We are now in the saddest period of the Jewish calendar. During these “nine days” we commemorate the tragic destruction of the two Holy Temples, the first by the Babylonians over 2400 years ago, and the second by the Romans over 1900 years ago.
The mystics explain these days as a time of intense “concealment” of the Divine presence, with the objective of us uncovering a deeper light within this darkness.
In personal terms this concealment manifests in different forms of dissonance in our lives. Who among us does not have a conflict between our home and work, between our personal and professional lives, between our own ideals and moral standards and the need to conform to the demands of the marketplace? We all have to face the tension between our hearts and our minds, between our desires and our disciplines, between our bodies and our souls?
All these dichotomies are an expression of the schism that takes place during the “nine days,” when the Temple was destroyed, closing the window between heaven and earth, between the Divine and the mundane. Yet, in a mysterious way, this dissonance can lead us to discover deeper truths amidst the ashes.
When challenged by intense darkness, we are compelled to dig deeper. These “nine days” are therefore an appropriate time for embarking on a profound search of the hidden Divine which lies embedded in our lives, even as it may appear dormant.
In this spirit, we present here a correspondence between Rabbi Jacobson in response to a self-proclaimed agnostic.
Dear Dr. B.
Let me begin with my feelings of appreciation for your letters. I am humbled and touched by your remarks regarding the book Toward A Meaningful Life, which I had the privilege of adapting from my great teacher’s works. Without even entering into a discussion of the presenting issues, the mere fact that this book provoked your thoughtful remarks and opened up a communication between our two “worlds,” is in itself a meaningful achievement.
Now to the issues at hand. If I understand you correctly, your struggle lies, in essence, in one all-encompassing dilemma or paradox. Namely: how can I suggest the reconciliation of a deterministic world of nature and the indeterminacy inherent in man’s free will, or in other words: the reconciliation of reason and faith? You see them as mutually exclusive, and even if they are both valid perspectives, they remain separated by an absolute divide.
To allow for a meaningful discussion, I would like to dissect the issues into separate items, which can then be reviewed point by point.
Every discourse needs to assume one or more axioms. In your letter it was unclear to me what points you are ready to accept (or at least concede). So, without assuming anything, allow me to build this from scratch.
Question number one: Do we accept that there are two legitimate and valid realms (albeit, at this point, mutually exclusive ones) – reason and faith, determinacy and indeterminacy (allowing for free will)? I’ll assume that we don’t accept this, thus the need to backtrack:
Do we accept the existence of G-d? And if yes, what type of G-d? You “grant the existence of G-d as a possibility,” but your “own faith is much more mundane, gleaned from admittedly finite experience and lodged finally in the concept of a unified deterministic universe; a universe which, for all practical purposes, operates without intent.” (In your updated version you write: “I believe that that the existence of both G-d and/or chaos are possible, my own faith, when I cannot keep it at bay leans more towards a deterministically unified existence…which operates like a machine”). My question to you then is: what kind of G-d would create a mechanical universe operating without intent? What need is there for G-d and what does a G-d contribute to a universe that functions like a wristwatch? You must be suggesting a G-d-engineer that basically set the wristwatch in motion, a G-d, as you put it, who is at best “a semantic question.”
May I offer another definition of G-d and existence. Our existence does not have to be. It came to be — created by G-d. G-d implies design and purpose. No engineer would create a machine — no matter how organized — for no purpose. Organization is not an end in itself. Design implies not just a systematic machine, but purpose; a raison d’être. We need to understand why the cosmic engineer created this organized, deterministic universe. It is insufficient to say that He created it just in order to demonstrate His grand power of design. G-d created this deterministic universe in order to accomplish some objective. A universe without purpose may as well not have a G-d; G-d then is only semantic.
I believe that you may have a problem with the notion of existence being created by a G-d. You would rather prefer defining existence (the universe) as one with no beginning and end, and G-d being the designer that wound up this wristwatch. However, my definition of G-d includes the possibility that our existence has a beginning — it is just a “tip of the iceberg” of reality, a part of a much greater whole, and this “whole” informs the “part” of its unique design and purpose, its reason for being.
What is G-d’s purpose in creation? That we humans contribute — as partners with G-d — in transforming our lives and the entire universe and reuniting its material side with its spiritual side, creating one integrated universe — as a G-dly place. G-d created grain seeds; humans plant the seeds, harvest the wheat, mix the flour with water and bake bread. We tap the infinite resources G-d instilled in this universe, and actualize their great potential by civilizing and refining the world in which we live.
