Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Kabbalah? Kabollocks!

I probably would have kept my mouth shut if Yosvani hadn’t asked me. Antonio was explaining the meaning of his kabbalistic tattoo in terms that were all new-age-y and I sat there thinking: “This sounds about as jewish as, well, tattooing does. Kabbalistic tattoos, what next, kosher bacon?” But then Yosvani asked me what I thought of my ancestral mysticism and so, with four pairs of eyes on me, I found myself, for the first time, struggling to impose some structure on twenty years of unsystematized thoughts.

Three factors shape my opinion about jewish mysticism. That its central documents are forgeries. That, like so much other jewish “thought”, it can only survive given wilful ignorance of the texts that it is supposed to elucidate. And, that, despite the occasional evocative image or beautiful aphorism, it consists, in the main, of such infantile turgidity and frangible tenuity that the only mystical question it truly raises is why any vaguely clear-minded adult would so subjugate their powers of natural reason to entertain even a scintilla of what it says. Kabbalah? Kabollocks more like.

* * *

I first heard of the kabbalah when I was about 12, from a teacher at school (one of the best I had, who inspired hard work from me and resentment from many others). He was circumspect, describing it as a collection of secrets which would enable anyone who mastered them to build and control a golem, a human-like creature formed from mud. It’s too long ago for me to remember whether he expressed any reservations at the idea of this muddy robo-jew. But I’ve met rabbis since—ones who have had secular upbringings, even, and so have chosen, as adults, to accept jewish lore one logic-destroying belief at a time—who took the claim quite seriously. I was fascinated and wanted to know more, not so much about the golem, but about the secrets. I imagined them as a long list of questions that you had to reason your way through, like a really hard version of the logic problems that one of the school’s maths teachers used to set. But he was evasive, as if he shouldn’t have mentioned it to me. Which, of course, piqued my interest further.

My first encounter with the kabbalistic texts themselves followed a year or so later, from the school rabbi. It was the time of year when one reads of Jacob, who, having wrestled with an angel, was blessed by him. I happened to be passing the rabbi’s office and he called me in. I think it was the Zohar, the Book of Radiance, that lay open on his desk. I remember my meeting with the Zohar the way that others remember their first gay kiss: years spent dreaming of something so hopelessly unattainable and, suddenly, in a moment, with no prior expectation, you’re in someone’s arms, and they’re open to you and the world has changed, what was forbidden is actual, what was remote is tangible.

The rabbi held his auburn beard with his left hand and traced the line of text with the forefinger of his right, translating the Aramaic as he went. The passage described the blessing by the angel. How Jabob’s head rested on the stone. How his forehead was anointed with oil. How the oil seeped down—over his temples?—in and around his beard. Maybe there was a description of the stone itself. The power of the imagery remains visceral with me, even if the details are scant—I’ve never seen the passage again in the twenty years since.

Some time later, I mentioned to the sons of a different rabbi, from a more “classical” tradition, that I’d seen some of the Zohar. (I didn’t mention how. That would have been far too incriminating for the auburn-bearded rabbi.) The reaction was one of horror, far greater, I think, than if I had described to them my first gay kiss. And theirs was a father who thought it appropriate to lecture children on the evils of homosexuality.

In reality, though, kabbalistic ideas have become very ambient in judaism. If you hang around a yeshiva (jewish seminary)—and I did—you encounter them. They’re not presented as mysticism. They’re just part of what you learn, like tidbits and sweeteners. Why the bible begins with the second letter of the alphabet, why the ten commandment begin with the first, how the shape of the first letter signifies the separation between man and god… They leaven the loaf of bland Aramaic legalities: what compensation must be paid for damages inflicted by an escaped ox, what pattern abandoned money must be in for you to be permitted to claim it, …

* * *

Aramaic—the language of Jesus and my biblical namesake Daniel, lingua franca of Assyria and bureaucratic lubricant of Babylon—is the language of jewish mysticism, as well as of jewish law. And I loved Aramaic when I was a teenager. Hebrew was what we were given, but Aramaic was something you had to figure out for yourself. Whenever we were told to translate a text, I would ignore the Hebrew and read the Aramaic translation that ran, in small print, down the side of the page. And then I found that other editions offered a second translation into Aramaic, less literal, more interpretative, and with slight differences in language. I mentioned this to my senior at the yeshiva and he said that you didn’t really understand Aramaic until you could read the legal texts, which he was only too happy to show me. From there, we went onto other Aramaic texts, working, for instance, verse by verse, through the florid, expansive translation of the Book of Esther, with its detailed description of the throne of Ahasueros and, I think, a cameo from the Queen Sheba.

