How Beauty Died…

Once upon a time, there was a world that was a place of magnificence, awe and beauty. We, as cognizant beings, were privy to a small glimpse of that beauty—even to grasp some of the wisdom that stood behind it.

And that is how we explained many things—as glimpses of a higher beauty.

Then we began to ingeniously measure everything. We measured the swinging of a pendulum. We measured the speed of falling objects. By counting and measuring, we found we could predict and invent. We found that when we spoke of quantities, we were far more accurate than our predecessors who spoke in terms of the qualities of things.

We found ways to apply algebra to the dimensions of objects. And then to the motion of objects—in the form of calculus. Rapidly, the universe began to divulge secrets we had never imagined. And rapidly, it became a very different universe. A world of numbers, and things that could be counted with numbers.

As for beauty, magnificence and all the rest—all those things that elude measurement—eventually they became the subjective realm of the human mind alone. Today, to some, they are mere illusions, epiphenomena somehow related to survival mechanisms in ways not yet fully understood.

…And Why She Never Had To

Art: Yoram Raanan
Art: Yoram Raanan

But this new paradigm begs a question: Is the human mind then an entity entirely separate from the cosmos it inhabits? How is it that out of a cold, mechanical universe emerges a warm, sentient being that feels, knows, is conscious and stands in awe before its beauty—a beauty that exists only as a figment of the gray matter in its skull?

Isn't this the height of human audacity—to assume that we are fantastic instances of consciousness that have somehow emerged out of a dumb universe?Isn't this the height of human audacity—to assume that we are fantastic instances of consciousness that have somehow emerged out of a dumb universe? Isn't this much like the teenager who can’t understand how such a bright guy like him came from parents who have no brains?

How did we come to such a bizarre delusion? Werner Heisenberg wrote:

In classical physics, science started from the belief —or should one say, from the illusion? – that we could describe the world, or at least parts of the world, without any reference to ourselves.

And elsewhere:

What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.

For 500 years, our questions have been with a caliper, a clock and Cartesian coordinates. Have we forgotten how to question with a raw sense of mind and being?

Thomas Kuhn called the transition from qualities to quantification the great paradigm shift. But in truth, was there ever a need to reject the original paradigm? Simply because the universe lends itself to measurement does that imply it is made of numbers? Simply because we cannot apply our science to that which cannot be measured does that imply that all things can be measured, and that all that counts can be counted?

Perhaps it is all a single paradigm. Perhaps the world is a place of beauty, passion, wisdom and consciousness, desire and delight—and those are its true being, its very soul—and yet all these manifest themselves in forms that can be measured.

And if you should ask: But if beauty is a thing that cannot be measured, then how is it that we can measure, weigh, calculate and predict its glimmer? Where does the magic happen that quality is transformed into quantities?

For this there is a simple retort: If the human mind is capable of transporting its perceptions of measurable, tangible objects on a journey to become things of awe and wonder, why should the reverse not also be possible—that awe and wonder should make their journey to appear in our world of tangible perception?

How Beauty Becomes Real

Art: Yoram Raanan
Art: Yoram Raanan

We ourselves are an analogy for such a universe: We dream, we love, we fear and we ponder. And then we express those inner feelings as outward expressions. Because I see you smile, does that mean there is nothing more to happiness than a muscular reaction of facial muscles?

And perhaps the most wondrous thing about this world is that it allows us to measure, predict and know anything at all.Perhaps the most wondrous thing about this world is that it allows us to measure, predict and know anything at all. That we can perceive its smile.

Indeed, this is precisely what mathematics is about: the power of metaphor, the wondrous capacity we have to perceive reality from multiple perspectives, on multiple planes. With mathematics, we are able to represent three—even four or more—dimensions on a two-dimensional plane, or even in the form of symbols on a page. But does that imply that there really are no dimensions, only symbols?

Wave-frequencies and durations are not music. The letters on a page are not the story of a book. So too all our numbers and calculations, as ingenious and useful as they may be, are not the universe itself.

And the proof—if I had all of them on my computer, I would still not have a universe. There is music, there is a story. There is a world.

This is also the secret of all art—the skill of the artist to squeeze his entire soul into the rules and disciplines of his art. The storyteller develops consistent, believable characters. The composer constricts his music to the rules of harmony and counterpoint. The artist determines his palette. The author know well the rules and constructs of his language.

Art is as much about constriction as it is about expression. You could even say that art is the act of quantifying beauty. And in that way, we, the created being, emulate our Creator as He expresses His own infinite, unknowable beauty in the tightly bounded and measurable terms of a real world.

How Our World Becomes Real

Art: Yoram Raanan
Art: Yoram Raanan

When we marry the two paradigms, a new concept of our world emerges.

Within the first paradigm, the true world is the world of perfect forms and qualities, a world beyond and above. Ours is a deep, dark cavern, with a crack here and there through which some distorted reflection of a reflection of that true light occasionally trickles in. It is a world to escape.

Within the second paradigm, there is nothing above. Beauty is a figment of the mind. All that is of value, then, is that which exists in our minds. It is a world to exploit.

When the two paradigms are seen as two facets of a single truth, everything changes.Marrying the two paradigms, a new appreciation of our world emerges. Our world is of inherent value. It is the ultimate expression of the divine. It is the ultimate work of art, and we are its players, its audience, and its privileged caretakers.

The great oceans, the forests, the virtually endless diversity of creatures of land, sky and sea—all are strokes lifted from a divine palette of beauty and magnificence.

