Beyond New Atheism: is a constructive adult relationship possible between atheism and religion?
On this episode of the portal, Eric hosts leading conservative rabbi David Wolpe and explores the possibilities for, and problems with, a new synthesis of atheism and religion in our modern era that avoids special pleading.
Sponsors of this episode of The Portal:
Eric Weinstein: 0:09 Welcome, you found the portal. I’m your host, Eric Weinstein, and I’m here today with my guest, David Wolpe, who is the Rabbi of Sinai temple here in Los Angeles. David is often thought to be one of the most influential rabbis currently in the United States has been named so by Newsweek, and finds himself in various lists of important rabbis. Welcome to the portal. David. Thank you.
Rabbi David Wolpe: 0:33 Happy to be here.
EW: 0:35 So you and I in probably met in Belgrade, Serbia.
RDW: 0:40 Yes, exactly.
EW: 0:41 And we shared a bus ride and that bus ride has been on my mind in a way that it probably hasn’t been playing through your mind. But I wondered if we might begin this podcast by deciding that we would avoid certain well worn tropes. I don’t want to get into this god exists or doesn’t he
RDW: 1:01 right.
EW: 1:03 And the question that I want to begin with is for our listeners who have been searching for some kind of spiritual outlet, but are also frustrated with being very analytic, intellectual, and fact oriented. What is that God versus no God conversation crowding out, that needs to be more present in the public dialogue?
RDW: 1:27 That is it. That is a wonderful question. And I think that the, the pub what the public dialogue really needs very desperately is how do you create community and interdependence that people take seriously and is lifelong in the absence of some particular kind of transcendent belief, and, and I think that that’s, that is the most valuable thing. That religion gives its adherence. And it’s even more valuable in some ways than personal meaning because you and I both know that that religion used to think it had a monopoly on the possibility of personal meaning. But a lot of people live their lives without a religious sense and would not say that their lives are meaningless. But they do need community and community, especially in such an atomized age and especially in modern America is very hard to create and to find. And this transcendent, shared transcendent idea gives you community but in that absence, I don’t know how you construct it. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way we we need to learn how to do that. Or at least to start talking about it. And one of the things that I would hope is that people in religious communities and people outside of religious community could talk about that and how to do it without letting specific beliefs, wreck the conversation.
EW: 3:05 So this is always tricky for me because we have these various concepts to try to keep our religion and our scientific beliefs separate,
RDW: 3:15 right
EW: 3:16 We have questions about Should I abstract what was previously concrete so that it remains relevant, relevant in my current life. And there always feels to be a bit of a cheat in all of this yet if we don’t make these kind of cheats, or half measures or accommodations, we find a very uncomfortable outcome, which is that most of these religions had their ancient texts written well before we had as much detail as we currently do about the scientific world. And we’re happiest where they were abstract and we’re most troubled where they were concrete.
RDW: 3:51 It’s true. Look there’s a lot of passages that in in my own tradition that I explain exactly the way you do, which is this is the creation of an ancient culture. And, and there are things about it that we have grown beyond. And I don’t have a problem saying that although many of my co-religionists would hate the idea that a rabbi would say that, but I don’t have a problem saying that. However, the result of the result of adherence to things that I find objectionable, I find admirable. In other words, there are communities who believe things let’s forget Judaism for a minute, forget my own community. There are other communities that believe things that I think are objectively either untrue or just wild or even I can’t imagine how someone could believe that and yet they lead admirable lives and have admirable communities and have values that I think most of us would share there may be add-ons that we wouldn’t. But they managed to do that. And so the question is, is it possible to create responsible, interdependent communities without those kinds of beliefs? I don’t think we’ve answered that question yet. But I think it’s becoming more and more urgent.
EW: 5:23 So I think we should just say something a little bit about our own intellectual backgrounds. Now, I think the last time we were together in Serbia, I let you know, that I really identify as an atheist and what’s more, my family has somehow been atheistic for four or five generations, yet always with Jews, marrying other Jews and keeping Jewish traditions going. And I shared with you a mystery in my life, which is that of all of the five or six rabbis that I’ve gotten to know well enough to ask the question “Do you believe in In the God of the Old Testament, as is literally talked about?” none of them reform conservative or even orthodox believe that that character actually exists.
RDW: 6:13 So, there are, there are at least two things to say, but I’ll start with two. One is for those of your listeners who are Christian, or who grew up with no belief but in a Christian, not not in a Jewish context, this may be a mystery that I can unravel how someone could be a fifth generation Jewish atheist, because Judaism is not a religion. Christianity is a religion in the sense that if tomorrow I believe in Jesus, I’m Christian, if the day after I don’t, I’m not. But tomorrow, if I say to you, you know, Eric, all those things I said on the podcast. I don’t believe any of them anymore. I’m still Jewish. And that’s because Judaism is a category that doesn’t exist in modern America. I would use the word tribe, but tribe has negative connotations today. So let me say, so Jews are…..
EW: 7:05 on this podcast
RDW: 7:06 not on this podcast?
EW: 7:07 No, adaptive tribal behavior is normal. So we make a distinction between adaptive and a maladaptive.
RDW: 7:13 I’m going to say nonetheless, to, to avoid any misunderstanding, that it’s a religious family. You’re born into a family, and the same way that you’re born into Judaism. Unless you choose another family, you’re part of that family. And so Jews have forever, at least for a long time, without leaving and going to another religion, at which point they’re effectively written out of the Jewish, forget what Jewish law says, they’re effectively written out of the Jewish community. They’ve said, Look, I don’t believe this, that or the other thing, and they’re still Jewish. So that’s why Jewish atheist is not. In fact, I will tell you a story. Several years ago, I had to give through someone that I knew doesn’t matter how I got there. I was supposed to give a blessing at Carl Reiner’s 90th birthday party. So I get up and I start to give a blessing and somebody calls out from the audience. Why is there a rabbi here, Ryan is an atheist. So he
EW: 8:20 said Mel Brooks
RDW: 8:21 now could have been, but it wasn’t actually. He runs up to stay to the stage stands next to me and says, I’m not an atheist. I’m a Jewish atheist, and that’s different. And he’s right, because there is a culture to it adhere to Christianity doesn’t have that kind of comprehensive culture, which makes and here are the advantages and disadvantages. It makes Christianity much more portable, because you can keep your culture in every way. So you can go to the Congo, you can have a completely different culture, but if you believe in Jesus, My work here is done. But Judaism, especially because of Jewish law, It has many more cultural implications. And therefore, the advantage of Christianity is that it’s portable. The advantage of Judaism is that it’s familial. So when the Soviet Union was persecuting Jews back in the 70s, and 80s, they were persecuting Christians, too. But there was no worldwide Christian movement to save Christians. But there was a worldwide Jewish movement to save Jews. Because there was that sense of familial connection
EW: 9:27 I’ve always wondered why we put up with Christian persecution.
