Monday, November 27, 2006


His eyes. They betray his thoughts, those eyes. He's anxious, uneasy, eager, excited. On the cusp of a great triumph. He has his trump card now, and is intent on using it on his unsuspecting nemesis. It's not the first such imagined card, nor, most likely, will it be the last. But that little detail is lost in the exhilarating anticipation of finally -- after many sleepless nights -- proving his old, outdated, yet very comforting notions right. Notions he never questioned before having that bothersome concept called reality rudely shoved down his throat; reassuring notions he now dearly wants to believe in again.

His eyes dart around the hallway. Inside, the stragglers are finishing up the last minyan. The loud Amen's, Bruch Hu's, and other shrill proclamations of God's ultimate authority and insatiable need for constant praise reverberate through the entrance hall where we congregate in small groups to discuss politics, news, the weather, and the latest Chasidishe gossip. We have some time now, those of us who manage to be more punctual and start our prayers on time, and incidentally, also more courteous, finishing our prayers without feeling the need to presumptuously shout at God and create a deafening din in his divine ears.

I notice him from the other end of the hall. His eyes stop when they meet mine. A weak smile spreads across his lips, feeble but unmistaken, almost curling up in an amused smirk. It is then the realization hits me; I am the nemesis he is looking for, the one whose peculiar ideas need refutation in order to grant respite to his troubled soul. He rushes towards me, mindlessly crashing through the startled groups of amicable chatterers standing in his way like a runaway elephant at a Ringling Bros. circus parade. My heart sinks. "Not again," I think to myself, "not again."

It is quite by accident that I assumed this role. It all started with an innocent conversation on cosmology and the nature of our solar system, and the tired old Copernican debate -- which can't rightfully be labeled a debate really, so much as stubborn clinging to centuries old discredited dogma. No matter. I bumped into him holding forth on this issue in a small circle of friends, expounding quite masterfully on the well-known Ptolemaic position of the Rambam and other rishonim and explicating their position while bringing proofs from later sages agreeing with them.

"It's all quite clear the way it works," he argued, "they say so quite clearly in their seforim!"

I couldn't help myself. "Well," I started quietly, gently, but firmly. "The world is Heliocentric. Modern man knows that, now."

He was flabbergasted. "How can you say that? Can't you see the sages clearly disagree?"

I looked at him quietly for a second. "Indeed they do," I finally said, "but the reality is different."

He didn't quite get it. "Look," he said, rushing to the stacked bookcase. "I'll show you where they say so!"

I couldn't hide my sarcasm anymore. "Quite right," I said, "reality is determined by anything printed in Hebrew characters -- particularly if it's bound in hardcover."

He stopped cold in his tracks and turned around to stare at me. He looked at me pensively for some time, as if begging me to take my words back, make them disappear, erase them from his mind. He was clearly startled by the novelty of the irony just pointed out to him -- for the first time in his life. His mind switched into high gear trying to make sense of it all. If you listened closely you could almost hear the whizzing dials, switching levers, and running belts in his mind. Working, working. "Ah," he finally stammered, "you mean... it isn't really so?" Yes, that is what I meant.

We had many more discussions since that day. About the classical four elements our philosophical and mystical tradition embraces so enthusiastically; about nonexistent animals appearing in the Talmud; about never existing animals appearing in the fossil record; about sheidim and richos; about Pharoah and kishuf; about the windows the Talmud maintains the sun passes through each morning; and about the impassable but apparently also invisible Sambatyon. He sought answers, but our tradition let him down.

He grew increasingly troubled and disturbed, and I grew increasingly uncomfortable and agitated. Why does he insist on having these discussions with me? And if he does persist, must I oblige? Clearly, he is trying to hang on tooth and nail, trying to prove the unprovable to himself using me as a proxy.

"You know," he started the conversation one day, his voice filled with excitement and relief. "I found rishonim that hold our sages can be wrong in science!" I was growing weary at this point. "You did," I replied, "and I bet you found that printed in Hebrew in hardcover!"

Again, he stopped mid-track and stared at me, his eyes unblinking. You could hear the paradigm shift in his mind with a distant but thunderous crash, like someone suddenly shifting the balance on a playground seesaw while it's supporting your full weight. "Reality," he finally muttered to no-one in particular, "Reality!" He turned around, and with a concerned look on his face shuffled slowly away. Oh, what have I done?

He hasn't sought me out for any more discussions since that day. But now, evidently, he has found The Answer, and is very intent on sharing it with me! I wonder: what is it going to be?

(Continued here.)