The compassion of one human being for another, the wisdom gained from each day upon this earth, the cycle of giving life and watching that life give life—in these we know that which transcends knowing.

And how wondrous, how precious, how divine, the story of our own people, their endurance, the beauty of their deeds, and their oneness that cannot be found anywhere else in the world? In our story, and in our deeds—and in the endless wisdom of Torah that sustains that story and counsels those deeds—there we touch and merge with G‑d Himself, in a union that could not be had in any ethereal world.

As it stands on its own, the world is a nothingness. As a work of art, it is the ultimate expression of the beauty of its Creator. And of what value is beauty if there is no art?

How Beauty Is Above

Art: Yoram Raanan
Art: Yoram Raanan

In the Jewish tradition, this inner depth of magnificence, awesomeness, beauty, of wisdom, ingenuity and delight—these are called the divine sefirot. They are the modalities by which the Creator has chosen to express Himself in His world, and by which His creatures are capable of reaching out to their Creator.

The character of the human being is composed of a microform of those sefirot—in the words of the Magid of Mezritch, “as silent ashes are to a living tree.” They resonate as our sense of consciousness, our appreciation of beauty and our capacity to make sense of the universe in which we dwell.

The articulations, the strokes of beauty within each thing, those are the divine sparks, the force of life that sustains the very existence of each creature, and endows it with its particular nature.

Our role is to discover, to embrace, to cherish those sparks, and reconstruct them into a complete whole. Our Torah is our guide, and our goal is the messianic times, closely upon us.

How Beauty Appears At Every Moment

Art: Yoram Raanan
Art: Yoram Raanan

That would be a wonderful place to end. But it would lack integrity. The materialists, after all, deserve a better answer to a hard question: How is it that an abstraction such as beauty can be measured and handled in a world so tangible as ours?

Yes, we answered that. We said that is the power of metaphor. And all our world is a metaphor—just as is mathematics and art.

But the key to art is not simply to create. The artist must remove himself from his work, allowing it to be born into its own life.

And there is a crucial difference between the means by which we remove ourselves from our work and allow it to become real, and the way our world emerges into being.

The artist is capable of removing himself because he is not the creator of the resources that he chooses. We mold clay or silver, breathe sound into a flute, or mix and match the elements of human personality to contrive characters for our story. We shape that which is already there.

In the act of creating a universe from nothing, there are no such resources to work from.In the act of creating a universe, beauty itself must descend and crystalize into forms that can be touched and measured. Beauty itself must descend and crystalize into forms that can be touched and measured. And its Creator must be present within it at every moment, while concealing that presence at the same moment.

In the case of our world, not only the form and life of each being must be constantly streamed, but the very substance of each object, its time and space, and even its sense that it exists.

Which means that we are not mere projections of light. We, and everything in our world, are crystallizations of the creative force itself. That force is here, within each thing. It is being whatever that thing is—while at the same moment remaining entirely transcendent and concealed, so as to allow each being a sense that it truly exists.

And at the same time, nothing has ever left its origin. We sense our autonomy, our ego, our life of our own—and yet even that is nothing more than an articulation of our Creator’s desire. He desires a world that is truly a world.

Which is another way of saying G‑d is here now, while at the same time, entirely beyond. As the Zohar states, “You are He who grasps all things, and yet none of them can grasp You.”

The quantum fields that hold matter in its patterns of expansion and contraction, the trajectories of electrons and the vibrations of the most fundamental elements of our world—all are consistently sustained by a creative force, streaming forth from a higher wisdom. As are the flowering of a blossom, the bubbling of a brook, the mitosis of cells and the eruption of supernovae.

The energy of being flows continuously from the Source of Being, condensing and concealing itself within itself, again and again for uncountable agains, until ultimately crystallizing as our material reality—yet, all the time remaining a nothingness, as a ray of light within an infinite source of light, as a single articulation of being within a free and boundless Absolute Being.

So that if for a moment that current would cease, all of existence would cease with it. There would be no matter, no laws of physics, no fields of energy, nor dimensions of space. Not only would all these be gone, they would never have been, time itself would be erased. For they are nothing more than articulations of a higher will, and if for a moment there were no will that they should be, they never were.

And if the current would begin again, in some different way than it was before, then the world would be a new world, and the past would be a new past.

Which means that the past, the present, and the future, all begin now.

Beauty and the Now

Art: Yoram Raanan
Art: Yoram Raanan

No, we are not the authors of our world, nor the artists of this masterpiece. We are goats thrashing about in a rose-garden. Only that we are sentient goats, who should know better.

Yet, without an audience, there is no art. Without an audience, there is no art.And art is only created for the sake of an audience. If so, it is an interactive performance of sorts, piercing the fourth wall, so that performer and audience become one.

That is the teaching of all the great masters of the Kabbalah: that in this great work of purpose and meaning, we are vital players. Nothing can happen without us. And all that does happen depends on our deeds, here, in this world, now.

As Yehuda Moscato described us, we are the soloist of a grand concerto. As we play our part, so will the entire cosmos respond. If in dissonance, if in harmony.

The Mishnah teaches, “Know that which is above you.”

The Magid of Mezritch read that: “Know that all which occurs above comes from you.”

His pupil, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, read: “Know that all which exists above exists from you.”

And the Rebbe explained, “Know that all of time, from the very first emergence of existence until the end of time, begins with you, now. Because according to whatever you will do now, so is determined all that ever was, is, and will be.”

Each one of us sits at the vortex of magnificence. Everything depends on this moment now.