What Exists?

Bishop Berkley said that  “reality” is a set of inputs G-d feeds into our souls. In His compassion, he allows us to work together by giving us consistent worldviews with each other. Which is why when a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, it makes no sound. But then, there is really no tree nor that part of the forest, either.

I don’t believe that.

The Tanya (the defining text of Chabad chassidus) says that the only thing that exists is G-d, then when we say “there is none but Him” we don’t just mean no other gods, but nothing at all else exists but Him. The Lurianic notion of tzitzum, Divine “withdrawal” to “make room” for the universe is deemed an illusion. Thus, the problem I’m avoiding by a judicious use of quotes, or throwing in a “so to speak”, they use to prove it can’t be real. G-d can’t really limit Himself. He gave us free will, and thus the illusion of being independent entities. And everything else we see that we think is independent is part of that illusion. It’s a different form of reality is all in our heads, in creating such a gap between the One Real “Thing” and the many things we think are there. In Chabad writings this is associated with “yeish meiAyin” (something from nothing, the Hebrew version of ex nihilo), which they would have to write with that capital “A”. From G-d’s perspective, He is the Yeish (Something), and everything else is ayin (nothingness). From without our illusion, He is the Ayin, and we are the yeish that comes from that nothingness.

Kant was less extreme. He spoke of the neumenal, that which is actually “out there”, and the phenomenal, the world as experienced. He believed there actually is a neumenal universe that lies behind what we do physics on, but we don’t really know what’s it’s like. E.g. he tried to prove that time and space are phenomena, not inherent.

Esnst Mach (after whom they named the speed of sound) and Einstein took this one step further and used it to explain why science is possible. The latter often said, “the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible”. How is it that our mind’s logic matches the world’s rules? Not just one the gross scale, which is obvious what shaped that mental logic was the ability to make sense of the events around us. But even in details like coming up with tensor calculus just a few years before it became the central way of expressing General Relativity? Science has gone well beyond the intuitive or that which would give a particular kind of mind more survival value. And yet we can still reason about the universe. Their solution: We are analyzing the phenomenological universe — the kinds of things we can measure and find patterns in is itself shaped by the structure of that mind as the theory created to explain it.

Rav Dessler has his own variant of this notion. He asserts that the flow of time is a phenomenon, created when man ate from the fruit, and his whole worldview became centered on desire, pursuit, and attainment (or frustration) — a time sequence. He uses that idea to discuss time during the week of creation; according to R’ EE Dessler, the concept is entirely incomprehensible, and one could give it any duration depending on how you look at it. It was literally a week, literally billions of years (but that’s a sadly materialistic perspective, in his opinion), and also literally the subsequent 6 millenia of human history. Doesn’t make sense? Right — neumenal time doesn’t fit how we think.

He has a similar approach to nature vs miracles. A person has to be very different than the norm, but he could reach the level where moral law defines his phenomenological universe more than physical law. Such a person experiences miracles. Even if it means someone else would experience a conflicting reality!

(My own position is along Rav Dessler’s lines, as you can tell from all the links to places where I discussed various elements of it in more detail.)

“A Greater Obligation”

Just sharing a couple of posts from the blog “A Simple Jew“.

A Greater Obligation

Footnote in the Artscroll Kitzur Shulchan Aruch:

See Mishnah Berura 1:12 and Shaar HaTziyun 26 who cites Chayei Adam which states that studying sifrei mussar is a greater obligation than that of studying Mishnayos.

He follows up by posting a comment by Rabbi Micha Golshevsky on that first post:

Chazal teach that study is of great value since it leads to action. Clearly, one should learn not only to fulfill the mitzvah of Torah study but also with a view to changing his actions. It is for this reason that many authorities state that the first thing one must work on mastering are the halachos of Orach Chaim. Without these halachos one could be the greatest lamdan but have no idea how to really apply his learning.

Interrupting with a brief side-note: I would have said the parts of Choshein Mishpat that deal with the interpersonal laws applicable outside of court should come before Orach Chaim or at least alongside it. After all “derekh eretz qodmah laTorah – proper behavior in this world comes before Torah”. Back to the point:

The Chayei Adam, z”l, even writes that it is better to learn the halachos of Shabbos on Shabbos than Mishnayos. To illustrate why, he recounts a revealing story. It is first important to realize that although he served as the Av Beis Din of Vilna, the Chayei Adam was a businessman who never took any money for deciding halachic queries, just as his father before him. As a businessman, he traveled frequently. One Shabbos, he stayed in the same inn as a person whose practice for many years was to learn a chapter of Mishnayos every day.

Understandably, the Chayei Adam was appalled when he noticed this “expert” in Mishnayos weaving on Shabbos! He immediately cried, “Is it not Shabbos today?”

