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Perfection and Its Discontents
Greeks promoted the notion of “perfection” – that there was such a thing as a perfect ratio, or a perfect body. And this word and concept has similarly entered our modern world: perfection has become the standard against whom everyone or everything is measured. Sadly, it is also part of our religious thinking as well: the concept that some people are “almost” perfect, for example.
The problem with the notion of perfection is that it is not only hard to achieve, but that it is, itself, a lie.
Take, for example, a simple physical object – a little cube. It might look like a perfect cube, but if you look closely enough, you will find that it is full of imperfections and impurities. The dimensions themselves can only be measured within certain tolerances, limited by instruments. There is nothing in this world that is “perfectly” any dimension at all, given that even a measurement is true only for a specific temperature and atmospheric pressure and composition of the ambient air… the list is endless.
People are attracted to the very idea of timeless perfection, which is one reason why diamonds are prized. Layer after layer of ordered carbon atoms, in existence since they were squeezed by enormous volcanic pressures seem like the antidote to a world of biological frailty and endless change. But while diamonds are closer to perfect, one of the ways in which they are proven to be natural is because they have certain kinds of impurities! Which means that they are not perfect at all.
The other thing about the idea of perfection is that it is inherently static. If a flawless diamond were to somehow be found to exist, it would be an unchanging and unchanged thing. A diamond is dead. So, too, a perfect Greek ratio, or what Greeks might call a perfect statue, all have this in common: they are much like a dead rock, and very unlike a living person.
Even our theoretical diamond can only be perfect in itself. Once it is exposed to people, or water vapor or even just air, then it will be affected and tainted by that exposure, even if only at the surface. Like a perfect military battle plan, all bets are off once contact is made.
We see this most clearly of all in the realm of human interaction. At every moment, the self-conscious person is making choices from a menu of potential actions. Each action will come with a host of potential outcomes, and the process and product are inherently messy and unpredictable. So decision-making is itself highly dynamic, with no options that can be said to be remotely perfect. Our decisions are always between things that we judge to have lesser or greater degrees of goods or evils, and those metrics are themselves necessarily highly subjective. Everyone assigns different values to goods – which is why even highly compatible married couples have much to discuss when living a life together. Even if everyone means to be a good person, we always have to accommodate our different tolerances for risk, for planning, for justifying one good work instead of another.
This makes a mockery of the notion that it is possible to live a perfect life.
Assume that the above is true. What then? Why is it wrong to have an ideal for perfection, to strive for something even when we know it is out of reach?
The answer is that if we believe in perfection, then we have confused the product with the process.
Life is a process. It is the way in which we make decisions and seek to improve ourselves and the world around us. That process inherently requires compromises and concessions, weighing certain goods above others, and above all, making decisions that choose one path that makes all the other paths impossible.
Think of it like marriage. There is no perfect marriage, just as there are no perfect couples. Nevertheless, any marriage requires commitment to one person, “forsaking all others.” The process is never simple but the result of a beautiful marriage can be absolutely incredible. It is, however, never perfect.
We live in a dangerous world. The world is clearly not perfect. Every suggestion that the world is, indeed, perfect, runs counter to all of human experience. We have death and illness and evil. Our world is populated by dangerous animals, and even the most friendly natural environments contain numerous risks to human health and life. The most dangerous of all, of course, are people themselves. People are extremely powerful, capable of creation – and destruction.
It is important to acknowledge that perfection should not even be a goal, because once we can eliminate perfection as a target, then we open the door to a whole new world of opportunities.
For example, people are often indecisive because they are trying to find the “right” answer to a question. This indecision can tie us in knots and even, in extreme (but far too common) cases, lead to a life that is hardly lived at all for fear of making the wrong decision. But if we acknowledge that decisions are inherently about life’s journey and not its destination (which will ultimately be physical death anyway) then it becomes much easier to keep taking steps forward.
We are not a state of being. We are what we do.
What does the Torah offer us about perfection? The word that most closely approximates “perfect” is “tam”, which is used to describe Noah (Gen. 6:9), and the injunction to Abraham to “walk before me and be tam.” (Gen. 17:1) It is the same word used to describe animals that are ready for sacrifice. So it can be translated as “wholehearted” or “without blemish.” But one thing is clear about the way tam is used in the Torah: it never refers to the end result. The story of Noah starts with the description of being tam, and Abraham was nowhere near the end of his story when he was enjoined to become tam. Animals that are fit to be sacrificed, of course, reach their fulfillment in the sacrifice itself – they are clearly not “perfect” beforehand because they have not reached their apotheosis.