RDW: 9:30 Well, I think that part of the reason is because there isn’t that oh, my God, that’s my brother or sister being persecuted on the part of Christians. It’s whereas for Jews there is this adaptive tribal behavior. So both of both systems have their strengths and weaknesses, but they are different.
EW: 9:51 Well, and then there’s the very weird aspect that I believe that in large measure what we are as Jews rides on a Christmas substrate that if you think about Christianity as our like one of our two main spin offs,
RDW: 10:08 right, yeah.
EW: 10:09 Then American Judaism, really, in some sense benefits by riding on the substrate that its spin off developed, and being something of a counterweight, but also showing some sort of relationship to that is that a fair
RDW: 10:24 I think that’s perfectly fair, and I think that look like Christianity gave to the world that that Judaism and Islam could not and I have a I have an explanation for why that is, is the invaluable gift among many other things. I mean, I don’t mean to restrict Christianity’s cultural contributions to this, but among many other things, it gave the separation of church and state
And that’s huge, And Jews couldn’t have done it and and, and Muslims couldn’t have done it. And the reason I believe this is my theory, but it sounds really sound is Christianity arose in the Roman Empire. So civil law
EW: 11:05 literally,
RDW: 11:06 yes,
EW: 11:06 render unto Caesar
RDW: 11:07 exactly the civil law was taken care of. But if you’re creating religion as Mohammed and Moses did in the desert, you need civil law and religious law alike. So Islam and Judaism didn’t make that distinction between civil and religious law. Christianity had to because he grew up in Rome. And so we that gift that has been given us has been given us by Christians.
EW: 11:33 Well, and so you immediately get to a very dangerous and also very interesting area, which is the unbundling of a religion. So when you ask a question about what is a religion, and you say, well, it’s a certain amount of it is a is faith, certain amount of it has to do with technical explanations for the world around you. certain amount of it has to do with law and you can break that up into civil and criminal Another thing that we were dancing around is is that Judaism is effectively a breeding protocol. There’s a very strange moment. When you sign up for 23andme and you spit into the tube in it, you get a result that tells you how Jewish you are.
RDW: 12:14 I know,
EW: 12:15 you know, I have I have Chinese friends who are, you know, hold up their the results that says, Look, I’m 128th Jewish. Likewise for me, I was, I was almost, I just didn’t anticipate being told that I was plus 98% Jewish as part of my genetic information
RDW: 12:35 I know
EW: 12:35 Okay, so you start to bundle all of these things together. And then you have this very weird question. This goes back to a little bit of Sam Harris’s struggle where he says not all religions are created equal. We have a very uncomfortable treatment of religion, where we pretend not to unbundle them because we don’t want to be judgmental.
RDW: 12:56 right.
EW: 12:56 But you can qualitatively say this, this religion has a legal structure. This one doesn’t,
RDW: 13:02 right
EW: 13:02 This legal structure is attenuated. in Judaism, the way that we get out of this law. I mean, let’s be honest about some problems that we have. Deuteronomy says something like if somebody says, worship ancestors that are not known to our father set upon him with a stone.
RDW: 13:22 Yeah, there are some harsh there’s some harsh things in the Hebrew Bible.
EW: 13:24 Well, right. And it’s been very important. And I struggle with how to say this. I always find a biological analogy with regulated expression. There are certain portions of the Jewish code that it’s important that we not run in modern times. It’s not clear that that ever ran so far as i know, the Jewish stonings of apostates,
RDW: 13:46 right.
EW: 13:47 But the way we get out of it, as we say, as long as the temple isn’t built, we can’t convene the religious courts that would mete out the punishment, and therefore nobody’s actually going to get prosecuted or something like that.
RDW: 13:57 so Yeah. Well, when you say we Not you and I. That’s the way a very traditional understanding might get out of it. Some things by the way were already effectively eliminated by the rabbi’s of the Talmud
EW: 14:15 by an Oral Torah as well as a written Torah
RDW: 14:18 an Oral Torah as well as a written Torah
EW: 14:19 Can you say what an oral Torah is because that might not be clear?
RDW: 14:21 you can be a Jewish literalist, but you can’t be a Jewish fundamentalist, because a fundamentalist by definition thinks all the answers are in a plain reading of the text. And Judaism never believed in a plain reading of the text. It always said the Torah means the Torah here being the Hebrew Bible. The Torah means what the rabbi say the Torah means, and sometimes their readings sound to us very forced, very creative, very open and expansive, sometimes restrictive depending. But no Rabbi will ever say when you come to them, just go home the answers all in the Torah. It’s in the tradition. So Judaism is an exegetical tradition and therefore a lot of things over time get interpreted out of the tradition and that’s legitimate. That’s not considered like, how could you make that move? That’s not okay. It’s a legal tradition and therefore, things get changed along the way. Now, like any legal tradition, it has elastic boundaries, but they snap. Unlike rabbis, who would say call themselves on the right wing of Orthodoxy. What I would say is maternity is a snap with the tradition. And so there are things that I don’t believe intellectually, honestly, I can say that the tradition endorses, but I nonetheless endorse them. And, and the example the best example that I can give is gay marriage. I know that some of my colleagues have tried to read gay marriage into the sources I think it’s forced beyond what you can actually legitimately try,no matter how acrobatic your exegetical skills. My answer is that we see the world differently and we shouldn’t deny that we see the world differently. And the question is, how do you create a modern Judaism that is authentically modern, not just that is in full fidelity to sources that as you say, have to be unbundled.
EW: 16:33 So, just because I’ve never actually uttered the word exegetical, you want to talk about..
RDW: 16:38 Exegetical is basically interpretive, interpretive, so to do exegesis is to interpret the text so I will give you here’s an example. The Torah says that you should not do Mila ha on Shabbat on the Sabbath, and then it never tells you what Mila ha is. So the rabbi’s had to decide what it is you’re not allowed to do on the Sabbath and they come up with all sorts of rules, doesn’t matter how they get there. But the point is, no text is self explanatory.