The man was puzzled. “But what possible melachah can this be?”

“How can you be so unaware? Are you not familiar with the mishnah which lists ‘hatoveh‘ as one of the melachos?”

“But I thought that was only if someone does so on a loom like we do at home…”

The Chayei Adam was astounded. “But having learned the mishnah, why would you assume that seeing that it simply says ‘he who weaves’ implies that weaving is only a melachah with a loom?”

“Do you think when I learn I am trying to apply my learning to my actions? I only focus on fulfilling the mitzvah of learning Torah,” the man protested.

The Chayei Adam responded, “Now I understand the words of our sages: ‘One who says I only have Torah does not even have Torah.’ If one does not learn to apply his knowledge, what earthly difference is there whether he learned or not?”

Much like halacha, mussar is the practical application of Torah into action since it is impossible in our day to have a properly balanced relationship with Hashem or one’s fellow man without a genuine path in mussar or Chassidus.

R’ Golishensky’s remarks reminded me of the following story from my childhood.

One Friday night, my father and I decided to review the gemara I was learning. After a very short search, my father remembered that he had lent that volume to the boy next door. The next-door neighbors on one side of the home I grew up in are staunch members of the local Conservative synagogue. The wife taught secular studies at the local Orthodox yeshiva day school, and they sent their two boys there.

So, I went next door. The older brother, “Steve” was home, but “Dave”, the brother who had borrowed the gemara wasn’t. However, this was the 70s, and they had CB radios, and he was whiling away his newly started weekend talking on one. So, Steve went back to his CB, and asked his brother, “Hey, Dave, do you remember where you put the Meseches Shabbos?”

While his behavior in this story may seem absurd, Steve was being consistent with his upbringing. The problem is: What’s my excuse?


Someone showed me the following idea in the Be’er Yoseif by Rav Yoseif Tzevi Salant.

וַיַּסֵּ֨ב אֱ-לֹהִ֧ים ׀ אֶת־הָעָ֛ם דֶּ֥רֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר יַם־ס֑וּף וַֽחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

- שמות יג:יח

ואסחר ה’ ית עמא אורח מדברא לימא דסוף ומזרזין סליקו בני ישראל מארעא דמצרים:

- תרגום אונקלות, שם

… בעבדא טבא …

- תרגום ירושלמי, שם

ואחזר ה’ ית עמא אורח מדברא דימא דסוף וכל חד עם חמשא טפלין סליקו בני ישראל מארעא דמצרים:

- תרגום יונתן

Hashem brought the nation around, via the path of the desert, the Red Sea; and the Children of Israel arose chamushim (to be defined) from the Land of Egypt.

- Shemos 13:8

.. and the Jews departed prepared and with haste from the Land of Egypt.

- Targum Unqelus (ad loc)

… with good deeds…

- Jerusalem Targum (ad loc)

… and the Jews departed with five infants from the Land of Egypt.

- Targum Yonasan (ad loc)

Rashi defines “chamushim as “armed”, which underlies the Targumim of Unqelus and Yerushalmi. Armed in a spiritual sense, prepared with good deeds.

The medrash describing the Egypt experience told us that we had six children at a time. Here, how can the Targum Yonasan mean that every Jew left with five children, as though this is something that should impress us? The Be’er Yoseif therefore believes the naive read of the Targum Yonasan is correct. Instead, the Be’er Yoseif explains all these targumim in light of each other.

Four fifths of the Jewish people died in Egyptm during the plague of darkness. These were the people who didn’t merit redemption; those who believed in the Egyptian paganism and wanted to stay. But what about their children? The youth didn’t merit dying, even if they agreed with their parents — they aren’t accountable or punishable for their crimes. The Be’er Yoseif notes that this means that each of the 600,000 men left Egypt had to have left with five families of children — his own, and those of four families left orphaned by this punishment. And this could be the intent of the Targum Yonasan.

This is also the “good deeds” of the Jerusalem Targum, the “zerizus” of the Targum Unqelus. They were prepared and surrounded by the mitzvah of taking in these children in need. Today we think of adoption as something someone does when they r”l can’t have children of their own. However, in light of this devar Torah, we see that this mitzvah played a central role in defining us as a people.

According to the Be’er Yosef, it is the merit of adopting orphans that rendered us ready for the redemption from Egypt!

Different Approaches to Creation

[Modified Feb 6, 2005: References raised on an Avodah discussion added.
[Modified Feb 5 2009: References to later essays added. -mi]

I know of a number of approaches to evolution vs creation in Jewish thought. As far as I can tell, it seems that an insistence on the Torah giving literal history with it being roughly 5,769 years since ex nihilo, became more popular after the scientific challenges of the past two centuries, not less. As though we dug in our heels in the face of so many rejecting the Torah for a blind acceptance of the zeitgeist and the importance it gives scientific research.

