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The Abnormality of Jewish Life

The Abnormality of Jewish Life


"Can't you do anything normal?" The first time I heard this question actually voiced was 15 years ago. I was a newly appointed member of the staff of the Royal Victoria Hospital and of McGill University. I had walked out in the middle of an important departmental budget meeting because the sun was low, it was Tu B'Shevat (the 15th of the Jewish month of Shevat, celebrated as the "New Year for Trees"), and I had yet to eat any fruit.

I ran down Peel Street to Chabad House, ate a couple of figs, and ran back to the hospital, where I was confronted by several concerned colleagues who naturally assumed that my abrupt exit from such an urgent meeting betokened the onset of serious illness. I put their minds at rest and told them about Tu B'Shevat, the sun and the figs. They looked at me in frustrated disbelief, and one of them, a Jew, sputtered the question that had probably been gnawing at him since my arrival at McGill: "Can't you do anything normal?"

Aside from the grammar, it was an excellent question. It encompassed absences from important professional activities on Shabbat and Jewish Holidays, unwillingness to attend obligatory social events such as the rash of holiday parties in late December, the beard, tzitzit, dietary restrictions, etc. The answer is, of course, No. I can't do anything normal. Jewish life is simply not normal. The Torah demands abnormality.

Normality is a state of being that is largely misunderstood and the term, therefore, is often misapplied. Normality implies predictability and harmony with nature. Such a condition usually engenders positive` feelings. We feel comfortable and secure when our physician tells us that our test results are normal, or when the principal assures us that our wayward child's behavior, although irritating, is that of a normal teenager. People intuitively equate normal with good. In fact, normal is very bad.

Let's consider, for a minute, the physician's assurance that one's health is normal. What he/she really means is the exact opposite. That a single cell in the body is able to perform and coordinate the vast complex of biochemical operations required in order to simply be classified as "alive" is not only not normal, but is so improbable as to statistically approach impossibility. Add to this orders of magnitude in intricacy that describe the interactions of individual cells in tissues and organs and you are confronted with nothing short of a miracle. There is nothing more abnormal than an individual whose body functions properly. Illness, deterioration, and death, on the other hand, are natural, predictable, and are very much favored by the innate rules governing physical existence.

The ultimate fact of life in this universe is the second law of thermodynamics. Crudely put, it states that things run down--they do not run up. Energy tends to dissipate, structure and order tend to deteriorate into randomness. This is normal. According to the second law of thermodynamics, a person achieves ultimate harmony with nature when he is dead and the molecules that comprised his being are in thermodynamic equilibrium with the environment, which is to say he is dust.

The second law of thermodynamics can be opposed, albeit at a very high cost. People instinctively know this. Someone, for example, who needs a car will not wander about in the wilderness looking for one, in the expectation that a functional car has materialized spontaneously somewhere, in response to the random forces of nature. A car, after all, represents a highly abnormal state of being. In order to develop a car from a pile of iron ore, a great deal of energy must be spent since the formless heap of metal ore is in a relatively stable natural state in comparison to the highly ordered, unnatural and exceedingly improbable structure that constitutes a car. Cars, therefore, cost. The reverse process, however, costs nothing. For a car to deteriorate into a random heap of metal is normal, as every car owner well knows. The more unnatural a structure, the greater is the expenditure of energy (the cost) required to produce it.

The same principle governs all of worldly being. From whatever perspective one chooses, biochemistry, economics, sociology, cosmology, etc.--purpose and order are anomalous and, therefore, energy must be expended in order to achieve these improbable, unstable, and preternatural conditions. The fundamental principle described by the second law of thermodynamics is thus applicable, in one form or another, to every facet of our lives.

How we relate to this all-encompassing reality determines how we spend our lives. As in the case of any law, one can choose to conform or to resist. The Jews have chosen to resist with a vengeance, thus earning for themselves well-deserved notoriety as a "stiff-necked people."

What is the connection between turning a lump of iron ore into a car and the peculiar behavior of the Jews? How and why do Jews battle the natural order? In order to answer these questions, it is first necessary to consider a more basic problem. What is the natural order and why was it created to begin with?

The answer is expressed, in metaphoric terms, in the Midrash (Tanchuma, Nasso 7:1). "G‑d desired a residence in the lower worlds."

Although at first glance, this cryptic statement doesn't seem to explain anything, in fact, it explains everything. Moreover, we are already thoroughly familiar with "lower worlds" because that's where we happen to live. The lowest of the "lower worlds" is the physical universe. The expression "below" or "lower worlds" conveys several important ideas. First of all, it implies that there is an "above" or "upper worlds." Secondly, in the context of the statement in Midrash, "below" is a state of being that is preferable to, and therefore, potentially superior to that described as "above."

