What We Had and What We Lost:
- In the times of the Beis HaMikdash, when there was prophecy and open miracles, a tangible experience of a relationship with G-d was available to everyone. Once the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, that experience ceased. Yet the obligation to keep G-d’s laws continued. In order for a relationship to exist, that relationship requires tangibility, if even on a cognitive basis alone. And since the tangibility of the relationship with G-d devolved from some aspect of direct communication, in what precisely consists the tangibility of that relationship today?
What the World Didn’t Have and Now Has:
- If Judaism is the only true religion in the world—see Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb’s Reason to Believe for its extensive discussion of Judaism’s objective veracity—then everyone else was involved in false religious activity. With the advent of modernism and its atheistic bent and the secularization of western culture, that has served to radicalize selfhood to the degree that people become their own gods. This has had the effect of unleashing a wave of creativity that has created all of modernism’s great accomplishments: science, medicine, technology. As well, it has unleashed great artistic accomplishment and academic thinking on all subjects.
This has had the effect, where one no longer looks to an objective G-d for succor and energy, of fueling the search for alternative sources of aliveness. One might call it the pilgrimage for imbibing all the vividness of sensation that the world has to offer. An extreme example of that is Alex Honnold’s remarkable free solo ascent of El Capitan. See here and here for those unfamiliar with Alex Honnold. And so the question for believing people becomes: how do we Jews, after losing point #1 relate to this point #2? —And this becomes a critically important question since the effort to be religious necessarily means that you are not nor doing something else. That is to say, in the dialectical way that G-d made the world and, hence, the way we know things, as they say in the financial world, you’ve got skin in the trade. And so what’s the trade you’re making to be religious and why is it worth it?
What is the Experience of G-d Nowadays?
- To begin emphatically, one cannot actually ‘experience’ G-d.
Why is this? Because—and this cannot be stated strongly enough in these religiously pantheistic/panentheistic times—G-d is not you and you are not G-d: a ‘soul’ is a creation and not an actual ‘piece’ of G-d, as is mistakenly thought. This, of course, leads to the paradox of the relationship between infinity and finitude—the subject of a different essay. Similarly, one does not ‘experience’ another human being nor they you. Why is this? Because you are not that other human being and they are not you. This means, principally, that what defines being-ness/selfhood is its quality of distinctness from any Other/other. This distinctness will be a physical boundedness that a priori contains uniqueness-es from all others of emotion, cognition, consciousness, physicality, etc. It is this idea of distinctness which defines the uniqueness of being.
[Judaism is doctrinally and rabidly anti-pantheistic: how be called to account for your actions if you are not you? As well, witness the excommunication of Spinoza. Why is this? Pantheism/panentheism obscures the boundaries of distinctness between beings and so renders relationship moot. In fact, heresy can be defined as that which denies/obscures/contradicts the purpose of creation. The purpose of creation is that G-d made the world for relationship with man. In this construct, there will be four principal categories of heresy: pantheism (and it poorer kissing cousin panentheism), determinism, idolatry, and atheism. Pantheism’s heresy was described. Determinism disallows the possibility of relationship because the definition of relationship is two unique beings coming into free-will commonality. Idolatry is heretical because one has a relationship with the wrong being. Atheism is heretical because it denies the possibility of relationship with G-d. As an aside, the practical effect of heresies is to fold one’s selfhood back upon itself and so radicalize that selfhood to the exclusion of relationship in many forms. It is in this way that one becomes one’s own god. In our day, these heresies form the basis of science, technology, post-modern philosophy and their cultural effects.]