1- Rejection of scientific conclusions. Theories change over time. Rather than worry about a contradiction between current theory and the Torah, one can simply wait without concern as science slowly converges to the Torah’s truth.

After all, in the last century theory has gone from Aristotle’s eternal universe to acknowledging that it has a beginning. Compared to that, current difference are small.

This is the basic approach taken by R’ Avigdor Miller.

2- History as a backdrop. As one opinion in the Gemara has it, Adam was created as a fully mature man of 20, and trees were created fully grown, etc… The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l concludes that this opinion would hold that the universe as a whole was formed with a history consistent with a natural, scientific, progression.

One may then ask why Hashem chose to create a world that has an artificial age. Or perhaps not: Can one understand why G-d chooses to do anything?

Personally, I have adifferent problem with this position. How does one ascribe a time to creation? It can’t be on the Creator’s clock, since He Exists outside of time. Therefor, when we speak of “when” creation happened, we mean the beginning of the universe’s timeline. So then how could we talk about G-d creating the universe at some point in the middle of the line, allowing history to go in both directions — past and future — from that point?

3- Conflict resolution. Invoking relativity or whatnot to show that 15 billion years can be 5758 years in another frame of reference. Perhaps relativity justifies the differences between frames of reference (as suggested by Rabbi Yaakov “Gerald” Shroeder). The “birds” of day 5 are actually dinosaurs, which are most similar biologically to birds of any thing living today. Creation of the sun on day 4 is actually about the sky clearing to the point the sun could be seen on earth, etc…

As can be seen from my treatment, I don’t consider this opinion fair to either the Torah or the scientific data. Yet, many popular books have come out in the past two years promoting this kind of position. Perhaps someone else can do it justice.

[The next two paragraphs are minor paraphrases of material R' Gil Student wrote for his Hirhurim blog.]

On the other hand, however Bereishis 1 is understood, there is a poetry to the idea. In Collected Writings VII pp 363-264, R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch rejects an insistence on literalism, common to both of the previous approaches, and waxes poetic about the greater display of Divine Wisdom a natural unfolding would suggest. Similarly, Rav Kook makes the same point in Orot haQodesh 91.

R. Menahem Kasher, in Torah Shelemah (Bereshis, ch. no. 738), quotes a responsum from the Geonim in which it is stated that Adam was first created as a speechless creature, like an animal, and only later was given speech. This could certainly be interpreted as a precedent for the claim that Adam was descended from humanoids. R. Kasher suggests that this is a matter of dispute between the Ramban and his student R. Bahya ben Asher, with the Ramban on the side of the Gaon’s responsum. In his Hibah Yeseirah (Bereshis 1:26, printed in the back of Bnei Banim vol. 2), R. Henkin writes explicitly that Adam’s body was taken from creatures that preceded him and it was only his soul that was created ex nihilo. In other words, Adam evolved from lower creatures and became human when God created and implanted in him a human soul.

4- Multiple creation times. This is the approach of the Tif’eres Yisrael. He cites an opinion of the tannaim, a central theme amongst the more kabbalistically inclined rishonim, that Hashem created worlds and destroyed them before this one. Dinosaur bones and starlight are legacies of these earlier worlds. The Tif’eres Yisrael did not say anything about evolution, just that this earlier time explains what the fossils are fossils of. In Techeiles Mordechai, R’ Shalom Mordechai Schwadron speaks laudably of the Tif’eres Yisrael’s resolution.

In Gen 1:1, G-d creates ex nihilo (matter from nothing). Then, before verse 2, these other worlds (in this opinion, epochs) rose and fell. Then, there was “chaos and emptiness” from which our world emerged. The universe as a whole, even the planet, can therefor be older than 5758 years.

Since current theory is that the world started as a singularity — IOW, not within the purvey of science, it is all a matter of faith if the ex nihilo was with the intent of the Creator or not.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan quotes R’ Yitzchaq meiAkko (a student of the Ramban) who concludes from the Zohar that the first creation was 15.8 billion years ago — the age astronomers and physicists seemed to be converging on in the 1980s and 1990s, given multiple ways of measuring the age. It is unclear that this is truly the intent of R’ Yitzchaq meiAkko, but that’s Rabbi Kaplan’s take. The original lecture to AOJS, which is more complete and persuasive than the mention in his NCSY book, is available on line. This is built on an idea discussed by Rabbeinu Bachya and numerous other kabbalistically inclined rishonim, that of our world being one of a cycle of shemittos, so that there is history and time before our universe.