The Beis Hamikdash (Temple) itself shows this. The building was improved from time to time (sometimes in very grand fashion), and the priestly services were themselves never static. Sacrifices were always a process, marking days and weeks and festivals, as well as individual offerings reflecting the lives of the Jewish people.
This speaks directly to our purpose. G-d created an imperfect world. Our task is to improve it. That is, and will remain, a process and not a product.
It behooves us to at least give honorable mention to a part of human endeavor that is, in itself, perfect in the Greek sense. Mathematics are attractive because they can be entirely consistent and complete, involving nothing messy like fudge factors and real-world conditions that often mask the difference between an accurate theory and one that, like Newtonian Mechanics, is useful but ultimately untrue.
It is, of course, mathematicians and its more numerate scientific descendants such as physicists who are considered the purest of truth seekers, the high priests of nature. On the other hand, it is engineers who dig deeply into all the muck of the real world in order to make things that actually work. Engineering is not just messy, but it also invariably prefers utilitarian knowledge (what works) to perfect theories that may be unmoored from reality. Yet modern progress owes far more to engineers and builders than it does to those who crave aesthetically perfect mathematical formulas. Engineers and builders, like people in a marriage or even a friendship, recognize that the processes themselves, whether they are perfect or not (or even whether or not they are true!), can lead to beautiful – albeit clearly imperfect – results.Published in Culture, Religion & Philosophy
Most Jews do – but as a throwaway comment, not sourced in the Torah itself.
G-d changes His mind – quite a lot. He gets angry – and then can be calmed down. These are not actions that one would normally connect with perfection.
Indeed, the Torah makes it clear that the world is not perfect (G-d’s actions in creation are NOT all called “good”, for example). Can something perfect make something imperfect? The world is made – then changed (Eden) then changed again (the Flood).
G-d is our spouse. Marriage (not master or father or king) is the dominant relationship theme. And in a committed marriage, there is give and take, all the time. Relationships become hopeless if either side decides that they (or the other) is unchanged and unchangeable: perfect.
The Torah tells us G-d does things that are not good.
Indeed, G-d acts, and THEN he judges the quality of the action.
More in my book.
Only for you. Each person has their own metric of the good, because there is no objectively absolute metric of the “good”, let alone “perfect.”
Who is man, an imperfect being, to judge on the perfection of God? If God’s actions are not what one “normally connects” with perfection, would it be more plausible that God is not in fact perfect or that one’s “normal connection” with perfection is itself imperfect?
a) How do you know there is no objectively metric of the “good”? Do you have perfect knowledge in this area?
b) Even if every person has their own metric for defining “the good”, that does not eliminate the possibility of the existence of an objective “good”.
One person (a guy at the beach, perhaps) thinks a day with no rain is good. Another person (a farmer, perhaps) thinks a day with rain is good. A day where the amount of precipitation is irrelevant because both persons get what they want (or need) from the day would be closer to a perfect day than one where only one of these two people gets what they want (or need).
a) Where does the Torah tell us that God does things that are not good, as opposed to God doing things which merely appear to us imperfect beings as being not good?
b) Where in the Torah has God ever judged one of His own actions as ungood? The best candidate I can think of is when He decided that humanity needed a diluvian reboot, but it’s easily arguable that was a judgement against humanity’s actions, rather than His own.
We do not know, exactly. Only that there is good Biblical precedent for holy people actually doing it.
God confers upon us the dignity of judging Him back. It rarely works; nonetheless, we seem to have some moral standing to do it.
I don’t see why not. But then, I’m not perfect.
Well, nobody’s perfect.
My wife is.
I just use the very text that G-d gave us: when G-d created the world, several of the acts are NOT called “good.”
The Torah does not claim that G-d is perfect. Between us, who is judging G-d?
Not our call. G-d’s. Second day of creation.
Second day of creation. Every other act besides splitting the waters and light (second day and end of first day, respectively) are judged good. Not these.
It is logically impossible.
