Category Archives: philosophy

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.




We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism

We Have Sinned:  Sin and Confession in Judaism, Edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD.

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism

All my life, I’ve wondered about the High-Holiday confessions in Judaism, and I finally edited a book about them. Called We Have Sinned, it just came out from Jewish Lights Publishing, and it represents a multitude of Jewish voices on the topics of sin, human nature, and repentance.

The book is a beginning of a conversation. I hope we can continue it here.

(We Have Sinned is available in print as well as various e-formats: Kindle [], Nook [B&N], and iBooks [Apple]; and also directly from Jewish Lights.)

To Thine Own Self Be True

One of Shakespeare’s greatest lines is the advice Polonius gives his nephew, in Hamlet. “To thine own self be true.” We like that: it resonates with our passion for personal authenticity, part and parcel, by now, of the way baby boomers (and now, their children) embrace the world. But it meant something different to Polonius than it does to us.

It was only in Shakespeare’s time, says Lionel Trilling, that society as we know it came into being. When Shakespeare had Polonius urge truth to oneself, he had in mind this new society of impersonal crowds, in which people largely went from role to role: innkeeper, consumer, employer, neighbor, and so forth. Authenticity for Polonius meant alignment with the self that lies below these social roles – a warning against pretending to be what we are not.

It was the age of Machiavelli, after all, who positively advised people to dissemble. The word “villain” came to mean precisely someone who never tells the truth – like Hamlet’s mother, of whom Hamlet says,

O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.

Shakespeare specialized in such villains, not just Hamlet’s mother, but Iago who frames Othello and Cassius who manipulates Brutus to assassinate Julius Caesar. “To thine own self be true” meant avoiding pretense.

Because the sincerely authentic soul neither lies nor dissembles, the second half of Polonius’s advice ensues. Not just, “To thine own self be true” but also, “It must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” It is this second half that we miss today. For us, the self exists for its own sake. As long as we develop our inner passions, it matters little if we then are false to others.

This was also a tenet enshrined in the popular understanding of Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist novel Nausea that became practically a cult classic when the early boomers were going to College. Its protagonist is beset by an inexplicable fit of nausea until he admits that he is on his own in life — without history, tradition or God to justify or guide him. “Things are entirely what they appear to be and behind them there is nothing.”

How different this is from the religious mentality, where things are not just what they appear to be, and behind them there is something else: a set of ideals, values, and a commanding presence whom we call God.

The new authenticity of self has no moral force. It is purely expressive, a kind of romantic individualism allowing just about anything. Its compelling appeal is evident in the recruiting commercial of the US army from 1980 to 2001: not a call to defend the homeland, not a moral reminder to do one’s duty, but, “Be all that you can be: join the army.”

To be sure, other people too are said to have the right of self-expression, so we are not completely free to do whatever we want. But the best we get is the ultimate laissez faire: Express yourself however you like, as long as you don’t get in the way of others doing the same. John Stuart Mill is famous for his utilitarian ethic that advocated “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” We have an expressive version of utilitarianism: “the greatest self-expression for the greatest number.”

Judaism, by contrast, measures expression of self by an external standard of human life at its best: something supremely good, worthy, purposeful – even noble, which calls us to service.

Gotthold Solomon was a founding rabbi of the New Israelite Temple of Hamburg. In 1824, he published a sermon entitled, “What is our Calling?” — a manifesto for a new kind of Judaism: a Judaism that celebrated the nobility of human potential. Almost 200 years later (despite the understandable nineteenth-century sexist reference to God), it sounds newly fresh with promise – exactly what self-expression for its own sake lacks.

“In spirit and soul, we belong to a higher order than what presents itself  as          ephemeral. We feel that we are human in the most noble sense of the                 word….         that we are closely connected to the Father of all existence, and that we could have no higher purpose than to show ourselves worthy of this relationship.”