5- Rejection of a literal read of the Torah. This is much easier, halachically, than it sounds, as there is a long tradition, including the Rambam and the Vilna Gaon, teaching that Genesis 1&2 actually convey deeper truths via metaphor. The gemara, after all, limits the number of students (to 2) that one may teach the secrets of the Act of Creation — so clearly we can’t just take the text at face value.

Another commonly sited proof for non-literalness is that the word “day” precedes the creation of the sun. Therefor, it can’t be used, at least in this narrative, to mean our 24 hour period.

The Rambam takes “day” to mean a stage in the causal chain, not a reference to time altogether. See The Rambam on Time During Creation.)

6-The Maharal (intro to Gevuros Hashem) teaches that creation is so alien to human experience that we don’t have a comparison to it. Therefor prophecy, which is transmitted by visions, can not describe it. (The World to Come is similarly explained. This is why it only appears in Tanach as “your days will be prolonged”. Continued existance we can understand. The rest of the details, no.)

However, creation is also so alien that we can not understand it by extrapolation, either. In general, the Talmud teaches that “wisdom is greater than prophecy”. The Maharal explains that this is because the power of extrapolation and deduction takes you further than just what can be presented metaphorically in visions. In this case, though, creation is beyond wisdom as well — which is why the Talmud limits the forum where it can be studied.

His conclusion is that the Torah can’t provide us with a comprehensible history AND that science must be wrong. (It may be implied from the Maharal that science can get you closer to the history, but not a correct history.)

R’ Dessler (vol. II) ascribes a similar opinion to the Ramban, at least with regard to time during creation. That the days of creation were both literal days of seconds, minutes and hours, but also the subsequence six millenia. Not that they represent or parallel the subsequent millenia, but they are literall the millenia themselves. These two perspectives appear to contradict, but only because of limitations of how humans perceive time ever since eating from the tree of knowledge. (A longer description of Rav Dessler’s opinion can be found at Rav Dessler’s Approach to Creation.)

In the two last opinions, the presumption must be that Gen 1 and 2 teach some deeper truths about reality. Either because that’s the only meaning of the text, or because all we can understand from the text are partial truths that don’t quite add up to a whole picture. In either case, without having a metaphor, there would be little reason for its inclusion in the Torah.

The Maharal explains some of the symbolism of the number 7 later in Gevuros Hashem. The seventh should be made holy even without the creation story, so it is possible the details of the story are made to describe this point.

One can also see a pattern: light, sky-and-sea, earth; repeated twice. First Hashem created light. On day four, He created the stars, moon and sun — the sources of light. Second, He seperated sky from the sea. On day 5, He created those who liv e in the sky and the sea — the birds and the fish. Third, Hashem made the seas converge to show land. On day six, the animals and people inhabited the land.

What is important to us as Jews is not what actually happened, that is, whether G-d used natural or miraculous means to create the universe. Rather, to take the lessons of creation, or the lessons encoded into the story of creation, and live them.

Infinity and Thought

A little transfinite math as a prelude to the main point:

Georg Cantor divided the concept of infinity into a number of subtypes. The number of integers (whole numbers) he called אo (read: alef-null). (Legend has it that he was tired of overloading meanings to Greek letters, and since he was Jewish, he chose alef.) Any infinite set that can be counted is of that size — אo.

Dealing with infinities gets weird. For example, in any finite set of integers, the fraction of them that are even is roughly 1/2. (Exactly 1/2 when the set has an even number of numbers in it, e.g. 2, 3, 4, 5; but not so if the number of elements is odd, such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.) However, when dealing with an infinite set, both the number of integers and the subset of them that are even are the same אo. How? For every integer i, there is an even integer 2i.

1 <-> 2
2 <-> 4
3 <-> 6
4 <-> 8

They can be matched 1-to-1! Another way to think about this oddity is that you won’t run out of even numbers before finding as match for each whole number, since infinity means never running out.

The number of fractions is also אo. Anything that can be counted or listed qualifies.

However, the number of possible real numbers, including irrationals, is some kind of bigger infinity. You can’t map the line, the continuum, to the set of integers. Another way of saying it is the number of points on a line is not countable. Cantor called this kind of infinity “C” (for “continuum”). He believed that C = אl, but he could never prove there wasn’t some step between it and אo, so he left it as “C”.

אo is the infinity of “how many?”, C is the infinity of “how much?”

A theological digression before I get to the main point:

This difference is a good metaphor for explaining a common theological error.

Many wonder how G-d, in charge of the entire universe, could possibly be interested in an individual person out of billions on a little backwater planet out in one galaxy among who knows how many…

This is viewing G-d like אo. It’s a huge set. But there are gaps between its members.

