Though none of you are skeptics (?),
we all meet a skeptic or two in our lives. Below is an engaging
series of conversations between a skeptic and a believer
regarding fundamental issues of faith and G-d.
The catalyst for this dialogue is the provocative, and
seriously misunderstood topic of Moshiach and Redemption
(Geulah). Much controversy surrounds this issue built
on misconceptions and stereotypes regarding the Jewish view
on this theme. Yet, the discussion of such a critical issue
inevitable touches upon many of our axiomatic beliefs, and
challenges us all to examine our innermost feelings about
life, its meaning, and our personal hopes for the future.
Before reading this first dialogue, ask yourself the question:
Do you believe that things in your life can really change?
Or are you of the belief that the more things change the
more they stay the same.
We hope you are stimulated by this series, and as always
welcome your feedback, comments, rebuttals and anything
you wish to share...
Conversation One: It's not going
to happen. Universal brotherhood, swords into plowshares,
the eradication of evil... give me a break!
The more we discuss the Moshiach issue, the more it seems
to me that it all boils down to a matter of perspective.
Conversation Three: Do you think
the best salesman in the world can sell his product to every
human being on earth?
What's wrong with a secular “Moshiach”? If, as you claim,
we can do better, let's do just that. Let us work for world
peace, human rights, universal literacy, a cure for cancer,
solutions for hunger in Africa...
Conversation Five: One of the
misconceptions that people have about the coming of Moshiach
is that they view it as a radical, earth-shaking event.
Conversation Six: If humanity
has a destiny and goal, if history is the evolution toward
a state of harmony and perfection, why the need for the
individual human being you call Moshiach?
Conversation Seven: If Moshiach
is a king then we're back to totalitarian rule, to monarchs
who reign by Divine license. I thought we got over that
a few centuries ago.
Conversation Eight: If its
as simple as all that, if all we have to do is open our
eyes to a truth that is staring us in the face, why hasnt
it already happened?
Conversation Nine: Everyone
is for world peace. But within the miniature universe that
is man, World Wars are raging. How
can we hope to create a harmonious universe if we are forever
battling our own selves?
You say that G-d created me in His image - but you apply
this only to some deeper, quintessential self which desires
Conversation Eleven: All
we're doing is reinforcing our instinctive visions of reality.You
believe, I don't. Of course, we each have logical arguments
to support our positions. But ultimately, it's a question
Twelve: Your Moshiach idea was beginning to look
no more ominous than a touching bit of optimism for our
ill-fated world. But then I came across something that reinforced
my first impression of it.
Thirteen: If what you say is true, if, underneath
it all, the selfish animal we call man
possesses a soul that is essentially and inherently good,
why have all attempts to uncover it failed so dismally?
Fourteen: I think that you are doing injustice
to the idea of Moshiach with your unyielding orthodoxy.
Why dont you take the gist of what Moshiach
stands for and discard its out-of-date packaging?
Skeptic: It's not going to happen.
Believer: Why not?
Skeptic: Universal brotherhood, swords into plowshares,
the eradication of evil... give me a break!
Believer: Again, why not?
Skeptic: Humanity is why not. Look at its bloodstained
history, look at what's going on today. Let's face it, man
is a selfish animal. His only true goal in life is self-fulfillment,
and he'll trample and destroy everything in his path to
get what he wants.
Believer: And such, in your view, is the basic nature
of every human being? Including yourself, for example?
Skeptic: Of course! I'm just as selfish as anyone
else. I try to be decent, but I know that I've hurt and
wronged others in the course of my life.
Believer: So this is how you see yourself - as this
Skeptic: No - as I said, I try to do the right thing.
But my selfish instincts often get the better of me.
Believer: But deep down, in your heart of hearts,
you know that you can do better...
Skeptic: Okay. Let us say that if I truly put my
mind and will to it, I can make my behavior consistent with
what I know to be just and correct. How would that change
anything? There are another five billion people on our planet!
Believer: Aren't we employing a double standard
here? I'm basically good, but everyone else is evil.
Skeptic: And if most people are essentially good,
where has that gotten us in the last few thousand years?
Even a single evil act can do a lot of damage. A single
madman can undo the positive accomplishments of many well-meaning
Believer: Why not the other way around? Why not
a single positive act having a far-reaching influence? If
one Hitler can murder millions and wreak havoc on the lives
of hundreds of millions of others, why not a Moshiach who
kindles the latent good in every human being? Basically
what you're saying is that evil is more powerful than good.
Skeptic: I would like it to be otherwise. It ought
to be otherwise. But it seems to be that way.
Believer: But you yourself said that you feel that
the good within you is more powerful than your selfish drives,
that if you believed it would make a real difference, you
could overpower them. If one person can do it, every person
can do it.
Skeptic: Theoretically, you are right, but I don't
see it happening. It's just not realistic.
Believer: You know, good and evil
are often compared to light and darkness. Think of it this
way: darkness, no matter how intimidating, is not a thing
or force. It is merely the absence of light. So light need
not combat and overpower darkness in order to displace it
- where light is, darkness is not. In the same way, evil
is no match for good. Good is the basic state of human nature--you,
me, and everyone else sense this to be true of ourselves
- whereas the evil in us is merely the obscuring
and distortion of this truth. The moment your true self
comes to light, the darkness melts away.
Skeptic: That's a beautiful way of
putting it, and you are correct in saying that most of us
view their own selves this way. But to say that there will
come a day when every human being will be inspired to make
that move... As I said, it's simply not realistic.
Believer: I think that your problem with the idea
of Moshiach is not a rational one, or one of personal prejudice.
You seem to agree that my world view makes perfect sense.
And you certainly have nothing to lose and everything to
gain from a harmonious and perfect world. It's just a certain
internal block, a habitual distrust of your fellow man...
Skeptic: Well, I do live in New York City...
Believer: You agree with everything I say, except
for the conclusion.
Skeptic: You're right. I just don't buy it.
Skeptic: The more we discuss the Moshiach issue,
the more it seems to me that it all boils down to a matter
Believer: What do you mean?
Skeptic: The believer sees the world as an ordered
and purposeful creation. Life is a process toward some end-goal,
history is a journey with a destination. Evil, chaos and
suffering don't fit in - so they're either some terrible
mistake, or obstacles to be surmounted as part of the Divine
plan. A world community united to serve the common good
- or, as you might call it, Moshiach - is the most natural
thing in the world. Today's world is the surrealistic one,
Moshiach's world is the sane reality.
If that's the way you see it, then obviously everything
points in that direction. All progress and improvement that
we witness in our world is part of this cosmic progression
to a messianic utopia. Anything bad that happens is but
a temporary and superficial regression in our climb towards
redemption, or perhaps the final gasps of the doomed forces
Believer: And the skeptic?
Skeptic: The skeptic sees the world as a hostile
jungle in which right fades before might and the good die
young. He is unabashedly out for number one and expects
no different of his fellow man. If he meets a selfless individual
he is awestruck and puts him on a pedestal or in a museum.
He doesn't think that the world is headed anywhere in particular.
Believer: And which scenario, in your view, is more
consistent with the objective facts?
Skeptic: They are both consistent with the objective
facts. That's my whole point. Depending on where you stand,
on what your gut feeling is, you will interpret history
and your personal experiences accordingly.
Believer: Is the skeptic not moved by the velvet
revolution in Eastern Europe? By the rise of freedom and
democracy throughout the world? By the dismantling of nuclear
arms, tanks converted into tractors, military aircraft airlifting
food to the hungry?
Skeptic: Is the believer not disheartened by the
slaughter in Bosnia? By the crime rate in Detroit? By the
percentage of husbands who cheat on their wives? Again,
if you see the world as a purposeful enterprise, the evening
news and the history books tell of advancement and improvement,
of currents of progression towards the messianic ideal under
the surface of a still unperfected world. But if you view
life as a series of disjointed, arbitrary events, the selfsame
facts describe a jungle in which good things also sometimes
Believer: But I think you're missing a crucial point.
There's a major difference between the two perspectives
you describe. One relies on data, on the hard facts.
The other makes its case by examining psychohistory of mankind,
the deeper changes in the way that we think and feel which
have been developing since the dawn of the human experience.
Believer: Violent crime has no ideology - it is
perpetrated, for the most part, by individuals who grew
up in despair and are out for a dollar or a fix. There is
no National Association of Child Abusers. There is no Nobel
Prize for the year's most courageous hatemonger.
Things were not always this way. Four thousand years ago,
sacrificing a young virgin was a sacred practice by the
world's leading religions. Incest was not only legal - it
was a sign of royal blood. Only a few centuries ago, destroying
a city for its gold was an act of heroism, to be chiseled
in stone for posterity. Closer to our time, slavery was
commonplace, train robbers were folk heroes, torture was
a means of criminal investigation, women were the property
of their husbands - all this in the world's most enlightened
countries. Our grandfathers remember when war was a noble
calling, romanticized by the world's leading writers and
The human race is maturing morally. Nothing emphasizes
this more than the fall of totalitarianism in the former
communist block: the sheer moral force of ideas proved more
powerful than tanks and the gulag, bringing freedom to hundreds
Again, I am not speaking about the way people act, but
about the way they think and feel - what the global consensus
was and now is on these issues. The atrocities committed
in Bosnia are as vicious as the pillage and rape in the
wars of ancient Greece, but today the world is united in
Skeptic: Does any of this make any real difference?
If a person dies violently,
G-d forbid, is it better that he be killed by a crazed junkie
rather than by a noble soldier reveling in the
sublime glory of war? He is no less dead and no less mourned
by his loved ones. If we want a better world, the hard
facts (as you call them) have to change, not just
some abstract collective conscious of mankind.
Believer: You're absolutely right. Ultimately, what
matters is the way people act. For the world of Moshiach
to become a reality, all evil most be vanquished, both the
behavioral evil and the ideological evil. But
if we are to make sense (or nonsense) out of history, we
must look at the more underlying causes for human behavior:
the attitudes of society as a whole. When that changes,
the ground is ripe for the real changes to take place.
Look at what it takes to be politically correct
today. In more and more parts of the globe, anyone who wishes
to get elected or to stay in power had better espouse family
values, democracy, equality, human rights, social justice...
Skeptic: Yeah, and if you want to be considered
smart, just agree with everyone. You take these politicians
seriously? Ninety-five percent of them are hypocrites!
Believer: And that proves my point more than anything
else. If they were sincere but unpopular, it would mean
that they are men of great integrity but that society is
in a sorry state. But when the politicians sound too good
to be true, you know that the man on the street is ready
and receptive for some real changes in his life.
Skeptic: Okay, so in the year 2001 the mind and
heart of humanity is finally fertile ground for a real New
World Order, not only one that unites against naked
aggression when the price of oil is at stake. Your
theory sounds great but, as I understand it, Moshiach is
a lot more than a great theoryyou actually expect
it to happen. So where do we go from here? What happens
Believer: You tell me: What has to happen?
Skeptic: Well, first of all, everyone has to buy
Believer: Do you buy it?
Skeptic: Whether or not I buy it is irrelevantin
order for it to happen, everyone has to buy it. As you pointed
out, Moshiach would score very high on a Gallup pollanyone
who doesnt want a world free of ignorance, hate and
strife is crazy. But anyone who begins to act as if the
world has already achieved this is even more crazytry
leaving your car unlocked in the South Bronx for five minutes.
You have to figure out some way to convince everyone together.