So, when I later returned to the Book of Radiance, I did so with some good Aramaic under my belt. Its murky strangeness was immediately striking. Not the ideas, but the language. It was so unnatural. Admittedly, it isn’t as eggregious what you find on www.engrish.com (“Keep Clean Environment with taking to Everyone’s heart”, “let’s feel urgently the fresh family’s atmosphere”). It’s more like the cooking instructions off a 1980’s pot noodle: slightly quirky, clearly foreign. And the book has an equally murky history: some guy in the thirteenth century turns up claiming it’s an accidental find by a deceased rabbi who sent it to him from Israel… Sometime later, some more of it pops up. In other words, provenance and language both suggest it is a fraud. Taking it seriously as an authoritative jewish text is a bit like treating the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as historical fact. So, why isn’t it recognized for the fraud it is?

To say that faith lies at the core of religion is a mistake. Credulousness does. One simply greets with credulity the texts one is given, accepting their authenticity without question. Alternatives are unimaginable. One is explicitly taught to defer to rabbinic authority. So, to reject a text is to reject the rabbinate. It’s apostasy, pure and simple.

But beyond credulity lies something more sinister. Blindness. A key part of a jewish (and other) education is the development of selective blindness. The books of Moses were meant to be given at Mount Sinai. If you’re a christian, working off a bible translated at a particular point in time and carefully edited for consistency of style and tone, then it’s easy to think that the five books are by the same author. If you’re a jew, reading the original, it should be completely impossible. To get a feel for the range—from rhythmic verse, through well paced prose, to dull and listy legalities—try reading the King James translation for one chapter and then switching to a modern translation for the other. Yes, they’re both English, but you’d never assume they’re by the same author. The grammar is different, the vocabulary is different, the style is different, even the personality is different.

The only way that traditionally educated jews manage to maintain the illusion of textual unity is by developing systematic blindness. One simply never thinks, let alone asks, about style, variation, or grammar. Sure, you may ask why a phrase is repeated with apparent redundancy. (If Noah’s children were walking backwards to cover their drunken father, why add that they did not see him? That’s the point of walking backwards.) But no one ever asks why at some point plural verbs lose their final -n (as English lost the -st from comest), or where the accusative+passives went in later books. And just as you never question the variation in Moses’ Hebrew, so you never question the unnaturalness of the mysticism’s pot noodle Aramaic. It’s like asking what your first gay kiss was like. Good yeshiva boys know not to.

* * *

There is an urban legend that goes around traditional communities—think of the rabbi’s sons horrified by my adolescent flirtations (the mystical ones, not the masculine ones)—that you do not start studying the mysticism until your knowledge of the legal texts is such that, if a pin is driven through to a random point on a random page, you will be able to say which word it has hit. In other words, the mysticisms have, supposedly, been developed and revealed by scholars whose knowledge of core judaism is as wide and as profound as could possibly be.

And, like every other urban legend, it is false. And demonstrably so. And showing that the mysticism rests on core ignorance of jewish texts is not a minor problem, but a catastrophically major one—one which not only undoes the urban legend of intellects steeped in learning who only then progress to mysticism, but which undermines one of the core branches of mystical study itself.

Gallons of kabbalistic elbow grease have been shed on the shape and symbolism of Hebrew letters. I mentioned above how aleph represents the separation between man and god. Another example is the special significance of the change in shape that five particular letters take on at the end of words (foretelling, if memory serves, the end of days). This in turn leads to such profound questions of physics as how, when the letters of the ten commandments burned like fire on the stone tablets that Moses brought down the mountain, the centres of letters like O could have avoided falling out. These are physico-spiritual matters as consequential to judaism as the angels that could cohabit a pinhead were to christianity.