"Below" and "above" are clearly not spatial designations, but rather refer to stages or levels in the process of creation. For example, a person may at some point in his life become aware of the fact that he wants a house. He then finds reasons why having a house is an excellent idea: it's a good investment, his family is getting larger, etc. Subsequently he imagines what sort of a house he would like. He then hires an architect to design the house, and so on until he actually has the house. What was first a pure, amorphous desire evolved into a process of reasoning. This gave rise to a mental abstraction of the house that was later developed into a physical abstraction (the architect's blueprints).

The creative process, therefore, consists of a dynamic chain of cause and effect in which "higher" elements, e.g., the person's mental image are antecedent to lower levels such as the blueprints. Obviously the lowest level in this chain, the ultimate in "below," is the house itself and it is only this absolute lowest stage that satisfies the primal will that initiated the entire process. The mental images and blueprints, although expressions of creativity and imagination, do not satisfy. Their sole raison d'etre is that they are necessary steps leading to the fulfillment of the original will.

In a similar vein, the process of Divine creation comprises a progressive series of stages one "below" the next. The ultimate goal is the lowest stage, in which the primordial Divine will that initiated the entire process, can be finally realized.

The stages are referred to as "worlds". In Hebrew, the word for "world" is olam which is etymologically related to the word he'elem, meaning concealment. The Divine creative process consists of a progressive sequence of condensations, or concealments, in which each stage or "world" evolves into the next lower stage. With each succeeding step (world) the Divine vitalizing force becomes more obscured, such that the lower you go, the more limited, independent, and distinct from its source each world appears. As in the house analogy, higher worlds (although more transparent to the Divinity that animates them) have no intrinsic significance. The evolutionary chain of spiritual worlds are important only as means through which the original Divine will can be ultimately actualized in the final stage, which is the physical world, or universe in which we live.

Our world is the end of the line, "below" which there is nothing else. It is, therefore, the "location" in which G‑d desires a residence. The question now is what is a "residence" and how can this world possibly qualify as such a place.

Offhand, the concept of a residence for G‑d sounds idolatrous. The crude man-gods of mythology had residences. Zeus lived on Olympus, Odin in Valhalla and so forth. Of course, as in the case of the term "below," the expression "residence" is intended by the Midrash to be understood metaphorically. It is, however, not an easy metaphor to grasp. The concept of residence implies limitation. It excludes all aspects of existence (e.g., upper worlds) that do not conform to its specifications. How can G‑d, who is infinite and who completely transcends creation, be contained by a facet of creation with finite dimensions? Moreover, the entire creation, upper and lower, is nothing more than an expression of G‑d's unlimited will and wisdom, and is, therefore, totally dependent upon and negated to Him, just as a person's thoughts have no existence independent of himself. Creation is contained within G‑d (as a person's thought is contained within himself), G‑d is not confined by creation. What then is meant by a "residence" for G‑d?

The term actually tells us nothing about G‑d's essence, which is absolutely unknowable, but rather something about how He wishes to manifest Himself. Consider what a residence means in human terms. An individual wakes up in the morning and goes off to work. At the office he reveals himself as a professional. His behavior patterns, speech, and social interactions all reflect the necessity of fulfilling the professional role. To his students (let's assume he is a professor) he is one thing, to his colleagues, something else, and to his chairman, something else again. At lunchtime he goes downtown to buy a coat and must then assume an entirely new and different identity, namely that of a customer. On the way back home on the subway he has to transform, once again, into another class of being characterized by its own unique behavior pattern. He becomes a passenger.

Supposing someone wanted to know who and what this person really is. Of all the images that he projects during the course of the day, which, if any, is really him? Is there not a circumstance in which this individual does not have to mold himself into some required role?

Catch him at home. In one's residence, one is free of the necessity of projecting any particular image. It is his refuge where he can be himself and reveal himself as he is. The idiom to "feel at home" conveys such a meaning. It implies total freedom of self-expression.

G‑d desires to reveal his unified infinite essence specifically in this finite multifarious world. He would like His will to be openly reflected in the physical world and its creatures. Such, in fact, was the case in the Tabernacle or in the first Temple in which Divinity was openly revealed. Hence the Temple is referred to as the "house of G‑d." Although all creation is an expression of G‑dliness, it was only in the Temple that this was clear and obvious.

In the rest of creation, Divinity is obscured, just as the real identity of a person is obscured by the masks he assumes in playing the various roles required of him. G‑d's essential will, which reflects His essence, is concealed by masks that we would call natural law. G‑d's ultimate desire is that He be revealed not only in one restricted region of the world, such as in the Temple, but rather that the whole world reveal the essence of His Divinity, i.e., the whole world become His "residence."

This then is the meaning of the Midrashic statement that "G‑d desired a residence in the lower worlds."