EW: 16:39 Well, so that this is one of the, geez, there’s so many different ways to go from this point. One of the differences that I like to point to between religions has to do with claims in another spin off, which is Islam, that the Quran is its own exegesis.
RDW: 17:28 Right
EW: 17:29 And therefore, interpretation somehow pollutes the purity of the text. Now, there are different schools within Islam are, I think, four schools of main schools of jurisprudence, or maybe there are more, I don’t know. But is that a major difference between these two traditions?
RDW: 17:46 I would say I, I don’t want to pronounce on Islam. I would say to the extent that any tradition says that a text does not have to be interpreted, Judaism would take issue with that.
EW: 18:00 That here is no way out of interpretation
RDW: 18:02 there is no way out of interpretation of any text. It doesn’t matter how elaborate how long,
EW: 18:08 and how literal
RDW: 18:09 and how literal No, because even the most literal text, I mean, the 10 commandments, Thou shalt not murder. What is murder? How can you not How can you say that self explanatory, it’s not? I mean murder is you know,
EW: 18:27 right. So, I guess for me one of the problems that I have traditionally had with like the Sam Harris School of interpretation,
EW: 18:36 is that there is a hidden assumption, which is that the literal interpretation of text as if such a thing existed, holds pride of place,
RDW: 18:46 right,
EW: 18:46 because it is in some sense the minimally distant from the text. Therefore, one should interpret any organization by its texts with the minimal distortion from interpretation whereas my belief is any, any structure and in some ways the US plays this role with the constitution being akin to our Written Torah and the rabbi’s being the Supreme Court, in they constantly having to interpret the document. I find it very strange that we would be so caught up in the text of the document given that we have to have ways of living with things that age.
RDW: 19:33 Well, my my argument, among many others, with Sam was always that if you’re going to judge a religion, you have to judge it by how it’s lived, not by the literal word in the text, because it’s what a religion produces, as opposed to what it says that matters. And therefore if you want to have an argument about whether religion is good for the world, based on what it produces, okay, if you want to have an argument about whether this or that versus objectionable, don’t think that you’ve actually scored any major points, at least to my way of thinking against religion if you find objectionable verses, I can think of a lot of things, for example, that my parents said over the years that were objectionable, they were wonderful parents. So it depends whether it depends whether you want to take a tradition at its best or at its worst. And I understand why if you’re arguing against it, it’s advantageous to take it at its worst. But that’s not the best way to argue against it.
EW: 20:40 Yeah. I think that what I get out of it is that we have to look at ways of limiting the damage that come from the explicit text that these religions have, in some sense aged out of or I would like to think that they had Ah that because the desire to return to something pure, and let’s just call it the purification impulse where you say, you know we have problems in the system. And the reason that we have problems is that we’ve strayed
RDW: 21:13 Yes.
EW: 21:13 So let us go back to the actual literal world words and a try. try our best to implement them as literal computer code that is our obligation to compile
RDW: 21:26 I always I, I could not agree with you more lots of things came to mind as you said that which is, among other things, that the word revolution has both meanings. It means to change everything. It also means to come around again in a circle. And what purists almost always discover is that human structures are much harder to overhaul than they suspected at the beginning. And also, I thought of a there’s a beautiful quote from William Stafford, who’s a poet about about this danger, he said, If you purify the pond The water lilies die. And I always thought there are, you know, this was Burke’s insight there are human institutions grow for lots of reasons and nobody has a comprehensive enough intellect to understand if you radically change them with all the implications of that change will be. So you have to change carefully. Not and without, without contempt for everything that has come before you.
EW: 22:28 Did you know Rabbi Ben-Zion gold?
RDW: 22:32 I knew him a little bit, yeah
EW: 22:33 He worshiped and studied in Boston. Yeah. So I tried to get married with Shlomo Sternberg, the mathematician in the Harvard Math Department officiating, but because he was very orthodox, he said, I don’t think I can can do this. Let me let me send you to a friend. Ben-Zion Gold gave us the task of rewriting the marriage contract the ketubah and we we rewrote it the first time and he said, What is this? He says, This is like a poem to each other. This is a marriage contract taken seriously. So we went back to the original text and we tried to make the minimal number of distortions and said, What like you’re you’re living thousands of years ago, this this doesn’t have any of the modernity. We tried them to do something that was contractual, but honored modernity, he says, oh, now you’ve watered it down. I said, Rabbi, this is the third time we’ve put a lot of work into this. And with all due respect, you’re really pissing me off by not appreciating how difficult this task is. And he looked at me and he said, Well, it took you long enough. And I said, What do you mean? And he said, Now you’re coming to understand you wanted to get married in the Orthodox version of the religion because you as an atheist, have no idea and how this is done, and so you want to do it right. What he said to me then was, he said, when you’re part of a 5000 year tradition, you have to realize that there’s no way of being orthodox you can’t not stay true to the text because times have changed too much. And that every single version of Judaism is a version of make your own Judaism because that was the phrase I was using to make fun of the sort of reform impulse. Do you? Do you think he was onto something?
RDW: 24:17 Oh, I think I there’s no question about it in my mind. There was a beautiful essay many years ago by a by Gerson Cohen, who is a historian and was the chance of the seminar called the blessings of assimilation. And he says, The rabbi’s say why did the there’s a there’s a comment in rabbinic literature Why did the Jews deserve to be liberated from Egypt because they didn’t change their names, they didn’t change their dress and they didn’t change their language. And and then Cohen starts to talk about actually what Jews did throughout history. He said in terms of names. The names in the Bible like Moses and Aaron and Pincus and Hosni, they’re all Egyptian names. They’re actually not Jewish names or Hebrew names. He said in terms of dress Jews have dressed in every way way that around them the cultures have dress Jews and Arab lands dress like Arabs, Jews in European lands dressed like Europeans. He said in terms of language, Jews have written literature in every language. The The Talmud, which is the foundational work after the Bible in Judaism wasn’t written in Hebrew It was written in Aramaic, because they lived in Babylonia. And so yes, I mean, there is no way to be the only way to be true to the sources is to change. The question is how much change and that’s where the real nub of modern religion comes is how much can you change? And still, not only
EW: 25:39 claim a continuity?
RDW: 25:40 Yes, exactly. And and also, how much can you change and still transmit it generation to generation? That’s a question that the modern world has created. Can liberal religion transmit itself? And I don’t think we’ve answered that question
EW: 25:55 why, I think I’m very disappointed in the clergy and the rabbi. I have a crazy theory. And I want to know what you think of it, whether it’s so cop
RDW: 26:07 like crazy thoeries.