Embarrassingly, however, the talmud itself, the very core of jewish law, is perfectly clear—and any archaeologist or linguist with the relevant background will confirm—that there are two alphabets, one truly of the Hebrews, the other borrowed from Babylon; the latter, the Aramaic alphabet, was sanctioned for mundane uses, where the genuine Hebrew alphabet, because it is so holy, was restricted to holy affairs—such as those very mystical relations between god and man, and god and creation, and god and his symbols, which the kabbalists make a pretence of studying. In other words, the alphabet used for Hebrew isn’t the Hebrew alphabet and it isn’t the alphabet which Moses would have used as god’s secretary.

So, the clever explanation about the separation between man and god (aleph is a bar separating two yods) is incoherent. The real aleph looks like A, with an elongated crossbar, turned on its side (looking like the head of the ox that the letter is named after). And the spiritual significance of the five letters that mutate their form at the end of a word is zero: there are none in the real Hebrew alphabet. And the question of physics is likewise reduced to absurdity: the letters to which the rabbis ascribed special significance (s & m) don’t have “holes” in the real Hebrew alphabet. But b, d, and q do—just as in English, who knew we were so spiritual!—as do four others.

* * *

So, the central documents of the mysticism are forgeries, to which the rabbinic community remains wantonly and wilfully blind. And this tradition, supposedly steeped in deep scholarship, is fundamentally ignorant of the texts it purports to elucidate. Which raises a very basic question: given that false premises sooner or later yield false conclusions, why, in a thousand years of study, has none of its students ever noticed those false conclusions?

The answer is simple. Because the mysticism is entirely bereft of content. No conclusion you can ever reach, no lesson you can ever learn, is of any significance to the real world. The whole enterprise is just a bunch of guys noticing that the same sequence of letters occurs in two places and saying, “That’s like totally cool man”, “Yeah it’s like mystical dude” and adding it to an ever expanding list of observations that ought to have no other purpose than the design of crossword clues.

I’m not going exaggerating with analogy to the crossword clues. The full absurdity of mystical thought needs seeing to be believed. Or disbelieved.

The answer to “The very thin girl has it all”—a Times clue from years back—is EVERYTHING: thE VERY THIN Girl has a part meaning “all”. Compare that to the idea that real blessings are associated with kneeling because “knee” (berech) is part of the word “blessing” (berachah). Crossword adepts might also think of the trick of using flower to refer to rivers, because one can “misread” flower as flow-er, thing that flows, as a river does.

Here’s another, even older clue: “Stone recognized only by ten, not fifty”. The answer is ONYX. One gets to that stone by placing ONLY by X, the Roman numeral for “ten”, and making sure that there is “not fifty” by removing the Roman numeral L. Again, this is the quintessentially kabbalistic principle of treating letters as numbers and using them to transition between words of unrelated meanings. For instance, the kabbalistic proof of the evils of speaking badly is that, if you subtract “tooth” from “evil doer” (both interpreted Roman-numeral style, as numbers) then you end up at the number corresponding to “righteous man”—though one might also take this as an argument for good dental care. This enterprise (gematriah) is huge amongst kabbalists and crosswords buffs alike.

Other great kabbalistic principles involve such standard crossword fare as muddling with the order of letters and interpreting a word according to a meaning that has in an entirely unrelated context. Doubtless, a kabbalistic “proof” that Columbus discovered America would run: Columbus means “dove”, which in Hebrew is yonah, and the prophet of the same name (Jonah) was swallowed by a whale and crossed an ocean, just as Columbus later did. Nothing but a loose string of associations, which should be no more than an amusement for kids. And yet these infantile absurdities are promoted as the crowning intellectual and spiritual achievement of the jewish tradition.

Why is the mysticism kept away from teenagers and only “revealed” to people inextricably embedded in the community? Because blindness comes with age. It was a child who had the courage to announce that the emperor had no clothes. The adults didn’t dare but play along.

* * *

When I told Yosvani my considered opinion a day after our original conversation—that the kabbalah is a fraud, founded on ignorance, fuelled by absurdities, and perpetuated by wilful blindness--he had a question of practicalities. Does the kabbalah make you a better person? Does it teach things that are fundamentally good?

