Monthly Archives: January 2019

Sharing Sinai with all that lives: Yitro 5779

eagle in akWhat is the significance of Sinai for animals? This might sound like a strange question—the theophany was for people, right? If anything, we might say that animals were instruments in the form of sacrifices—those brought by Yitro at the start of the portion, and those described by God in the Decalogue postscript about earthen and stone altars. It is true that animal sacrifice is part of the covenant made between people and God, and yet I’d like to suggest that animals have a larger stake in Sinai.

Animals surround the great revelation on the mountain of the Lord. God states at the outset (19:4) that Israel was brought out of Egypt “on eagle’s wings.” The revelation itself was accompanied by the sound of a ram’s horn: “The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.” This conjures a mingling of divine, human and animal sounds during this revelation. Still, the audience of the revelation was human, right? Continue reading


Dissonant Beauty by the Sea: BiShalah 5779

jaffaIt’s awesome to discover something precious where you don’t expect it to be. I had that feeling this week when I found a theory of music and a celebration of diversity in the introduction to a 19th century halakhic code. More on that below. On this Shabbat Shirah I’d like to know how the song of the sea actually sounded. Was it one voice united, an antiphonal call and response, some sort of harmony or even dissonance?

The Song literally begins, “Then Moses and the children of Israel would sing this song, and they said, saying” (Ex 15:1). It’s a curious verse, starting with the yud of yashir, which makes this historic moment seem incomplete and ungrammatical. Rashi’s theory is that this yud indicates not tense but an internal process that precedes action—the song that wells up from the heart before finding voice in the throat. He gives several other examples where an apparent future tense appears when the past tense belongs, with no “vov-conversive” in sight, and claims that the yud is playing a distinct role. It is drawing our attention to thought that precedes action. For Rashi, this grammatical insight is the true meaning (peshat), and is preferable to the wilder midrashic reading that this verse “proves” the doctrine of resurrection (purportedly the future tense indicates that Old Man Moses still has a song left to sing, even today).

I am moved by Rashi’s theory of grammar and psychology. We often think of music as an external experience—sound waves made by voices and instruments reaching the ears of the assembled. Yes, it is that, but first it is a thought, a feeling, an emotion. Thanks to Rashi we appreciate the silence that precedes the song. It begins inside with wonder, relief, and joy. And then these emotions burst out into audible song. Still, what did the song sound like? Continue reading

Becoming Conscious: Shabbat Bo 5779

How do you explain consciousness? The inner sense that each of has of being alive, of making decisions, of directing our bodies, of remembering, of feeling, of knowing—where does all of this come from? Why does it ebb at times of sleep, and return when we awaken? It is horrifying to imagine being alive and yet permanently unconscious. Self-awareness is definitive of human experience, but what is it, where does it come from, and what does it mean? These are ancient questions, and are central to Jewish thought (see below). Yet until recently they were outside the realm of scientific inquiry since consciousness seems subjective and impervious to measurement. Neuroscientists, philosophers and psychologists have lately focused their attention on the nature of consciousness. We know quite a bit about how brains work, we can explain how inputs and outputs relate, we can even point to regions of the brain that are associated with different conscious states (such as fear and anger with the amygdala). But what about consciousness itself—what is it?

Philosopher David Chalmers discusses this subject in a TED talk, noting that consciousness may be our defining human quality, and yet we do not have appropriate ways to define it. He proposes some “crazy ideas,” such as that consciousness is a fundamental feature of existence, just like mass or energy. More controversially, he relates the idea of Giulio Tononi that consciousness may be a universal feature of all existence, including inanimate particles such as photons. The more complex the intellect, the more it can integrate information, the greater the consciousness. Tononi uses the letter Phi to symbolize this measure of consciousness. The radical concept is that while humans might have high levels of Phi, there is no aspect of the universe that is devoid of consciousness. Even inanimate objects may integrate information and thus be identified as conscious.

I can’t vouch for the neuroscience, but the idea that consciousness suffuses all existence is familiar to religion, certainly to Judaism. In Tikkunei HaZohar we encounter the memorable expression, leit atar panui minei, “no place is empty of [God].” A mystical reading of “Ashrei” [Psalm 145] from Maharam Shik understands the unbound grandeur of God (ולגדולתו אין חקר) as a reference to consciousness (ידיעה)—it suffuses the universe. God’s greatest gift is the sharing of consciousness. Think of experiences of understanding—moments when an idea took hold in our mind or where you helped another person, young or old, to grasp a concept—that is a moment of joy. At such moments we feel more alive, which is to say, more conscious, since our minds have connected to other minds, and perhaps to the universal mind that we identify with God. Continue reading