David P. Goldman, aka “Spengler,” is no doubt the most widely read and sophisticated pundit of our time. If only for revealing to me the pianistic genius of Yuja Wang (see Chronicle 664), I would be forever in his debt.
Goldman is one of very few secular Jewish intellectuals to take seriously the Haredi insistence on strict adherence to halachic tradition, a side of Judaism that many find incompatible with modern life, as witness the violent reactions to Netanyahu’s new government, which includes Haredi parties and seeks to overturn the current liberal legal dictatorship which perpetuates the secular Ashkenazi Labor values of early Israel. But although the reader can surely guess which side of this battle has my sympathy, this is not the subject of this Chronicle.
In a recent article in Tablet (https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/israel-middle-east/articles/rav-soloveitchik-solution), by way of promoting Israel’s intellectual responsibility as the unique Jewish state, Goldman insists on the value and significance of the writings of Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903-93), the “Rav,” whom he describes as “the guiding light of the branch of Orthodoxy that supported Torah Umadda—secular studies combined with traditional Jewish learning.” His assertion of the relevance of this tradition for modern science, regardless of any specific application to GA, can serve as an inspiration for those like us who view the Judeo-Christian contribution to scientific epistemology as unfairly overshadowed by the “Greek” perspective within which the sciences have developed.
Goldman’s pitch for a “Jewish turn” in natural science is speculative, but not naïve. As intellectual heirs of Girard’s Judeo-Christian alternative to the universe of Greek metaphysics, I think we owe it to ourselves to reflect on the possibility of enriching the scientific world-view with the spiritual intuitions that are at the root of Judaism. I am encouraged by the simple fact that Girard, despite his limitations with regard to language and its philosophical implications, has proved a surer guide to the originary core of the human than the post-structural majority of French Theory, and that Derrida’s most significant contribution, as I hope to have made clear, was not his deconstructive critique of “presence,” but his foregrounding of différance/deferral and its conversion into difference.
I am certainly not qualified to discuss Soloveitchik’s thought or its context. But the strength of GA lies in its insistence on reducing its basic categories to simple behavioral terms. Hence, whatever additional benefits might accrue from a study of this branch of Orthodox Jewish thought and/or such things as the Kabbalist tradition, my intuition tells me that we will get the greatest benefit from viewing Goldman’s thesis in its most general terms:
The “secret of tsimtsum” [divine self-contraction] implies no less than the dethroning of the self-contemplating God of Aristotle and Plotinus, and the coronation of the God of the Bible, and a change of intellectual regime from divine passivity to divine turbulence, in Gershom Scholem’s felicitous phrase. Creation is unthinkable under the reign of Aristotle’s god, the “unmoved mover” who is eternally unchanging. . . . Creation ex nihilo . . . stumbles into contradictions: If God created the world from nothing, there was nothing but God before creation, and all creation must be part of God. God therefore is everything and everywhere, and we are trapped in Spinoza’s pantheism.
Why would God wait an eternity to create the world, and then create it at a given point in time? . . .
Isaac Luria offered a revolutionary solution . . . : God contracted Himself within Himself to create an empty space in which He could create something that was not God.
GA has made a similar argument in a very different context: the core of Greek philosophy is metaphysics, which I have described as taking language as a given, implying that the things we see and to which we have given names have already received their “meanings” before we encounter them. Of course the pre-Socratics knew about change; Heraclitus was more or less a contemporary of Parmenides. But if the Ideas come to us from the metaphysical language in the sky, then the change we see in the world is merely the passing from one Idea/meaning into another; it does not involve human penetration into the objects that we observe in such a manner as would change their significance.
Plato’s dialogues abound with examples of the crafts exercised by bakers, cooks, herdsmen, potters, smiths… but the fundamental generative notion that words are human creations that group their referents ultimately for human practical purposes—even if we must step back from (“bracket”) these purposes in order to understand how these referential objects behave—is absent. Whence Goldman’s point that the Aristotelian “unmoved mover,” being separate from the world he manipulates, is in no sense a part of it, whereas the Hebrew God, to follow his argument, could only have created the world from within himself, which entails that it participates directly in God’s divinity, or in our terms, in the sacred.
In dealing with natural science, whether the world is filled with sacrality or is wholly separate from it is irrelevant, since the sacred is not a scientific category. Nevertheless, we cannot help but notice that this fundamental scientific attitude does lead to scientists’ discomfort with GA in the domain of human origin, in particular in that of language. Needless to say, simply attributing sacrality to living things and/or humans is no more helpful than positing Bergson’s élan vital. But considering as GA does the human discovery of the sacred through the necessary deferral of worldly action as a qualitatively new phenomenon, by the very fact that it is on the one hand evident, yet on the other a taboo subject—for language, as we have seen, is a generalization of the sacred: the interdiction of the central animal in the originary hypothesis is the source of all the différances in the dictionary—suggests that we might fruitfully suspend our judgment on this issue, if only to see where it takes us: to a rethinking of the paradoxes of quantum theory, for example?
Goldman’s remarks are meant in the first place as an encouragement to Jewish/Israeli scientists to let themselves be inspired by the Jews’ dynamic sense of the sacred in contrast with that of the Greeks. He describes the mind-set of modernity, what (the other) Spengler called the Faustian, as “the finitization of the infinite”:
The finitization of the infinite is the foundational concept of modern mathematics (in the calculus), of visual arts (in linear perspective), of music (in the plasticity of time in modern voice-leading), and of philosophy, most prominently in Kant’s aesthetics [e.g., in the “sublime”] and the Hegelian dialectic.