Believer: Thats exactly what and who Moshiach
is. A person with the vision and message to inspire all
Skeptic: The ultimate salesman, eh? He knocks on
your door with a Lets All Be Good policy
in his briefcase and signs you up in five fast-talking minutes
flat. Do you think the best salesman in the world can sell
his product to every human being on earth?
Believer: He doesnt have to sell us on anything
we dont already understand and want. If anything,
he is like the child who cries out The emperor has
no clothes, causing everyone to snap out of their
artificial, superimposed behavior and embrace the truth
of their own convictions.
Skeptic: It seems that in our case the issue is
far more complex than the simple fact of an unclothed emperor
striding the streets. Throughout the generations, many Moshiachs
have sounded their calls (or had a good PR man do so for
them) for a better world, yet humanity did not instantaneously
see the light.
Believer: Youre right in that its far
more complex in our case, but the issue is, in fact, the
same as in the story. Moshiachs message, in a nutshell,
is indeed that The emperor has no clothes.
Skeptic: Huh? What do you mean?
Believer: The emperor, of course, is G-d; the clothes
are what He dresses up in when He wants to disguise Himself.
Skeptic: Well, does He or doesnt He have clothes?
Believer: He does and He doesnt. Just as in
the story: the emperor is clothedat least everyone
acts as if he were clothedas long as we choose to
see things that way.
Skeptic: So how does G-d dress upor appear
to dress up?
Believer: He has all kinds of illusory clothes:
chance, fate, the survival of the fittest, Murphys
law, the Stock Exchangeall those things which give
us the impression that the world is going everywhere at
once and nowhere at all. G-d dresses Himself
in these clothes. His involvement in history is shrouded
in themyet the meaning and purpose of it all is discernable
just a scratch beneath the surface. The same is true on
the individual level: life is a series of disjointed eventsuntil
one takes a deeper look. The moment we open our eyes, the
clothes dissipate into thin air...
Skeptic: So were all going to have this great
prophetic vision of G-d without His clothes
and this will instantaneously transform us all into Boy
Believer: To perceive G-d as He is means many things
on many levels. The most basic implication is that the true
purpose of our lives will become as obvious as the fact
of our being. The dumbest animal does not leap into fire.
When man will openly perceive the purpose of his existence,
he will be no more inclined to act against it than he is
to destroy himself.
Skeptic: Until that kid comes along, Im still
locking my car.
Skeptic: But why bring G-d into the picture? What's
wrong with a secular Moshiach? If, as you claim,
we can do better, let's do just that. Let us work for world
peace, human rights, universal literacy, a cure for cancer,
argi-technological solutions for hunger in Africa...
Believer: Do you think that man can do it on his
Skeptic: Hardly, with or without G-d's help. You're
the one who's been saying that man is essentially good,
that if we'll all just wake up one morning with the determination
to do better we will have a perfect world on our hands...
Believer: So let us exchange sides in this debate.
Allow me to pursue your line of thinking for a while.
How many people do you know who can work together for a
higher cause? How long does it take for a united
effort to brake into half a dozen factions? Sometimes it
seems that the problem is that there are too many well-meaning
people around, each with his own Moshiach -
his own subjective vision of the ideal and how to get there...
Skeptic: Yet you say that history is a process leading
to the perfect existence of Moshiach...
Believer: It is. But who is to define this process
and the steps needed to move it along?
Skeptic: And evoking G-d will solve the problem?
Hah! If you look at history, religion has been the cause
of at least as much evil as good. Think of how many people
have been killed and tortured in the name of G-d
and an assortment of Moshiachs!
Believer: That, precisely, is my point. As long
as man defines good and evil - whatever
his intentions - he is inviting conflict with whoever doesn't
agree with his definition. If he or his potential audience
are of a religious bent, he will undoubtedly
attribute his idea of morality to G-d and set out on a crusade
to destroy the world in order to save it.
Skeptic: So, will the real G-d please stand up!
Believer: That's exactly what G-d does when He sends
Moshiach: He shows Himself in a way that leaves no room
for doubt. Moshiach, simply stated, is one individual who
brings about a unanimous recognition of the true G-d, thereby
uniting all of humanity to work for the common good - a
good that they all accept to be the true ideal, as defined
by the Supreme Architect of Existence Himself.
Skeptic: You're assuming that such an absolute truth
exists. I question that very premise.
Believer: If it doesn't, then the whole concept
of a purpose to life has no objective meaning - Moshiach
becomes five billion different individual fantasies. If
one feels that existence is purposeful (and I am convinced
that, deep down, every human being feels this way), then
there must be a transcendent reality which defines this
purpose and implants it in the human soul. In other words,
a creator, an author of history, G-d. A G-d who created
man in His image, as opposed to gods created by men in their
Skeptic: To believe in a purpose is one thing. There
is a part to every individual that insists that his existence
is meaningful, and that our world will (or at least ought
to) amount to something worthwhile. But to believe in a
G-d who handed down a particular set of instructions - that
is a tremendous leap of faith.
Believer: A purpose cannot arise out of spontaneous
bangs and random rearrangement of quarks...
Skeptic: How do you know? Many physicists believe
that life, in all its complexity, may have resulted from
just such confluence of random events over eons of time...
Believer: Without getting into a semantic argument
over the probabilities of such an accident,
let me say this: assuming it could happen, can you call
the result a purpose? Why should I care about such a purpose?
Why should I strive to uphold some pattern that
has spontaneously emerged out of meaningless gibberish?
Skeptic: Because these are the laws which ensure
our continued survival and well-being.
We're all in the same boat. So society as whole comes up
with certain institutions - family, education, charity,
law enforcement, courts, international law--to promote the
Believer: But why should I care about this boat?
Why not do what I want as long as I can get away with it?
Skeptic: There is no getting away with it. Everything
you do affects all of us and, ultimately, yourself.
Believer: By the time that ultimately
comes about, I'll be long gone. Say that I find that I can
lead a luxurious and fulfilling life as a drug lord. Of
course, I destroy the lives of inner city kids and causes
old ladies to be mugged in broad daylight. But I'm living
in a country estate surrounded by an electric fence and
patrolled by my private security force. I have an army of
lawyers to keep me out of jail and a charitable foundation
to keep me respectable. By the time society collapses, I'd
be resting comfortably under my designer tombstone...
Skeptic: What about your children?
Believer: Children? Why in the world should I have
children? To keep society going another million
years? As I said, if we feel that there is meaning to our
lives, it is because a purposeful Creator has woven it into
the very fabric of our souls.
Skeptic: Still, so what? Why should I care about
what's woven into the very fabric of my soul
by a purposeful Creator?
Believer: If you don't care, no reason
will ever make you care. But you do care. The most frustrating
thing about being a skeptic is trying to understand why
you care. Well, the reason why you care is because you are
inexorably bound to your mission in life. Because your individual
role within G-d's overall purpose in creation is what lies
at your very essence.
Skeptic: It never fails. Whenever I get into a conversation
with a believer it turns out that not only does he know
all the answers to everything, he even knows me better than
I know myself...
Skeptic: So when is this finally going to happen?
At what point will the world suddenly be transformed into
a Garden of Eden?
Believer: You know, one of the misconceptions that
many people have about the coming of Moshiach is that they
view it as a radical, earth-shaking event. The sky opens
up, and this Divine being, whom no one has ever seen before,
descends and instantaneously transforms the world. I think
that this is a Christianization of the idea of Moshiach.
Obviously, a world-view that sees the human being and the
material world as intrinsically evil can envision the redemption
only as a supernatural event, brought about by a supernatural
The Jewish concept of the redemption is that it is a process
rather than an event. A process in which the underlying
unity and perfection of creation unfolds as the true essence
of every created being is realized. The world, as G-d created
it, is perfect. Despite the fragmentation and conflict we
encounter, its diverse elements are united by an intrinsic
harmony and unanimity of purpose. The era of Moshiach is
a time when this underlying harmony will be readily perceivable.
Skeptic: And today, in the year 2001, we're at the
end of this process? Does the world look any less fragmented
and conflict-ridden to you?
Believer: Absolutely. Think of all the areas in
which layers of diversity are peeling away to reveal increasingly
more unified realities at their core. Take, for example,
physical science. When man first began to study the workings
of his world, he identified many laws and principles which
explained why things are the way they are. But the more
he examined and tested these laws, the more they showed
themselves to be but expressions of a more underlying set
of laws---a simpler, more concise and less numerous set
of laws; in turn, these laws, too, were narrowed down to
more inclusive fundamentals. Today, the stated aim of modern
physics is to uncover the Grand Unified Theory that would
encapsulate all of natural phenomenon in a single formula.
The same is true in practically every other field. The
economies of the world are grouping into common markets
which are themselves becoming more and more integrated;
the direction is toward a single global economy. Jet-age
travel and the communications technologies are dismantling
the barriers erected by culture and geography; we can already
envision a time when all peoples of the world will comprise
a single social unit.
The final frontier of divisiveness is that of the human
character: here we are still in the dark ages of fragmentary
thinking. What's in it for me is still at the
fore of our motivations. However, this is but the most external
layer of the human self. If all aspects of creation ultimately
reflect the unity and oneness of their Creator, how much
more so the soul of man, which was formed in the image of
G-d! Beneath our most external self and its narrow concept
of self-fulfillment lies a deeper and truer self. A self
that does not define itself in terms of the material and
its gratifications, but in terms of its spiritual identity
and quintessential function. On this level, self-fulfillment
means the fulfillment of one's raison d'etre, the purpose
to which one was created. It means the deepening of the
focus of one's life from the superficial and divisive selfish
I to an I that is defined in terms
of the unified purpose of all creation.
Skeptic: And what about this last frontier?
It seems to me that this is the greatest and most difficult
challenge of all. We obviously still have a long way to
go before humanity redifines its identity.
Believer: You'd be right if we were starting from
scratch to build a better world. But this is an ongoing
process, a process whose realization has been maturing as
long as man has walked the earth.
Throughout the generations, man's every positive act has
been an assertion of the intrinsic goodness of G-d's creation.
The good which has been achieved has been accumulating,
the light intensifying and the darkness fading away. We
are therefore in the position of a midget standing
on the shoulders of a giant, of a bricklayer setting
the final brick of a magnificent mansion
Skeptic: What about all the evil that has been perpetrated?
Hasnt that been accumulating, as well?
Believer: No. You can turn up the light but you
cannot turn up the darkness for the simple reason
that darkness is not a thing, only the absence
of light. So each positive deed brings us that much closer
to perfection, whereas evil is transitory and of no enduring
What I am trying to say is that the Redemption is a process
whose realization has been maturing as long as man has walked
the earth. The coming of Moshiach will not change
the world any more than the final straw breaks the camel's
back or the 212th degree of heat boils the water in the
Skeptic: Nevertheless, when you speak of Moshiach
you mean more than a gradual change for the better. You
do speak of an event, of some point in time
at which a certain individual, Moshiach, arrives on the
scene and effects some very marked changes in the way things
Believer: Certainly. Let's go back to that final
straw or that final increment of heat. The transformation
is achieved by the combined effect of all the stalks of
straw in the load and all the calories of heat produced
by the fire. And yet, it is that final cumulative increment
that serves as the catalyst for the change to actually take
Skeptic: But why must it be this way? Why must we
be in the dark, unable to truly see the fruits of our labor
until the entire process is complete? You are
forever comparing good and evil to light and darkness. So
why can't we actually see the light growing brighter and
brighter? Why must darkness prevail until some critical
mass of good has accumulated?
