Zohar Atkins: Between Philosophy and Torah

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Zohar Atkins, Rabbi and philosopher, about the role that philosophy – particularly rationalist philosophy – plays in Judaism.

Zohar is a profound and poetic thinker who tries to lead an examined Jewish life. Despite being a philosopher, he is an advocate of doing, not just thinking. He takes the idea of there being 70 faces of the Torah to heart, endorsing philosophical pluralism in relation to Judaism.

  • How do philosophy and the Torah interact?
  • Does the Torah espouse any one true philosophy, or is it open to multiple philosophical interpretations?
  • What role in Jewish life can rationalism play, and what role should it play?

Tune in to hear a conversation about philosophy and Judaism.

References:
Dialogues of Plato by Plato
The Kuzari by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi
Slate Star Codex
LessWrong
@ZoharAtkins

Zohar is the founder of Etz Hasadeh, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and a popular public thinker. Zohar holds a Dphil in theology from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar, and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Zohar is the author of An Ethical and Theological Appropriation of Heidegger’s Critique of Modernity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), Nineveh (2019), a collection of poems, and thinks aloud about a daily question at What is Called Thinking. Zohar writes a much-loved and deeply contemplative column on the Parsha at Etz Hasadeh.

David Bashevkin:

Hello, and welcome to The 18Forty podcast, where each month, we explore a different topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities, to give you new approaches to timeless, Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month, we’re exploring rationality. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy, Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out 18Forty.org, that’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you could also find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

We didn’t have much of an audience back then, but when 18Forty first began, we launched a video which began with the following clip, that really anchors, I think, a lot of the discussion that we’ve been talking about. It’s a conversation that took place on Stephen Colbert’s late night show with a noted atheist Ricky Gervais, and they’re talking about God. Stephen Colbert is Catholic and an avowed quite religious person, I’ve spoken many times before about how moving I find many of his ideas, and he was in conversation with Ricky Gervais talking about the difference between the ideas we find in religious traditions and the ideas we find in math and science. And they had the following exchange.

Ricky Gervais:

You see, if we take something like any fiction, any holy book and any other fiction, and destroyed it, in a thousand years’ time, that wouldn’t come back just as it was. Whereas if we took every science book and every fact and destroyed them all, in a thousand years, they’d all be back. Because all the same tests would be the same result.

Stephen Colbert:

That’s good. That’s really good.

David Bashevkin:

A lot of people listened to this, I don’t know if everyone was quite as moved as I was, but I really found this question, this idea that Ricky Gervais is posing, to be quite fruitful for thinking about what exactly is the answer to this question. Why is it, in fact, that if you would imagine a world where everything was, all books were destroyed, and we had to start again from scratch, we would be able to reconstruct mathematics and science from scratch, axiom by axiom, but we would probably not be able to do the same for our religious traditions?

Now I’ve always viewed that there are three ways of answering this question, though there are likely more. There’s one approach where you disagree and say, “No, you would be able to do this with the foundations of religious faith. They also work the same way as mathematics, built axiom by axiom. And if we lost everything, God forbid, we could reconstruct so to speak the tradition that we have.” That’s path number one, basically trying to explain why religious ideas do in fact pattern mathematics.

A second approach is to explain why the assumption that mathematics could be reconstructed is also not true. There are axioms that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to reconstruct from scratch, and the foundations of mathematics are not quite as firm as we believe they are. It has to do with mathematical realism. Do we really think numbers are a human creation, or are they kind of pre-existing in the very fabric of the world? A question that goes all the way back to Pythagoras, and almost the cult of numbers that he created, and why they reacted with such concern when they discovered the very concept of irrational numbers. And you can look at that on your own, but there is a full bodied approach that one can take that basically says, “No, mathematics isn’t that way at all, and we would not be able to reconstruct the foundations of mathematics.”

The third approach, which is the approach that I find, not just most satisfying, but most true, is to talk about what makes religious traditions different, and why in fact this is true – religion would not be able to be reconstructed from scratch. And one approach obviously is to talk about the nature of revelation and how all of religious teachings are predicated on this event known as revelation. But to me, that doesn’t explain the entire story and what the entire response should in fact be. Where my mind goes is to a passage of Talmud in Tractate Shabbos, which talks about Moshe going up to Sinai to accept the Torah. And when he goes into the heavens, he has a confrontation with the angels of God. And the angels look at Moshe and they say, “What do you need this for? This is God’s wisdom. This does not belong to you. You do not deserve this.”

The position of the angels is essentially this lofty knowledge, this mystical knowledge, belongs with God in the heavens and doesn’t belong down on Earth with Moshe. Until God intercedes and essentially says, “Well look what’s written inside. This talks about not to steal, this talks about not being jealous, this talks about not committing murder. These are not actions that take place in heaven. These are unique human phenomena that this book is coming to address.”

Now this dialogue which I have mentioned before has always fascinated me. It’s a question that the first Rebbe of Chabad, the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, asked, “What exactly did the angels even want? Had they not opened the book themselves? Why did they want to keep it if everything that’s written inside is addressing what goes in society and in human nature? Why on Earth would they want to keep it?”

The approach that he presents, and it’s also an approach that is said by the Radvaz in one of his responsa, is that there are in fact two readings of the Torah. There is a supernal idea, a pristine Torah, unencumbered by human interpretation, unencumbered by our own perspectives, ideas of human nature, and that in fact was the Torah that the angels wanted to keep. But what God responded is that that is not the complete purpose of the Torah. The real purpose of the Torah also needs to exist on Earth and be a product of human nature and address human nature. That the Torah is meant, religious wisdom, religious ideas, are meant to interact and be in dialogue with all of the imperfections, failures, and disappointments that human beings inevitably go through in the course of their lives. And there is something about religious tradition, religious wisdom, and religious interpretation that is meant to address and reflect the very condition of human nature. The religious ideas that we preserve, so many of them, while we obviously are reacting to prophetic ideas, to ideas that were originally given to us through revelation, according to our tradition, but they are ideas that are developed through scholars, through the generations, and are a product in many ways of our own human condition and our own human nature.

And in many ways, this wedding of that supernal pristine mystical Torah through the lens of human condition is what makes religious traditions so unique and why they are so difficult to reconstruct. They’re difficult to reconstruct because they’re not detached from reality like numbers that you just add one by one, axiom by axiom, but they are in response to and filtered through human nature and the human condition.