This formula is roughly compatible with my own definition of the post-classical esthetic as the conscious thematizing of the scenic, such that the characters in a play are aware that they are “on stage,” not directly as in a post-modern production, but in relation to their world, so that unlike the characters in Classical theater and epic, they have a sense of their dramatic role as a burden that they must consciously take on rather than simply embody. (See Chronicle 771 for a brief discussion of this.)
Goldman’s idea of the finitization of the infinite is his way of referring to the evocation of the sense of the sacred as that which is beyond our capacity to represent directly, but that we can “figure” within our world by perspective, chord progressions, and in general terms by evoking a sense of transcendence, of revelation. What Goldman refers to as “the infinite” is less a mathematical term than a reference to seeking paradoxically to conceptualize what is necessarily beyond us—a perspective that Christianity takes on directly by placing the “absurd” miracle of the Resurrection and the divinity of Christ at the historical center of time rather than at its distant beginning.
In Jewish thinking, on the contrary, the paradox is never miraculously resolved by an act of faith but remains as an always active tension, whether described as the infinite in the finite or the presence of God in all things. Goldman seeks to make this the principle of a specifically Jewish science that he hopes will inspire new discoveries. Thus he suggests that the exact sciences seem to have encountered a roadblock:
To enquiring young minds among the Israeli secular, we must say . . . that the mechanistic, materialistic view of the world has failed, and that the crisis of science and philosophy have [sic] opened the door to a new philosophical understanding of religion. Western philosophy came to a dead end when Kurt Gödel demonstrated that mathematics could not prove its own premises. What great philosophers are working today? With the deaths of Hilary Putnam in 2016 and Saul Kripke in 2022, we lost the last of the generation that grappled with the foundational issues raised by Gödel. Set theory hasn’t advanced since Gödel and Paul Cohen proved the independence of the continuum hypothesis from its axioms. Physics has learned nothing fundamental since the quantum revolution of the 1920s.
The way forward is the way back—back to the hashkafa [world-view] that inspired and guided the scientific revolution to begin with.
We need not accept this blanket judgment of the sciences, although I can’t say I don’t sympathize with his perspective from my layman’s point of view. Although I know that physicists in particular are excited about the new discoveries available as the result of new colliders and new telescopes, one does get the impression that our basic knowledge of the universe and of the constitution of matter/energy keeps getting more complicated without any new theory arising to systematize it. The “standard model” of particle theory includes several “generations” of particles but doesn’t account for the 95%+ of “dark” matter/energy. We need not expect that a layman should be able to follow the reasonings and equations involved in such a model’s construction, but its combination of complexity and incompleteness seem to call out for a more elegant and inclusive formulation, although we have no guarantee that such is or will ever be possible.
What is attractive about Goldman’s exhortation is that, in the radical simplification that treats the universe as made of “sacred” material, it does not affirm an élan vital of its own, but merely insists that we cannot know a priori the degree to which what we experience as our human (self)-consciousness, whose root is the sense of the sacred that we have acquired through our experience of mimetic desire, corresponds to a capacity of the matter-energy of the universe that may be able to manifest itself in other forms. Goldman’s exhortation makes no predictions about how the sacrality of creation can effect natural science, but merely leaves us open to possibilities that, like Gödel’s theorem, demonstrate the openness of what was conceived as a closed axiomatic system once it is allowed to have an infinity of members. And certainly the anomalies of quantum theory, such as entanglement, which Einstein described as spukhafte Fernwirkungen (“spooky actions at a distance”), cry out for an explanation that will reconcile them with the world in which we live our everyday lives.
What I see here as a certain affinity for GA lies in the refusal to accept the current set of paradoxes as beyond our reach, and in the insistence that, just as the infinite was “finitized” through perspective in art and calculus in mathematics and dissonance and resolution in music, so these other manifestations of “the infinite” may equally well be tamed by some new exercise of the human intellect, one that Israeli scientists, inspired by the particularly Jewish marriage of the sacred and the real, may be particularly qualified to accomplish.
I cannot help but mention at this point that GA too is a Jewish creation, although its debt to Christianity is of its essence—and indeed, I think its very origin demonstrates the elder brothers’ need to learn from those who in the beginning learned from them. Such reflections liberate the mind, and to the extent that GA is still in its early stages, I think Goldman’s words can only encourage our ambition to understand the human for the first time in concrete, behavioral terms, just as humanity’s emergence opened up a whole new universe of meanings, tools for conceiving and manipulating the material universe.
After all, we think we understand life, and have constructed persuasive models for the emergence of life from lifeless matter (see in particular Terence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, U of California, 2011, and Chronicle 490). Yet we have not yet been able to generate new life, and until we do, we cannot be sure that we fully understand how it could have arisen.
As for the human, GA offers what appears to be at present a minimal hypothesis, but only the construction of an artificial consciousness as I suggested not altogether seriously in Chronicle 703 would demonstrate its correspondence with reality. Without falling into the facile mysticism that such notions as l’élan vital engender, the insistence on continuing to defer the conclusion that there is nothing more to be understood from what the sense of the sacred engenders can only serve us in our quest for knowledge, whether of ourselves or of the universe.