Believer: Ah, the dream of every man! To know everything,
to make sense of it all, to see the pieces of the puzzle
falling into place! But if each positive act on our part
would translate immediately into a perceptible change
for the better on the universal scale, would we be faced
with any real choices on how to lead our lives? To do good
and to refrain from evil would be as obvious as the need
to eat and to protect oneself from danger. Man would be
little more than a trained hamster who jumps through a hoop
for the anticipated morsel or a cow who learns to avoid
the electric fence.
G-d created man to be His partner in creation,
not a humanoid robot who follows a predictable course through
a programmed life. So he placed us in a world in which chance
and haphazardness superimposes the order and meaning implicit
in our lives. In such a world, we are truly partners to
His endeavor, creators as He is a creator: our
efforts to move the world toward the fulfillment of His
plan in creation are products of our choice and volition.
We choose whether to live our lives by instinctive
reaction to the material reality, or to use our capacity
for insight and abstraction to see beyond the surface reality
to our underlying purpose and mission.
So this is the way it must be. Until the moment that the
accomplishments of all generations of history culminate
in the fulfillment of the Divine design, they must remain
obscured by the veil of darkness and mundanity which conceals
the accumulating light.
Skeptic: So who needs Moshiach?
Skeptic: If humanity has a destiny and goal, if
history is the evolution toward a state of harmony and perfection,
why the need for the individual human being called Moshiach?
Skeptic: Do you mind if I ask a rather simplistic
Believer: Those are usually the most difficult to
Believer: Because a simple question usually has
a simple answer. And a simple answer is the most difficult
answer to accept.
Skeptic: Anyway, here's my question. Why are you
always speaking of a future perfect world in terms of Moshiach,
the person? If humanity has a destiny and goal, if history
is the evolution toward a state of harmony and perfection,
why the need for the individual human being you call Moshiach?
Believer: Look at the last 5,000 years of human
experience: every major movement and instrument of change,
positive or negative, beneficial or destructive, centered
upon an individual. The religions which deeply affected
the lives of hundreds of millions, the infamous wars and
carnages which swept the earth, the movements on behalf
of oppressed peoples, the great revolutions in philosophy,
art and technology - all are identified with a specific
individual. Always there was a leader who inspired and motivated
his followers and whose influence ultimately extended beyond
his community and his generation.
Skeptic: What you're saying is that that's the way
we are, that this is an inescapable fact of human nature.
But why are we this way? Is this the way we ought to be?
Is it not a weakness on our part that we cannot do anything
on our own, that we must be lead by the hand like small
Believer: That we are inspired by leaders does not
mean that we cannot do anything on our own.
No leader can he move us to something that we do not already
desire on some level, or enable us to do things which we
do not already possess the aptitude and ability for. It
is we who are doing these things, things which we already
wanted to do and were already capable of doing.
The role of the leader is that of a lamplighter. When the
lamplighter approaches the lamp, all necessary elements
to produce light are already present: the oil, the wick,
the vessel designed to contain them and to keep the flame
going. The lamplighter adds nothing of substance. He merely
touches his flame to the wick, stimulating the release of
the latent energy and luminary potential which the lamp
Moshiach does not come to do the work of humanity. What
he is is the spark that ignites the soul of every man and
woman on earth. Moshiach is an individual who will kindle
the potential good within each and every one of us into
Skeptic: But why must this igniting spark
come from a human being? You say that the Torah is G-d's
blueprint for life. So why can't we realize the recipient
aspect of our lives by opening the books and learning directly
Believer: Why to you prefer a book to an individual?
Skeptic: Because every person has his or her own
axe to grind. Who can you trust nowadays? What is to be
gained by a mortal Moshiach?
Believer: Any parent will tell you that, ultimately,
the only way to educate a child is by example. You can employ
all sorts of inventive ways to impart an idea or a value
but, more than anything else, the child will learn from
your character and behavior. Books and other media may stimulate
and inspire us but only rarely do they move us to take action---especially
action that demands much of us.
Moshiach is a book authored by G-d - only not
one of paper and ink but of flesh and blood. He is an individual
who personifies, in the most absolute and unequivocal manner,
what it is that man was created to be. As a living, breathing
Torah, he is the optimal (and, ultimately, the only possible)
instrument to bring to light the goodness and perfection
that is intrinsic to the soul of man.
Skeptic: So we need a white knight on a white donkey
to jump-start our souls. That's how G-d made us. But why?
Why must we be dependent on someone else? Could we not have
been given the tools to ignite our potential
on our own?
Believer: Life is created by the means of the relationship
between man and woman. Now, let us take the nature of existence
back to the drawing board: Why the need for male and female?
Surely all creatures could have been created with the capacity
to reproduce on their own!
Skeptic: Well thank G-d it wasn't designed that
way. We would have been deprived of one of the most beautiful
and fulfilling aspects of our lives.
Believer: It's far more than one of life's aspects:
relationships - that is to say, the concept of a giver-recipient
partnership - are the very essence of life itself. The most
obvious and basic of these is the creation of life through
the union between the giver and initiator, man, and the
recipient and nurturer, woman. But it extends to all areas
of life. At the heart of a functioning society is the flow
of resources and goods between individuals: commerce, trade
and credit are indispensable to life as we know it. Charity
and generosity are deeply ingrained in the human soul: every
right-thinking individual believes in the responsibility
of the haves toward the have-nots. Again, G-d could certainly
have created us as self-sufficient entities. But then, as
you said, life would be quite empty and unfulfilled.
The same is true on the intellectual and moral level. We
are not self-contained worlds - we give and take, teach
and learn, influence and are influenced. Every individual
is a teacher, with the ability to bestow upon others insights
and qualities that are unique to him alone. But the richness
of life's relationships is that they also include a passive,
receiving element, as well. So every man is also a student,
a recipient who awaits a stimulating spark to
ignite his latent potentials.
Skeptic: This Moshiach of yours is a king, right?
Believer: That is correct.
Skeptic: So we're back to totalitarian rule, to
monarchs who reign by Divine license. I thought we got over
that a few centuries ago.
Believer: Other than the fact that they're out of
style, what exactly is wrong with kings?
Skeptic: Okay, okay, I know what you're driving
at. The despots of history were power-mongers who exploited
the naivete of the masses for their selfish ends, or they
were power-mongers who actually believed in their chosenness
and may even had meant well. Either way, the problem with
them was that they said that G-d had granted them
the right to rule when He really hadn't. But when G-d truly
appoints a king, it is an utterly selfless ruler who does
only what is best for his people. That's what you wanted
to say, right?
Believer: Something like that.
Skeptic: But the very idea of one person exerting
his will over others repels me. I say, let people make their
own decisions and learn from their own mistakes. If imperfection
is the price of freedom, I'm willing to pay it.
Believer: And you think that democracy expresses
the will of the people?
Skeptic: More or less. But I'd rather be governed
by an approximate expression of the will of the people than
by a perfect expression of the will of the most qualified
king. How did Winston Churchill put it? Democracy
is the worst form of government that man has ever devised,
except for all those other forms that have been tried from
time to time.
Believer: So you're saying that democracy is inherently
flawed, only we have nothing better.
Skeptic: Sure, there are many problems with democracy.
Politicians find it very difficult to work for the long
term good of their constituent - to get elected and remain
in office they must pander to what's popular at the moment
and to the whims of the media and interest groups. Politics
attracts populists and demagogues - those truly qualified
to govern avoid it like the plague. The very nature of democracy
makes it susceptible to corruption, either in its overt
forms or its many subtle forms: power trading, voter manipulation,
etc. Finally, even when the will of the people finds expression
in governmental policy, the will of the people may be wrong
- the fact that most people want something in no way guarantees
that it is moral and correct. Nevertheless, I believe that
democracy is preferable to imposing the will of a single
individual on everyone, even it he is G-d's personal candidate.
Believer: Why are you knocking democracy so much?
I can give you a scenario where you can have all of its
advantages without any of the problems you mention.
Skeptic: What's that?
Believer: Here, let me quote you from Maimonides'
Mishneh Torah: In those times, there will be no hunger
or war, no jealousy or rivalry. For the good will be plentiful
and all delicacies common as dust. The world's sole occupation
will be to know G-d...
Skeptic: In other words, the world of Moshiach...
Believer: Under such circumstances, in which man
has overcome hatred and greed, democracy would work beautifully:
the will of the people would be perfect and perfectly expressed...
Skeptic: And you want a king?!
Believer: Let me ask you something else: under such
circumstances, who needs any government at all?
Skeptic: You're right.
Believer: No, I'm wrong. If we needed rulers and
leaders only to defend our borders, lock up criminals, regulate
the economy, and force us to devote part of our income to
feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, then I'd be
right. But the role of a true king goes far beyond that.
The Torah's idea of a king is an individual who has cleansed
himself of every last vestige of ego and self-interest.
Essentially, he has no will of his own, save the fulfillment
of G-d's purpose in creation. So in subordinating ourselves
to such a king, we are not serving an individual's will
but the will of the Almighty. The role of such a king is
to teach and inspire his people, guiding them in the fulfillment
in their mission and purpose in life.
Skeptic: Still, why can't we teach and inspire each
other as equals? Who needs this subordination
Believer: Once again, let me counter with a question.
If mankind has achieved perfection, what is there to teach
and inspire? For that matter, what kind of life are we going
to lead in the post-Moshiach era? What will there be to
accomplish? Are we just going to sit around all day and
admire our perfection?
Skeptic: Perfection is endless. We can always aspire
Believer: Exactly. In our pre-Moshiach world, our
lives are completely taken up with combating the negative.
Virtually all accomplishment is defined in these
terms: a disease cured, a criminal rehabilitated, a street
cleaned. Doing good means feeding the hungry, enlightening
the ignorant, bringing peace to warring factions. So our
vision of perfection is the obliteration of all evil and
suffering from the face of the earth. A world that is free
of war and hunger is the ultimate. To us, such a world is
beyond the horizon of our current reality: what can be more
perfect than that?
However, this is only the most basic level of perfection.
Beyond it, lie further horizons, horizons of achievement
within the realm of good itself. We cannot even imagine
what these challenges are---we can barely imagine a world
free of evil. But these goals and the means to achieve them
are there, ad infinitum. G-d is infinite, and He created
man in His image. So man possesses an infinite potential
Skeptic: You're getting off the subject. What does
this have to do with my subordinating myself to a king?
Believer: Even in our present day lives, in which
every normal human being acknowledges his imperfection,
it is very difficult for a person to improve himself. People
tend to rest on their laurels. Imagine if we're all perfect!
True, a higher level of perfection awaits beyond the horizon,
but in our terms, we've made it.
Moshiach's role in this future world is the same as in
today's world: to serve as the impetus to propel us beyond
our current limits, to reach the ``impossible''. Today,
it takes a leap of faith to accept that a perfect world
is possible. The same will be true then, too: to reach higher,
we will have to subordinate ourselves to a vision that is
beyond our present comprehension.
In our generation, Moshiach is the most perfect human being
on earth, one who embodies, in a still imperfect world,
the Divine ideal. If we accept him as our king, if we surrender
our subjective goals to his vision, we can make heaven on
earth. The same will apply after the world has attained
perfection. Moshiach is G-d's anointed king, who teaches
and inspires humanity to surmount even itself.
Skeptic: What about freedom? Is there no room for
freedom in this perfect world of yours?