In order for our lives to have any meaning and significance, we must have the ability to choose (with free will) whether or not to utilize our resources constructively.
You suggest that perhaps the meaning of life is to gain pleasure. However, this leads us back to our understanding of G-d. If G-d would be even half as sophisticated as a great writer, He would have greater intentions in creating a universe than just for pleasure.
But now we must address your question. You write “an inferential analysis of common experience suggests that existence is One (one universe under G-d…). If this is true, then free will is an illusion… for while we obviously can do as we please, we cannot exist apart from the laws of the universe and must be not only guided, but forced by them. That man alone should be granted the reprieve from physical law required by a doctrine of truly free will seems to me ludicrously anthrocentric, appropriate only for a superstitious and primitive people.” So, how do we reconcile the divine design of the universe and free will?
The answer goes back to how we interpret G-d. Is G-d Himself bound by the deterministic laws of the universe that He created? The answer is no. G-d transcends these laws, or better put, G-d could have created entirely different laws or no laws at all. Your questions are valid only in a world of our deterministic logic where everything is governed by deterministic laws and we have no reason to say that man is different. However, this is only from a human perspective that in itself is bound by laws. From G-d’s perspective, which is not bound by any of these laws, there always remains an element of indeterminism, and He chose to infuse a glimmer of this indeterminism into our existence by granting free will to man who G-d created in His own “image.” In other words, an indeterminate G-d (undefined even by the word “indeterminate” and “undefined”) chose to create a deterministic system, and bestow man with free will to transcend the determinism of nature and choose to lift the universe to a higher place than it could ever achieve on its own.
This presents an interesting paradox: since G-d is not bound by any laws and impositions, therefore when He chooses to create a deterministic universe, it become absolutely deterministic; because G-d did not have to do so, once he chooses to do so, the determinism is much more air-tight than if G-d Himself was deterministic and simply acting according to His “nature.” On the other hand, there always remains an element of indeterminism, because even after G-d created the universe, G-d still remains G-d. And this indeterminism is reflected in the universe, in the inherent uncertainty that exists on a quantum level, which is also beginning to be understood by scientists as having effects on our macroscopic universe (enclosed are copies of two articles on the topic).
I believe that as scientists discover more of the underlying unity in the universe, they may also come to discover, that the ultimate unity (the so-called “unified field theory”) can only be understood by including the “observer” — mankind — into the equation, and recognizing that this “observer” is no objective “observer” at all, but man’s moral behavior, resulting from exercising his indeterministic free will, has an impact on the universe.
By now you see that the issues you raise are all related to our definition of G-d. For more discussion on my description of G-d (being neither deterministic or indeterminstic) as opposed to other descriptions, please read the chapters “G-d” and “Unity” in Toward A Meaningful Life. I also have tapes of my classes on the topic of free will and determinism, where I discuss this issue at length. Should you be interested in them please contact my office at the number above.
Finally you ask me how did I come to my beliefs? Before I answer that I would like to take note with the final line of your last letter describing me as “Orthodox” and yourself as “Agnostic.” True faith, as I understand and experience it, is not some cop-out or crutch. Faith does nor preclude doubts, questions and agnosticism. Neither does it deny the paradoxes of life, of reconciling a good G-d with the pain of good people and the prosperity of the wicked, and other such contradictions. Faith is an all encompassing experience that includes faith in logic, and respects all the realities of our common and empirical experiences. But it does not stop there; it also includes awareness of our sublime experiences, our feelings and intuitions, even our subconscious and beyond (or: within), regardless whether we are comfortable with the consequences or not.
If you wish, I, too, can present a compelling argument for agnosticism. After all, G-d created an agnostic universe (as I discuss in the chapter on “G-d”). However my honesty and integrity dictate that I not allow myself to be trapped in my mind. Yes, my mind, as all minds, can explain the impossibility of proving whether G-d exists, whether we have free will, or, for that matter, whether we matter at all. But if I want to live life to its fullest, not just relegated to my mind, and not just locked by my logic, but one that includes my feelings, all my innermost resources, a full-blooming life of love and intimacy – I must include faith in the equation, not some blind faith in the unknown, but a deep sense of a greater presence, of a higher “Itness.” Only logic and faith allow us to be most complete – to experience it all, and not just part of it.