EW: 26:08 It could be so commonly known that you think you think that’s crazy, everybody knows that. At some point I became convinced that Seinfeld, the show was one of the greatest innovations in modern Judaism. And my reasoning was that what it was actually was not Jewish humor played with ethnically ambiguous people, but it was actually Talmudic humor, it was legal humor, and each show that, you know, there’s this discussion of like re-gifting is it ethical to re-gift? So I picked one show at random, and I said, I bet I’m confined whatever this topic is in the Talmud. And I picked the show where there’s an argument about double dipping a chip into some salsa, because after you take a bite, you’ve touched it with your mouth and now you’re dipping it again. Sure enough, I go to the Talmud, there’s two guys, two rabbis are eating hummus one with a leaf and the other with his hands. And the guy who’s using the leaf as an implement says, tell me rabbi, when are you going to stop feeding me your saliva, you know, like, and the other guy says, oh, tell me Rabbi Akiva, whatever his name was, uh, when are you going to stop feeding me your filth
RDW: 27:26 with the leaf?
EW: 27:28 Yeah. And this interchange proved to me that what was really going on was we were mining the more difficult parts of Judaism and figuring out a way of making this commercially viable to get into mainstream distribution channels. When the rabbi’s didn’t pick up on how effective this is for exploring the ancient text that nobody has time for any more. I thought it was an amazing missed opportunity. Where are you guys? Why are you not making technology in these new distribution channels?
RDW: 28:12 Why are we not using the media in particular? Or why aren’t we giving more sermons about Seinfeld?
EW: 28:16 Why aren’t you figuring out how to use mass culture as the substrate for transmitting the stuff that is I mean, what’s special about Judaism is lost when you don’t have time for it right? And I I always get irritated when I go to shul. And they say like, if particularly reforms synagogues they say, we Jews do this in for this reason what they’re really saying is you forgotten what it means to be Jewish because you don’t have enough time. So let me remind you what we once did when this was a focus in your life.
RDW: 28:21 Yes
EW: 28:43 you guys are not making effective use of mass media to do cutting edge.
RDW: 28:57 You may well be right. That’s why I’m on the podcast. Trying to make effective use of mass media
EW: 29:03 come back when we’re bigger.
RDW: 29:04 Right? Exactly. As often as often as you want. It’s very hard.
EW: 29:11 Are you serious about that? Because I would love to do a Seinfeld episode with you to get this ball rolling. So
RDW: 29:18 absolutely.
EW: 29:19 All right, we’ll do one
RDW: 29:19 I’m on board. All right, um, it’s really hard to to grab people’s attention for serious. I mean, some people in my congregation will do serious study. Some of them will relate to Jewish events or whatever. But yes, it is difficult. Once you’ve taken away the idea that all of this is a system that God insists that you do. To bring a counter-cultural religious tradition to people and to have them invest in it. It takes a lot of work. And and I’m perfectly willing to say that part of it is rabbinic failure, but I also think there’s a there’s a huge social and cultural tide that we’re trying to swim against. Well?
EW: 30:09 this gets into a very weird topic, but you’d be the right guy to talk about it with. There are ways in which the absence of overt religious bigotry has, in my opinion, attenuated at least our group, that somehow the concept of the Tiger mom is now much more of an Asian concept than it is a Jewish concept. But 50 years ago, you had parents pushing their kids really hard to achieve. And under the surface was always this this issue. If you don’t, if you’re not 50% better, at least than your competition, because of your name because of your background, you’re going to suffer.
RDW: 30:58 Yes.
EW: 30:59 Now that we’ve gotten rid of that? I have the sense that we really don’t have that the same vitality.
RDW: 31:05 Well, it’s partly a general cultural thing. You know, I don’t know how many years ago Philip Rieff wrote about the triumph of the therapeutic. Now parents, many parents don’t feel that they should push their kids, you know, they should that that idea of a parent that ideal of a parent that’s somebody who pushes their child, I think is frowned on in culture generally. That’s one thing. The second is that there there are dangers to acceptance, as you pointed out, as there are dangers to non-acceptance. And while I would not never say and I think people say this, but if they thought about it more carefully, I think they wouldn’t. I would never say that Judaism has survived because of persecution, because they’re forgetting all those other people that were persecuted and disappeared to history. So it’s not that we’re here because we were persecuted. We would be many, many more had we not been persecuted. There is something about feeling the pressure of you have to prove yourself because you are a member of this or that group that does absolutely contribute to a drive to excellence. I think there’s no question about that. And and Jews don’t feel that the way they once did. But I think that it’s part of a larger complex of how much Jews feel themselves part of an identifiable group that they take pride in and love. So, this is in Hebrew, there’s a concept called avot Israel, which means love of your people. And, and that generally, is in the world, that for example, my daughter grows up in that’s frowned upon the idea that you should love your people. That’s thought of as negative you should love all people and know people specially and that’s to the detriment I think of any minority keeping it’s
EW: 32:58 I don’t actually get this. So my sense is that you don’t get this either. And maybe that would be something we could explore. So let me give you my version of this and
RDW: 33:06 pleaase,
EW: 33:07 you give me give me my my grade on a report card. If you love multiculturalism, you have to understand that multiculturalism is built on culturalism.
RDW: 33:18 Yes,
EW: 33:18 and culturalism is built on exclusion with some amount of permeability. So, what I always hear when somebody says multiculturalism is painting with a lot of distinct pigments, and what has come to be the meaning of multiculturalism is let’s mix all the paint together and to get the most beautiful rainbow paint possible. And in fact, it doesn’t look anything like rainbow paint once you do this. And then in part, we are responsible for caring about our own culture, so that there is something special to bring to the potluck and what concerns me is when I see somebody who’s going abroad as it, let’s say, as an American. And they’re like trying to be infinitely open to everything. I always think of that as being very selfish, which is you’re not bringing what people want, which is your American background. I mean, I travel with a harmonica. I play American music on it. And it’s not because I’m not fascinated by the other cultures, I actually do this because that’s my, that’s my legitimate introduction to say, I came with something that you’re interested in and I really want to find out about, you know, what’s going on with Ganesh or whatever. Am I am I off?