Skeptic: Frankly, there is something about your
perfect world that is disturbing to me. Your
premise is that if we all subordinate our subjective goals
to serve the Divine purpose in creation, we shall have a
messianic utopia on our hands. But if mass servitude is
the only way to achieve perfection, maybe it isn't worth
the price. I, for one, would not surrender my freedom for
the sake of perfection.
Believer: I don't think that we are talking about
the same Moshiach. You're envisioning this Orwellian dictator
with an army of thought police to enforce his ultra-orthodox
brand of morality. But as I said earlier in our discussion,
the era of Moshiach is a time in which everyone recognizes
the true purpose of his existence and chooses to
devote himself to its realization.
When we speak of Moshiach as a king and humanity as his
subjects, we are referring to higher sort of subjugation
than is implied by the common usage of the word. This is
not a subjugation in the terms of an imperfect
today, in which the individual is forced to yield before
a higher authority, but subjugation in the ultimate sense
of the word: when a person acknowledges the limits of his
currently defined self and chooses to surrender them to
the vision of a greater truth.
Skeptic: I still object to the very notion of subjugation,
whether it is achieved by coercion, brainwashing, or the
persuasive force of a charismatic leader with a vision of
a greater truth. The suppression of the freedom
of the human spirit is always a negative thing, even if
it is for the sake of some higher ideal.
Believer: First of all, a little bit of humility
never hurt anyone. A wise man knows his limits as well as
his strengths, knows when to exercise his freedom
of spirit and when to submit to that which is greater
than himself. Do you know how the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi
Akiva, survived a shipwreck? To each wave that approached
me, he later told, I bent my head.
Skeptic: Well, I don't accept that way of thinking
- at least not as a basis upon which to conduct my life.
Fight those waves, I say, fight them, even if they threaten
to drown you...
Believer: So as far as you're concerned, our world,
as it is today, is just fine. We enjoy the freedom to do
practically whatever we choose...
Skeptic: No, I don't think that our world is fine
the way it is. You and I are fortunate enough to enjoy such
freedom, but remember that despite the encouraging developments
of the last few years, religious and racial prejudices are
still the cause of much suffering across the globe. Furthermore,
also in the so-called "free world" there is much
injustice. Even as we extol the principles of equality and
pluralism, we discriminate, in many subtle as well as in
more overt ways, against those whose lifestyle or skin color
is distasteful to us.
I am certainly not satisfied with the present state
of society. I, too, dream of a better world. But my vision
of the ideal is not a world that is governed by theocratic
absolutes. I would like to see a world community that tolerates
differing and even contradictory definitions of the truth,
allowing each individual or group to find fulfillment and
self-realization in the manner that they themselves define
Believer: What about the individual who defines
self-fulfillment as the pleasure of sexually molesting
small children? Or the cult whose alternate lifestyle
includes inducing its members to mass suicide? Do they,
too, have a place in your pluralistic ideal?
Skeptic: Unlike you, I do not claim that my ideal
is perfect. It has many flaws and inconsistencies, both
in theory and in practice. Obviously, there is a need for
certain curbs on individual freedoms, lest society disintegrate
to total anarchy.
Believer: Certain curbs you say. But
Skeptic: The bare minimum. I won't deny it - ultimately,
freedom has a price. If you respect the validity of differing
views on how to define good and evil, certain injustices
and abuses (rather, I should say, certain things which I
define as injustices and abuses) will occur. But I still
prefer this to your perfect world, which I would
find oppressive and quite boring.
Believer: You speak of the price that you
are willing to pay as if it is you who is paying the
price. Here you are, basking in the comfort of a society
which enjoys a standard of living that is among the highest
on earth, zealously upholding the unalienable right of man
to act as a selfish animal. If a person chooses to find
self-fulfillment by surrendering to his basest
instincts, it is his sacred privilege to do so. If the greed
of men and nations causes hunger and destitution to untold
millions, it is but a small price to pay in order to make
the world more interesting...
Skeptic: As I already said, in my view there are
no absolutes, including the freedom of self determination.
If self-interest results in grain rotting in the fields
while people die of starvation, than obviously something
is very wrong. For pluralism to work, humanity must reach
a consensus in which a certain balance is struck between
individual freedoms and social responsibility.
Obviously, we still have a long way to go before we reach
this ideal. But in my view, this is the type of world we
ought to strive for, not one of totalitarian goodness and
Believer: You still haven't addressed my point.
You still maintain that freedom includes the
right to unbridled greed and hedonism, even
at the expense of human suffering. You graciously offer
to temper these freedoms so as to lessen their
adverse effects, but, as you yourself acknowledge, there
is always a price to pay. So whom shall we choose
to pay this price? In my view, if today we have the resources
and technology to comfortably provide for the needs of all
the earth's inhabitants, a single hungry child is one too
Skeptic: And you, my friend, still haven't addressed
my point - aside from laying a guilt trip on me over
all those children who are starving because I am not ready
to submit to the dictates of a global theocracy. If Moshiach
represents the world as envisioned by G-d at creation, why
does it preclude freedom? Is man's desire for freedom not
part of the Divine image in which he was created?
Believer: It certainly is - although, perhaps, we
have different ideas of what exactly is freedom.
I suggest that we examine the terms freedom
and servitude more critically: What is true
freedom? What does it mean to serve?
Skeptic: I know exactly what you're going to say
- I've heard that polemic so many times from believers of
every faith and persuasion that I can recite it in my sleep.
I know - everyone serves something, be it the dogma of his
religion or of social convention. A person might worship
the dollar, fame, the dictates of fashion, or his vision
of a split-level suburban home with two cars in the driveway.
In either case, he subordinates himself to a god
which he sets as the prime priority of his life, at the
expense (or even the ruination) of all else.
The most pathetic slave, many a believer has expounded
to me, is the unfortunate hedonist. He is a virtual hostage
to his basest passions. His desires are never sated---no
matter what he attains, he always lusts for more. He never
enjoys a moment of inner peace. True freedom, maintains
the believer, is to be a servant of what is highest and
most sublime in your potentials. By serving the G-dly ideal,
you free yourself of the constraints of your mundane, temporal
To the believer, the materialist's freedom is slavery,
and what the materialist would regard as slavery is freedom.
One who follows the whims of his heart is enslaving himself
to his own ego and his lowliest animal passions, while he
who devotes his life to the purpose of his creation experiences
the ultimate in freedom and transcendence.
Believer: And what do you say to that?
Skeptic: That's all fine and well - if that's the
freedom you want. But the most important freedom of all
(to my mind, anyway) is the freedom to define freedom.
Believe it or not, some people want to devote their
lives to the pursuit of physical comfort and gratification.
For them, freedom is the freedom to choose such slavery
for themselves. There are many types of freedom, and I think
that each person should be free to choose whatever freedom
he desires for himself. To impose (what to your mind is)
the highest form of freedom on everyone else,
is the very opposite of freedom.
Believer: Let me ask you something. You eat three
times a day, right? Does it disturb you that you have
to eat? That you have no choice in the matter? Or how about
the fact that, want to or not, you are always thinking.
Is your sense of freedom outraged my the fact that you are
compelled to engage in these activities?
Of course not. But why not? Because that's what you are---a
human being who eats and thinks and does countless other
things by force of nature. You recognize that
these activities are crucial to your being what you are
- and you want to be what you are, not something else. You
do not (if you are psychologically sound) want to be a chimpanzee,
a rock, or a mathematical equation; you do not feel limited
by the fact that you have don't have three legs or that
you're not ten feet tall - you want to be you. Freedom
is the freedom to be you, to be free of all that constrains
you from being truly and uninhibitedly yourself. The fact
that your nature compels you to be yourself and prevents
you from destroying yourself is certainly not perceived
by you as servitude.
Skeptic: When my doctor told me that I must stop
smoking, I did not like it in the least. It sure did feel
like servitude being compelled by the physiology
of my body to refrain from something that I greatly enjoy...
Believer: Only because you do not tangibly and directly
perceive the damage that it does to you. You take the doctor's
word for it, you know that your health is deteriorating
as a result of your addiction, but you don't see
it. So although your mind wants to stop smoking, your body
still wants to smoke, and you must enforce what your higher
objective self wants on your lower subjective
cravings. But if each time you were to light up you were
to perceive the shortening of your life in some immediate
and concrete way, you certainly would feel only revulsion
to cigarette smoke.
Skeptic: Maybe you should take out a patent on your
method. You can call it The Messianic Way To Stop
Believer: Believe me, it would work. Imagine that
a person was hooked-up to a computer that was able to calculate
exactly how long he will live and his medical prognosis
for the rest of his lifetime, and that each time he inhales
a puff of smoke he would see, on the screen, how his life
has been shortened and the quality of his life reduced.
Do you think he will even want to smoke?
The most basic and powerful drive of the human body, the
drive from which all other drives and desires stem, is the
drive for continued existence (the will to live and procreate).
So how is it that we can even desire things that run contrary
to the ultimate objective of all our desires? Only because
at times we lose sight of what we truly want and engage
in all sorts of self-delusions and denials. True, we know
the statistics on lung cancer, but these are only statistics
- who says that it's going to happen to me? The mind may
understand that it is the pleasure of smoking is hardly
worth the dangers involved, but smoking can still be a pleasure
as long as its effects are not immediately and concretely
This, in fact, is the difference between our present reality
and the reality of Moshiach...
Skeptic: You sure have a one-track mind. I mention
smoking and you turn it into a metaphor for Moshiach...
Believer: The way we are today, we often perceive
the very tools of liberation as restriction. My mind may
decide on a course of action to realize my deeper potentials,
and yet, I have to force myself to follow this course because
my physical, animalistic self, which basically relates more
to what is immediate and concrete than to conceptual knowledge,
remains unconvinced. As a result, it is possible for me
to be drawn to things which hinder me from realizing my
true essence and purpose. I must therefore chose: Do I wand
a higher, more spiritual freedom?
Or do I prefer the so-called freedom to succumb
to my every instinct, no matter how superficial or perverse?
There is, however, a third option, what you called The
Messianic Way To Stop Smoking. A person can understand
something so thoroughly and completely that it is no less
tangible and real to him than something that he sees before
his eyes. When the self-destructiveness of smoking is as
obvious as the need to eat. When the dictum what is
hateful to you do not do to your fellow is sensed
to be as basic to our humanness as the need to think and
employ our intelligence. When being true to the purpose
of one's creation is not only understood but also tangibly
sensed as being truly oneself, so that acting accordingly
is certainly not a restriction but an expression
of the most basic freedom of them all - the freedom to be
Skeptic: If youre so smart, why aint
you so rich? If its as simple as all that, if all
we have to do is open our eyes to a truth that is staring
us in the face, why hasnt it already happened?
Skeptic: If youre so smart, why aint
you so rich? If its as simple as all that, why hasnt
it already happened?
Believer: The Talmud has an axiom that says: A
prisoner cannot release himself from prison.
This basic truth applies to every aspect of reality: in
physics, a river cannot climb higher than the elevation
of its source; in philosophy, an argument is only as strong
as the axioms it is based on; in psychology, the mind can
relate to something only in the context of self. Etc., etc.,
etc. The bottom line is, no entity can transcend what it
Everyone is for world peace. But within the miniature universe
that is man, World Wars are raging
all the while: conflicts between mind and heart, between
conviction and habit, between our spiritual aspirations
and our selfish, material desires. How can we hope to create
a harmonious universe if we are forever battling our own
Skeptic: You know, Im afraid that behind the
philosophical tone of your words lurks a self-righteous
preacher, lambasting lust and greed as the undoing of humanity.
