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The Worlds We Cannot See
Science has taught us that we are limited by our instruments: with the naked eye, we cannot see infrared or x-rays; our ears cannot detect entire frequency ranges; our noses are not tuned for a world of scents available to both animals and mass spectrographs. Within the physical world, we have long since accepted that our perceptions cannot capture the full range of data.
But there is more to the world than what can be physically measured, or deduced using scientific methods. Indeed, even trying to use the tools of science to measure the value of a sonnet, a rousing speech, or the shared joy within a loving marriage is a fool’s errand. We need to accept that there is a world beyond the physical, a world that may be created by words and concepts – like those of love and freedom, a world that delivers its own reflection within the human soul. This is the world that gives us hope – or despair. Just because we cannot see the spiritual plane does not mean it is not there – any more than the fact that we cannot see G-d does not prove that He is not there!
At some level, even for those who think the physical world is the only reality, it seems clear that people are guided or limited by their worldviews. If someone believes in the American Dream, that sense of optimism can lead to self-fulfillment. Alternatively, if someone believes in unalterable fate and destiny, there is a decided absence of imagination and hope, especially among those born into poverty.
For lack of a better term, allow me to henceforth refer to the measurable world as the “physical world,” and the non-measurable world as the “spiritual world.”
I want to go even further. And there are two propositions, both supported by the Torah:
1: Unwillingness to acknowledge and accept the existence of the spiritual world makes it impossible for us to rise above the level of mere animals.
2: The spiritual world is an echoing mirror of what we do in the physical world. In other words, we create and modify the spiritual world through the choices we make. As far as we know, we are the content providers for the spiritual realm.
Let’s start with the first adherent: a person who does not acknowledge the existence of a spiritual world. Such a person denies the existence of a soul (considering the concept to be something of a myth). To them, love can be described and explained using hormones in the brain, and essentially all human decision-making can be boiled down to an essentially deterministic set of inputs and outputs. To such a person, there is no real romance, no “true” love, and certainly no spiritual divinity beyond the things that can be seen in the world around us. They claim that the entire world is only what they can see and feel – in other words, that humans are nothing more than animals, and that there is no spiritual plane at all!
This mindset is quite common today, especially in the “enlightened” atheist West. It leads to very poor relationship-building (since everything beautiful and mysterious is reduced to physical phenomena), and putting the natural world first and foremost. It also emphasizes that humans are animals – by which its practitioners suggest that we should be nothing more or less than animals, slaves to our instincts and desires, and incapable of unique creations, thoughts, or even relationships.
The second proposition is far more central to the Torah – and quite possibly, one of the concepts that exists in Judaism but not in Christianity. This is the concept that mankind creates and modifies the spiritual world through the choices we make.
Where does my contention come from? An extensive set of commandments that have everything to do with a world that cannot be quantified or measured using any instruments we know: the spiritual mirror to the physical world.
The specific commandments include eating designated holy food while being spiritually unready (Lev. 7:20-1, 22:3), intimacy with a woman who is spiritually unready (Lev. 20:18), and choosing to remain spiritually unready when there is an option to be spiritually cleansed and become able to spiritually elevate (Num. 19:13). It all sounds very abstract, but it boils down to a simple core concept: the Torah is telling us that our words and deeds create results in the spiritual mirror-world.
This assertion runs directly counter to modern sensibilities. People do all kinds of things with their bodies and declare that they don’t matter, because what we do with our bodies is not important in any larger sense. “It was only sex,” is a familiar refrain. This way of thinking is deeply, profoundly anti-Torah. If we deny that there is a spiritual plane, we deny that our lives matter, and that our choices matter.
These specific commandments are “red lines” within the Torah: violating them invokes being cut off from the people, being cut off from a relationship with G-d. Someone who fails to appreciate and understand that their actions have a massive mirrored impact in the spiritual world has reduced their life and impact on this world to that of an intelligent animal. A Jew must see ourselves as part of a much bigger and more ambitious picture: that everything we do, as small or large as it may appear, makes an impact on that spiritual world – even to the point of making an impact on G-d Himself. As the text makes clear, mankind can change G-d’s mind, which makes us potentially very powerful, indeed!
I submit that this way of seeing things also helps give meaning to what happens to this world after we are no longer alive. In a physical sense, dead is dead. When we are gone, we are – by definition – no longer here. This is true if the only way we can measure someone is by the space they fill, or the resources they consume or create – in other words, by their physical presence as living beings.
But we also know that great figures in history are still with us, because their thoughts and deeds influence our lives. It is true for not-famous people as well: those who loved us in our past have left an echo of themselves, even when they no longer live. When people – even those who did not procreate – leave this mortal coil, there is an imprint on everyone they interacted with while living, through every kind word, gesture, or expressed thought. Some memories are specific and more tangible than others, but all interactions leave some kind of a mark, even a subtle one. In the spiritual mirror world around us, all the things we did while we were alive leave an impression that carries on after we have passed on. Our lives make a difference for having been lived.
A key definitional part of what it means to be a Jew requires each of us to embrace that what we say and do leads to a corresponding impact on the spiritual world.Published in General
Where did you get the idea that Christianity doesn’t hold that words and deeds can have spiritual results?