RDW: 34:39 No, I think that that’s, I mean, I would put that on a banner. I think that that’s so incredibly important. What Jonathan Sachs Rabbi Sachs calls the dignity of difference, which was the title of one of his books. I think that all these cultures rise or fall on that if you don’t believe that you’re culture doesn’t have to be better. That’s why I always say when people ask me about Judaism, I always tell them I’m it’s not my job to argue its superiority. It’s my job to argue its excellence. If you don’t think that your culture is excellent and has things that everyone could learn from, then I think, first of all, I think that that’s sad. But also, I think, then you’re left with this indistinguishable stew, as you said, that loses what is unique about all these cultures. So, yes, I, I believe, however, that what multiculturalism has also become is only these cultures have the right to be heard. And those cultures don’t as much because historically those cultures have been heard more than mine. And so there is that also to contend with, because it is true that some cultures have been heard far more than others
EW: 35:58 we are a noisy culture.
RDW: 36:00 Yes, and we are a noisy culture.there’s No question about that,
EW: 36:03 no question about
RDW: 36:03 as my friend Joseph Epstein says Jews don’t listen, they wait. I thought that was. And I know.
EW: 36:11 that hurts
Yes, we're very verbal as a culture, no question about it. But I, but I also think we are part of the constituent creators of Western civilization. And we have something to say,
EW: 36:26 Well, this is one of the I do feel that one of the ways we get into trouble as a culture is that we are seen as an impurity. And going back to this question about what some cultures do well, some cultures do poorly. Like for example, I would say that Jewish food, not our
RDW: 36:44 not our strongest,
EW: 36:45 – not our strongest,
RDW: 36:46 we’re not French
EW: 36:47 right
RDW: 36:47 That’s true.
EW: 36:50 We have this tradition in our family where we put two drops of water into the wine into the kiddush cup of wine for the Friday night Sabbath meal. And there was always a question of why this ritual what I always liked about it was we have a an impulse towards purity that is, must be gotten rid of, in my opinion because life is impure and if you start to try to purify yourself overly much like in an OCD kind of a way, you end up tearing at your own flesh and you do real damage learning that a certain amount of impurity has a strengthening effect is something that that I associate with that ritual. And I was curious if you have feelings about teachings like that, that we that we need to export, is that an important teaching from our tradition?
RDW: 37:44 I think that it is. I mean, you can you can make biological analogies to that to about diversity,
EW: 37:51 hybrid vigor.
RDW: 37:52 Right. Exactly. I I also I understand that Let’s Let’s change the language of purity for a second. I hope that this still captures what you mean. fanaticism of all varieties carries danger, I don’t want to say is automatically dangerous.
EW: 38:15 No you stated it perfectly “carries danger”
RDW: 38:17 because I remember like this. There’s a wonderful story about Isaac Stern, the violinist who, after a concert, a woman came up to him and said I would do anything to play like you would. And he said, Oh, really? Would you practice 20 years, 12 hours a day to play like I would, because that’s what I did. Like the world does depend on certain kinds of fanaticism. People who are exceptional athletes and exceptional scholars and exceptional musicians, many of them have a single minded devotion. So I wouldn’t want to say, Let’s wipe out all extremism. But culturally, it’s tremendously dangerous. So,
EW: 38:53 yeah. So let me ask you assume that I don’t have the time budget,
RDW: 39:03 right.
EW: 39:04 And I don’t have the belief budget needed to sustain an older version of my culture and my tradition, because one of the things that I want to talk about here is that I’m using religion in part to stand in for the need to stand up for our traditions to maintain them,
RDW: 39:21 yes,
EW: 39:22 but not to become sort of jingoistic about it. So assume that I don’t have the same budget and I’m also living in a very multicultural world. What guidance Can you give me for the maintenance of a complicated, beautiful, intricate tradition that needs that has historically needed more time and belief that I can afford?
RDW: 39:44 so i what i what i want to start off with and I don’t know how much time This takes is that the indispensable quality to maintain any tradition is knowledge. You have to know something about it. And And honestly, knowledge is more are easily available now than it ever was about anything. So I think that if you care about a tradition, at least you ought to be able to educate yourself to the basics of it. And, and having done that, then you can, I think, like with everything else, you can give it a piece of your time and attention that is serious and devoted. Because un… like focused attention is our greatest resource. And if you can give the tradition, a little bit of that, so I tell people all the time, you know, if you say a blessing before you eat, that’s a very powerful thing. And if you make sure you always do that, that becomes part of your life and part of your ability to stop and think before you put something in your mouth about your place in the universe, your gratitude that it’s there, all those kinds of things. So there are little things that you can do.
EW: 41:01 But an even more powerful version of that for me, is the Shehecheyanu,
RDW: 41:06 right.
EW: 41:07 Do you want to say a little bit about how that functions in our tradition?
RDW: 41:10 the Shehecheyanu is a prayer that you say when something is new or unprecedented, or a special moment
EW: 41:16 or the first time in the yearly cycle
RDW: 41:17 in your life, the first time in the yearly cycle, that you eat a fruit or wear a garment or, or any of those sorts of things, and it’s an expression of what it’s it, thanks. Thanks, God for sustaining you and allowing you to reach that moment. And, and I think expressions of gratitude are something that religion does very well.
EW: 41:37 But the reason I pick that is that, you, you we, in our tradition, set a bit in our brain that says, if I’m doing something for the first time in the yearly cycle, make a note of it, or and what I find is, is that if I were to do that without thanking God at all for this, that would be a tremendous service to remembering like beginner’s mindset, or I’ve made it through another cycle or how sweet is a pomegranate?
RDW: 42:08 Yes.
EW: 42:10 Can we export this stuff?
RDW: 42:11 So Well, you’re this goes back to the very beginning of the podcast, which is can you sustain these kinds of rituals and awarenesses without the belief on which they, with which they were created? That is, can you say the Shehecheyanu if you don’t believe that you’re thinking God?
EW: 42:34 I do.
RDW: 42:34 And I yeah, okay. So I may be that is possible, maybe it is possible to create a ritual structure that is not theistic. I suppose that people do that with things like yoga and meditation. But in a Jewish way, is it possible to do that? now, There have been secular humanist versions of Judaism, but I don’t think that they’ve caught on
EW: 42:57 Well, I don’t think I don’t think they work. I mean, My family came a bit from this tradition of the workman’s circle which is to try to take social justice and labor and make that the replacement for God, which is kind of a weird idea.
RDW: 43:11 Yes, it is.
EW: 43:13 But I guess what the way I look at it, is it I don’t think there’s anything weird about going to a movie that is not literally true. Like people talk about Star Wars all the time.
RDW: 43:26 Yes.
