fantasy. It is the positing of a connective tissue behind and beyond phenomena.


Until modernity, conversation was rife with religious imagination. When, by the seventeenth century, modernity pushed the scientific system for all it was worth, religion failed, at first, to keep up. Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did religion finally make the necessary intellectual advances, and in many places, it has yet to do so still. Where it has matured, however, sophisticated religionists acknowledge the validity of both science and religion: the knowledge of things and the imagination of their significances.

But when science came into its own, religion lost its monopoly on the imaginative process. Art had always been in service of religion, but as religion paled, art – itself, potentially, an exploration of significances — sprung itself free. Many artists conscientiously eschewed the task of imagining significances, but others developed their own alternative systems of exploring what things mean, and in so doing, became, by definition, religious once again, but independently and maturely so.


Identity is the name we give to the allegiance we have to one set of significances over another: to music, say, rather than religion; or to sports or business, for that matter. Any given set of facts can “mean” different things. A devastating tsunami may mean the market will go down (business); God is punishing humanity through a flood (one form of religion); we must find meaning in mortality (another kind of religion) and unite as a human community to do what we can to save one another (religion, again, but with an ethical component).

London’s Yukon hiker is a fictitious anomaly. Most human beings cannot escape the search for some underlying system of significations. The only question is what set of underlying significations any one of us espouses.



Having and Getting: They’re Not the Same


Once again, we reach the familiar story of the spies (or scouts) dispatched to reconnoiter the land of Canaan. Ten of its twelve members return with the devastating news that it is unconquerable; it is fruitless to go on. The two holdouts, Joshua and Caleb, demur. The land can be ours, they insist; don’t give up.

This is more than a case of a glass half full or half empty, the pessimists seeing problems and the optimists opportunity. Our commentators say it touches the heart of being human: the difference between a scout and a spy.

Elsewhere (Deut. 1:24), the reconnaissance party is recalled as “spying out” the land (vay’raglu); but as we see here, they were sent just latur – to “scout” it. Scouting and spying, says the Malbim, are dispositions of character, akin to “having” and “getting.”

When faced with something we might want, he says, we become “scouts,” simply checking out whether we really want to have it. If we decide we want it, we convert “scouting” into “spying,” the attitude of figuring out how to get it. Scouts look for positives: the reasons we might want it.  Spies ferret out negatives: the contextual flaws that may suggest a strategy by which to get it. As scouts, the biblical explorers saw a land flowing with milk and honey. As spies, they sought out Canaanite weaknesses – and finding none, they gave up hope of success. They were good scouts but bad spies. They properly saw the land as good “to have,” but could find no way “to get” it.

They weren’t supposed to be spies, however. How to “get” the land was God’s problem, not theirs. Their mission was simply to be scouts, to ramp up excitement at having a land of their own rather than being slaves in someone else’s land or wandering endlessly through the no-man’s land that is the desert. The Torah values scouting over spying. Politically or militarily speaking, the tactics of “getting” something do matter; but what counts is whether we want to “have” it in the first place.

American society today has forgotten that distinction. We are so enamored with “getting” that we spend our time figuring out how to get what we do not even want to “have.”

Take our obsession with shopping, for example — not shopping as a means of finding the best thing to have but shopping just to get what we do not need and will never use even if we get it.

Or, better, consider the difference between getting a job and having it. We equate success with constantly climbing the corporate ladder. Managers should aspire to become vice presidents, who, in turn, should dream of being president. But getting the job of president isn’t the same as having it. In 1969, author Laurence J. Peter gave us “The Peter Principle,” according to which, “employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence until every post is occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.” The actual work is accomplished by “those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

That is bad for organizations, and worse for the people in them, those who get the jobs they wanted to get, but never really wanted to have. The Israelites wanted to have the land but mistakenly thought they couldn’t get it. Our society encourages us to get whatever job we can, even if we will not want to have it after we get it.

Life should be about having, not getting. At some point we ought to appreciate what we have, and, maybe, want to have even more, but our obsession with getting beyond what we can appreciate having is a sickness. Scouting out life’s opportunities is natural and healthy. Spying out the way to get everything in sight is a derangement well worth avoiding.