The current culture of expressive individualism is dismally unaware of nobility as our highest human goal. Authenticity of self is valid, but only because the self’s deepest truth is its call to be noble.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books is now available.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

I’m happy to announce that my latest book, One Hundred Great Jewish Books, is now available. The full title, One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation, reflects an idea I have been playing with for about a decade now. What is Judaism, if not an identity that is portrayed through a rolling conversation across the centuries! The book is a running record of the conversation as portrayed through every variety of Jewish book: classical texts and medieval responsa, but also modern fiction, short stories, histories, biographies, and even comic books, encyclopedias, and cook books. I read over 200 books to make the selection, but here it is at last: my running guide to the Jewish conversational record.

I hope you enjoy it, so we can continue the conversation here.

Can God’s Mind Change? God’s Second Book (Part 2)

Isn’t it possible for authors to change their minds between books? Even if (as I argued in the last post) both Torah and the universe are products of the same divine author, it does not follow (as I thought it did) that the two books cannot contradict each other. So argues Rabbi Rick Block in a thoughtful note that I greatly appreciate.

Let’s rethink the issue, using a test case, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century. In 1921, he wrote Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus, a densely argued study of the logic behind language. Following the school of thought that we call logical positivism, he limited meaningful sentences to statements of fact that are ultimately rooted in evidence from the senses. That excludes religion, ethics, and aesthetics, none of which is open to empirical proof. Statements about God, goodness, and beauty are neither true nor false: they are simply meaningless.

Later, however, his Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953) seemed to contradict the Tractatus, in that it included religion, ethics and aesthetics as meaningful. Language, he now declared, was like a toolkit, that can be used to do different things: promising, hoping, describing (as in science) and so on. He called each of these things “a game.” The Tractatus described the game of science; but not the games of theology, ethics, and art, which are “meaningless,” perhaps, but only according to the game-rules of science. Investigations pointed out the need to describe the rules for these other games.

The Investigations does not disprove the Tractatus. It just limits its applicability and goes beyond it to include that part of reality for which the Tractatus did not work.

Like Wittgenstein, God too, we may say, has two books: Torah is God’s book of religion; Nature is God’s book of science. They are about different things; they cannot disprove each other, because they operate as different games with different rules of meaning..

Scientific knowledge works in mathematics, the language of Nature, it seems. When we translate those formulae into prose, we get sentences that follow Wittgenstein’s rules in the Tractatus. When we shift to religion, we change the game — and with it, the context in which to understand the sentences. Two sentences that seem to say contradictory things (“God created the heaven and earth,” from the Book of Torah, and “A big bang created time and a universe,” from the Book of Nature) sound like opposites because their syntax is similar. But they may both be right, because they operate in different realms of thought. In that way, they are like Wittgenstein’s two books. They complete, rather than deny, one another.

One more analogy is in order: fiction. Fiction is an art, much like painting, where Monet, for example, can paint several versions of haystacks, all of them equally accurate. A composer of fiction may, similarly, write two novels that contradict each other but be equally true. Insofar as scientific authors write metaphoric explanations of nature’s phenomena, they may do likewise, but when they try actually to frame nature’s laws, they may not make two contradictory claims, without one of them being wrong.

We can liken God’s two books to a nicely boxed set of two volumes, one on science and the other on what we loosely call religion. God’s first book, Torah, is the religious one. It is a work of art, containing such things as fiction, poetry, aphorisms, laws, ethics, values, and a subjective view of Israel’s history. Like any work of art, it regularly attracts new readings. The second book, Nature, is scientific. We change our readings there as well, but contradictory readings of Nature must refute one another, because the Book of Nature (as measured by mathematics) is changeless and, unlike art, a zero-sum game of “true or false.”

I do not mean to say that any reading of Torah is as possible as any other. Some interpretations of art are just wrong — as I said in an earlier blog, Hamlet cannot be a Marxist spoof on Capitalism. Also, ethics, unlike stories, poetry, and such, are absolute, so, like science, cannot admit two absolutely contradictory claims.

But comparing Torah with Nature, we can say that Torah and Nature are God’s two books which cannot refute one another. Like Wittgenstein’s two books, they represent extensions of one another – what we can call a dual extension of God’s mind.

When we look back at great authors, we call it a retrospective. Think of Torah and Nature as God’s retrospective, which we array with awe and reread with care.