G-d’s infinity is beyond that. I’m not saying it’s C, or anything along those lines (which is why I wrote the word “metaphor” in bold at the beginning of this digression), just that it’s greater than אo. And just as the real number line as an infinite number of points between zero and one (in addition to comprising an infinite number of such intervals), G-d has an infinite amount of attention to bestow on each of us.

Now, finally on to the main point…

Computer science started with a normal of formalizations of what a computer program or a mathematical function could calculate, and it turns out that they all described the same set. This set of “computable functions” is countably infinite, i.e. it’s אo. In something closer to English, the list the number of functions that can be implemented on a computer would be infinitely long, but you could come up with a way (in principle) to map them 1-to -1 to integers. It’s easy to prove on a hand-wave level: Write them out in some Turing Complete language (a fancy way of saying a programming format provably capable of representing anything computable). Convert each symbol and space in your program into a numerical code. The result is an integer. So there can’t be more functions than integers.

However, people don’t fully describe their thoughts. Natural language doesn’t work like programming language. Instead, we rely on common experience to bridge the communication gap. Because we’re all human beings, many things can be left unsaid, and the other person fills in the gaps by imagining the described scenario themselves.

In fact, I personally believe that people CAN’T fully describe our thoughts. Thoughts do come in the stream-of-consciousness that we can put into words. But they also come in our ability to visualize and recreate sounds etc… inside our own heads — what the rishonim called koach hadimyon. (The Imaginative Faculty as Aristotle meant the term.)

It’s for that reason that I believe that Artificial Intelligence on a computer is impossible. Koach hadimyon allows people to think not just in terms of manipulating symbols, but also based on semantics in a way that is beyond algorithmic. A person thinks about red not only be having in his head the sound of the word “red”, but also he mentally experiences redness. (That redness is called a “quale”, plural “qualia”.)

Very related to this is Serle’s “Chinese Room Experiment”, here’s the description from Wikipedia:

Searle requests that his reader imagine that, many years from now, people have constructed a computer that behaves as if it understands Chinese. It takes Chinese characters as input and, using a computer program, produces other Chinese characters, which it presents as output. Suppose, says Searle, that this computer performs its task so convincingly that it comfortably passes the Turing test: it convinces a human Chinese speaker that the program is itself a human Chinese speaker. All of the questions that the human asks it receive appropriate responses, such that the Chinese speaker is convinced that he or she is talking to another Chinese-speaking human being. Most proponents of artificial intelligence would draw the conclusion that the computer understands Chinese, just as the Chinese-speaking human does.

Searle then asks the reader to suppose that he is in a room in which he receives Chinese characters, consults a book containing an English version of the aforementioned computer program and processes the Chinese characters according to its instructions. He does not understand a word of Chinese; he simply manipulates what, to him, are meaningless symbols, using the book and whatever other equipment, like paper, pencils, erasers and filing cabinets, is available to him. After manipulating the symbols, he responds to a given Chinese question in the same language. As the computer passed the Turing test this way, it is fair, says Searle, to deduce that he has done so, too, simply by running the program manually. “Nobody just looking at my answers can tell that I don’t speak a word of Chinese,” he writes.

There are rebuttals, but discussing why I still find the argument compelling isn’t really what I’m interested in raising here. (If you’re interested, see the Wikipedia page.)

Right now I want to use this distinction between an algorithm of rules of symbol manipulation vs. using words because they mean something to me. The notion of qualia gives me a meaning to a symbol. I not only think using the word “red”, but when I do, it brings up memories of the actual experience of red objects. As we discussed in the entry on koach hadimyon, I can not only reason about elephants having hair by applying syllogisms related to their being mammals, but also by conducting mental experiments visualizing elephants with different kinds of hair in different parts of their body and comparing it to memory.

Similarly, I believe that not all of Torah can be articulated. This is the brilliance that the angels of the medrash attributed to our reply at Mt Sinai — “we will do and we will listen”, placing the doing first. According to the medrash (cited by Rashi) the angels asked who told the Jewish people this secret. Much of Torah can only be learned by experiencing it, not through discussion or abstract instruction. The navi sees visions, metaphors, experiences rather than deduces truths. Similarly aggadita is relayed through metaphor (“mashal umelitzah” as the Rambam puts it in his introduction to pereq Cheileq). Visualization is a key part of how we receive and perceive Torah, not just ideas that can be assigned countable tokens and taught out of prose books.

Thus, the Torah includes elements that can’t be mapped to algorithms, nor to a list of symbols. The proof that the number of functions is countably infinite (אo) doesn’t work for divrei Torah.

Reason and the Tripartite Soul

This post will draw from ideas found in two earlier ones. So, I’ll open with a repetition of some points.