And I think in many ways this dialogue between Moshe and the angels, between Colbert and Ricky Gervais, is the dialogue of rationality and experience. It’s the dialogue that we’ve been speaking about since the beginning of this series, of, where do we want wisdom to be anchored vis-a-vis our own human condition? Are we looking for a set of ideas that is so pristine, so lofty, so transcendent that they’re almost uninterrupted, unmoved by the zeitgeist, by the movements, by the nature of human interpretation and human experience? Or is there a middle ground where we can take those ideas, that pristine rationality, and filter it through our own human mind, our own human condition, with all of our biases, with all of our difficulties, with all of our failures, quite frankly? And I think the beauty, when I look at the Torah, when I look at religious ideas, is not that it is a truth that remains uninterrupted and unmoved by human beings, but because it is tradition that is in dialogue with human nature and the human condition itself.

And it’s that dialogue between Colbert and Ricky Gervais that I begin our interview with Zohar Atkins. Zohar Atkins is a phenomenal thinker. He has a PhD in philosophy. He’s probably best known for his threadapaloozas that he has on Twitter, and please check him out on Twitter, @ZoharAtkins. He also has a Substack where he emails out incredible religious ideas. But what I find so moving about what Zohar does is that he weds religious tradition with the human condition. He takes all of the traditions of philosophy, whether it is rationalism, experiential, romantic philosophy, analytic philosophy, he has a way of breaking it down into bite-sized pieces. But he doesn’t stop there. He’s not just interested in theories hanging in the heavens, pristine, unmoved, uninterrupted. He’s looking to bring ideas, create doorways with which we can address our unique human condition. And that’s why I’m so excited to introduce my conversation with Zohar, because he is the type of philosopher who is interested in integrating our very messy, sloppy, chaotic human world with the world of pristine ideas. And it is this question that Ricky Gervais asks Stephen Colbert that I began our interview with Zohar Atkins.

It is my pleasure to introduce somebody who I’ve known remotely and in person, a dear friend who shares some of the most incredible insights, whether it’s on Substack, on Twitter, in so many different places and communities, both online and offline. It is my pleasure and privilege to introduce my friend, Zohar Atkins.

Zohar Atkins:

Wonderful to be here, brother.

David Bashevkin:

It’s so great to see you, and I wanted to begin with kind of a strange question from a video clip of a dialogue that we actually posted in our opening video between Stephen Colbert and Ricky Gervais. Stephen Colbert is very religious, he’s a Catholic, he’s taught in Catholic school, and Ricky Gervais is a pretty avowed atheist. Ricky Gervais says, if you eradicated all the books in the world, all the religious texts, all the math texts, all the science texts, we would be able to reconstruct science and math. With a little bit of time, we’d be able to reconstruct it exactly the way that we have it today, because the grounding of the system follows sequentially. Math is built on axioms, and we could more or less reconstruct all of the knowledge that we know from that point. You would not be able to do that with religious ideas. Religious ideas, you have all these different opinions, all these different approaches, and if it had to be reconstructed from scratch, it would look drastically different. And Stephen Colbert in that interview stopped and said, “Wow. That’s a really interesting point.”

The reason why I want to begin with your reaction to that point is because I want to really talk about the foundations of faith and how religious ideas contrast to what we would call the hard sciences of math and science. And I’m curious, if somebody posed that thought experiment to you, do you agree with the premise, and why do you think that distinction exists?

Zohar Atkins:

That’s fascinating. Wow. So my reaction is to want to disambiguate religion into the aspects that are behavioristic and the aspects that are intellectual. So sacrifice, would we have animal sacrifice if we didn’t get it from religious tradition? Is that something we’d come up with on our own? That’s probably a harder sell than some of the more abstract ideas in religion, like the idea that we each contain a fragment of God within us. I do think that many religious traditions and intellectual traditions get to that point.

So I would say some things in our tradition are historically grounded and other things are more eternal. Like no matter when you’re living, two plus two equals four. So I put that in the category of eternal truths. The necessity of going from slavery to freedom, which is a core narrative in the Torah, I kind of put that in the eternal category also. But the specifics of like ten plagues, sure, I think that’s arbitrary. It could have been twelve plagues, it could have been different plagues. The reason why those plagues specifically has to do with the specifics of Egypt and the time in which the people would have experienced those plagues is meaningful. Does that make sense or –

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, no. It does make sense, I like that that distinction exists. I’ve always been fascinated with the differences between math and science and religious truths, and I’ve always felt like there is an inherent… Religion is meant to address the human condition, and because it’s meant to address the human condition, it’s necessarily a little messier than what math and science, and how it applies, because it doesn’t really resonate, or it’s not meant to address what it means to be human.

Zohar Atkins:

Yeah, I think that you could have in a parallel universe a Judaism that doesn’t begin with the Garden of Eden, but begins with another story. In fact, Rashi kind of begs… Not begs the question, but he interrogates the question of why does the Torah begin as it does. And even though he has an answer, the sheer fact that it would come up to him as a question implies that you might reorder the Torah in some other way. And we do have a hermeneutic principle, there’s no before and after in the Torah, which, one way of understanding that is that you could kind of shuffle the Torah like a deck of cards, and if you pulled up a different card each time, it would be fine, because it would lead you to the rest of the deck.

David Bashevkin:

Zohar, we’ve known each other for a few years, and I want to really start with the beginning of Zohar to understand, you have such a complex and sophisticated way in which you approach Torah. I’m wondering if you could share a little bit, just so people understand, what context you emerge from. What do you attribute your relationship to Torah and religious ideas to? When you think about what your faith is grounded on, where does your mind go?

Zohar Atkins:

I appreciate that a lot. I’ve been fortunate firstly just to have been exposed to such a variety of teachers in my life. And though I don’t necessarily come from one single lineage or one unbroken chain of tradition, I do feel that teachers broadly speaking are our links in a chain of teaching that goes back to the ancient world. And I feel very blessed to have had good teaching modeled and I hope in my own way to be a teacher for others. On the specifics, the best way to answer it is somewhat allegorically. I come back to the image of Esav and Yaakov, Esau and Jacob. Two brothers, so alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene. Two twins who are so alike and so different, and who wrestle with each other, and the one haunts the other. And Jacob is Judaism and Esav is, whether you want to call it Rome, or you want to call it Christianity, you want to call it philosophy. Whatever it is, it’s the other to us, just as we are the other to it. And yet we’re twins. So I would say I’ve grown up going to public schools. I went to Brown University for undergraduate, I went to Oxford for a PhD. In a certain lineage, I’ve been educated in the yeshivot of Rome in the mesorah, the tradition of Esav.