By now it should also be clear that such a desire is impossible to fulfill for the simple reason that "below" and "residence" are not only antithetical to one another, but each can exist only at the expense of the other. If there is a "below" there can be no "residence" since below is created by means of a progressive series of concealments, ultimately totally obscuring Divinity within the garments of nature. The world is not only opaque to G‑dliness, it was created specifically by eclipsing G‑dliness. Likewise, if there is a "residence," there can be no "below." G‑d could very well reveal himself and in so doing remove all of the masks and garments in which he conceals Himself, thus eliminating the possibility of "worlds" and certainly of a world such as ours, which is seemingly totally independent of Him. If what the Midrash says is correct, what G‑d demands is impossible, or at the very least exceedingly abnormal.

This seemingly insoluble paradox is appreciated by the philosophers and theologians of all nationalities and religions. There are clearly two very different realities--G‑d and the world. Worldliness and G‑dliness are irreconcilable and, therefore, one can attain one only at the expense of the other. Religious experience demands withdrawal from worldly life. In this sense, both the Catholic priest and the Buddhist monk are motivated by the same rationale. On the other hand, religious sensitivity is a definite drawback if one's aim in life is to rule Wall Street. In fact, a compromise can be hammered out. There can be times and places for pursuing Divinity, and other times and places for pursuing worldly ends. The proportion of time and effort spent in heavenly or in earthly pursuits is then determined by personal inclination. This is a philosophically sound approach that allows for a normal balanced life. The problem is that it is inconsistent with G‑d's objective as propounded in the Midrash.

Contrary to all reason, the Jewish people have taken on the Divine task of converting this finite, physical world with all of its minutia into a residence for G‑d. If the conversion of a lump of iron into a car is abnormal and contrary to nature, how is one to view the conversion of a car into a vessel for revealing G‑dliness? It is normal for a Scroll to reveal holiness just as it is for a car to reflect worldliness. For a car, or a house, or food to reveal G‑dliness is unprecedented and totally beyond grasp. Nonetheless, this fusion of two mutually antithetical states of being into one reality is accomplished daily by Jews living Jewish lives.

How is it done? Simple. The directions are supplied in the Torah. The car is not driven on Shabbat, specifically because it is Shabbat. The house has mezzuzahs identifying it as a Jewish house and property of the Creator. The food is kosher and a brachah is recited before and after eating. The energy supplied by the food is used toward the service of G‑d in learning Torah and performing mitzvot. The application of Torah and Mitzvot to each an every aspect of earthly existence transforms all worldly objects and affairs into vessels in which G‑d's supernal will can be manifest. Thus, every mitzvah performed by every Jew produces another brick for G‑d's residence.

The process has been slow and laborious. It is no accident that the word for Divine service, avodah, literally means work. Moreover, we have been engaged in this "work" for 3,300 years. There is little doubt, however, that the job is almost complete, and when it is, the G‑dliness that is the life of all existence will be revealed in everything.

The Jew, then, cannot be normal. With his soul rooted in Divine will and his feet planted on the ground, he appears as an outsider in both heaven and earth. You want to be religious? Fine. Go sit in shul and study Torah. You want to be an active participant in modern worldly life? Also good. Find a lucrative, prestigious profession and get to work. But what has worldly life to do with G‑d and G‑d with worldly life? The answer, of course, is everything.

Reprinted with permission from Wellsprings, a journal of Jewish thought.
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lenny levin Brooklyn October 7, 2017

Thank you for bringing the sense of a scientific approach to your discussion. Of course, the second law of thermodynamics is also known as the law of enthropy, which basically is a measurement of chaos. "Natural" is chaotic, creation requires energy; death and decay are the outcomes of a "gravitational" pull "down" while life and achievement signify ascension and therefore a "gravitational" pop. Reply

YY Israel February 28, 2017

Remarkable Remarkable how you managed to so fluidly express such deep concepts from the core of the Rebbe's teachings.

I felt that the idea of Mitzvos being our way of transforming the world could have been explained a bit more, but such a lack (if there really is one) shies away in comparison of the rest of the article.
Tremendous work! Reply

sue Kanata, ON June 23, 2011

Women and avodah Hello, I absolutely love the sense of logic within your article, and the orderly manner in which it is presented.
As for being considered "abnormal" over the celebration of Tu B'Shevat, what problem had your friends with the eating of figs?
Before I had ever read of Tu B'Shevat I was accustomed to enjoying a yearly winter festival, which I called "a trip to Mexico in a basket". I spread out a picnic tablecloth, and treated myself to massive bowls of fruit salad.
The custom of gifting neighbours with symbols of the divine fruiting of earth could well be remembered (and with a sense of utter normalcy) by kind spreads of fruits taken to the office, during those bleak February days in North America, when all is frozen and non-tillable. Reply

Anonymous Marlboro, NJ August 17, 2006

Unbelievable That article was stunning. Really hit the core. Yasher Koach! Reply