My memory is patchy here. I do remember that there is a strong emphasis on not defaming people, on acting in such a way as to preserve the good reputation of others. But within the context of judaism, that is not uniquely a kabbalistic concern. And, in fact, the great quantity of the jewish moral teachings belong to the nonmystical canon. The mysticism is mostly concerned with absurdities outlined above, fake questions with even faker answers.

This is not to deny that, amid the tumult of turgidity and tenuity, there are passages of real radiance. The force of the imagery of Jacob’s blessing, as said, stays with me some twenty years later, after just a single exposure. And the references to kissing above are not gratuitous. One passage, which I can still recall in Aramaic, is as ready on my tongue as some of the sonnets I learned as a teenager: “True love of spirit for spirit can be expressed only with a kiss. For a kiss is with the mouth, and the mouth is the source and the outlet of the spirit, and when they kiss one another, the spirits are one, and the love is one.” Mysticism always inspires poetry. So, if you sift the inordinate sludge and slurry, you will find the occasional gem. If only someone would anthologize the good bits, so we could ignore the dross.

And what, then, of Antonio, for whom the kabbalah has deep personal significance? Shortly after we met, he flew overseas to be with a close friend in his last days. I hesitate to snatch a crutch from anyone whose spirituality offers fixedness in a world so suddenly full of pain and flux. However, if his interpretation of the kabbalah is not true kabbalah, then it is one he has invented for himself. Therefore, the strength he sees in the texts is simply the reflection of a strength he carries within him. He has no need of mystics to survive this or any other crisis. A berachah (blessing) pure and simple—no beardy word games, no pot noodle Aramaic.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Church of Anti-Evolution and the imminent rise of religious pro-evolutionists

In the rough-and-tumble rigour of right-thinking, free-thinking modernity, ancient man-made religions struggle to evolve a niche for their arthritic man-made deities. Change is tough when you keep a facade of eternal immutability.

Faced with the challenge, many have embraced anti-evolutionism with gay abandon. But what is this queer fascination in the anti-evolutionist camp? After all, many christians came out as prodarwinians when Darwin first published.

Perhaps something in their upbringing forces anti-evolutionists to fixate unnaturally on their own kind and makes them devalue or despise normal, heterogeneous relationships. But with anti-evolution quickly evolving into the shibboleth of the faithful, what the god-free and sensible need to get straight is: What is this Church of Anti-Evolution and when will it crumble?

Three aspects of anti-evolutionism are intriguing: its arbitrariness, its irrelevance, and its misdirectedness. The last of these is the most fascinating, as it entails that we will soon witness the birth that of a religious movement that is as diametrically opposed to anti-evolutionism as anti-evolutionism now is to evolution. Let’s examine the three aspects in turn.

First, the bible is overbrimming with defunct myths. Consider physics, geology, or even linguistics:
  • Microwave background radiation—and the rest of the slew of modern astronomy—shrinks the tumescent sprawl of a grasping god. Yet few activists clammer for physics not to be taught in schools, as they do for evolution.
  • Geologists’ rubble is far mightier than the hammer Abraham wielded against his in-law’s idols. Yet we rely inextricably on extraction of oil and minerals from within the earth and these are industrial applications of geological science are especially beloved of the Bible Belt.
  • Linguistic reconstruction traces a non-biblical, non-babelical path for the origin of languages and shows, of course, that Hebrew is the child, not the parent, language. Babel thwarts god much more soundly than god thwarts Babel.
Evolution is, scientifically, a completely arbitrary hang up.

Second, DNA is what the faith-ridden should live in fear of. If all humanity descends from Noah, this should be clear in our DNA. Genes should reconstruct to a Middle-Eastern ancestor. But DNA points to Africa. Genetic diversity should be greatest in the Middle East and should peter out as we retreat from Ararat. But Africa greatly outstrips the Middle East in DNA diversity. And the few “post-flood” generations could not have given rise to the range of human genetic variation that is attested. The media would have been all over any hint of a genetic timeline close to the biblical one.

The godly can’t play the “just a theory” ploy for DNA as they do for evolution. “Sure, we use DNA technology to convict criminals, to exonerate the innocent, to screen for disease, to develop cures, to feed the world, to save lives, but it’s just a theory.” Just a theory, but one they adhere to religiously.