David Bashevkin:

I heard they make great soup.

Zohar Atkins:

And I have a lot of gratitude for it, and at the same time I grew up in a traditional home, going to synagogue, with the privilege of learning from tutors and Talmud growing up. And I’ve tried to make room in my life for learning over the years. I spent time in different yeshivas, I’ve got smicha at JTS, and I try to make time in my life to be a lifelong learner of Torah. So for me, it’s not about necessarily a synthesis between philosophy and Judaism or Jacob and Esav, but it’s about this strange image where Isaac cries out to Jacob in the moment of Jacob wearing Esav’s garments, “Hakol kol Yaakov vehayadayim yedei Esav,” the voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esav. It’s actually a moment of fluidity, and cross-dressing, really, where you would think that Jacob is pretending to be someone he’s not, and that is certainly a feeling that you can have as a person in multiple worlds. But some mystical readings of that, which I prefer, like the Maharal’s, see it as a kind of messianic image of where we want to go. Maybe not a synthesis, but a way of realizing that each civilization has something to contribute to the conversation. So that’s the broad answer to, who I am is I’m a person who wears the hands of Esav, but hopefully the voice of Jacob comes through.

David Bashevkin:

I absolutely love that. Over a decade ago, I wrote an article for First Things talking about how we should include our failures in our bio blurbs. And I included my own, rejected for many prestigious fellowships and awards. I would like a new movement now that our bio blurbs should be told through biblical allegory, that is the next step in this chain. Biblical allegory, biblical allegory bios. But I want to stick with that because I think it’s a fascinating way that you framed it. You really were immersed in the finest institutions of what you’re calling the yeshivas of Esav, the philosophical traditions, and your command of philosophy is apparent to anybody who knows you online because of these, what you call threadapaloozas, these hundred tweet threads, where you invite people to explore, in these bite-sized little pieces, the works of these remarkable philosophers. But my question is, so tell me, why was there a struggle? Why come back to, not just come back, but what does tradition provide you that you weren’t able to find nourishment in Oxford, in Brown, in PhDs, in the most scholarly and finest traditions of philosophy? Why is that not sufficient for you?

Zohar Atkins:

Great question. I am who I am, and who I am as a whole person, not just a mind. So firstly, my philosophical critique of certain kinds of doing philosophy is that it thinks that if you just have the right thoughts, that’s the be all and end all. And obviously a good virtuous life is an embodied one, it’s an interactive, lived one, and it’s a communal one. And so just right off the bat, philosophy as practiced in academics can’t be enough because philosophy has to be a way of life. That was the original aspiration. I don’t see philosophy as a way of life in the specialization that now dominates the field, and the fact that most people think that they have to be professors to be philosophers. The professors themselves think this and non-philosophers think that philosophy isn’t for them.

By contrast, at its best, Torah is for everybody. Moses tells the people that God is making a covenant, not just with the elites, but also with the water carrier and the wood bearer and so on. So I think that that aspiration to make a text that speaks to every aspect of life, every level of sociology, every nook and cranny of psychology, is just amazing. And if philosophy can do that, that’s also wonderful. But sociologically speaking, we are best when we live in community, and I don’t really see a philosophical community happening at the scale that Jewish community happens. So that’s a kind of utilitarian answer. That’s like the answer of, “Hmm, what should I buy today? Should I buy this good or this good? Okay.” But the truth is, it’s not so rational for me. It’s not that I just went into the grocery store and said, “I think I’ll buy Judaism, and that looks like a better deal.” It’s that I am Jewish, it’s just how I am in the world. And so it’s not even a question of, what does tradition do for you, what does faith do for me? It’s that I feel profoundly grateful to belong to a tradition, and I feel, maybe not sadness, but I see people without tradition and I feel that it’s much harder for them.

Now obviously tradition has its own burdens. You can get stuck in an uncreative relationship tradition where it seems like this external thing imposed upon you. I think Kafka and many of that generation describe it as deeply alienating, and they were right. For them it was, and they had to break with tradition. But I feel grateful to live at a time, sociologically and geopolitically, where my experience of Judaism is not Kafka’s. And I feel tremendous responsibility because of that, because it seems to be somewhat of a minority experience, to make my experience available to others. But I’m not in the business of persuading and saying, “Look, you should really be more observant or be more learned.” I think we’re in a time of choice, and so that’s the blessing and burden of our liberal moment, is figuring out how to authentically choose something whose fundamental tenets are that you don’t choose everything. That some things choose you.

David Bashevkin:

Wow. I want to unpack that a little bit more because I think we share a lot of that in common. I sometimes say myself, much to the chagrin of other educators in my field, especially because a lot of the work I do is in the work of outreach, but I don’t, I am not a master persuader. I am not telling somebody, “This is how you must live and this is what you must do.” And I struggle with negotiating between making the case for the beauty and the value add of embracing Jewish life and in Jewish thought with the reality of, ultimately, I don’t share the lived experience of the people that I’m talking to. So I’m curious to hear from you, does it all come down to this postmodern notion, and I know that’s a loaded word, of lived experience, like, “Look, for me it works, for me I like it, and for you, you might not like it. Maybe you’re more like a Kafka person and you find it suffocating.” Is there any way in the modern world to make a case for what the value add of embracing this is? Or does it all come down to that intuition and rhythm of your lived experience, and hey, if this isn’t your lived experience, God bless you and I hope you find meaning and satisfaction in the yeshiva of Esav, so to speak.

Zohar Atkins:

I think there’s definitely room for making the value add argument. I just don’t feel that for me it’s the thing I want to lead with. I personally am resistant to the value add language because I feel that it’s much deeper and more profound than this capitalist framing of, at the margins, Judaism is better for you. It’s kind of already capturing religion within the wellness industry. The value add of Judaism is that it’s true in the deep sense, and that a life lived in alignment with truth in the deep sense is simply the best life that you can live. But saying that is just begging the question. It’s fundamentalist, and I don’t think it’s effective for the kind of people that I find myself drawn to. Maybe there are people who would pass by the stand at the college campus where somebody’s saying that, and for them that would be compelling, because they want certainty, and they want the ready to believe manual, the ready to receive manual that says, “Judaism stands for these 13 principles, and here’s why it’s logical, and here’s our arguments against the competing products out there, Islam, Christianity, secular nihilism. Here’s how we’re differentiating this space.”

