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Thursday, January 05, 2017

NEW -- On Life and Paradox

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THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN 

http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/Rabbi_Pinky 
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On Life and Paradox


Rabboisai and Rebbetzinoisai,

Forget everything you know. Everything, you Menuval, including your grandmother's facial hair. Everything. Assume nothing coming into this Drasha. Because you are a know-nothing to begin with.

Imagine that you did not know the Toirah, Chass V'Shalom, or did not have secular knowledge, Baruch HaShem. Imagine that.

You are the Reboinoisheloilum. You are Hakadoshboruchhu. You are the "Oiseh Shalom Bimroimuv". You are going to create the world ex nihilo, out of nothing. What would You create?

You might create something or someone to keep You company. But why would You have that abstract instinct to crave company. What do You crave?

Now, what is wrong with what I just wrote? It ascribes a feeling or an impulse to what is, according to the RAMBAM "an abstraction". The Reboinoisheloilum is an Everythingness that is Nothingness. IT cannot be described, according to the RAMBAM, It can only be described by what It is not. (This is similar to me referring to you as a "good-for-nothing", you Vilda Chaya.)

Even the Kabbalists -- who invested extensive intellectual effort in describing the Aimistah/ Aibishter's essence and components -- the Sefirois -- rooted their origin in an unperceivable source, the "Ain Soif", the “Without End”.

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Rabboisai, the picture I just painted stands in sharp contrast to the Hakadoishboruchhu that most of us were raised with and that we read about in the Toirah, the Divine who communicates directly with human beings, gets angry, bets on horse racing, and fathers His only son through a virgin named Mary... Err... Sorry, wrong religion.

Umm... I think we were at "gets angry". Gets jealous. Gives the Toirah. Makes it rain. Hardens Pharoah's heart. Commands Shmuel HaNavi to anoint a man named Shaul as King of Israel, and only later, after Shaul fails to kill the king of Amalek, commands Shmuel to anoint a lad named Duvid to become King of Israel in Shaul HaMelech's place. (And let me clarify: Shmuel HaNavi anointing Shaul had absolutely nothing to do with Mishkav Zachor, you pervert. Although it is not so clear with Shmuel anointing Duvid, who was featured on the cover of the Bethlehem Blue Boys calendar in 1022 BCE.)

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Ladies and gentlemen, what I just described are two fundamentally different perceptions of the Divine.
-- Perception One: The Aimishteh/ Aibishter is an unknowable abstraction; and
-- Perception Two: Hakadoishboruchhu is conscious, is temperamental, and is engaged in the affairs of man.

So which is correct, you Mechutziff?

Rabboisai and Rebbetzinoisai, after all these years of selflessly teaching you week after week without making specific demands – other than for men to send me checks and for women to send me their underwear to inspect -- I thought I would deliver a pop quiz, just to see how much you have picked up, you lazy bums.

Whichever description you choose as correct, you would be right. In fact, both are normative perspectives within Yiddishkeit.

So how can these two seemingly opposite descriptions, both be true?

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When we look at the world and the history of Klal Yisroel, we see a pattern of destruction and suffering, of sorrow and pain. If we subscribe to the latter description of the Reboinoisheloilum, in which His direct engagement in the world is axiomatic, we cannot but question Hakadoishboruchhu's motivations. Why all the death? Why all the tragedy? 

There are those who would ascribe a motive of crime and punishment, but that is simplistic, at best, and absurd at worst. If the Aimishteh/ Aibishter truly caused the Shoah or the Bubonic Plague or the current civil wars in Syria and Iraq, with the rampant murder, torture and rape, then He is by definition evil. And I do not know about you, you Mechutziff, but I refuse to believe that the Reboinoisheloilum is evil.

Yet if we subscribe to the former description that characterizes Hakadoishboruchhu as an abstraction, we risk losing our narrative of Purpose, of Meaning, of a relationship between mankind and the Melech Malchei HaMelachim.

In other words, neither description is intellectually or emotionally satisfying to anyone that uses her or his brain (which, of course, does not apply to you, you Minuval, because you have no brain).

Of course, some use such reasoning to reject the existence of a higher being altogether. We often refer to such people as “Atheists”, “Agnostics”, or “Reform Jews”.

But many of us, perhaps most of us, choose to maintain such conflicting views of the nature of the Aimishteh/ Aibisther in parallel. We overlook the inherent fundamental conflicts of these perspectives in order to maintain a “deliberately obscure” notion of the Divine. He is involved in world affairs… except when He is not, at which point He is transcendent.