Youre assuming that mans base and selfish drives
are what stand in the way of a better world. But I dont
think that we can be so quick as to do away with themthey
might prove to be not quite as dispensable as you would
like to think.
Look, earlier, you referred to the collapse of communism
as an example of the ultimate supremacy of right over might.
But do not forget that there is another side to the storythe
economic side. I would say that the undoing of communism
was not so much its G-dlessness, its violations of human
rights or its corruption of power, as its inability to function
economically. In terms of natural resources, the Soviet
Union was arguably the richest country in the world. So
why was it unable to feed its own people? Because it had
neutralized the most powerfulif not the only
incentive that drives the human animal (yes, animal) to
do anything: the drive for self-advancement.
On paper, communism is beautifulalmost messianic
in its idealism and perfection. Everyone giving it their
all for the common good. Each contributing according to
his abilities and receiving according to his needs. No greed,
no jealousy, no exploitation. Compare this with our society:
everyone grabbing as much as they can for themselves, slaving
and flattering and bullying their way to the top, all for
the sake of satisfying their vanity and their material appetitesand
if the sight of human suffering makes us somewhat uncomfortable,
we agree to some minor curbs on our greed and to provide
a safety net for its victims. And
yet, as our experience has undeniably shown, a system which
runs contrary to the base and animalistic
drives of man just wont work. No one will do anything.
Worse still, it becomes the environment in which the most
horrendous atrocities are committed in the name of the highest
ideals. On the other hand, a society such as ours, in which
the dominant elements are individuality and self-interest,
is the soil in which justice and equality may take root
and flourish, albeit imperfectly. Your holy books might
not agree with this, but, ultimately, lust and
greed is what drives the machinery of civilized
Believer: Let me tell you a story that is related
in the Talmud. Once, the sages of Israel decided to make
an all-out effort to eliminate the evil inclination. They
all gathered at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and fasted
for three days and three nights, praying that the world
be cleansed of its animalistic nature. G-d acquiesced to
their request. The evil inclination, in the form of a lion
of fire, was handed over to them as their captive. For three
days it was held in a cage of lead. The result? The world
ground to a halt. Men and women felt no inclination to marry.
Chickens stopped laying eggs. No one showed up for work
in the morning. So instead of killing the lion, as originally
planned, the sages blinded it in one eye and set it free.
Skeptic: Thats exactly my point: there is
no escaping our basic natures. So all this talk of a selfless
utopia is not only a naive fantasyit is a dangerous
one as well. We basically have two choices. We can try to
suppress the animal in man, as many authoritarian regimes
and ideologies have attempted to do, with disastrous results.
Or, we can accept our limitations. We can accept that man
will always act in self-interest, and respect each others
right to do so. We can accept that there will always be
injustice and suffering in the world, and seek to minimize
Believer: So thats all we can doseek
to lessen evil?
Skeptic: What other approach is there? How else
would you deal with the human ego without throwing out the
baby with the bathwater?
Believer: You are assuming that there is nothing
more to the human I than meets the
eye. That the self is intrinsically
selfish. I disagree. I believe that there is a higher ego
implicit in the quest for self-fulfillment which so dominates
Skeptic: Selfishness is selfishness, no matter what
form it takes. No matter how sublime
a person may think his individual goals are, they will inevitably
conflict with the individual goals of others.
Believer: Not quite. As I said, ultimately, our
selfishness can be shown to be not
quite as selfish as its most outward, superficial expressions
may suggest. But Im afraid Id have to subject
you to a long speech on chassidic psychology before I could
Skeptic: Im listening.
Believer: Chassidic teaching explains our inner
conflicts in terms of two souls which each of us possesses:
the Animal Soul and the G-dly
Soul. The Animal Soul is the essence of physical
life; it focuses exclusively on self, its every act and
desire motivated by the quest for self-fulfillment and self-enhancement.
The G-dly Soul is its diametric opposite: it is driven not
by ego but by a quest for transcendence and self-negationthe
drive to fulfill the purpose of its creation and thereby
connect to the all-pervading reality of its Creator. This
makes for the perpetual struggle of life: the struggle between
substance and spirit, between self-assertion and self-nullification.
Any thought, desire, or act of man stems from either of
his two souls, depending upon which has gained mastery over
the other and is asserting itself through the persons
Skeptic: Sounds like your basic religious theology:
the old dichotomy between good and evil, the cosmic struggle
between G-d and Satan...
Believer: Not exactlyremember that Judaism
sees evil as a non-entity, akin to the non-phenomenon of
darkness. So evil is not a counter-force to good, only the
(temporary) concealment thereof. Notice that I said nothing
about evil, only about self versus selflessness...
Skeptic: But arent you saying that selfishness
is the source of all evil?
Believer: Yes, selfishness is often the source of
evil, but it can also serve as the source for good. Left
to its own devices, the self-oriented drives of man tend
to the most immediate and superficial of gratifications,
to the utter disregard of anyone or anything elseeven
his own long-term good. But when the G-dly Soul dominates
the mind with its perception of the divine truth, the Animal
Soul is also affected. The selfishness
in man can then be refined and re-directed as a positive
In Deuteronomy 30:20, we are told To love the
Lord your G-d... for He is your life. The Animal
Soul loves its own life. When it recognizes that He
is your life, that G-d is the source and sustainer
of its very being, its entire perception changes. The very
same ego which craved the most base and material of pleasures
is now drawn to attach itself to the Almighty, out of the
realization that such an attachment would constitute the
ultimate enhancement and perfection of self. So it will
devote itself to the fulfillment of the divine purpose for
creation, sacrificing its present material expressions of
selfhood for the promise of a higher and more fulfilling
This, to me, is the meaning of the Talmuds story
about the attempted assassination of the evil
inclination. The objective must be not to kill
the ego, but to temper its extremes so that its essence
may be revealed and re-directed; to strip away its external,
negative expressions and uncover the positive force at its
core. In the quest for material gain, men and nations may
(and inevitably will) clash over conflicting interests.
But when humanity uncovers its true self, the pursuit of
self-fulfillment becomes a harmonious endeavor. For while
each one of us has his own unique mission in life, these
are all complimentary parts of the overall divine plan.
Skeptic: Youre making the prospect of a perfected
world seem even more hopeless than I say it is. If man has
to wait until he achieves inner harmony and perfection before
attempting to improve matters on the global scale, the human
race would not survive long enough to allow him to do so...
Believer: Im not saying that we cannot do
anything to change our world before were all perfect.
On the contrary: the more we achieve harmony between men
and nations, all the more does our world become a place
that is conducive to unifying our splintered selves. What
I am saying is that what we do achieve on an inter-personal
level must be ugmented by our inner makeup. For what is
the world if not us? What is humanity
if not the sum total of its individual members? Since our
relationships with others are based on who and what we are,
they can never be perfect and enduring so long as we are
plagued with conflict within. We may make great advances
in world peace and the alleviation of suffering, but soon
the selfish and ugly side of man will rear its head. In
order to create a harmonious world in the absolute and eternal
sense, we must bring unanimity of purpose to our internal
Skeptic: So all the good that we do is hypocritical?
Believer: Thats the second time you brought
up the subject in our discussion. Whats so terrible
Skeptic: Surely you dont think that hypocrisy
is a virtue...
Believer: At times it is. Say that I hate someone
with a passion. Should I be a hypocrite and act decently
toward him, or should I have the integrity
to smash my fist into his jaw? If I fall in love with a
woman who happens to be married to someone else, should
I seduce her, or should I hypocritically restrain my inner
feelings? If I find a wallet stuffed with cash, should I
return it to its owner, or should I be true to my deep-seated
desire to keep the money?
Let me tell you a story thats told of the founder
of Chabad Chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Once,
a certain individual was condemned before Rabbi Schneur
Zalman as a hypocrite. He considers himself
a chassid, the Rebbe was told, and
has assumed all sorts of pious customs and practices. He
acts like this real holy fellow. But its all superficialinternally,
his mind and heart are as coarse and unrefined as ever.
Well, said the Rebbe, in
that case, may he meet the end that the Talmud predicts
for such people.The informers
were taken aback. They had only wanted to warn the Rebbe
about this individual; but now, what sort of calamity had
the Rebbe called down upon him? So Rabbi Schneur Zalman
explained to them what he had meant. In the final mishnah
of the tractate Peah, the Talmud discusses the criteria
for a pauper to be eligible to receive charity. The section
concludes with the warning: One who is not in
need, but takes... one who is not lame or blind but makes
himself as such, will not die of old age until he is indeed
as such. In the same vein,
said the Rebbe, one who makes of himself more
than he is in matters of righteousness and piety will eventually
find that these traits have become ingrained in his character
and in his very being.
Skeptic: Make up your mind. Do we first try to perfect
the world, or do we first deal with our inner selves...
Believer: Since when is life such an orderly enterprise?
We must work on both fronts. We must strive to build a better
world, regardless of where we stand in the development and
perfection of our inner selves. At the same time, we must
realize that only when we have achieved harmony within will
our external efforts be met with complete and eternal success.
Skeptic: But isnt that like trying to simultaneously
build a building and dig its foundation?
Believer: In a way, it is. But ultimately, the true
foundation is already in place. Gŕd created a world that
is, in essence, perfect and harmonious, and forged the soul
of man in His image. So only a negative act can be hypocritical
indeed every negative act is hypocriticalwhereas our
positive deeds are always consistent with what we truly
are. The challenge is to overcome the divisive drives and
tendencies that superimpose our true, intrinsic will and
to express this will on all levels, in our character and
Skeptic: Still, youre building the second
floor before the first.
Believer: Thats the way we human beings are
structured. At times a second floor
rises out of the foundation and the first floor
is filled in later. A person may do something which is totally
out of character for him but which,
in truth, reflects an even deeper will that has yet to be
developed as a conscious thought or feeling.
In Judaism, this is more than a philosophical or psychological
principleit also translates into a pragmatic approach
to life. It even has legal implications. For example, Maimonides,
the famed 12th-century codifier of Torah law, writes in
the second chapter of his Laws of Divorce: If
the law mandates that a person grant his wife a divorce
and he refuses, a Jewish court, in any time or place, may
beat him until he says I am willing and writes
the writ of divorce (get). This is a valid divorce, although
according to Torah law, a divorce must be granted willingly.
For in truth, this individual wishes to be of Israel and
wishes to observe all of the commandments and to avoid all
of the transgressions of the Torah; only his evil inclination
has overpowered him. So if he is beaten so that his evil
inclination is weakened and he says I am willing,
he has divorced willingly.
Skeptic: What it boils down to is that youre
telling me what my true self is. But what if Im perfectly
satisfied with the me that I know? Why should I fight the
way that I am now?
Skeptic: You say that G-d created me
in His image - but you apply this only to some deeper, quintessential
self which desires only good. The rest of me (indeed, the
only me that I know) resists it. Is this what
G-d wants - that I spend my life fighting my own nature?
Is this some kind of cruel joke?
Believer: Why must a seed rot in order to germinate
and yield fruit? Why must we sink a foundation in order
to raise a building? Why must we risk loss in order to profit?
Why must we experience pain in order to appreciate joy?
Skeptic: You're saying that this is the way things
are - that there is no advance without retreat, no gain
without pain. But why is it that way?
Believer: Let me tell you a story.
Skeptic: When all else fails, you guys always have
Believer: It's usually the best way to get your
point across. I think it was Rabbi Nachman of Breslau who
said, The world says that tales put people to sleep.
I say that with tales you can rouse people from their sleep.