Some people would go for that, but I don’t know, that’s not my way. That’s not my way for a lot of reasons. Some of it just might be temperamental, but I don’t begrudge people for whom that is their way or people for whom that’s what they want to hear in order to buy. My way is more of a demonstration, through example, through poetics, and hopefully, by being me and not being someone else, I’ll also be able to draw in people who fit with that way, who would be turned off of typical outreach approaches. So I think there’s a lot of room at the ground level of the Sinai Mountain for different approaches. And 600,000 adult men stood there, 1.2 million people according to some estimates, and so that’s a lot of people and clearly one size doesn’t fit all.

But the second thing I’ll say is that in my view of Judaism, there’s a lot more room for uncertainty as a virtue, and maybe that’s just apologetics, maybe that is just me trying to give a religious justification for my postmodernism if you will. But I kind of feel that the image of the cloud of God traveling with the people in the desert is an image of mystery. The God who says, “I am going to hide myself,” is a god who doesn’t reveal God’s face to Moses, is a God who doesn’t necessarily require us to know in order to be authentic. And we of course enshrine as a secret of angels, the Talmud says, the principle of na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and then we will understand. So circling back to your other question about philosophy, I think the vice of philosophers is they want to understand everything and then they’ll do, and they don’t do anything because there’s always more to understand.

I’ve fallen into that myself, so I find the legal aspect and the ritual aspect of Judaism to be a corrective to that Hamletesque indecision by saying, you know what? Just do it. Put on the tefillin, or whatever it is, shake the Lulav, do something weird, and then figure out what it means to you. But if you’re like, “Hmm, why should I do this?” I don’t know, yeah, you’re right. Maybe you shouldn’t. But then you’re just going to sit there asking questions all day and a person’s got to live. So iterate.

David Bashevkin:

I actually really love that. I think, even within the philosophical tradition, there were philosophers, and I’m going to probably butcher all their names. And any time I mention a philosopher in front of you, it’s with a great deal of shamefulness and inadequacy that I say them, because you’re just so much more gifted and knowledgeable in these areas. But there were philosophers like Bertrand Russell, like Wittgenstein, who they really tried to lay out, and this was parallel to what was going on in the early 1900s, what was happening in math. Try to lay out the foundation, starting from square one, and build upon them. And you seem to write in almost the exact opposite philosophical and Jewish tradition, where somebody asked me, “Where should I start with Zohar Atkins? I heard about this person, I’m inviting him for a weekend. Where should we start?” I would have no idea, because you write these kind of, these essays, and they don’t necessarily connect to one another, but there’s definitely of themes that run throughout. So I guess the question that I’m asking you is, do you look at your thinking as having a beginning, a starting point? Or maybe rephrased, if somebody invited you for a weekend retreat, they never met you, they heard about you, and they want you to give a series of lectures talking about Jewish thought and Jewish life, where is the starting point for you?

Zohar Atkins:

Heidegger said that every great thinker thinks one thought only. He also said that the greatest thought a thinker gives posterity is what is unthought in their work. To translate that into Jewish, if you will –

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. I think my brain just exploded.

Zohar Atkins:

Right. Okay, so one thought only, but at the same time, he says that the one thought you have, if you will, it’s not a content, it’s not a proposition. It’s actually a negative space, a feeling, a sentiment that’s left in the wake of their project, but that can only be recuperated after the fact by a commentator, if you will. There’s the written Torah, which is a kind of one thought only, I would say. What that one thought is is that a personal god, a single, personal god who created the universe seeks a relationship with one nation, and within that nation with the individual. And in my view that’s a paradigm for everyone, because I’m more universalistic. But regardless of where you want to get in on that debate, I think there’s one thought only. At the same time, if it were that simple, we wouldn’t have the Talmud. We wouldn’t have rishonim and acharonim. We wouldn’t have beit midrash. We’d just be like, “Okay, we’re done. Let’s just say the Shema and be done with it.” So you could think of oral Torah as a commentary on the unthought of the Torah, the unspoken of the Torah. Not that God said certain things that weren’t written down that God passed along through a whisper network, but rather that certain things by definition cannot be said, and yet they’re still part of the conversation. The infinite conversation.

Anyways, so that was a very long-winded way of saying that I don’t know what my one thought is yet. Maybe I will attain this one thought over a lifetime if I’m lucky. And even if I do, it wouldn’t matter whether I say what my one thought is. It’s for posterity or others to figure out what is unthought in Zohar. Okay. That was one giant throat clear. A tangible question of what I would talk about at a retreat. It would be what was in my bio, right? Teach what you know. It would be the question of, how does Torah relate to philosophy? How does Judaism relate to the Greco-Roman world? How does the fact that we live in a post-Enlightenment society as Jews, whether in America or Israel or somewhere else, affect the way we relate to Judaism? And there’s so many sub-branches within that. There’s technology, and how technology and the rise of STEM have affected our relationship to religiosity. There’s the issue of industrialization. There’s all the modernizations in the forms of intellectual critique of religion, but also in the forms of just massive changes to the way we’ve organized ourselves.

I mean a lot of it for the better. I think one of the fundamental premises of the Enlightenment and liberalism besides choice is equality, egalitarianism, a movement to liberate more people and so on. And yet what it actually means to be free, I’m not sure liberalism has adequately answered, and I think that does require us to go back to the Pesach story and to the religious tradition and ask whether just being able to vote or just being able to, I don’t know, buy marijuana, whatever it is that people are invoking in the name of liberty, makes a person free.

David Bashevkin:

It’s interesting that after voting, you went right to marijuana. That was number two on your list of potential freedoms.

Zohar Atkins:

I was trying to give a non-controversial example. I realize that is semi-controversial, but obvious, I think liberalism is about rights. Judaism is about obligations. I’m not the first to say this by any means, Robert Cover has great discussion of this, the legal philosopher. So it’s those cognitive dissonances that arise from the fact that we are an old tradition living in a very rapidly changing world, and a world whose intellectual subcurrents have some parallels with Judaism, but also have some dissonance with it. And my expertise is in philosophy more than it is in traditional Jewish sources, but the Talmud is not a purely Jewish document. The Talmud has Greek words in it. The Talmud has rabbis engaging in the kind of sophistic arguments that they would have been exposed to through elite Greco-Roman education and so on. And so the questions of assimilation and zealotry and how do you find your peace with majority culture versus when you have to put your foot down, these are questions we’ve been grappling with for a long time.