I have come to my beliefs in many ways. By process of elimination. By intuition. Through logic. And perhaps more than all — through love, that all embracing feeling that also has no logical explanation, and yet it exists as the most powerful force in life. All these processes have helped eliminate some of the obstacles that obfuscated my inner voice and allowed the natural knowing of my soul to emerge. After taking into account everything I know and feel, I firmly believe that we are all people of faith (read: people who have an intimate relationship with G-d), which becomes increasingly obscured as we grow into “adults” with minds that help us obfuscate our inner voices and become ever more comfortable with the “here and now.”
Dr. B., let me add this on a personal note. Faith, like any of our resources, needs to continuously be nourished. Indeed, if our bodies continuously need food for sustenance, how much more so does our faith — which can be so elusive — need “food.” The “food” that nourishes faith are the “mitzvot,” living our daily lives and behaving according to the divine laws of the Torah. Putting on tefillin, keeping the Sabbath, eating kosher, study, prayer and charity. Though we may not fully understand the dynamic, these deeds are all different “vitamins” and “minerals” that feed and nourish our soul, our faith. They instill us with confidence in our inner voice, and allow it to be channeled into our conscious, material, “faithless” life. Faith is a continuous struggle, paralleling and reflecting the struggle of life itself. How often is our faith tested, how often does it waiver? However this struggle is our greatest challenge and gift: Will I rise to the occasion and allow my faith to fill me with passion, to lift me to the greatest heights in impacting this world in a G-dly way, or resign myself, as so many have, to the mediocrity of a meaningless existence, where my greatest passion is in the temporary and the mercurial?
G-d’s question to Adam, “Where are you?” is an eternal question asked of us all. It is a spiritual query not a spatial one: “Where are you” — what are you doing with your life? Where do you stand? Are you recognizable as one created in the Divine image?
I invite your response to this letter and any further dialogue. As you suggest, perhaps our discussion can be of assistance to others as well. Feel free to share these thoughts with anyone you choose.
All the best,
I appreciated your article vry much. Especially insightful, in my view, were your remarks about the Quantum substrate of all reality. Chance is most definitely a player in the unfolding of things.
At the risk of sounding blasphemous I want to suggest that God, Hashem, is just as much constrained by the functional equivalent of the yeitser ha-ra which is the condition without which there would be no life, human or Divine. This is not a dualism nor is it an argument that God is evil. The genius of Jewish theolgy is that this inclination is woven into us not by virtue of Original Sin but by Gods determination to let there be human life ((actually His decision not to totally wipe out human life at Genesis 6:8)) at all even though it MUST, as its very condition of possibilty, be imbued with the yeitser ha-ra. In the Divine economy and in the hhuman econonmy the yeitser-tov is NOT equipromoridal with the yeitser ha ra but its coming to be and its nutringing (on Gods level and our level is the whole ball of wax. We are indeed made in the image and likeness of God in ALL respects. When we understand this we will understand that there is nothing in our expreience which is not in Hashems experience.
Concerning the fate versus freewill argument, I see it much simpler. We all have a destiny, yet how we navigate that destiny is our freewill.
If you look at life like a book–that book is our destiny. Yet, how we read that book–the speed we read it, the pages we choose to read, how often we pick it up, whether we re-read certain passages, or choose to finish the book at all is up to us. Those old Choose Your Own Adventure Books make an even better analogy. We cannot do anything not in the book, but the path we carve in it is totally up to us.
I see this analogy completely working within the realm of science thanks to the multiverse theory–that there exists an infinite number of universes–one for every decision we could make. All of these universes already exist (destiny), but what we think about and the decisions we make determine which of these realities we jump into. This is like the transcending of deterministic laws that Rabbi Jacobson wrote of. As he also wrote, it is only transcending them from mans current perspective, but not from G-ds. We are G-d. All of us. We have all created the reality we are currently experiencing. There are also an infinite number of realities that are also being experienced…right now. As Rabbi Jacobson said, our behavior impacts the universe. Whether we love or hate where we are right now, we have no one but ourselves to thank or blame for it. Change your mind and you shall change the world.
Faith is nourihs by mitzwot. You open the window – to inside.
As a physicist, I am familiar with Dr. Bs dilemma: How can there be a God in a seemingly deterministic universe? The answer lies in mathematics, namely, Godels theorem (google it): In any mathematical system with a finite set of axioms, and propositions which are proved from these axioms, there will always be additional true propositions that cannot be proved from these axioms, and that therefore must be included as additional axioms; in other words, no complete system with a finite set of axioms can exist – the number of axioms must be infinite.