Anyway, here's my story:
A wealthy nobleman was touring his estate and came upon
a peasant pitching hay. The nobleman was fascinated by the
flowing motions of the peasant's arms and shoulders and
the graceful sweep of the pitchfork through the air. He
so greatly enjoyed the spectacle that, on the spot, he struck
a deal with the peasant: for ten rubles a day, the peasant
agreed to come to the mansion and model his hay-pitching
technique in the nobleman's drawing room.
The next day, the peasant arrived at the mansion, hardly
concealing his glee at his new line of work
After swinging his empty pitchfork for over an hour, he
collected his ten rubles - many times his usual take for
a week of backbreaking labor. But by the following day,
his enthusiasm had somewhat abated. Several days later he
announced to his master that he was quitting his new commission.
The nobleman said to the peasant: I don't understand.
Why would you rather labor outdoors, in the bitter winter
cold and sweltering summer heat, when you can perform such
an effortless task in the comfort of my home and earn many
times your usual pay?
But master, said the peasant, I don't
see the work.
Skeptic: You're saying that for life to be meaningful
it must challenge us. There must be something that resists
our efforts, so that we are not merely going through the
motions but actually doing something. Okay, I buy that.
But why must we be challenged by our own nature? Why could
we not have been born with a clear picture of who and what
we truly are? We would still have the entire world to improve.
There would still be much to challenge us, outside of ourselves.
Believer: I think that your question answers itself.
What greater challenge is there? G-d wanted to involve us
in His creation in a truly meaningful way, so He provided
us with the ultimate challenge: the challenge to transcend
ourselves. Nothing that man can create can be more of an
accomplishment than his recreation of himself.
Skeptic: Life as work, work as life. I know that
Job said Man is born to labor, but did it ever
occur to you that there may be another way of looking at
life? Instead of Mission, Purpose, Challenge, and Achievement,
why not life as a party? Or better yet, life as a lazy afternoon
in the sun...?
Believer: Tell me this: how many happy retirees
do you know?
Skeptic: You know, the more we talk, the more convinced
I become that all we're doing is reinforcing our instinctive
visions of reality. You believe, I don't. Of course, we
each have logical arguments to support our positions. But
ultimately, it's a question of faith. Either you have it,
or else you don't.
Believer: Oh, I see. We believers are
the primitive, unthinking masses, while the skeptic is the
enlightened, sophisticated, 20th century Ubermench....
Skeptic: I'm not knocking faith. Listen,
there are advantages on both sides. I admit that skeptics
are overly cynical, but you must admit that believers are
often blind. Believe me, I've often wished I was a believer
- it's so much easier...
Believer: Ah... that's the second one:
faith is a cop-out, a refusal to take responsibility for
Skeptic: Well... isn't it?
Believer: Other than the fact that
this is the common conception of the believer, on what do
you base this, uh, belief? Give me a concrete example.
Skeptic: Well, the skeptic knows that
there's no free lunch. If he wants to earn a living, he
must acquire the proper training and devote the necessary
time and toil. The more he invests, the greater his chances
for success. The believer, on the other hand, maintains
that it's all in the hands of G-d: if He wants
me to be rich, I'll be rich; if He wants me to be poor,
no amount of career planning, and no amount of overtime,
will increase the balance in my bank account. So why bother?
What will be will be...
Or take this Moshiach business: G-d made the
world perfect, so, in the end, it cannot but be perfect.
The course of history has already been decided...
Believer: What you describe is fatalism,
not faith. It was the Talmudic sage Hillel who coined the
phrase If I am not for myself, who is for me?
- would you consider him a skeptic?
Certainly, the believer knows that no matter
how much effort and expertise he invests, everything comes
from G-d. But it is he who must create the vessel
to contain G-d's blessings. In the words of the Torah, G-d
will bless you in all that you do; or, as one chassidic
master put it, G-d's blessing is like rain: if one does
not plough and sow, it can rain for forty days and forty
nights and not a grain of wheat will grow. On the other
hand, our efforts, in of themselves, yield nothing without
the bestowal from above.
As for the Moshiach issue, it's the skeptic,
not the believer, who's taking the easy route. The skeptic
accepts reality as it is. He's the ultimate conformist -
he has a philosophy that's 100% consistent with the world
he lives in. Sure, all the chaos, cruelty, and suffering
may distress him emotionally (though he cannot explain why
he cares) but rationally, hey, what do you expect? And when
things seem to be getting better, hey, that's great! Look
at that - we even get lucky sometimes.
The believer, on the other hand, agonizes
over the state of the universe. He refuses to accept the
status quo. Evil is wrong - morally wrong, rationally wrong.
Things should not be this way - they cannot be this way.
He fights the reality' the world represents
him with every fiber of his being, struggling to unearth
the real reality which is buried under all this fallacy.
Ultimately, however, you're right: the believer
has it better. Not because he has less responsibility, not
because it's easier for him, but because he knows that,
ultimately, after he has done everything in his power, G-d
will bless his efforts. He has the confidence that the potential
for perfection - both on the individual and the universal
levels - is there, and that after he has done everything
in his power to realize it, it will be realized.
Skeptic: That makes for a very iffy
situation. At what point can a person say I have done
everything within my power? Isn't it very tempting
to reach that conclusion after making a couple of phone
calls and coining a few slogans?
Believer: Certainly. Faith has its
pitfalls, and this is one of them. Free choice means that
everyone has the option of copping out on life, including
believers. But I think that skepticism is even more fraught
with such dangers. If the skeptic wants to cop out, all
he has to do is say, I don't give a damn.
Skeptic: Look, I agree with you. I
don't think that believers are necessarily dumber or lazier
or more primitive than nonbelievers. It's just that it takes
a certain something - a certain naiveté, or gullibility
- I don't want to offend you, but I don't know what else
to call it - to believe. As I said, either you have it,
or you don't.
Believer: Would you say the same thing
Skeptic: What do you mean?
Believer: Say that someone is acting
in an unreasonable manner. Would you say, Well, that's
the way it is with reason. Either you have it, or you don't?
Skeptic: No. Just about everyone (with
a few notable exceptions) has a few ounces of gray matter
between his ears. It's usually a question of how much a
person develops and utilizes his faculty to reason.
Believer: The same is true of the faculty
of faith. Everyone has is - it is no less integral to the
human soul than the faculty to will, think, or feel. It's
simply a question of how much it's developed and utilized.
Skeptic: But one doesn't usually think
of faith as a faculty. It's more an absence of something
- a surrender of reason and inquiry.
Believer: That's exactly where your
misconception of the nature of faith lies. At times, faith
overrules reason, but it is wrong to define faith as nothing
more than the point at which one stops to think. Believe
is an active verb. Faith is a perceptive tool with which
we actively grasp and relate to certain truths - just like
the mind, the eye or the ear actively grasp and relate to
the specific stimuli that each is designed to perceive.
In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman
of Liadi writes that the statement G-d is so lofty
that he cannot be understood is a ridiculous statement.
Imagine one who says, This idea is so abstract and
ethereal, that it cannot be grasped by the human hand.
No idea, not even the most coarse and prosaic
idea, can be grasped by the human hand - the sense of touch
simply has no access to the realm of the intellect. Now,
if one were to say This physical substance is so fine
and ethereal, that it cannot be grasped by the human hand,
or This idea is so lofty that he cannot be understood,
or The light is so powerful that it cannot be seen
- this would indeed be an attestation to the fineness or
loftiness or brightness of the substance or idea or the
light. But to say that G-d cannot be understood is to say
that G-d's reality is a rational reality, one whose loftiness
and abstraction is measured in terms of the intellect's
grasp or non-grasp of it. Ultimately, this is as much a
misstatement of the divine truth as to say that G-d can
The eye sees things that are seeable, the
ear hears things that are hearable, the intellect understands
things that are understandable. We cannot see sounds or
hear colors any more than we can eat soup with a fork -
the tool is simply not designed to deal with the object.
In the same way, there are truths that lie beyond the realm
of reason, truths that can only be perceived with the faculty
Skeptic: That's truly an original way
of looking at it - at least to me it is. But how do know
this is so? Oh - I guess you believe it...
Believer: If you want to see the faculty
of faith at work, look at the three-year-old child. He believes.
Tell him that you have his nose in the palm of your hand,
and he'll believe you. But why does he believe you?
Skeptic: He believes you because he
cannot understand that you're teasing him!
Believer: That's not a reason why he
believes. It only explains why his intellect does not prevent
him from believing. When I ask you why you see something,
it's not enough for you to say Because there's nothing
that's preventing me from seeing - if you didn't have
eyes, G-d forbid, you wouldn't be able to see. You see because
you have eyes that absorb and react to light, and a sense
of sight that interprets these reactions as images.
Why does the child believe? Because each and
every one of us is born with a faculty of faith. A faculty
that recognizes truths that are infinitely greater than
ourselves - so much greater that they are incontestable
on any logical level (to the child, the utterance of a grownup)
- and accepts them and assimilates them as real and relevant.
Skeptic: And then we lose it?
Believer: We don't lose it - it is
ruined for us. We are lied to. We are lied to about where
babies come from, about the tooth fairy, about the integrity
of the role models we are told to emulate. Time and again,
our faculty for faith is abused. We accept things on faith,
and then we acquire the intelligence and information that
expose their fallacy. So we begin to distrust our faith,
to quell the inner voice that tells us This is true.
I cannot perceive it logically, for it lies beyond the scope
of my intellectual prowess. But I know it to be true, I
sense its truth with every fiber of my being. I believe
Skeptic: But how is one to know what
Believer: How do you know what to see,
hear or understand? You use your mind, and you trust your
basic instincts. If you see an elephant flying through the
air, your mind tells you: This is wrong. Elephants
cannot fly. I am either dreaming, or being misled by an
optical illusion. My sense of sight tells me that an elephant
is flying, but I know that this cannot be. I deduce that,
in this case, my sense of sight has no grasp of the true
reality. If I were to prove to you, with infallible
logic, that it is now night, your mind would tell you Rationally,
this man's proofs are utterly convincing. My sense of reason
accepts them. But I know that it is day. Obviously, my sense
of reason, in this case, has been mislead.
In other words, we each have an interior judge
of truth - an I that transcends all our
senses and instincts and is the ultimate assessor and arbiter
of the information and perceptions they feed us. At times,
it tells us a logical truth we have deduced should overrule
a misguided conviction or feeling. At times, it rules that
the rational mind should yield to a truth that has been
embraced by one's faculty of faith.
Skeptic: So the mind, then, is the
Believer: Authority is
the wrong word, since, as I said, the mind must itself recognize
the limits of the area under its jurisdiction. To say that
the mind is our guide through life would be
more correct. The mind is the link between our subconscious
self and our behavioral self. It is the command center
which processes our convictions and impressions into the
thoughts, feelings and actions of daily life.
A mature mind treats its own intellect as
one amongst many faculties. It has a clear understanding
of its powers (which are formidable - the intellect will
often overrule the other faculties) but also of the axiomatic
truths, perceived by faith, which it has neither the authority
nor the means to challenge.
Skeptic: You know, your Moshiach idea was beginning
to look no more ominous than a touching bit of optimism
for our ill-fated world. But then I came across something
that reinforced my first impression of it.
Believer: What was your first impression?
Skeptic: That it is a relic of an archaic past,
a throwback to an age in which people referred to religious
ritual in order to define their relationship with reality.