Reason (from Ru’ach Memalela):

By my own experience, conscious thought happens two ways: the internal monologue we call a “stream of consciousness”, and by setting up thought-experiments to run through. For example, there are two ways to think through the question “Does an elephant have hair?”

Streams of consciousness, hereafter seikhel (for reasons that will become evident later), are a common tool of an author’s trade because it’s thought in the form of words. A solution based on this mode of thought might run something like this: Elephants are mammals, all mammals have hair, and so unless elephants are the exception to the rule, they must have hair. Elephants are well known and discussed animals. Could they be an exception to the rule and I don’t know it? Nah, they must have hair.

On the other hand, when I someone, and realize he has red hair, I don’t simply pick up another fact about the person, I have the experience of seeing red hair. I can remember and reproduce the image of him and his red hair in my mind. The knowledge isn’t reducable to words, it involves qualia, attributes of internal experience. And when I imagine what he would look like with black hair, I manipulate an image, not simply reason with concepts reducible into the words of my seikhel. There is a shared feature to seeing and hearing something when it happened, remembering the event, and imagining what the event would be like. When I remember my son’s face, I do not simply remember facts about it translatable into my seikhel, the flow of words in my head. I actually recreate the experience of seeing it. When I remember last Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidrei, I reproduce the experience of hearing the Chazan sing it, the congregation singing along.

This is the “koach hadimyon“, “the ability to make likenesses”. It is usually translated as “imagination”, but this translation is anachronistic — the word “imagination” changed meaning since first coined by Aristotilians (such as the Rambam). Dimyon is the laboratory of my thought experiments.

Solving the elephant problem through dimyon, you can remember elephants you saw, or saw pictures of. The detail may be blurry, so you may have to manipulate the picture a bit. Finally, a version of the picture which has a tuft of hair at the tail, maybe (if your memory is good) some downy hair around the eyes and ears, strikes you as the most familiar, the most real. And again you could reach the conclusion that elephants have hair.

Note that both require being aware of one’s thoughts: there is no stream of consciousness without a “listener” hearing the thoughts. There is no dimyon without an observer (and listener) watching the theater. This is a kind of self-awareness essential for the idea of “free will” to be meaningful. Free will is the ability to choose one’s actions and reactions, which is impossible if one can not perceive which thoughts to choose among.

And therefore, the ru’ach, the seat of will, must be self-aware. Conscious thought comes from the awareness of our thoughts, including our awareness of that awareness itself, and so on in an infinite regress. Free will comes from being able to monitor one’s thoughts and edit them based on judging what one monitors.

Notice what we are saying. Since free will and thought are inseperable concepts. The fact that we can think consciously is the key to free will. And therefore intelligence is something the soul does. (A conclusion taken for granted in the Rambam’s “Shemoneh Peraqim”, among many other examples.) There is no mind-soul duality. The mind is something the ru’ach does.

The Tripartite Soul:

The concept that the ru’ach is the seat of will, thought, conscious self-awareness, in other words, mind, takes on far greater significance when we look at the definition of “ru’ach” that we established in the “Bilvavi” (part 1, part 2) and “Castle in the Air” posts.

[T]he Maharal (Derekh haChaim, Avos 1:2) gives broad significance to this mishnah. The three pillars upon which the world stands as being are three classes of relationship that a person is capable of: with Hashem (avodah – service [of G-d]), with other people (gemilus chassadim - supporting others through kindnesses) and with oneself (Torah). In Mussar, these are described as the three categories of mitzvos: bein adam laMaqom, bein adam lachaveiro and bein adam lenafsho, respectively.

Each relationship is enabled by a different world in which a person lives. As the Maharal writes:

Therefore, the g-dly Tanna writes that one pillar that the universe stands upon is the Torah, for the pillar completes man so that he can be a finished creation with respect to himself.

After that he says “on avodah“…. For from this man can be thought complete and good toward He Who created him – by serving Him…. With regard to the third, it is necessary for man to be complete and good with others, and that is through gemillus chassadim.

You also must understand that these three pillars parallel three things in each man: the mind, the living soul, and the body. None of them have existence without G-d. The existence of the soul is when it comes close to Hashem by serving Him…. From the perspective of the mind, the man gets his existence through Torah, for it is through the Torah that man attaches himself to G-d. To the body, man gets his existence through gemillus chassadim for the body has no closeness or attachment to Hashem, just that Hashem is kind to all. When man performs kindness G-d is kind to him, and so gives him existence.

Combining that with the Vilna Gaon in his Peirush al Kama agados, we found that he places the world of the mind, ego and its consequentent desire for autonomy and power in the ru’ach.