How about the compatibility ploy? For instance, Rabbi Shmuley huffs huffs that “the Biblical account of creation easily accommodates an evolutionary ascent” because “G-d created first the mineral, then the vegetable, then the animal, and finally human life forms” (previous post). (G-d, y-u’re such a j-ker, making it like laws of nature did all the work!) What’s the equivalent compatibility ploy for DNA? That god monkeyed with the genes of Noah’s offspring to locate human origins in Africa? (Such a j-ker, Mr G-d, such a big sh-t!) How hole-y can the holy writ get?

And this leads to aspect number three. It’s only a matter of time before the religious hit on the perfect solution to this conundrum: their old foe, evolution. If you need to account for post-flood genetic spread, then suped up selection is the perfect tool. We can all look forward to the spectacle of the faithful vehemently urging that natural selection does far more, not far less, than scientists said it does: it accounts for the genetic range across humanity in just a few post-deluvial generations. There’ll soon be “scientific” grounds for believing in a biblical origin of Africa’s genetic wealth (maybe that’s what became of the lost tribe…). And alongside the institutes for ‘creation “science”’ and “‘intelligent” design’, we’ll soon see ‘post-flood “evolutionary genetics”’.

How do you present a 180-degree turn as the immutable word of god? Well, evolution is full of surprises.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Church of Evolution: preview of a book unfinished, unpublished, and unread

Rabbi Shmuley (who, it transpires, is not an invention of 30Rock) has been kind enough to add me to his mailing list, and without me having to pray to Santa. The two of us have little in common but his bearded mutterings make for a lovely guffaw at breakfast. So, I stay subscribed.

His latest comes when I’m on holiday and have time to ponder profundities. The author of the forthcoming Church of Evolution (Santa, can you hear me?) asks: Does questioning evolution make you anti-science?

What quality of publication is so titillatingly titled a tract likely to be? Too impatient to wait for release, I’m going to hazard a guess based on the powers of logic manifest in Shmuley’s Huffington. Alas, Shmuley’s gordian beard is something even Ockham’s razor will strain to tame.

Look how many errors he can cram into a single sentence! “No scientist has ever witnessed evolution directly and science itself says that this is impossible given the vast amount of time needed for species to evolve.” One sentence, four errors. That’s more than an error every seven words.
  1. Loads of scientists have seen evolution. And they are dwarfed by the number of non-scientists who have seen it, all too close and personal. As rodents, insects, bacteria, and viruses acquire resistance to our means to combat them, we are watching, and suffering, evolution in action.
  2. Science, then, obviously does not say that seeing evolution is impossible.
  3. What science actually says is that speciation takes more time than any one observer can give it (not the same as saying that you can’t catch evolution in the act).
  4. And what’s with this demand for observables? Observables are fine, but deducibles are what science is about. Deducibles and explanations. If we are only to believe in observables, then we should all denounce the millennium. (All of that “year two thousand” nonsense that the Christians were going on about was clearly a big hoax. After all, no one has ever lived to see a millennium. Not even Methuselah…)
This doesn’t bode well for Shmuley’s Church. But maybe such errors are collateral damage in his higher purpose. So, why is he airing these and other errors in public?

Rabbi Shmuley is rallying to the defence of Republican presidential hopeful, Rick Perry, who recently cited gaps in current understanding of evolution as grounds for general scepticism, and Paul Krugman went all Nobel-laureate on him in the New York Times. Shmuley is the man for the task because has been “reading extensively on evolution” since the 1990’s, and has organised, moderated, and participated in debates against such venerable evolution-populists as Richard Dawkins.

Watching how Shmuley moves from gaps in theories to chasms in reasoning tells us much about the likely quality of Church of Evolution.

His basic case is that he and others have unmasked the truth that Dawkins and similar refuse to admit: “evolutionists have a tough time defending the theory when challenged in open dialogue”. (He doesn’t consider that debating an opponent who can cram four errors into a single sentence is like fighting off a locust swarm with a fly swat.) The fact Shmuley thinks this is worth saying, and that he goes on about it at length, reveals how unqualified he is to write about evolution.