EW: 43:27 Presumably, they know that there is no Yoda.
RDW: 43:30 Well, I think of I don’t remember what scholar of myth gave this definition. But I think of some of the things in the Bible like the story of Adam and Eve. I think of them the way this scholar defined myth. He said a myth is something that is not factual but is always true. And I think there’s a lot in religion that is not factual but is always true.
EW: 43:52 So let’s talk about the belief part of this. Why does belief animate this?
RDW: 43:59 because the sense that you’re doing something that is either commanded by or if you want to originate it below rather than above, or aligns you with the creator of the universe is much more powerful than the belief that I’m doing this because it helps my self awareness.
EW: 44:19 I’ll tell you the part of it that I think we really get wrong and this is a point of view that maybe I’ll be scolded for. We have this concept in Judaism of intergenerational transfer.
RDW: 44:35 Yes.
EW: 44:36 And we explicitly call it out and we say l’dor vador from generation to generation. My belief is that it is irrational, to be perfectly atheistic for the following reason. It may be somatically rational that is most of the body’s most of the cells in our body are going to die. They have no infinite future. In fact if they start to think they have an infinite future we call it cancer,
RDW: 45:02 right.
EW: 45:04 The only exception to that is our germline, our eggs and what creates our sperm. And these things have an immortality plan. They can pass from generation to generation and carry the information. My belief about religion is is that it solves a very important problem, which is in biology for every other species. Soma and germ are tied together. That is, if I’m thirsty, I know that I need to get water. But thirst is a proximate. The ultimate is starving, staving off dehydration. Yeah. The great danger in human beings is is that hunger and starvation or arousal and reproduction, you can disconnect all of these things, and then Soma starts to take over and it says, maybe the purpose of life is to be happy and every time I hear somebody say the purpose of life is to be happy, something important in me struggles, because I hate I just, it’s like I’m dying inside, I really feel terrible about it. This idea of caring about intergenerational transfer is the basis of a society. There’s no way one generation could build this,
RDW: 46:18 right.
EW: 46:19 And this is what religion stops us from doing. It stops us from thinking that the purpose of life is to be happy. It connects us to intergenerational purpose. And so rather than just thinking about myself, somatically I think about being part of a lineage and a history that goes on after my death. There’s nothing that stops me from waking up and saying, wait, if the purpose of life is to be happy, you know, maybe I’m Jonas Salk, but maybe I’m Jeffrey Dahmer, I could be anything that makes making me happy. This is a way of making sure that that doesn’t happen that Soma doesn’t betray germ. Is that really the like?
RDW: 46:59 I think that’s Well, I would say, the the idea that, that religions obligation is intergenerational to pass generations and future generations is true and powerful and the way you described it is beautiful. The one I don’t want to say caveat, the one addition is that you also have a vertical as well as a horizontal responsibility, that is to transcendence. To, I would say, your soul beyond your cell line, that part of the purpose of life is to grow in soul, that there is something that you as an individual, you have a responsibility to lead a certain kind of life because your life is a gift. And that’s a responsibility to other human beings. But it’s also just a responsibility by virtue of the fact that you’ve been given this life to live. So
EW: 47:59 from whom
RDW: 48:00 Well, I would say from God,
EW: 48:02 but I would say you’re cheating.
RDW: 48:05 What if I’m right? Am I still cheating?
EW: 48:08v Well, no, I just, well, look, I’m happy to get into my own theories about God. But my point is to be able to work with multiple assumptions.
RDW: 48:21 Without if you bracket that assumption, then yes, I would say what religion does, I had talked also about creating community,
EW: 48:28 right,
RDW: 48:28 that is creating community with but it also creates community with the past and with the future. You know, look, this is a wonderful line of Chesterton’s. He said, tradition is the democracy of the dead, that if everybody who ever lived got to vote, they would vote for tradition. And you’re expressing that in a different way. That is that we owe a responsibility to all the generations preceding us and also to transmit to the generations following us as if we’re taking and handing the baton because we don’t see ourselves as an isolated creation instead, as you said, we’re part of a chain.
EW: 49:06 Well, so let me go a little bit further with this. My claim is that, just as Chomsky has said that we may have a pre-existing sort of capacity for grammar that allows language. This is a facility that we are given with birth as vert virtue of being human. I would claim that there’s something like a Chomsky in pre-grammar of religious belief that no matter how atheistic we make claim to be, I mean, there was one time that, two times I prayed to God, one I don’t discuss, but the other when my when my wife was pregnant with our first child. I found myself praying to God that my child would inherit my learning disabilities because I did not think I would be able to relate to my own child, and because I actually believe that all of those disabilities are the most profound genetic gift that I was given. But it was a gift in disguise,
RDW: 50:10 right
EW: 50:11 And I said, Why am I praying to something I don’t believe in, you know, and this is another version of there are no atheists in the foxholes. Do I carry, in your opinion, a biological predisposition towards religious thought?
RDW: 50:29 So, I think that that is very likely. I think that’s what and and by the way, people have different gifts, in the sense that there are Mozart’s of religious predisposition, they have never doubted God, they feel God constantly fully and then there are others who have less of a predisposition. So I would say yes. I also think by the way that your idea that your disability is your gift, is a profoundly religious idea. There’s a beautiful poem from I think it’s God, it’s talks about God and to sharpen sudden on some prayers. It’s a gauntlet with a gift in it. And I want to say Elizabeth Barrett Brown, but I don’t think it’s Barrett Browning, somebody in your audience will Google it and know. And and that that notion that the challenges that you have are things that are given to you in order to climb higher. I, I think that that also is a I don’t know if it’s an inbuilt religious notion, but I think in some ways, it probably is because people often recur, too, that when something bad happens, that I’m going to find a way you know, I one of my books was called Making last matter, the same thing. It’s not I wouldn’t choose this. But having been given this now I have to figure out how to use it to climb higher than I would have had I not been given this disability. So yes, I think that that I think that it is let me put it this way. I think that your theory has a better chance of being right than Chomsky’s. That is it’s more likely that we have a religious a natural religious inclination then that we have a natural grammatical inclination. Yeah.
EW: 52:25 My belief is that it would be irrational for me to deny the fact that my brain is constantly trying to tell magical, supernatural non-materialistic stories
RDW: 52:42 All of us. We do.
EW: 52:44 well, but I’m more disturbed by this than you probably are
RDW: 52:46 Well, I can comment
EW: 52:49 look I’m in, I’m in internal conflict.