Uniqueness, in turn, contains, allows, and constrains most elements of human-ness: the possibility of relationship, the possibility of aloneness, the list of one’s determinisms as the necessary precursors to purposefulness. For example, determinisms—what one can’t control— range from one’s appearance, foundational character traits, and intelligence, all the way through to the food one likes, one’s talents, etc. These determinisms, interpreted by atheists as various types of fatalisms, are rather, Judaically, cardinal indicators of purposefulness. And purposefulness is based upon what is worth doing and why. Simultaneously, as uniqueness creates boundaries between beings, it creates, definitionally, the possibility/probability of relationships being fraught. How is this? If beings are distinct and, hence, unique, they should not in theory be able to relate at all. The reasoning being, if they can, then they are not unique. The G-d-creation which allows the paradoxical relatedness between unique beings is language—also the subject of a different essay. It is this distinctness/ uniqueness which disallows the pure ‘experience’ of an Other/other. For if you could actually ‘experience’ an Other/other, you’d be that Other/other. As well, the idea of distinctness is the necessary precursor to relationship, where relationship is defined as the coming into emotional and/or cognitive proximity of two distinct beings. This proximity is the behavioral, as opposed to the structural, commonality between unique beings. This commonality is called relatedness. Relatedness is defined as the obligation-generating, give-and-take of moral free-will where moral free-will, as distinct from determinisms, is itself the actual created material of what is called the image of G-d. And so this essay’s original question, what is the experience of G-d nowadays will be redefined as, ‘What is the experience of the relationship with G-d nowadays?’
- Since G-d created the world, the world is not the author of its own aliveness. This means the world must be derivative by nature and not absolute. Practically, G-d must constantly infuse energy into the creation to sustain it. If G-d retracts this constant energy-giving, the world will revert to nothingness. Hence, aliveness is a constant gift of G-d’s energy. This aliveness which is defined as the energy of the sensation of existence, is the experience of existence with its cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and physical vividness. This aliveness is the default/entry level of the tangible experience of the relationship with G-d. This tangible experience of G-d relationship is shared by all men in all times and all places. Note that it is this relationship which is tangible as opposed to the experience of G-d Himself which, as has been explained, is impossible. The most amount of aliveness will be, by definition, the most amount of relationship with G-d because He is not just the source of aliveness but aliveness itself. That sense of aliveness is what is tangible to human beings, whether it is emotional or cognitive or spiritual, etc.
Vividness of Sensation vs. Meaning:
- The most fundamental level of what men want is to be alive. Further, they desire the most amount of aliveness as possible. It is a never-ending, energy-seeking pilgrimage that seeks and attempts to accumulate the most amount of life for their lives. And so once one is an existent being, how does one increase the energy of the vividness of existence? There are only three possibilities: to increase the raw energy of the sensation of physical existence, to increase the energy of the import of meaning, or, lastly, to engage in the process of combining the two. The last option is the quest to get the most amount of sensation of existence mediated by the most amount of energy of meaning. Pure sensation is always a wasting asset: as one ages toward death, the ability to gain nurture from the raw energy of the sensation of experience decreases. It is similar to a recreational drug user whose greatest pleasure occurs at the first-time drug use and whose pleasure steadily decreases over time, even with increased drug dosages. Meaning, on the other hand, is an accumulating asset. Over time, meaning that is actively pursued broadens and deepens and increases in the energy of its pleasure. And so to be the most alive in the arc of life, one must seek the most amount of energy of existent sensation mediated by the most amount of the energy of meaning. The question is therefore begged: what is this ‘mediation’, i.e. the conversion factor from sensation to meaning to this most amount of aliveness possible?
- The conversion of pure aliveness to the level of meaning will be the conversion from the accumulation of the energy of sensation solely into selfhood to the accumulation of the energy of meaning as produced by the involvement in relationship with Other/others. This conversion is accomplished by the application of intentionality. The definition of intentionality is the reference of the mind to an existent or nonexistent object, something that points the self to something beyond itself. In other terms, intentionality is attentionality, where attention means the intended direction of the expression of will. The expression of will, in turn, is called purposefulness. The very root of creation and therefore relationship, since the world was created for relationship, is intentionality. Intentionality prefigures the expression of the Will which produced creation. Hence, it is intentionality which activates the energy of aliveness once a human being puts in energy to produce the energy of aliveness. Intentionality is what undergirds all relationships since it was intentionality which produced relationship in the first place. On the flip side, where there is no intentionality there may be energy but it is not the energy of relationship. What relationship requires besides intentionality is tangibility and uniqueness, where relationship is defined as the relatedness between two unique beings—which is the very opposite of pantheism.