“There are three watches each night. In the first, the donkey brays. During the second, the dogs bark “hav, hav“. At the third, the infant nurses from his mother’s breast, and a woman converses with her husband.” (Bava Metzi’a 83b)

The commentators explain that this [text] is about three souls of a person: Nara”n. Nefesh has in it the lust for things of the body, which is why these things are called [by the expression] “a wide nefesh“. The ruach contains honor and jealousy, as it says “a tall ruach”, “an overpowering ruach”. Apparently, ruach is the jealousy that dries one out, as it says (Mishlei 14), “The dryness of bones is jealousy, and all honor and its traits are suspended by the vanities of the world.”

The first watch is the beginning of childhood. Man is drawn to desire because of childhood and freedom. As it is said, “Things done in his youth are much vanity in his old age.” As Rashi wrote about sexual desire, and so it is for all desires. This is the braying donkey [chamor] it is a creature of its flesh’s desires, in all things physical [chomer].”

In the middle: Man goes and chases honor and wealth, like dogs that bark “hav hav” [which in Aramaic means: "Give me, give me"].

In the third watch, when he sees that his demise approaches, he returns in teshuvah, and that is when the neshamah sparks up. That is when the baby nurses from his mother’s breasts, as it says (Mishlei 5) “Her breasts will nurse you at any time that you love her.” And a woman talks with her husband as it says (Hoshea 2), “And I will return to my first husband”, for he returns to Hashem. Because Torah brings one to action, as it says in the prayer Hashiveinu [in the Amidah], “Return us, our Father, to Your Torah, and bring us close to Your worship.”

First Principles from Our Senses

Intellect takes ideas and builds, interpolates and extrapolates from them. At some point though, there is an initial set of ideas, what Aristotle called the problem of first principles.

Some information reaches us indirectly. A source of information provides information that proved to be correct in the past, and I learn to rely on it. Hopefully I make that decision accurately and without bias. But all such information has to reach humanity before it is communicated.

Some comes directly from our senses. (When I drop something, it falls.) In other words, they reach me via the nefesh.

The Is-Ought Problem

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, that expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

- David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature III part I, sec 1

There is no way to get from the universe of “is” to the universe of “ought”. Science can say nothing about values, meaning, and anything else in the domain of religion.

First Principles from Shamayim

However, there is a third aspect to the self, the neshamah — its presence in heaven, its connection to a Higher Ideal. It’s another source of first principles of a different sort than those discussed by science. The nefesh, then reasons using data collected from both the nefesh and the neshamah, as well as by watching itself.

Without acknowledging that data the intellect can’t get anywhere in religious discussion. It has no grist for its mill, no source for postulates related to ethics, morality or meaning. There is nothing to build conclusions from.

Related to Ought is purpose. Without being able to measure an act in relation to a desired end, there is no “ought”. Thus, the while the laws one will perceive looking with one’s nefeshare those of cause, chaining the event to prior ones, the laws of the neshamah of those of purpose and thus pointing into the future.

Science and religion do not and can not collide because they are discussions on different sides of the Is-Ought / Cause-Purpose divides, involving data reaching us from different worlds.


And yet, they both reach the same ru’ach and go into building a single world there. Facts are “cold” and “dry”. It is experience, including dimyon, which is most tied to emotion. Thus, “The mind is a wonderful organ for justifying decisions the heart already reached.” If the koach hadimyon exclusively embraces the sensory input of the nefesh, then this becomes the dominant theme in that world. Fortunately, the same is true if someone spends their life speculating on the neshamah‘s impressions of purpose and values, higher planes of reality and moral laws.

This notion relates directly to the Maharal’s notion of miracles. (In particular, as explained by R’ Dessler.) From my essay in Mesukim MiDevash  (parshas Beshalach, pp 1-2):

The Maharal … writes that rather than being an exception to the rule, nissim follow their own rules. Indeed, miracles occur all the time, but on their own plane of reality. This is why Yehoshua requests “shemesh beGiv’on dom – the sun should stand still in Giv’on.” (Yehoshua 10:13) The sun stopped for the Jews in Giv’on, who were on a plane where miracles operate, but not for anyone else. Literally two different realities were simultaneously experienced. Not two different perceptions of the same event, but two conflicting things were real, depending upon which world one occupied.

Most of us live within a world in which the laws we call “teva” apply. R’ Chanina ben Dosa, however, lived in a world where the laws of neis applied. In this world, oil and vinegar are equally flammable…. Rav Eliyahu Dessler elaborates on this principle. Mekubalim speak of four olamos, each of a higher level than the previous: asiyah (action), yetzirah (formation), beri’ah (creation) and atzilus (emanation)….