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When describing subscribing to such contradictory positions in parallel, we are discussing what is essentially a Paradox. And how do we address that Paradox? When challenged and pushed up against the wall, any intellectually honest figure will acknowledge that some ultimate truths are beyond our ability to understand. Consequently, what appears to us as a Paradox actually makes sense. The only way to be 100% certain is if if we are the Reboinoisheloilum Himself, or if we are stoned on so much Bsomim, we are covered for Havdala for the next six months.

(Note: YES, there are Kabbalistic notions on the how the two basic perspectives of the Reboinoisheloilum are interconnected, but no need to address those ideas here. You probably would not understand them anyway, you Minuval!)

We do not understand. We cannot understand.

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I do not raise these issues to engage in a full discussion of the nature of the Aimishteh/ Aibisther. I have addressed such issues before and likely will again. But my intention is actually to discuss the role of Paradox and certitude in our everyday lives.

Rabboisai and Rebbetzinoisai, we recently completed a terribly divisive election cycle in the United States. Afterwards, President Obama declined to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution that reiterated longstanding US policy that does not recognize Israeli sovereignty on lands captured in 1967, including East Jerusalem. In truth, there are no repercussions to the vote, as it does not involve sanctions.

I wish I had a dollar for every comment from friends or on Facebook post on the evils of Barack HUSSEIN Obama, who is alternately a Moslem or a follower of the extremist Reverend Jeremiah Wright. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said that Obama hates Jews, hates Israel, is trying to destroy Israel, etc. In other words, I wish I had a dollar for every extremist fucking statement made by the far right within the Jewish community. I would today be a wealthy man; but instead, I have to raise money for my Yeshiva by sending little children with Pushkas to raise money for fictional construction projects at our non-existent new campus somewhere in Israel that I refuse to identify. But I will be happy to send you pictures.

Similarly, I wish I had a dollar for every hysterical fucking comment made about Donald Trump by people of the far left in the Jewish community. People, please make up your minds: Is he a Nazi or just a run-of-the-mill fascist? Has he abolished free speech and freedom of worship? Should I feel safe sending this Drasha, or should I go looking to hide in a secret attic somewhere and wait to be liberated by either the Germans or the Japanese?

Now, of course we have to acknowledge that Donald Trump said reprehensible things during the campaign about Moslems and Hispanics and women. He flirted with the fringe right because it was politically expedient, thereby playing with matches next to the tinder box that is the multi-cultural society that is America.

But Donald Trump has not established an extra-military militia. He has not advocated laws that deny people rights based on their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. He has said stupid things, offensive things, even hurtful things, at times. But by comparing him to a Nazi the far left in the Jewish community is spitting on the mass graves and the ashes of our ancestors.

So I wish I had a dollar for every fucking stupid thing said by either the far right or the far left. I might be as wealthy as Donald Trump. And if not Donald Trump, as wealthy as the Clintons, who, somehow, after Bill Clinton left the White House in 2000 without any savings, were able to amass wealth in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Hey – I had no idea that Senators in New York or Secretaries of State make so much money. I may need to go into a new line of work!

So what does all of this have to do with the notion of Paradox?

All of us who do not subscribe to the most extreme views voiced by the far right and the far left see the same data that they do; we simply refuse to reach the same conclusions. We understand that the world is not black and white. We understand that the world does not always work the way we would like it to, and at times does not make perfect sense.

We understand that President Obama has created and implemented many policies and initiatives, some of which we agreed with, and others with which we did not. In other words, we are mature enough to know that we will not always agree. And we are mature enough to know that when we disagree, it does not mean that we must engage in a Jihad… even if President Obama’s middle name is “Hussein”. We can balance conflicting impulses, because in our daily lives we subscribe to the notion of Paradox.

Similarly, we know that Donald Trump is prone to outrageous statements and at times sees the “truth” through a filtered lens. He can be abrasive, and can sound like your drunk uncle after having a few too many LeChaims on Tisha Ba’Av. But he is more than his statements, and deserves the opportunity to serve as president, and we all owe him the opportunity to succeed. Whether we like him or not, he is neither a fascist nor a Nazi. Whether we like him or not, we must acknowledge that he won the election by the rules of the Electoral College, and we must respect the office, if not the man. We must again balance our impulses, live with a certain amount of internal conflict, Because real life for most of us is contingent upon living with Paradox.