David Bashevkin:

So as you may or may not know, the very name of this podcast, of this entire edifice that we’re beginning to construct, is 18Forty. And the reason why we called it 18Forty is really for two reasons. One is because there’s a mystical teaching that in the year 1840, the kind of gates of wisdom are going to bubble up. It was the sixth century of the sixth millennia. And another reason is because 1840 was really a year of a great deal of modernity, of the Industrial Revolution, of religious upheaval, of enlightenment, of explosion of capitalism. And so much changed in that year. And the way most people frame this conflict is as a conflict. They frame it as, the secular world was offering all of these opportunities, and the importance or dignity of religion began to be completely overshadowed. And I think there are many in the Jewish world who received it that way. There were some who said, we didn’t get this messianic revelation that we expected in 1840 because technology, as a punishment for the way we embraced technology and revolution and all of these things.

When you look at these two movements and the way that they interact with one another, I’m particularly interested in your thoughts on STEM, and this more recent explosion of Bayesian reasoning, and how computer science has really shaped our attempt to have this hyper rationalistic decision-making process. So do you look at it as a conflict of yeshivas Esav, so to speak, and yeshivas Yaakov? Or were there opportunities that were unlocked because of this conflict? And if so, what were those opportunities that we may not have had in earlier, religious opportunities, in earlier generations or centuries?

Zohar Atkins:

Yeah, I think it’s both. It’s both opportunity and crisis. The word “mashber,” shout-out to Tal Ben-Shahar for this on Ari Lamm’s podcast, but he notes that this word can mean both crisis but also the stool on which a woman gives birth. So absolutely the Enlightenment is a crisis and absolutely it’s an opportunity. Just because I’m always drawn to the allegorical, I got to give a little mini drash on the story in the Talmud of Antoninus and Rebbe, they were chavrutas, right? One was the Roman emperor, the other was the chieftain of the Jewish people, and they learned together. They had both philosophical conversations and learned Torah together. So the clash of civilizations, maybe their peoples felt that, but they themselves as leaders felt great proximity and kinship. And the Talmud compares them to Esav and Yaakov. It says, don’t read the verse, two nations in your womb, rather two great ones in your womb. Who were the great ones? They were Antoninus and Rebbe. So in a way, I feel that this post-Enlightenment world we’re in is just one in which instead of having two men get together in private, now lots of people get to be a kind of Rebbe, or an inyan of Rebbe, a piece of Rebbe, and lots of people get to be a piece of Antoninus. Because in a democratic age, we aspire at least to unlock the opportunities at the top for more people.

So now we get many variations of the Antoninus-Rebbe mashup. And that’s kind of, not to flatter myself, but how I like to imagine my trajectory, as one in which sometimes I play the role of Antoninus, sometimes the role of Rebbe. And the opportunity is what you get from that chavruta. And as we know, chavruta isn’t two people agreeing, it’s by definition two people conflicting but to produce a higher harmony. Or maybe they never agree. Maybe they never harmonize and it’s kind of sad, but what’s the alternative? When Resh Lakish died after Rabbi Yochanan shamed him to death, Rabbi Yochanan was left with a yes man and he was upset the Torah didn’t grow through that conflict. So that’s my Torah piece on this. In terms of what specifically are the opportunities, yeah, I think broadly speaking, I see post-Enlightenment Judaism as spawning three different approaches to this topic of Jewish identity in the larger world. One is the Maskilic approach, I’ll get to the definition in a second, one is the Hasidic, and one is the Misnagdic.

So I think actually, if you think of it as a triangle, they each have something in common with one another and they each have something in opposition. I think the Maskilim, the enlightened ones, the ones who wanted to maximally assimilate and adapt to rationality, have a lot in common with the Misnagdim, because they’re both seeking a rational foundation for the truth. They come to different conclusions, but basically, in terms of temperament, they’re very similar. And that’s why you see a lot of people who grew up Litvish, Orthodox, who go off the derech. To translate, people who grew up in a non-Hasidic traditional home and found fault with the rationality of it, they go into academia or law, because there’s actually a lot of continuity. So maybe they disagree with the conclusion but the method was familiar.

The Hasidic approach is much more suspicious of reason altogether. And there are a lot of important consequences to that suspicion, from the elevation of a rebbe to a place of authority, that in both the Misnagdic and in the Maskilic traditions, you’d have more suspicion of human authority. Because it kind of deifies that person, and that makes certain people worried about idolatry. You also have the emphasis on singing, on dance, on non-rational modes of experiencing the divine.

So once upon a time, these movements were in dire conflict with each other. Once upon a time, the Misnagdim, literally the opposers, thought Hasidism was beyond the pale. Then at some point in the late 19th, early 20th century, they got together and they said, “The greater enemy is the haskalah, it’s secular Zionism.” Now there’s broadly a consensus that it’s the anti-Zionists who are the bad ones. Again, I’m not speaking as me, I’m just saying the alliances are always changing. But in this shifting sand of who is and what is the enemy also comes the ability to mix and match much more today. And if you want to call that post-modernism, fine, we can call it that. But where I think that’s a positive is that yeah, there’s probably a grain of truth in all of these. And Hegel would call that a synthesis and a dialectical opposition. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair kind of made that a political philosophy in the form of the Third Way, you have a lot of people talking about triangulation.

So that’s where I kind of stand. I think we need to triangulate between the fact that yeah, Hasidism is absolutely right, that a brain-based approach to religion is just not going to do it for a lot of people. But you know what? Dismissing secular education is also really bad. Both at a practical level, because you’re not going to be able to make a living, and at a soul level, because God gave us reason to use it. And we’re skeptical beings as much as we’re believers, and to just shut down the rational faculty and say, “That’s an impediment to faith,” as Rebbe Nachman seemed to suggest, I don’t think that that is… It’s certainly not egalitarian. It doesn’t honor the range of human experiences. But I also just think it’s kind of destructive. So what can I say? I love Rebbe Nachman’s stories, I think he’s a really deep guy, but there’s a reason I didn’t put on a white Na-Nach-Nachman kippah and go chanting out in Jerusalem as the be all and end all of my Judaism.

So at the end of the day, I’m probably more on the Haskalah and Misgnadic side of the spectrum, but in my interventions in the realm of poetry and art and spiritual practice, I do think we need more of the Hasidic critique to be integrated. So thankfully we live at a time where the opposition between head and heart is felt by everybody to be a false one. The people on the heart side know that just because you meditate every hour of the day doesn’t mean that you’re going to solve problems in political philosophy. And at the same time, more and more people who are engaged in philosophical studies are realizing both intellectually and experientially that that’s not going to make the world better. If we just give power to the philosophers, we kind of have tried that, that elites don’t always know what’s best for everyone. So we’re in this unknown territory, we’re in the desert, and I think that’s a good thing ultimately.