Christianity is pretty famous for holding that our words and deeds can have spiritually eternal consequences.
I am no expert in Christianity – which is why I qualified with “quite possibly.”
But I am pretty sure that Christians do not believe that man can change G-d’s mind – because that would be changing G-d. And Christians hold that something that is perfect is unchanging and unchangeable. While Judaism absolutely believes that we have a real impact on G-d Himself.
I also understood that many Christians believe that Grace or Salvation come (or don’t) regardless of Good Works. Am I in error?
Sure, there are flavors of Christians who believe in predestination, and Protestantism in general draws a distinction between “faith” and “works” in favor of the former. So your comment may have more applicability there than with, say, Roman Catholicism, which is my faith. Fair enough. Catholics don’t draw that distinction and sees “works” as a manifestation of “faith”. Even more, Catholics view holy works as a means through which Jesus Christ works through us in an ongoing process of redeeming the world.
Catholics also believe in petitionary prayer as well as an unchanging God, which might seem something of a contradiction. I still pray for the soul of my mother who died a dozen years ago. I guess the way I understand it is that God created time and exists Himself in eternity; I pray to Him in time but the prayers are heard in eternity, i.e. God knew from the creation of the world what my prayers would be and has eternally responded to them. So there is no change in God in the sense that my prayers come as a surprise to Him.
This was the nexus of war and argument for centuries among Christians. The result has been that, as I understand it, today most Christians believe it is a mix of good works and grace. It is faith that propels us into seemingly hopeless good works. :)
You cite as evidence of the spiritual world things rooted in human perception, emotion, longing, passion, and other feelings. You’re in good company in that regard: C.S. Lewis made the same argument in, if I remember correctly, The Problem of Pain, in his discussion of our sense of the numinous.
But it seems to me that such a focus on internalized evidence leaves one vulnerable to challenges from cognitive science. No, we can’t “measure the value of a sonnet.” But we might be able to explain why our sense of the value of a sonnet is what it is, what factors of rhyme and imagery contribute to our appreciation. It isn’t hard to come up with plausible evolutionary explanations for our sense of beauty and ugliness, virtue and vice.
I appreciate Christian apologetics. I think it is, for a great many people, the most sophisticated and intellectually challenging structured discourse they ever encounter. I also think it’s just good for us. But I wonder if apologetics isn’t, to the extent that it attempts to explain relatable aspects of our world and of our lives, nearing a crisis point: metaphysics has long since stopped offering compelling answers for most of our questions about the physical world; increasingly, cognitive science offers answers (if not necessarily encouraging ones) about the things going on in our heads.
Perhaps it would be best to look at faith as simply something one embraces, a la Hebrews 11:1, with neither reason nor rhyme.
Agreed. I was using what we could feel as a entryway to the concept of things we cannot sense – what the KJV calls “clean” and “unclean” (I translate hamfistedly but more accurately as “able to elevate” and “unable to elevate”) – qualities that cannot be detected in any way except through the knowledge of the person who has been exposed, for example, to a dead body.
For me at least, description is not the main point – prescription is. The very best humans cannot be modeled, because they adapt and create, invent and change. The ability to create things that never existed before is a quality endowed by G-d.
This works for some. I know people who are utilitarian about it (the outcomes work better), or recognize that meaning and purpose makes us happier, more productive, etc. The Torah is not even all that interested in what we think – it is much more interested in what we do. In that sense, Good Works (encapsulated by the commandments) are what make a good Jew, not belief in G-d.
The concept of holiness seems to be in a world of language and understanding that rarely, if ever, intersects with the language of science.
Getting a bit out over your skis.
At least have the humility to admit that you do not understand this side of the ledger any more than we understand yours.
Organizing for easier reading
I did qualify with “essentially.” Economics and sociology and other “people” sciences purport to predict human behavior using a statistical spread. And the Covid experiment proved that people can be trivially manipulated on a global scale. Certainty? No. High likelihoods that equate to “essentially deterministic”? Yes, I think my point stands.
Your point is good – I overstated. But you do seem to adhere to what is known as “Scientism,” sometimes defined as “the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society.” Which, to me, suggests a decided disbelief in the spiritual side of things.
Whereas I choose the prescriptive approach: we can be seen as an animal, but we can also be seen as being able to connect with the divine. The Torah teaches us to aim high. Those who see humans as animals in turn have much lower expectations. People often perform toward the expectations.
All labels and categories are ultimately arbitrary (there is no underlying fundamental line between, say, a mammal or a reptile), which means the ones we choose to live in accordance with are very important.
I am arguing for the way we choose to see things. If we see people as animals, then that is what we are. If we see people as divinely-ensouled, then our potential is quite a bit different. You admit you see man as a super-animal. I see man as able to rise above our physical existence into the spiritual.
My whole life I have been surrounded by your side of the ledger. It is the dominant point of view for the common culture. It is not so hard to understand.
If you understand yet still misrepresent, then I suppose we have a different sort of disagreement.
People see things differently. I think that is a feature, not a bug. Neither of us is acting in bad faith.