I was reading the final chapters of Maimonides Mishneh
Torah you know, where he writes about the era of
Moshiach when I came across the part about the Holy
Temple and the acrifices... Im sure you know the passage
Im referring to...
Believer: I know. But why dont you quote it
for the benefit of our readers.
Skeptic: You mean our conversation is being published?
Youve got to be kidding!
Believer: Why not? If you dont want your views
to be known, well keep it anonymous...
Skeptic: No, no no... its not that at all.
Anyway, here is the passage from Maimonides Laws of
Kings, chapter 11:
The King Moshiach will arise and restore the
kingdom of David to its glory of old, to its original sovereignty.
He will rebuild the Holy Temple and gather the dispersed
of Israel. In his times, all laws of the Torah will be reinstated
as before: the sacrifices will be offered and the Sabbatical
and Jubilee years instituted as commanded in the Torah...
Believer: And you find the prospect disturbing.
Skeptic: To talk about a universal belief in G-d
is one thing. But a Holy Temple, with animal sacrifices
whose blood is sprinkled on the altar and whose flesh is
ritually consumed by white-robed priests? You want to bring
all that back?
Believer: What about the ritual we call dinner?
A yearling calf is slaughtered, its blood recycled as fertilizer,
its bones ground to gelatin, its hide tooled into $600 boots,
and its flesh grilled a meticulous medium-rare by a white-hatteded
chef, borne aloft by white-shirted waiters and solemnly
consumed by white-tied diners to the sound of piano music
in a posh restaurant?
Skeptic: Youre right - thats just as
barbaric. Many times, while digging into a steak, Ive
thought: What right have I to consume the flesh
of another animal? Its not as if I couldnt
live without it. More than once Ive resolved to stop
Believer: Do you think that turning vegetarian would
solve your moral dilemma? If man lacks the right to consume
the flesh of animals, what right has he to consume any
of his fellow creatures? If human life is no more worthy
than animal life, who decided that it is more worthy than
vegetable life? For that matter, what right
have we to consume water or oxygen? And do you realize that
by taking a stroll through a flowering meadow on a summer
afternoon, you destroy thousands of seedlings and insects?
Skeptic: But an animal has feelings. It wants to
live. It suffers pain.
Believer: And what if I kill it painlessly? Does
that make it all right? Everyone agrees that it is wrong
to kill a fellow human being, be it in the most painless
and humane manner, even if one greatly
profits from the deed. The infliction of pain and suffering
is a secondary issue. The real question is: If I am no better
than an animal, and even if I am better,
what justifies my taking its life in order to fill my belly?
The same could be applied to all existences: What right
have I to kill a half-dozen roses in order to beautify my
mantelpiece, to pull out the weeds in my garden, or to cut
down trees and level a mountain in order to build a shopping
mall? What right have I to destroy any fellow being for
my own benefit?
Skeptic: Listen, man cannot be more moral
than nature itself! The very nature of existence determines
that the mineral world sustain the vegetable world, that
they both be consumed by the animal kingdom, that animals
prey on each other, that thunderstorms start fires that
consume forests, that living tissue die and decompose and
nourish a new generation of life. No one would consider
the cat immoral for tormenting the
mouseit does so out of mindless instinct.
Believer: So why these stirrings of vegetarianism
in your soul?
Skeptic: Well, the human race is different in one
very important respect. Man does not act by instinct only.
We have been blessed with a discriminating intelligence
- we choose how and to what extent we will exploit our fellow
creatures to serve our needs. To us, it is not only a question
of survival, but also of taste, convenience and pleasure.
This is what makes morality an issue
for us: how far should we go?
Believer: Indeed, how far should we go? Should we
eat only vegetables? Are milk or eggs okay? If eating meat
for pleasure is morally acceptable, how about leather shoes
or a fur coat? May we relieve our headaches with drugs that
have been developed through painful experimentation on animals?
Attend a bullfight for entertainment? And what about the
one who claims that acting out his killer instinct
by hunting large mammals fills a deep psychological
need of his and allows him to experience a spiritual
oneness with nature?
Skeptic: Certainly, its a complex issue. Most
moral issues cannot be summed up in terms of black and white
- we can only ponder their shades of gray. Thats why
we debate them and grapple with them.
Believer: You remind me of a certain Israeli politician
of whom it was said that if youd ask him if hed
like coffee or tea hed answer Half and
half. I hate to break it to you, but there are
certain either/or issues in life.
Skeptic: So where would you draw the line?
Believer: If youll bear with me for a few
minutes more, Ill tell you. Ill even get back
to the sacrifices in the Holy Temple.
Skeptic: Go ahead.
Believer: Ultimately, there are only two ways of
looking at ourselves vis-a-vis our world. Either the natural
order is the result of the way things happened to have developed
of their own accord - in which case it is not really an
order at all or else it is
a purposeful creation. If nature has no meaning or purpose
beyond its own existence, then our discriminating
intelligence and freedom of choice
is probably just a figment of our imagination. If it does
exist, then why?
Is it just another animals tool for survival, like
the tigers claws and the turtles shell? Is it
just there, for no particular reason? In any case, the issue
of morality becomes a point. Each
individual may decide which elements of his environment
he is allowed to consume and for
what purposes, and each such set of moral
standards is as valid as any other. Our second option is
that our world was designed and created by a purposeful
Creator and thus exists for a higher purpose, one that transcends
its own existence and continuity. In such a world, each
creatures particular qualities and utilities are not
only implements for survival, but are also specific to the
role it fills in the realization of this purpose. In light
of this, a certain quality that is unique to the human being,
mans freedom of choice, becomes
Believer: Because in speaking of a purpose to our
world, we are faced with a catch-22
of sorts: If the world was created from nothing, then everything
it has, all its potentials and possibilities, have been
given it by its Creator. So how can anything the world produces
be truly meaningful? Say that you take a few colors and
combine then in different ways to produce many more shades
of color. Have you created something new? All youve
done is bring to light what already latently existed. Its
like trying to program a computer to select a truly random
number: since the computers chips and wires cannot
invent anything, any number it comes up with is ultimately
determined by your program; ultimately, you are telling
the computer which number to choose. The same can be asked
about our world: Since G-d created everything, how can we
speak of a purpose whose significance
extends beyond what the world already is?
This is where mans freedom to choose comes in. If
doing good and refraining from evil were as instinctive
to us as our ingestion of food and the rejection of its
wastes from our bodies, then our deeds would have no more
moral significance than the viciousness of the shark or
the doves loyalty to its mate. But because our behavior
is free and non-determined, because we can make use of or
resist our natural tendencies at will, we can create something
that goes beyond what has been programmed
The point of all this is that if our world has a purpose,
man is the focal point of this purpose. As the only being
with free choice, only his actions are truly meaningful.
So he is apex of creation, the top of the pyramid: the only
way in which any other creature or element can be involved
in the realization of the purpose of creation is through
its participation in the actions of man. When man consumes
the flesh of an animal, and then uses the energy to do something
positive and transcendental say he earns money and,
despite his primal instinct to keep it all for himself,
gives some of it to charity - the animal has transcended
the limits of its own being, something it could never have
achieved on its own. The Talmud sums it up this way: The
entire world was created to serve me, and I was created
to serve my Creator.
Skeptic: So man may exploit his environment in any
way he chooses, as long as he does good deeds and serves
Believer: No, because man does not define how and
with what the Creator is to be served. The Creator defines
it. Thats what the Torah is G-ds communication
to man of His purpose in creation and the manner in which
it is to be achieved. The Torah tells man that he may eat
the flesh of certain animals but not of others; that he
may eat meat, and milk, but not the two together; that he
may cultivate an orchard, but may not partake of its fruit
for the first three years after its trees have taken root;
that six days a week he may burn fuel to produce energy,
but that it is forbidden to do so on the Shabbos. In short,
the world is not mans to do with as he desires. It
exists to serve him in his service of his Creator - not
for his own selfish ends.
Skeptic: But if man can do perfectly well without
meat, how does it contribute to his service of the Creator?
He could get the energy just as well from other sources.
Believer: Mans pleasure in life can also become
an integral part of his service of G-d. For example, it
is a mitzvah to pleasure the Shabbos and the festivals with
meat and wine. Another example is that given by the great
Talmudic sage, Rava, who once remarked that were it not
for the delicious cut of beef he had for dinner his learning
would not have gone as well. On the other hand, if a person
seeks pleasure merely for the sake of pleasure, he is indeed
no better than the animal he is consuming and his right
to consume it is indeed questionable. This is why the Talmud
says A boor is forbidden to eat meat.
The bottom line is this: man has no inherent right to consume
anything merely to preserve or enhance his own existence.
But everything that G-d created realizes its purpose through
the actions of man. So it is mans privilege, indeed
his duty, to utilize all the resources which have been placed
at his disposal to serve the Almighty.
Nowhere is this principle more powerfully demonstrated
than with the korbanos (animal sacrifices) offered
at the Holy Temple. A typical korban was the shlamim,
or peace offering. A ewe or she-goat
was slaughtered. Its blood was sprinkled on the sides of
the altar and certain pieces of fat were removed and burned
on the altars top. Two of its choice cuts of meat
were given as gifts to the priests; the rest of the meat
was eaten by the one who brought the offering, but only
under the strict conditions of ritual purity. Thus the blood,
representing the fervor and passion for the material involvements
of life, and the fat, representing
excessive indulgence and pleasure-seeking, are to be sacrificed
to G-d. The meat of the material,
after a certain portion of it is shared with others, is
for a persons own consumption, but only under conditions
of holiness - only for the sake of a higher end. Other sacrifices,
such as the chatas (sin-offering), were given in
their entirety to the priests, and the olah was completely
burned on the altar. These represents those circumstances
in which certain parts of our world are completely sanctified
and off limits for personal use.
Skeptic: Everything you say can be applied to our
lives today. Why do we need a Holy Temple
with the sprinkled blood and all the other gory details?
Believer: First of all, if youre going to
eat meat, you need a slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant
replete with what you call all the gory details.
But these details can be elevated from their goriness
when sanctified as the means of mans efforts to perfect
But to answer your question. Of course, the korbanos
can be related to as a concept. In fact, today, thats
just about all we can do. We dont have a Holy Temple,
so we try to make an altar of our dinner table and turn
our steak and fries into a korban. When we eat (or
otherwise consume and benefit from the physical world) with
the intention to devote our energies to a higher purpose,
we sublimate the food that sustains us. But much of this
remains abstract and intangible. On the spiritual level,
we have elevated the soul of the
cow or the potato; but to our physical senses, the piece
of meat is still the same corporeal piece of meat. For all
our holy intentions, our present-day world remains, on the
perceptible level, overwhelmingly materialistic and egocentric.
The Jew yearns for Moshiach is because he wants to do more
than play mind games. He wants a world in which the spiritual
content of his life is as real and as tangible as its physical
implements. He wants a world in which, as the prophet Isaiah
puts it, all flesh will see the
divine essence of reality. He wants a world whose focal
point is the Holy Temple, in which the presence of the Creator
is openly expressed. He wants the restoration of the Temple
service, where flesh is imbued with a holiness that is perceived
Skeptic: Just one question: did you ask the animal
how he feels about all this?
Skeptic: Tell me this: if what you say is true,
if, underneath it all, the selfish animal we call man
possesses a soul that is essentially and inherently good,
why have all attempts to uncover it failed so dismally?