David Bashevkin:

That is incredibly profound and obviously, just for our listeners who are going to start writing in, I think that typology of the triangle is absolutely brilliant. But it is an oversimplification in some ways. They all kind of mix, but I absolutely love that. I want to stay with that one point about the Hasidic critique of rationality, and I want to hear more from you. Do you think there is ever a rational grounds to critique the limits of rationality itself? And what is it, if one does indeed exist?

Zohar Atkins:

Oh totally. I think many philosophers have done this. The ones that I write my threadapaloozas on by and large have done this, from Gadamer and Heidegger to the later Wittgenstein. I think there’s many ways you can go in criticizing reason as a reasonable person. In fact, I would call that whole endeavor the counter Enlightenment. Romanticism is a subspecies of the counter Enlightenment. But basically, everyone who came after Kant in Germany was part of this movement, basically. And okay, so one is just realizing that reason, your ability to think stands upon certain premises, certain givens. Well where did those come from? Now in the most hyper rationalistic answer, you’ll say, “Reason self-generates. It’s autonomous.” I think the rational critique of rationality is to say that’s not quite true. We have bias, we have prejudice, we think certain things because we’ve been socialized into them. Freud introduced the ides of the unconscious. Rene Girard will say that a lot of our desires are medic, we imitate others. And this just seems so patently true.

So there’s many observations that seem to undercut the myth that reason is a self-starter. You have those who emphasize the fact that reason takes place in language, and language is hyper specific to a culture. Of course the counter to that, right, is the endeavor, and this goes back to your other question, the endeavor to make reason all the more mathematical to escape that problem, to make philosophy more like computer science and less like poetry.

David Bashevkin:

What you’re saying now, and I want you to continue, is exactly why I began with the Ricky Gervais-Colbert dialogue. That notion of autonomous reason, of reason being able to just self-generate and recreate itself, I think that’s the position in many ways of what Ricky Gervais was trying to say. I don’t want to go back into that question, but I am enthralled by what you’re saying now, and I hope that you can continue the line of reasoning before I interrupted you.

Zohar Atkins:

Not at all. I say every day in the Amidah, thank you God for chonen hada’at, for gracing me with knowledge, for granting me reason. For me, the ability to reason is a gift, but it’s not a self-starter. And I mean, even the fact that neurologically, you can look at liminal cases of people whose brains have suffered accidents, and see the ways in which they can partially reason, suggests, and again, I’m not a materialist here, so I’m not bringing a raya, I’m not bringing a proof from neuroscience, it’s more of an exhibit than a proof. But the fact that people’s reasoning can be partial with part of their brains working and part not kind of suggests that reason is far more of a complex thing than just an on-off switch, and we wouldn’t be able to do those experiments without rationality itself. So I think…

Alasdair MacIntyre has a line in one of his books, the title of which is Dependent Rational Animals. I think that really captures the rational critique of rationality, that if we were rational animals purely, we wouldn’t be dependent. We could just depend on our own reason. And yet we are dependent in so many ways. And not just dependent for material needs, but a person put in solitary confinement goes crazy. So doesn’t that off the bat prove that they can’t just be happy with their own mind? Now stoicism originated actually precisely as the ideology that a person can be free by themselves without any social validation, and I find a lot of power in that idea. Maybe it’s empirically much more complex than that, but there’s a reason why even today in Silicon Valley, it’s so popular. Because stoicism enshrined the idea that you’re not as dependent as you think, that you can be self-dependent and find an inner strength, even when the world around you has let you down.

So there’s an evolutionary and historical reason for why reason got elevated to the place that it did, and that’s that it can do a ton. It can do a ton, it obviously can bring down empires, it can start revolutions, it can change the way we do science, it can come up with cures for diseases, et cetera. I don’t need to sell you on that. And yet are we happier today than we were? Have we really, of course I think that there has been progress, there has been, I don’t want to downplay the political progress that I believe we’ve made over the past. But I also think the Enlightenment oversold us on what kind of progress we could look at, and so I am more of a right-winger, if you will. Right wing in the original sense of those who stood on the right of the French Assembly after the French Revolution and felt that we shouldn’t just chuck tradition. I don’t mean right wing in a partisan sense, but I just meant temperamentally, I think we overstate.

We overstate the progress that we can achieve with reason, and so I’m ultimately skeptical. And from Montaigne, Montaigne was a rationalist who criticized reason. He was part of a tradition that began much earlier. It was called Pyrrhonian skepticism, which is probably the most rigorous way of doing this. Pyrrhonian skepticism would take a stick, Sextus Empiricus would take a stick that looked straight out of water, he put it under the water, it would look bent. He’d just do tons of things like this all the time. It was a kind of like a, got you, check it out. What is truth? You thought it was this? No, it’s this. So then he’s making you think, “Well, maybe reason is just my premise that the world I’m living in is the world above water.” But now I go underwater and I realize it could be a different way, and so that what I took for granted was a function of my orientation but not a function of the absolute. So that constant relativization of what you take to be absolute. I think that’s what Sextus Empiricus did, that’s what the rational critique of rationality does, and that’s what Montaigne did. And Montaigne was a Catholic after the Protestant Reformation. And in a way, that’s kind of what I am. I am a Jew after the critique of Judaism. Not because I don’t think the critique is good, but because you kind of, all right, so now that you’ve deconstructed everything, now what? You got to choose something. And I just basically think tradition is a better horse to bet on than something else. That contradicts what I said earlier about not trying to sell Judaism, but –

David Bashevkin:

Gotcha.

Zohar Atkins:

Montaigne was like, “Yeah, you’re right. I can’t defend Catholicism, but I can’t defend anything anymore. So I might as well go with what’s familiar.” The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. You know what I’m saying?

David Bashevkin:

I love this.

Zohar Atkins:

There’s a way of reading that line from Proverbs and from Ecclesiastes that’s basically just saying, “Yeah, you’re right. You don’t know anything.” Okay, but you do know one thing, right? Fear of the Lord, that’s not going away. Fear of the Lord is just a stand-in for all that human technology and human science and human rationality can achieve. And guess what? We are vulnerable, and we still don’t know how to interact with ourselves and one another in ways that bring you eudaimonia. So until we solve those fundamental problems, you should probably stick with some tradition that’s going to try to answer those questions, and do a little bit better than turning us into cyborgs.