Hierarchies of Meaning:
- All of this will explain why one does not aspire to be an atheistic Alex Honnold. Though he has created a great deal of aliveness, both a great deal of energy and tangibility, it is aliveness which is self-referring and not directed at the Source of that aliveness. Hence, it lacks intentionality. The lack of intentionality means that the aliveness Honnold created does not ignite any sort of relationship with G-d.
On the other hand, in reference to G-d, why not aspire to be a Nana Nachman chosid who dances in the streets? The answer to that will be the hierarchy of meaning that is embedded in our Mesora where hierarchy is that which is considered higher or lower concerning the quality of meaning-making. For example, our Mesora tells us that praying is of greater value than hisbodedus. Or that learning Torah is considered greater than dancing in the streets. Though hisbodedus and dancing in the streets produce more vividness of sensation, there is less mediating meaning than in praying or learning Torah. And it is, ultimately, meaning which wins out over the vividness of sensation. Why is this? Because as the ability to sense the world afresh fades, meaning must take its place or the forces of entropy (FOE), i.e. disease, destruction, violence, meaninglessness, etc., will slap a human being into unhappy submission.
Judging the Quality of the Energy of Aliveness:
- The quality of meaning generated will be judged by its ability to withstand the intrusions of the forces of entropy. The energy of a relationship is the nurture of the relationship. It is the energy produced by the degree of commonality between two unique beings. And that commonality is itself entered into by free-will choice and intentionality and by so doing the then experience of the tangibility of sensation mediated by meaning will then produce the effects of the relationship which is its energy and will be judged by its degree of nurture against the FOE. And not all energies are the same. Some are purely vivid (climbing Mt. Everest) and some are purely meaning (monkishness). As such, some are like junk foods and some are like whole foods in their affect.
Experience of the Relationship with G-d:
- And so the experience of the relationship with G-d is the practice of the relationship with G-d and the tangible energy that the effort of the pursuit of that relationship produces. It will be the vividness of the sensation of raw existence mediated by the vividness of meaning, where vividness means the amount of life energy produced, and is judged by the degree of anchoring of self, that is to say preserving the integrity of being, against the intrusions of the forces of entropy (disease, violence, nihilism, etc.). What becomes essential to the pursuit of the experience of the relationship with G-d is the use of free-willed choices to bring one’s self into a state of commonality with G-d and garner the energy of that commonality to resist the FOE.
- What is the relationship between intentionality, meaning, belief, and purposefulness? Simply put: the proper naming of things (meaning) creates belief (the degree of conviction of the objective reality of one’s meaning), which in turn creates purposefulness, the precursor of action. The degree of intentionality that one brings to one’s actions converts the energy of the action (thought, emotion, behavior, etc.), that is to say, the act’s sensation, into the energy of aliveness and, so nurture against the FOE.
Based on the actual, literal terms of creation—relationship’s paradigm—any relationship must contain: intentionality, will (conviction to proceed), tangibility (perceptibility of the relationship), relatedness (the give-and-take of moral free-will), the uniqueness of two beings (as opposed to pantheism), purposefulness (growth over time).
This means in order to ignite the energy—the aliveness—of relationship that itself is energizing enough be nurture against the FOE there needs to be effort and intentionality. Without intentionality, effort creates energy with no address except the self. This self-referencing will find its shortcoming in its inability to nurture being against the intrusions of the FOE.
Rabbi Yosef Kaufman is a writer and teaches at Machon Yaakov, Jerusalem.