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But Paradox does not only define the American political discourse; it is essential to describing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jews and Arabs have fought each other since before the establishment of the State of Israel, but they have also cooperated. Jews were expelled from their homes in areas of pre-State Israel and from many countries in the Arab world. Yes, some Arabs left of their own accord to escape the battles, but many Arabs were expelled from their homes. That is where the Palestinian refugees came from. And unlike Israel and the global Jewish community, the Arab world did not band together to resettle the Palestinian refugees.

So what should we do about the Palestinians? Well, from 1967 to 1988, we ignored them and made believe that the status quo would disappear on its own. But then the first Intifada came. Then we attempted peace with the Oslo Accords, and that turned into a disaster. Some call today for the annexation of the West Bank, while others still call for Peace Now. But the reality: Israel and Arabs are fated to live side by side. There may be no responsible Palestinians partner presently, but the Palestinians are there and are not going anywhere, except in the minds of fringe right wing elements.

And so, for now, Israel cannot make peace with the Palestinians, and also cannot win through a military solution. The entire state of Israel is itself stuck in a Paradox.

Israel is committed to being both a Jewish State and a democratic state, and yet the combined number of Arab Palestinians – between Israeli Arab citizens of Israel, Palestinians in the West Bank, and Palestinians in Gaza – is nearly equal to the number of Jews in Israel. How does Israel remain both Jewish and democratic under the current circumstances? Well, that is a Paradox.

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The textbook example of a Paradox is something known as Schroedinger’s Cat. In this thought-exercise, a theoretical cat is put inside a box with radioactive material. If the cat is taken out of the box, it will die. If it is left in the box long enough, it will die. But at this  moment in time, the cat is breathing.

So is the cat alive or dead? It is both, yet neither.

Rabboisai and Rebbetzinoisai, I remember that my Alter Zaideh told me that back in the Shtetyl, there was a belief that a man should never touch a cat because that would make him forget all of the Toirah that he ever learned. Meanwhile, so many members of our community -- including so many religiously scholarly Modern Orthodox and Chareidi brothers and sisters who are committed to sexual modesty -- voted for Donald Trump, who famously boasted about "grabbing women by the pussy". That is a Paradox.

Similarly, Hillary Clinton kept e-mails on a private server, deleted e-mails of her own accord after they were subpoenaed, destroyed devices that held data, manipulated the primaries against Bernie Sanders, and engaged in numerous concrete activities that smell of conflict of interest while Secretary of State. Yet many people who believe in transparency and honesty in government voted for her. That too is a Paradox.

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I am reminded of a Maiseh Shehoya. Shabtai Tzvi was declared the Moshiach in 1666, and half of the Jewish world believed that the Messianic era had arrived. As Shabtai Tzvi was traveling across Asia and Europe spreading the message of his arrival as the Moshiach, he developed an intestinal problem. While visiting Vienna, Shabtai Tzvi went to see Dr. Joseph Cohen, one of the finest gastroenterologists in all of Europe.

“What is the problem?” Dr. Cohen asked.

“I have been eating and I have an appetite, yet I have been unable to go to the bathroom for days” Shabtai responded. “It seem to me to be a strange Paradox.”

“Let’s see” replied Dr. Cohen.

Dr. Cohen proceeded to run a battery of tests on Shabtai Tzvi: Blood tests, X-Rays, eye exams, MRIs, etc. After the results came back, Dr. Cohen called Shabtai back into his office.

“Shabtai”, Dr, Cohen said, “you are not suffering from any sort of Paradox. I have looked at the X-Rays and MRIs. You are simply full of shit.”

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Rabboisai and Rebbetzinoisai, we all live in a complex world, where reality is not a simple black and white. And so most of us live by balancing conflicting notions and ideas and impulses. We live in a world of Paradox. Our quest for clarity is an ongoing challenge; that is part of the human condition. But those people who live with 100% factual and moral certitude, without doubt, without dilemma, driven by simplistic ideologies and pat slogans, who selectively accept data to fit their personal narratives, are taking the intellectual easy way out. They are avoiding the complexities of Paradox, and are often, like Shabtai Tzvi, actually full of shit.

So the next time you question your opinions, your ideologies, your positions on a topic, do not feel ashamed. Certitude is like prophecy: As we are told in the Talmud, in our era true prophecy no longer exists; the only people left with prophecy are children and fools.

Ah Gutten Shabbos You Minuval


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Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Rosheshiva
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

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