RDW: 52:50 Well, the the English essays Thomas de Quincey said “not to be a little superstitious is to lack generosity of mind.” So I would say that you’re just showing that you have generosity of mind, but you have also you. You have a supervening ability to recognize when your stories are not rational stories.
EW: 53:13 It’s unclear. You know, I look at Well, alright, let’s get in. Let’s get into more weird stuff. You and I belong to a tradition with, I think, one quarter 1% of the world’s population,
RDW: 53:27 right
EW: 53:27 About, 25% of the Nobel prizes in physics or maybe even science
RDW: 53:32 in general, actually.
EW: 53:34 All right,
RDW: 53:34 all of them.
EW: 53:35 Now, assuming that it’s not because and as I said, on the Joe Rogan program that Jews cheat at physics when he asked me why this was maybe there’s a genetic component. Maybe there’s a cultural component, maybe the fact that we’re willing to take our some of our best people and not put them in finance, but put them in dead end financial jobs in physics and in physiology and medicine whenever it’s crazy. To me to abandon a completely assume that we’re totally about superstition, magical thinking and nonsense. Somehow that superstitious magical thinking tradition produced a complete surplus of reason, creative ability to work within the constraints of the natural world.
RDW: 54:19 Yes.
EW: 54:20 Wouldn’t it be insane to walk away from that saying it’s a bunch of mumbo jumbo about God?
RDW: 54:25 That’s why I said, when I debate with people who point to a verse and say, well, that’s stupid, there and dismiss the religion, that you have to look at the product of what a religion gives you in the world. And I think that Judaism has a lot, you know, has a pretty strong black ledger balance. We’ve given the world an enormous, enormous amount, and continue to and and I’m always astonished. Oh, I know. It’s true. When I turned to the obituary in the paper, and I read about this remarkable life and this creative life, and sure enough, his parents were Jewish, and they came from, you know, some small town in Poland, and I just think, how does this happen? And it’s at least as rational to say, there is some special mission that the Jews have in this world as it is to say, Oh, it’s because of the medieval training that they got, you know, where were some of the some of the most literate priests became celibate, but all the most capable rabbis had many children. I had this by the way, I had this conversation. I warn you, here comes a major name drop, but I’ve literally had this conversation with the Dalai Lama. Because when we went to see him in Dharamsala, in the middle of the conversation, he turns to me and points at me and says, What’s this about the chosen people anyway? So apropos of nothing we were talking about, so
EW: 55:54 he says he’s interested he wants in?
RDW: 55:56 I don’t know should I said to him, Well, it’s true that you think there And I said, but that doesn’t mean that other people aren’t chosen for other kinds of missions and things in the world. And he laughed, and he said, Yes, the Tibetans think were chosen to. And so the other part of this is, I think every people has this sense that they’re special. But that’s a good thing. That’s not a bad thing.
EW: 56:18 I was just, I was just talking with a black acquaintance comedian over at the Comedy Store who said hi to me in a bar in the bar, and he was talking about struggling with being black and the crime and the some of the negative parts of the tradition. And I was able to say, Do you realize that I’ve always been in awe of your community. And then I went through with with some detail because I’ve actually been fascinated by the idea of, you know, partially because of our own tradition focuses so much on slavery then blacks embrace the Jewish idea of Moses in the whole Exodus. And so I started going into black intellectual achievement. And I think there’s something about being curated by somebody outside of yourself. It’s why we valued de Tocqueville as a common commentator on the American scene. We need to be seen by others and not just promoting ourselves.
RDW: 57:20 Right, I think that that’s exactly right.
EW: 57:22 So, one of the things I wanted to talk about is the loss of insularity. And one of my most dangerous theories, which is the first shiksa effect. Okay?
RDW: 57:35 Yeah,
EW: 57:35 so I want to tell two jokes.
RDW: 57:37 Okay.
EW: 57:37 One the Jews, so these are internal Jewish show one is negative against the Jews one is positive for the Jews.
RDW: 57:43 Okay.
EW: 57:44 Okay. So one joke is, why did God create the goyim that is the non-Jews?
RDW: 57:52 Because
EW: 57:53 somebody had to pay retail? Oh, come on, you know that you’re pretending that you don’t.
RDW: 57:57 Alright.
EW: 57:58 The other joke is what’s the only price Problem with Jewish cooking? 72 hours later, you’re hungry again. Right? So in the first case, the ideas were the smart guys will always pay wholesale right as we know somebody we know how to get.
RDW: 58:10 Well. There’s also there’s also an anti-semitic trope about Jews and money buried in that joke.
RDW: 58:14 Yeah.
EW: 58:16 Right and then the other. The other one, you know, points out that our food is too heavy because we always were worried that we had nutritional issues, and you might as well get as much fat in people because you never know if your next meal is going to be interrupted. Now, the first shiksa effect has to do with the first time an insular group is visited by somebody bringing in somebody from outside and so all of the very potent knowledge and this could be the Parsis in India. It could be the mafia. It could be the the Freemasons that the danger of internally held knowledge suddenly having some sort of a periscope in starts to attenuate. And so for example, my my wife’s family were Jews of Calcutta. I think the first time there was an intermarriage, the parent says, I’m going to sit Shiva that is I’m going to treat this child as if she’s dead to me. But very quickly that erodes because it it’s the second person to come into a family or the third doesn’t have the same effect. Because all of that hyper-insular stuff gets lost almost instantly. And I think there’s both something super positive about that because of the insularity causes a kind of danger towards jingoism.
RDW: 59:46 Right
EW: 59:46 But there’s also something sad about that, which is that some of that was the most powerful knowledge that the community possessed Any thoughts?
RDW: 59:53 I this is an eternal struggle, and I’m not sure that it is a reconcilable struggle between the the integrity and depth of a community that knows each other relies on each other, cares about each other and can transmit for generations to generations and the community that at the same time some carries that virus of insularity of superiority of you know, all that stuff. I mean, I think sometimes when I talk to students about this exact thing, I don’t use the first shiksa as an example, but I talk about when I I tell them that it has to do all with crest toothpaste, when I was a kid,
EW: 1:00:45 wait wait wait, what?