Thus, we will never know the universe. In fact, at the foundation of any individuals conceptual understanding is a set of axioms that that person accepts (knowingly or not), i.e., a belief system that the person has FAITH in (usually with no conscious awareness). And, by Godels theorem, that belief system is incomplete.
Therefore, Dr. B has FAITH that the universe is deterministic. He cannot prove it. What makes this faith any better than any other faith?
As Jews, we acknowledge this. We tap into our FAITH in the truly infinite set of axioms (God?) that we can never prove, but which the God in us allows us to sense in a subtle and clouded way; and we rely on those of us (especially Moses) who have been able to tap with more clarity into the Infinite.
Another way of saying this is that the universe does not obey Boolean logic; that is, A and not A can be simultaneously true (cf. wave-particle duality in quantum mechanics), so a rational view of the universe is incomplete. Or, as R. Jacobson points out, in quantum mechanics, the system is forced into its state by an observer making an observation. Who is the Observer of the state of the entire universe? After all, the universe is not in an undefined state, with a star or a galaxy both there and not there! Are there an infinite number of universes corresponding to all the possible combinations (eigenstates) of the quantum waves? A few physicists think so; that is their FAITH, since there is utterly no proof for such a conjecture.
So, Dr. B is free to choose his faith, but how can he do this, if he has no free will? Physics will not get you out of this paradox! (Or, for that matter, out of the paradox that everything always existed infintely far back in time.) When one grasps that time itself is Gods creation (along with space), then a glimmer of the truth appears; we cannot hope for more.
Dear Rabbi Jacobson:
I have recently been diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). I am a 53 year old amle who has attended your lectures in the past and read your weekly emails. Having ASD means there is a disorder in the physical makeup of the brain. Based on certain tests there is limited self awareness. In my case, my parents practiced many of the concepts dictated in Psalm 15. My question is very simple. Did my parents sin based on the Shema because they did not follwo the 613 laws and hence had me a person who will not be fruitful and multiply who is nearly incapable to protect myself at the mercy of Jews like the ones who got arrested in New Jersey yesterday or other so called respectable people who go to synagogue or who practice so called ethical and moral teachings but who regard me as weird or strange. I use to think I was communicating with G-d, but now I realize it was based on a delusion because I lacked serontonin in my brain. This note may not be very intellectual or have literary sources, but I and my family in our humble way tried to be decent and now after 53 years on this earth I find I have a chemical inbalance. You my dear Rabbi have a faimly, children, grand children a wife. So how can you possibly understand the pain of someone with ASD who will not have the blessings as dictated in the torah but just the struggles. I feel I am like Job but with not all my marbles. And my parents who are no longer here were so blessed to havee a child who can not communicate and had trouble defending himself against bullies who were Jewish and non Jewish. Many became doctors and now are respected members of the community. It was an equal opportunity experience. Now that I go and learn Krav Maga,and go to a psychiatrist who gives me medications, I can more clearly see the Garden of Eden that I will never have. Can read and talk about it, but chemically in my mind I was left at a disadvantage. Am I suppose to rely on the David and Goliath story when the stones I have been given are not that good to throw. Or am I truly like Abraham and Noah all alone in a world that my mind was chemically altered by not society and not by my parents. Perhaps I should be grateful for that based on the concepts In a meaningful Life. In closing, you ask about G-d and you speak and write very eloquently. But think my dear Rabbi, youy have a mind that has a correct chemincal balance and can perceive the world in a way that I never had the opportunity to. I am the same age as you, had probably the same desires, but through at least so far as I know no fault of my own were not given the right chemicals when I was in my mothers womb. U would be very interested in hearing your response and read something other than you cant explain it.
Shalom and Good Shabbas,
You wrote very eloquently, and brought tears to my eyes, which may be your super power.
A beautiful and powerful discussion!
We are all born with individual gifts, and certainly life holds individual challenges for each of us.
The salient point may be the concept of CHOICE, which is both a logical concept, or one based on profound Faith, or both. We have the power to determine which direction we choose, and so live our lives. I see That as the The Presence of G-d.
This email is a home run. Should be read and digested by all
We need to recognize that ALL of life (the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom, and the geological kingdom, as well as the solar system and universe in which it exists, is a total miracle! A single strand of DNA in a single cell organism, such as an amoeba, carries on ALL the functions of life. But this does not take place in a vacuum! How ALL of life and the world in which it exists functions SO harmoniously 99.9% of the time is totally incomprehensible to me. How can one not believe AND have faith. The only thing I can’t understand is the abundance of negative human behavior. Thank you, as usual, for your wonderful article.