David Bashevkin:

That literally was going to be my last question, but you know, you just received this very prestigious fellowship. If I remember correctly, I think Peter Thiel was involved. And I see that there is a movement now, you could call it futurism. I know there are communities built around this idea of singularity, and really embracing this method of thinking that we see computers are capable of, and we are trying to almost imitate and create a method of thinking that has this highly sequential, rationalistic, almost, the word you ended with is “cyborg,” of like becoming and embodying this computer rationality. And I’m curious, a lot of your work relates and resonates with this community. What do you think the quest of futurism misses in understanding how to nourish the human condition?

Zohar Atkins:

Okay, good question.

David Bashevkin:

And Zohar, let me speak almost more candidly. We had on the podcast, and it’s a close friend of mine, somebody who left the religious community, and your triangle summed him up perfectly. He left, and he’s really involved in AI, he’s very enamored, and I think his work is actually fascinating with his blog, Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex and this universe of applying Bayesian reasoning to your life and figuring out everything in this really… My critique has always been, it sounds like you want to become a computer, like you want to really have that singularity where your brain can be uploaded somewhere, and it seems like they’re almost neglecting the very endemic and essential part of the human condition.

Now I’m not out to critique any one individual, and I’m certainly not out to critique any one blog, website, or mode of thinking, but I’m curious: you do interact with this world of Silicon Valley, and people, they find your work and your writing very enchanting. What is the message that you are trying to share with them in their quest for a certain mode of thinking? What do you think they can gain from the message that you’re delivering them?

Zohar Atkins:

Okay, now that’s a great question, but before I answer it, I just point out that I don’t think rationalism or Bayesian reasoning are anathema to Judaism. I really am pluralistic in that I think there are so many ways to be authentically Jewish. If your calling is AI or computer science, or to do philosophy as mathematics or logic, do that, and ideally do that and also find meaning in the Torah and read the Torah that way. Seventy faces of Torah, that’s not my way, but if that’s your way, that’s fine. I don’t personally think that being committed to Bayesian reasoning, or even being committed to a kind of technological futurism, has to be at odds with feeling deeply Jewish and deeply connected. What I’m trying to do is make room for a neglected, a once glorious but now neglected aspect of the human condition. And it’s a kind of give us Yavneh approach.

I think the temple of the liberal arts has been destroyed, and if it hasn’t been it’s going to be. Rome is definitely sacking the temple of learning for its own sake. And I don’t think we’re going to win by trying to fight on the terms of the invading army and say, “You know what? It turns out that if you study philosophy, or you read Tolstoy, or you learn Parshat Hashavua, you can also go to law school.” Or to cite some CEO who had a philosophy degree – Reid Hoffman, by the way, founder of LinkedIn studied philosophy – “Okay, so therefore, you see it’s useful.” No. The grandeur of it is its uselessness, or at least its slowness. Its resistance to being appropriated for quick fixes or to feel that this is efficient within a utilitarian framework. Frankly it’s not. But where we’re moving right now is to a world in which, once again, learning for its own sake is really reserved for elites. And not only for elites, but elites within elites. Because most elites, elites in the sense of, you went to an Ivy League school, or you have the socionomic opportunity and cultural cachet to be able to travel the world, that kind of thing.

Even those people do not really make time in their lives for learning for its own sake. So it’s very rare, it’s very rare to see the life of learning as a holy thing, and it used to not be. It used to be the thing that most people felt, if they could do that, they were the luckiest people on Earth. Aristotle said that to be a philosopher, you have to have leisure. And he’d be canceled today in some parts because that meant slaves can’t philosophize, because they don’t have leisure. And Aristotle favored slavery for reasons beyond my time space here.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. Let’s not get into…

Zohar Atkins:

Aristotle didn’t think everyone could philosophize. The hope of democracy and of the Enlightenment was in a way to let everybody philosophize, and yet we haven’t taken up that promise. We have actually done the opposite. We have taken even people who are in the 1% and we’ve stripped them of the ability to think, because we’ve told them that the only thing that matters is productivity and achievement, technological progress, and not just sitting with a book for hours, and not rushing to a takeaway, but just letting it absorb you.

So what is my pitch for Judaism? Okay, this is answering a different question than what do you want the readers of Slate Star Codex [inaudible], but while on this topic, my pitch for Judaism is, yeah, we did not get taken in by that, because we have always been a people of the book. And so even our secular people know that learning for its own sake is a great thing, and we continue to do that. And I think in so doing we are a light unto the nations, especially in a time where learning for its own sake seems so strange.

Back in the pre-modern world, the philosopher was thought to be the pinnacle of society. Today it’s the engineer. We’ve gained a lot from that flip and we’ve lost a lot from that flip. It’s very self-serving of me to say, “Oh, we should make philosophers on top again.” I’m not actually saying that. I’m just saying they certainly shouldn’t be at the bottom. And just because you’re an engineer doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also open up Aristotle.

So what do I want readers of Slate Star Codex, and people who spend their time thinking about how they can cancel aging, and make us immortal in the biological sense, and that kind of thing, what do I want them to know or to do? I would say, one is make room in your life for experiences other than rationality, and two is, not everything has to lead you to being an effective altruist. There’s parts of the human experience that are good unto themselves, and I personally believe that my argument there is not really persuasive. It’s an argument from virtue, it’s an argument from virtue ethics. And if you want to be persuasive, you have to model it. And one reason why it’s losing is because those who argue for virtue ethics themselves don’t lead lives that are compelling. And so if you want to restore virtue to its prominence, you have to show that being a virtuous person is an exemplary life. But just saying it isn’t going to persuade anyone.