True. We can imagine such a thing. And I am saying that the imagined ideal of perfection is dangerous (as argued in the original post).
Well, there’s proof that a perfect being can marry an imperfect being.
So, an act has to be explicitly labelled as “good” in order to be good?
That’s a fair point, but I’ve yet to see any evidence that the Torah argues against the possibility of God’s perfection.
Is an a priori assumption that perfection is a necessary prerequisite for the existence of a monotheistic God the same thing as a judgement of God as a person?
I believe that logic, like the laws of physics, only applies within the material Universe. Outside of that Universe, where God presumably resides, the rules may be quite different.
Oh, indeed, presuming to define an ideal is indeed dangerous. I don’t think it follows that believing in the existence of an ideal is also dangerous.
Oh yeah? How many ships has her face launched?
Explain to me how a bad day for you and a good day for you and a very good day for you means there is no perfect day for you.
If you have some ranking system there must be a best and worst rank. If there is no best and worst then you have no scale. If you have no scale then all days are equal.
I don’t understand how “for you” changes that.
Well she does float his boat…
I bet she only married him for the socks.
We fundamentalist Jews tend to think that the presence of absence of every word is essential. At the very least, the separation was not AS good. Which itself speaks to the relative nature of goodness. As does “Very good” on the sixth day.
The concept is Greek, not Jewish. Either perfection or lack of perfection require an alien set of assumptions.
I have no idea why divine perfection should be a prerequisite for G-d.
Why does a scale need to have a “0” and a “100”? Why not just a “better” and a “worse”? Some days/deeds/acts/words are better than others. No ideal case is required.
Because we know what a perfect cube is. And we know that a cube is imperfect only because we know what a perfect cube is. And we know if something is or is not a cube because we know what a perfect cube is.
Now, if you are at a garage sale and come across an imperfect cube and say to yourself “I gotta have this! This is the perfect cube for me!” Then you have found the perfect cube for you. But that’s a different answer to a different question. It does not invalidate the existence of an objectively more perfect cube or the existence of perfect cube-ness.
Because the alternative implies that something else could conceivably be greater than God, which would presumably make that thing God.
One could have a partial ordering or a multi-axis ranking system (Cartesian product of different, perhaps orthogonal, scales). And there are some different ways to establish partial orders of Cartesian products…
A metric for comparison needn’t be a single strict ordering (ranking).
Of course, we try to compose single-dimensional scales for ranking things all the time. They are useful things to have. Of these scales, price seems to be the most useful for comparing otherwise incomparable things – so useful, in fact, you can build a whole discipline (economics) around price-signals, and even do useful things with economics!
Still, even economists don’t typically think of price as an “objective” expression of Platonic ideals.
G-d is in each person – the Torah says repeatedly that His spirit is in people. We are, therefore, His emissaries. Indeed, the Torah tells us that, if we were immortal we would be completely similar to Him – it is knowledge (derived from the fruit) that makes us similar to G-d.
We are NOT G-d. But we have the capability to channel Him.
Of course you are right Midge but I don’t want to mix up too many different things here.
Here I only mean if we have two or more things that are like in kind but differ in some way that makes one better, then by better we mean more toward perfect. Worse is further from perfect.
I understand that if one were to say that a tree was perfect we’d have to determine along what dimension(s) – color, height, age, type,etc. But also there is the perfect form of a tree that allows us to differentiate between a beautiful tree and an ugly tree. Or a tree and a bush.
That we cannot really define or even imagine the perfect tree does not mean that there is no perfect tree-ness. Nor does our preference for imperfect trees negate perfect tree-ness.
Ah, but it also doesn’t require the existence of a perfect tree. A tree may simply be a shadow of some other perfect thing.
A tree and a shrub are similar to each other but also different. There is no need for there to be both a perfect tree and a perfect shrub. Perhaps there is a perfect x of which both the tree and the shrub are but a shadow.
Following that logic, maybe all plants are merely shadows of a perfect plant. There is no need to have a perfect form for each plant.
Following that logic, maybe all living things are merely shadows of a perfect living thing. There is no need to have a perfect form for each living thing.
Following that logic, maybe all things are merely shadows of a perfect thing. There is no need to have a perfect form for each thing.
Oh, wait, looks like I’m simply arguing for a perfect God again. My bad.