An extensive reader on evolution cannot fail to observe that there are people currently publishing scientific articles about evolution. This is a deep and profound observation, so I’d better not let it pass by unbelaboured. Today, at this very moment, now in fact, there are scientists, yes real live scientists, who do science professionally, and these scientists are publishing research into evolution in a myriad of journals (or maybe it’s a panoply), and these very journals are dedicated to publishing nothing but the research of such scientists. What could this profound and inscrutable revelation possibly mean?

One explanation is that scientists know everything possible about evolution. Every single thing there is to know, they know it. They discovered it ages ago and they have no unanswered questions left. Not a single, niggling one. And so to fill the void in their lives, they publish the same unoriginal, non-finding over and over again, in different journals, whilst failing to see the gaps that Shmuley-Perry’s perceive.

No, that’s not it. The extensive reader on evolution must surely have figured out that the reason there are still scientists answering questions about evolution is because they themselves are still asking them. And why do people ask questions? They do so to make a rhetorical point. Or else to identify and fill a gap in their knowledge.

So, if you want to prove that there are gaps in evolutionary theory, you don’t need to extensive reading starting in the 1990’s. You don’t need to organize, moderate, participate in, or even attend debates about evolution. All you need to do is check to see whether there are scientists working on the theory of evolution and you know it’s not a done deal.

This is so blindingly obvious that one has to wonder why the author of Church of Evolution bothers to comment on it.

The reason is that gaps have special significance to the religious. They are fundamental currency for the godly. God, you see, is basically play-doh. Sure, they come in prepackaged parcels, but God and play-doh can be squeezed into any shape you want. And, in particular, as my pre-school niece will gladly demonstrate, there isn’t a gap you can’t squeeze play-doh into. So, show the godly a conclusion they don’t like and they grasp for gaps, just as the thirsty, given a tetrapak, grasp at straws.

But if the gaps really were god-shaped—that is, if the gaps really did undermine the scientific quest for understanding—then surely scientists would have figured this out by now and gone off and done something else. After all, some of them have phd’s and are bright enough to publish in journals. And scientists are really good at killing off ideas that don’t work (remember ether? how about phlogiston?).

So, the godly grasp at gaps in theories because they hope to squeeze god into them. But the easiest way to check for gaps—by asking whether there are scientists at work—is also the surest way to tell you that aren’t any god-shaped gaps going.

You don’t need to be “reading extensively on evolution” to reach this conclusion. Think about it. Does Road construction ahead mean ‘Road with flaws’ or ‘Road inconstructible’? Does it mean ‘No road can ever be built here’ or ‘Experts say a road can and should be built here’? Going on about gaps in theories is a sign that one’s extensive reading is outsized by the extensive gap in one’s understanding.

The moment towards the end of his Huffington where Rabbi Shmuley reveals that god-shaped gaps are what he’s really after, also reveals a second reason as to why he is ill-suited to assess the state of science. He writes that “the Biblical account of creation easily accommodates an evolutionary ascent, seeing as … G-d created first the mineral, then the vegetable, then the animal, and finally human life forms. The only question is whether or not this was guided.”

Where scientists seek explanations, all Shmuley offers is compatibility. His alternative—to graffiti “cos God said so” on every scientific paper that comes his way—explains nothing. Science moves forward when people find places where rival accounts become incompatible and then test them. Incompatibility is key to explanation. So Shmuley’s grand idea is useless. Anything compatible with everything explains nothing.

So, what does this bode for Shmuley’s future Church? If its author can squeeze four errors into a single sentence, rebuttal point-by-point will be pointless (remember the locusts). So we must ask instead: does Rabbi Shmuley have the logical wherewithal to assess the state of evolutionary science in the first place? Well, for one thing, he doesn’t realize that ‘Scientists at work’ is one of the best guarantees we can have for the validity of major ideas—just as ‘Road construction ahead’ means ‘Experts see this as the best way forward’. There is no road from gappy to holy. Moreover, after all his “extensive reading”, he still doesn’t know what evolutionary theory is for. We want explanations, and explanations arise from incompatibilities. Shmuley’s approach is compatible not only with the truth, but with every delusion imaginable.

The gap-happy Church of Evolution will doubtless enlighten us as to the evolving nature of anti-evolutionism and the forces that animate it. But pray for the trees that are felled to print it, for they will be pulp not once, but twice.