So the last thing I’ll say on that point is, basically virtue got demoted since Machiavelli, and we’re living in that Machiavellian world still. Because Machiavelli said that to be a good ruler, you actually have to be vicious. And not only do you have to be vicious, but you have to see that people are fundamentally vicious, and you have to play to people’s weaknesses, not to their strengths. You have to avoid the worst common denominator rather than aspire for the highest common denominator. And that’s kind of the paradigm we’re in, is the paradigm of the lesser evil. So I don’t know what to do about that, because when we aim high, we don’t necessarily get better results. But the reason why we have Bayesian reasoning is because people are basically cynical. They see what happens when people aim for the best and get the worst, so they’re settling for the middle by focusing on doing the bad things a little bit less bad. There’s another blog in this rationality community called Less Wrong that says everything you need to know.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, sure. That is absolutely fabulous. We actually have the sister of Less Wrong, who’s hopefully coming on in a couple weeks. Zohar Atkins, you are a blessing and a joy to talk to, and what you have done for Yiddishkeit, for thinking, for just so much of finding meaning, purpose in life – You’ll probably reject even that very description. I can see you wheels turning. I really cannot thank you enough. I always end my interviews with a little bit more rapid fire questions. My first question is, if you had to recommend a book of philosophy that is accessible, emphasized, underlined, italicized, in 25 font, that is accessible to the masses, our listeners, your average Joe on the ground or Sarah on the ground, that really opens up to the majesty of philosophy and can help people appreciate tradition, which is I think what you do so masterfully in exploring that tension, where would you suggest they begin?

Zohar Atkins:

Well accessibility is relative, but I think Plato’s Dialogues, while difficult, are far more accessible than other works, and I really believe that reading primary sources is the best way to enjoy philosophy. If you read about it, it’s just not going to be the same. Much the same way that in Torah, I would recommend starting with Bereishit bara elokim, and then picking up a book on what is Judaism.

David Bashevkin:

If somebody were to start and pick a, let’s say one of our listeners, who was raised in a traditional home, has a Jewish education, and is looking to appreciate a philosopher, which one of your threads of philosophy would you recommend for them to better appreciate the world, the traditional world from which they grew up in?

Zohar Atkins:

Maybe the Heidegger, the Levinas threads?

David Bashevkin:

Okay. I love them all as you know. Two more questions. If somebody were to give you a great deal of money, and allow you to take a sabbatical with no other responsibilities in your life to write a book, or go back to school and get a second PhD, what do you think the topic and title of that work would be?

Zohar Atkins:

So the thing that’s coming to mind is kind of strange, and I don’t actually know if I would do this, but I really like the poetry of Yehudah Halevi. And in general, I’m fascinated by medieval Hebrew poetry. So it would take me a long time to get the skills needed to really crack into what they’re doing there. But actually, this topic of rationality that we’ve been circling around is particularly interesting to me in the medieval Jewish poets, because they were so often influenced by philosophy, and yet they wrote verse. So I think something in the question of, why did they write poetry, and what is their poetry doing that their philosophy isn’t doing, and how do you… Yehudah Halevi wrote a book, The Kuzari, more famous than his poems, but how do you square the Yehudah Halevi, for instance, of The Kuzari with the Yehudah Halevi of the lyric poetry?

David Bashevkin:

I love that answer. My final question, I’m always curious about people’s schedules, especially my philosophically minded friends. What time do you go to sleep at night and what time do you wake up in the morning?

Zohar Atkins:

I go to sleep somewhere between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m., and I wake up some time between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m.

David Bashevkin:

I love that answer. Zohar, I am so appreciative of your time. I am so appreciative of your friendship. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Zohar Atkins:

Thank you Rabbi. Great to be here with you.

David Bashevkin:

We began this entire series with that anonymous conversation talking about anxiety and rationalism. And I think it was an important way to frame the conversation, because I think in many ways when you are left with just rationality, without wedded to any tradition, to any human experience, it can create and cultivate almost this nihilistic, or nihilistic as I have remarked before, when you – the word nihilistic and nihilistic, we don’t know how to pronounce it quite correctly, some people pronounce it nihilism, some people pronounce it nihilism, but honestly, if you know what the word means, who cares how you pronounce it. But if you are stuck in that world of just theories and ideas, then it is very hard to integrate and create a life of meaning where your world, your narrative, your personal religious experience, or personal human experience, even matters.

It reminds me in many ways of the great cartoon Rick and Morty. Rick and Morty, if you’ve never seen it before, is a cartoon on Comedy Central that has these incredible philosophical underpinnings to the show itself that really grapple with the meaning of existence, and confronts the question of cosmic nihilism. Does anything even matter? If you really break down the physics and science of the entire world, it’s hard to make anything matter. It is probably best pointed out in conversation by Morty Smith, who’s this young, goodhearted grandchild, in contrast to his cynical, crazy grandfather, Rick Sanchez. And Morty’s talking to his sister and says as follows:

Morty Smith:

Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s going to die. Come watch TV.

David Bashevkin:

It’s easy to get lost in that world, that nobody asked to be created and nothing matters, and we should just retreat to whatever creature comforts, whether it’s watching TV, binge watching Netflix, or overeating, or whatever it is, because nothing really matters. And it’s easy to get lost in that world when you break down everything into its constituent parts, where you have a reductionist attitude. It’s hard to feel a sense of meaning and purpose in your life, which is why I think a lot of an overly rationalistic orientation to one’s own life or the very universe and the world can lead one to have this rootlessness, where the purpose and meaning of life seems to be completely absent. And that’s where I think the anxiety of rationalism can emerge. And I think it’s all of our responsibility to find a way to move forward. And what I so appreciated in the conversation with Zohar was his comment that he made so quickly on the blog of Eliezer Yudkowsky, who is brilliant. I am not here to knock him, I know his sister quite well, and I knew his brother alav hashlom, may his memory be blessed as well. We were in yeshiva together.

But the name of his blog is called Less Wrong, and sometimes it feels like all that rationalism can provide is to be a little bit less wrong than everybody else. But what it doesn’t do is provide a positive theology, a positive perspective of, so how should I proactively be living? Thank you for reducing the potential forever, thank you for allowing me to be less wrong in my life, but where do I turn if I want to be more right? Where do I turn if I want to proactively figure out how to live a healthy and meaningful life? And I think when we take any methodology, whether it’s rationalism, whether it’s experientialism, if we take any methodology and invest everything in that, then we’re either going to be left with the reductionist rationalism of being less wrong, or the complete experientialism of gaslighting everybody else’s inquiry, and anything that I do and feel must be right. And I think there needs to be a path in the middle where we wed both of these worlds; where we find a way to be a little bit less wrong. But that’s not enough.

We also need to figure out a way to be proactively right. To find a path, an entryway forward, to build lives, families, communities of meaning, so our lives are not reduced to particles, where we don’t have the cynical feeling of not being asked to be born, nothing means anything, but to find a way to construct our meaning through our own lives being built on generations. To be more right, to live a life that is good, satisfying, meaningful, and purposeful for ourselves, for the ancestors who sacrificed so much for us to be here, and God willing, for future generations.

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