Christianity, Islam, Communism, Humanismso many religions
and ideologies all appeal to just such a higher
ego. And yet, here we are, in the year 2001,
back at square one with our good old, tried and true, egoistic
Believer: But does not the very existence of all
these isms indicate that, by his
very nature, man is forever seeking to transcend his material-bound
self? If there is nothing more to man than the urge for
animal gratification, why have so many people accepted the
moral demands of these creeds? Does this itself not indicate
that there is something more deeply ingrained in the human
soul than the desire for lifes temporal pleasures?
Obviously, in his heart of hearts, man longs for a freedom
and transcendence that cannot be satisfied by mere freedom
from restriction. He is convinced that there is a higher
purpose to life, and is driven to learn it and to apply
himself to its realization.
Skeptic: And yet, they failed! Of the hundreds of
millions of devotees to
all these faiths and causes, only a tiny fraction are truly
faithful to them. The overwhelming majority are self-deluding
hypocrites: they take from the ideology what they need to
satisfy their spiritual pretensions and their moral vanity,
and then basically do what they please (taking care, of
course, not to undermine their position in the community
of the faithful). And more often than not, these great moral
codes have achieved the very opposite of what they professed
to teach. Instead of taming mans animal drives, they
served as the tools for exploitation and oppression. Instead
of universal brotherhood, they brought war and devastation...
Believer: First of all, the various religions and
ideologies that man has come up with are, at best, only
poor approximations of the true inner drives of the human
soul. They call upon a person to surrender his personal
desires not to his own quintessential will, but to some
philosophers or ascetics subjective vision of
perfection. And man, as everyone knows, does not like being
told what to do. A certain part of him is indeed drawn to
the higher plane of being that the ideology promises, but
his selfish self rebels. Even in the best of cases, life
is a struggle between the animal nature of man and his higher
instincts; when all a person has to strive towards is a
distorted picture of his souls true priorities, the
struggle is immeasurably more difficult.
Skeptic: And second of all?
Believer: Secondly, they did succeedto
the extent that they do concur with the essence of man and
of creation. Communism, despite its flaws and corruptions,
has had a profound effect on our sense of social justice.
Christianity, despite the horrendous atrocities it perpetrated
and justified, played a major role in introducing, to a
largely pagan world, the concepts of a one, omnipotent and
non-corporeal G-d and of a messianic end-goal to existence.
The same could be said of many of the worlds religions
and social movements: although the product of mans
finite and error-prone mind, these subjective formulations
of lifes purpose also contain something of the Creators
vision of reality. Therein lies the secret of their power
to motivate so many people to sacrifice so much for their
Skeptic: In other words, its like the story
with graduate student and his advisor...
Believer: I didnt hear that one.
Skeptic: After many months of hard work, the student
tremulously submits a draft of his thesis to his advising
professor. The young man spends a sleepless night and is
waiting at the door of his mentors office the next
morning. So, what do you say? he
asks. Well, begins the professor,
your work is both good and original...
Yeah... prompts the student eagerly.
But the part thats original is no good,
and the part thats good isnt original...
Believer: Thats a good one. Ill certainly
use that sometime...
Skeptic: Sure. Youve got it all figured out.
There is only one G-d-given truth, which (lucky you!) happens
to be the very religion that you were born into. As for
all other beliefs and moral systems, well, everything good
about them is plagiarized from your authentic faith, while
everything bad about them is where they ruined it when they
began thinking for themselves...
Skeptic: You know something, I think that you are
doing injustice to the idea of Moshiach with your unyielding
orthodoxy. You insist on preserving the concept of Moshiach
exactly as the Prophets spoke of it over twenty-five centuries
ago: the return of all Jews to the land of Israel, the restoration
of the royal house of David to the monarchy, a Holy Temple,
sacrifices - the works. The idea behind all this is beautiful
and inspiring: the quest for a peaceful and harmonious world,
a world free of jealousy and hate, a world in which the
pursuit of wisdom takes the place of todays rat race
for power and material wealth. The Prophets expressed this
in terms of their world, terms that hardly apply to our
century. Why dont you take the gist of what Moshiach
stands for and discard its out-of-date packaging?
To my mind, your literal-minded approach colors your entire
message with a biblical-religious flavor and detracts from
its power and relevancy.
Believer: This brings us back to your earlier question,
Why bring G-d into the picture?
You felt that everything we are speaking about the
inherent goodness of man, a meaning and destiny to life
and history could be conceived of without a creator
of life and an author of history...
Skeptic: And you said that without G-d there can
be no objective definition of good nor a true sense of meaning
to life. But even if Moshiach represents the divine purpose
and end-goal of creation, why must it include all the things
Believer: Well, its either one or the other.
Were the Prophets prophets or merely social philosophers?
Were they putting forth their own humanly conceived ideas
in which case we can take them or leave them or else
take whatever we identify with and reject the rest
or were they indeed doing what they said they were doing,
conveying the word of G-d to humanity?
Skeptic: Even if G-d did speak to us through them,
it is still G-d speaking 25 centuries ago. Perhaps their
words represent what that generation was to aspire to, while
we must adapt these ideas to fit our times.
Believer: You know who you remind me of? You remind
me of Feivel the Coachman.
Skeptic: Who is Feivel the Coachman?
Believer: A character in an old chassidic joke.
Once, a group of chassidim decided that they wished to spend
Chanukah with their rebbe. The only problem was that it
was already a week before the festival, and no coachman
was willing to guarantee that the long and difficult journey
could be made in that time. Finally, they found Feivel,
who, eager for the high price the chassidim were offering,
agreed to their condition. If am not there by
Chanukah, Feivel promised cheerfully, you
owe me nothing.
Anyway, they set out in the dead of winter and, as the
father of all cynics put it, anything that could possibly
go wrong, did. One of the horses slipped on an ice patch
and broke its leg. The coach skidded off the road and had
to be dug out of a snowdrift. They lost their way in the
forest. You get the picture. In short, when Feivel and his
coachful of Chassidim finally hobbled into the rebbes
courtyard it was two weeks after Chanukah.
When Feivel realized that his passengers had no intention
of paying him, he was outraged. He immediately summoned
them to the towns rabbinical court. After carefully
listening to the arguments offered by both sides, the presiding
rabbi ruled that the Chassidim have no obligation to pay
their hapless coachman. Now poor Feivel turned on the rabbi:
This is justice?! Have you no heart? I work
myself to the bone for a month, and I dont get anything
for my trouble? Patiently, the rabbi tried to
My dear man, he said, I
do not decide these things on my own - I can only rule by
what the Torah says. According to Torah law, if a person
makes a contract and is aware of all the implications of
the agreement, he is bound by it. There is absolutely no
other decision I could have arrived at.
You mean the Torah says that they dont
have to pay me? demanded Feivel.
Yes, replied the rabbi.
Aha! cried the coachman triumphantly.
Now I understand. The Torah was given on
Shavuot, right? On Shavuot the roads are perfect, the days
are long, the weather is beautiful. Of course! If I would
have failed to make the trip in time for Shavuot, they certainly
ought not to pay me. But had the Torah been given on Chanukah,
it surely would have ruled in my favor!
Skeptic: Thats a cute story, but still, you
will certainly acknowledge that times can change in a way
that does affect the way we orient our lives...
Believer: Just a minute. Let me explain the point
I wished to make with the story. Obviously, a law written
in the summer applies equally to the winter. We assume that
the author of the law is well aware of the differences between
summer and winter, and that if the seasonal conditions are
a factor he would have said so explicitly. Now, if G-d,
before whom the entirety of time is an open book, communicates
to us His vision of a perfect world and says to us, This
is the goal of my creation. This is what I want you to make
of my world, are we to assume that a day, a
year, or a millennium later the message no longer applies?
Skeptic: So what are we to make of the fact that
the Torahs description of the messianic era
a king, a Holy Temple, etc. appears to be 2,000 years
out of date? Perhaps G-d wants us to constantly re-assess
this vision and to re-apply it to the times in which we
Believer: Look, I think that we have to get to the
root of our differing perspectives on the datedness
of the Torah. Earlier, we had long discussions on two of
the issues connected with Moshiach that are archaic
in your eyes - Moshiachs kingship and the korbonos
in the Holy Temple. I explained their ageless significance
and relevancy, and you probably saw my words as a philosophical
effort to force deeper meaning into concepts that my stubborn
orthodoxy refuses to let go of. Until we clarify our views
on what exactly the Torah is, we will be forever talking
circles around each other.
Skeptic: Okay, Ill let you talk circles first
(you seem to be pretty good at it). How do you see Torah?
Believer: First of all, let me say this: If the
Torah seems out of date today, then
it was far more out of date on the morning of the revelation
at Sinai 3,306 years ago. Think of all the revolutionary
ideas which Torah introduced: The concept of a One G-d.
Prohibitions against murder, theft, rape, incest, or the
sacrifice of ones children to a pagan god. The obligation
to honor and provide for ones parents. The duty to
share ones wealth with the needy. Today, we find it
incredible that such things needed to be commanded to us,
but back then, they were no less fantastic than those elements
of Torah which you find so hard to accept.
What happened? Two million people took G-ds plan
for existence and began to implement it in their lives,
regardless of how well it fit in with the world in which
they lived. Over the millennia, they inspired other monotheistic
and near-monotheistic religions and great social movements.
They deeply influenced many other doctrines, legal systems,
ideologies and cultures. In a word, they brought the world
that much closer to the Torahs ethos and ideals.Torah
is not a creed that came in response to a given century
and set of circumstances, but one which came to impose its
principles and practices on an unperfected world. So it
is always out of date. It is the times
which are steadily approaching the Torah, not the other
way around. If the Torah were entirely up to
date this would mean that it had fulfilled its
function - it would mean that Moshiach had come.
Skeptic: As you said, that is your view of Torah.
Others may have different theories on the matter...
Believer: Still, I think that before anyone formulates
his own theory on what the Torah
is, he ought to be aware of how the Torah sees itself...
Skeptic: Thats exactly what Ive been
saying to you until Im blue in the face! How can you
tell me what I am, instead of asking me how I define myself?
Of course, my self-definition may be wrong, and you might
know some things about me that Im not aware of. Thats
how psychoanalysts get rich. But to construct a theory about
someone or something without first consulting its own self-definition
is not only arrogant - its downright foolish!
Believer: I agree. And I wonder how many people
whove expounded on the Torah and its function know
what the Torah says about itself. Here, this is from the
Midrash Rabbah on the first chapter of Genesis: The
Torah says: I was the tool of G-ds artistry.
An architect who builds a palace does not do so on his own:
he has scrolls and notebooks which he consults how to place
the rooms, where to set the doors. So it was with G-d: He
looked into the Torah and created the world.
In other words, the Torah is G-ds blueprint for creation.
This is what He wants His world to look like. At Sinai,
the architect delivered his plans to his contractors: G-d
communicated the Torah to man, imparting His vision of reality
to those whom He had charged to implement it. Imagine, then,
the workman who consults the original state of his materials
rather than the architects plan. The blueprint
calls for a square plank, he muses, but
the log I have is round. Perhaps we can edit the plans a
little? Why labor to change the world, if we
can conform our moral vision to reflect it?
Skeptic: You know, Ive noticed that were
forever getting off the subject. We start talking about
Moshiach, and we end up discussing anything but: good and
evil, freedom and servitude, totalitarianism and pluralism,
orthodoxy versus revisionism...
Believer: But all this is the subject. Moshiach
is not a side issue but the sum total of everything the
Jew believes in. That is why it is one of the thirteen foundations
of Judaism. If life has meaning, it leads to Moshiach.
Skeptic: Thats quite an if,
if you ask me.