People have two sources of information that they consider absolute. The first is their senses – sight, sound, and so on. The senses bring us information about the physical world. [The soul] brings us concepts like truth, freedom and oppression. Someone mired in the desires of the senses lives in the physical world. He focuses his attention on it, just as everyone focuses on that which is important to them. “Every tailor notices and looks at the clothing of the people in the street; and similarly every shoemaker, shoes…” The man of the senses therefore perceives it as more objective and more absolute than the world of the self…. This is olam ha’asiyah.

However, one can rise above that to the olam ha’yetzirah. This is not merely another level, but another world with its own laws, laws that do not conflict with free will. Those who focus on this world have no question that free will exists. To them, it is the ideals of this world that are more objective and absolute, and the senses, more subjective. Rav Dessler explains that this is how nissim can impact one person’s senses and not another’s. Yetzirah is the Maharal’s plane of nissim, and as the Maharal noted different people will perceive the miraculous differently, or not at all. And so the sea split in olam hayetzirah, but not in olam ha’asiyah.

According to Rav Dessler, someone who truly sees the world in terms of justice and kindness, freedom or oppression, to the extent that those laws are more objective and more absolute than gravity, conservation of energy, or electromagnetic force, then those laws actually do drive their reality. Such a person would live in a world of neis rather than teva.

Consciousness is self-awareness. Not just an awareness of oneself, including one’s spiritual nature, but awareness of one’s awareness — the ru’ach. Even how we perceive the other worlds is a product of the ru’ach. We therefore aren’t really judging the world as it objectively exists as much as the world as reflected in the koach hadimyon, within the circle of an awareness that watches itself. And thus different people can experience different realities depending upon which postulates they internalize.

Someone who lives in the neshamah‘s world of Ought will experience miracles — things happen as they Ought to satisfy Hashem’s goals of Justice and Mercy. Someone who can only see the laws of physics will only experience nature. Most of us lie somewhere in between — unfortunately tending to the more physical side. We can see miracles when we are inclined to look for them, but they the exception.


A basic difference between man and angels is that “angels only have one foot”, as described by the prophets and the classical rabbis. “Angels stand, people walk.”It’s a very existential thought. In the case of a table, the essence precedes its existence. If you know enough about the wood, the blueprint, the construction, etc… the table can be fully known before it even exists. In contrast, with people existence precedes essence. Who and what I am now is a newer evolution than the fact that I exist at all.

This is a key part of free will, the power to choose in which direction to evolve. As Rav Dessler writes about the flow of time, every moment is the realization of light or occlusion in one’s soul. Human change, in fact time as we know it, is a product of having bechirah.

Angels, for all their holiness, are static. An angel can be “Refa’el” (G-d’s healing), or “Gavriel” (G-d’s Might). A word, a static thought, can capture who they are and who they will be. At the end of their all night battle, Jacob asks the angel, “What is your name?” Until then, the angel is called in the Torah “the man”. Jacob thought it was a person he encountered on his trip. When he realized it could an angel, and therefore fully apprehended by a word, he asked “What is your name?”

Angels serve G-d, but not from free will. The have service of the neshamah, presence in heaven, but not creative beings in the image of G-d. Without the tension of both body and soul and choices to be made, one is ironically further from G-dliness. Both nefesh and neshamah are creatures; they are source of impressions about which we reason. The ru’ach selects which impressions we accept as important, and it creates. It builds s world, a Temple Within, from those first principles. After all, it is the ru’ach memalela which is in the image of the Creator. We praise Hashem every morning that “the neshamah that You have placed within me, it is pure”. However, we have the ability to rise above the purity of angels, those other denizens of the heavens. We can apply the moral callings to make our own synthesis of the nefesh‘s Is with the neshamah‘s Ought.

Last, this explains why in each triad of utentsils of the mishkan, it is the one corresponding to the ru’ach that is placed in a position one step above the others. (See this earlier post for an explanation of the correspondence. It, in turn is a part II, so you may need to start with part I.)

Among the uncrowned utensils, denoting the three universes in which we live, the kiyor (washing vessel) and mizbei’ach (altar) are outside in the courtyard, but the menorah (representing the 7 wisdoms) is within the Mishkan itself. And while the shulchan (table of showbread) and mizbei’ach hazahav (golden incense altar) were in the Mishkan, representing interpersonal relationships and our relationship with Hashem, respectively, it is the aron (ark) with its embodiment of tif’eres (harmony), of perfection of the relationship within our selves, that is in the Qodesh haQadashim (Holy of Holies).

A quick cheat sheet (which I expect will move to future entries as it grows; new row in bold):

Relationship:other peopleoneselfHashem
Ultimate Denial:murdersexual immoralityidolatry
Crowned utensil:shulchanmizbei’ach hazahavaron
World:physicalmentalheaven / meaning
Life stage:braying donkey –
begging dognursing infant /
conversing with husband
Plain utensil:kiyormizbei’achmenorah