RDW: 1:00:46 my I’ll tell you Okay, my mother told us the crest was the best toothpaste and, and when I used to go to other kids houses, and they would use like Colgate, or one of the really unserious toothpaste
EW: 1:00:59 have the same
RDW: 1:01:00 like Pepsodent
EW: 1:01:01 Yeah, yeah yeah
RDW: 1:01:01 I would think what’s the matter with these people don’t they know
EW: 1:01:04 Aquafresh, don’t get me started
Aquafresh, oh my god. But with a little green strip, but the day that I realized
EW: 1:01:12 there goes my endorsement,
RDW: 1:01:13 and I almmost remember it that you could use Tom’s toothpaste or whatever. And and you could be as smart and as caring and as intelligent, and as learned as my parents, something changed about my world forever
EW: 1:01:28 with crest toothpaste
RDW: 1:01:29 with crest toothpaste, because as soon as you know that actually, everything I do is not the only way to do it, or the only right way to do it. It opens up the possibility that everything you know is wrong. And all of modern culture is this balance between what do I know that’s really right and worth preserving? And what have I learned from all these other wonderful people and cultures and exposure and so on, that should change and, and it’s for anybody who cares about tradition, it is a constant daily dilemma that doesn’t have any clear resolution.
EW: 1:02:03 I felt this way with who was the Alan Sherman and Tom Lehrer
RDW: 1:02:10 right.
EW: 1:02:10 Alan Sherman, eh. Tom Lehrer was really important to me. I mean, that those songs and the lyrics and the cleverness.
RDW: 1:02:18 I loved Alan Sherman too, but okay, Eric Weinstein 1:02:21 oh really?
RDW: 1:02:20 Yeah, I did
EW: 1:02:21 Well, I was with you on crest. And
RDW: 1:02:23 yeah.
EW: 1:02:24 Well, when I first went to India, I think I was 19 or 20. And it was a profound experience. And my first introduction, I actually was going through Karachi. And I asked I had to use the restroom and I got shown to a room that had no resemblance to a restroom that I understood there was no toilet, there was no paper and I progressively and then went to Bombay, I realized I didn’t know how to eat with my fingers properly. I didn’t know any of the customs. I realized I was being sent back to infanthood.
RDW: 1:03:00 Right,
EW: 1:03:01 and that the experience that you could do everything differently was a shock.
RDW: 1:03:08 Yeah, it is a shock. And that people are as happy as you know, kind as everything that this. I mean, that’s one of the that’s one of the one of the advantages of the modern world, the post imperialist world that is really important is that the automatic assumption of the superiority of a culture can no longer be maintained, the way that it was unthinkingly even 50 years ago, you know, and that’s a good thing.
EW: 1:03:41 Well, it is a good thing, but it’s also not a good thing
RDW: 1:03:43 but it’s also a problematic thing
EW: 1:03:44 So can we talk about this from our perspective? Because one of the things that’s driving me crazy yeah, at the moment, 2019 is self hating Jews have been a thing. It’s a very tough road to hoe if If you’re Jewish, and there’s always this temptation to turn on the group,
RDW: 1:04:06 yes,
EW: 1:04:06 I am seeing that same thing. become self hating Christians, self hating Americans, self hating Europe,
RDW: 1:04:13 no question about it.
EW: 1:04:14 And no one can figure out how to say, you know what, I’m not necessarily against anybody else but this culture is my responsibility. And it would be a little bit weird. If Italians didn’t think Italian food was amazing.
RDW: 1:04:30 Yes, I think that the we have to learn how to use the “but” without invalidating everything that came before it. By which I mean, you have to be able to say Western civilization has done but Europe America so terrible things cruel things, unspeakable things violence and all sorts of ways. But it also gave the world its greatest benefits. its greatest blessings. The end of slavery happened in western civilization not in eastern civilizations, on and on and on and on. And you have to be able to mean both. The problem is that everybody seems to align on one side of the “but” or on the other. That is they’re either entirely devoted to the critique or they’re entirely devoted to the boosterism and, and you have to be able to hold both ends of the pole. You have to be able to say, look, America does a horrible things sometimes and that’s real. But on the other hand, look at what America brings to the world and has brought to the world
EW: 1:05:33 but where did this polarization come from? I mean, like, all we do, is we struggle and we weigh things and then it’s so it’s so I’m about to swear, and I’m going to stop myself and it’s so simplistic.
RDW: 1:05:46 Yes, we do not live in the age of nuance. We live in, you know, we live in the age of, of Twitter debate.
EW: 1:05:56 I’m going to disagree with this.
RDW: 1:05:57 Okay.
EW: 1:05:57 I think we do live in the age of nuance. It’s Not it’s not that it’s the, the structures that used to support nuance where you could trust that that structure could hold a perimeter have broken down. So for example, I used to read the economist for nuance,
RDW: 1:06:18 right
EW: 1:06:18 institutionally, it seems to be under fire. Now, humans that used to work for the economist are, you know, sipping their cognac saying, wow, this is really gone to hell in a handbasket. But it’s the institutional pressures, the pressures on institutions are different from the pressures on the autonomous individual if you’re lucky enough,
RDW: 1:06:39 right
EW: 1:06:40 To have your own source of income or to have your own wealth. And you don’t have to primarily work through things that are, you know, incorporated in some sense. You can have nuance, it’s now the sense making channels and I’m going to specifically single out like the news organs, the politcal parties, the universities that have seen this unbelievable crashing and burning, going from problematic institutions that probably had bigotries and prejudices and biases to lost.. I mean, just embarrassingly lost structures that can’t remember why they exist. They realize that they’re unfair. I feel like they’re monks wearing hair shirts flagellating themselves for their imperfections.
RDW: 1:07:31 Well, I think that part part of that, and this would be no surprise to you is in the age of instant response, people are gun shy about straying from the orthodoxy of their team. Because it’s one thing if you’re going to write an article and you’re going to get some letters, and some people will be upset, but it’s another thing if you’re going to get slammed on Twitter and in social media, and people are going to write Facebook posts about you, you You’re, you get scared,
EW: 1:08:02 okay. But let’s
RDW: 1:08:03 and therefore, and therefore people don’t venture out of their circle. And so if you’re on one side of the divide, you don’t say anything nice about the people on the other side of the divide.
EW: 1:08:13 You but let’s talk about what’s really one of our best features as a culture, which is the courage to stand alone.
RDW: 1:08:20 Yeah.
EW: 1:08:21 Now, one of the weird things. And so I was just came from San Francisco where I was at the kitchen, which is a congregation, of kind of experimental Judaism. And one of the things that I love in Judaism is when you’re in the standing prayer, you take your time to say your standing prayer, and you don’t necessarily sit down all at once. Yeah, so you’ve always got some people who take longer than everybody else who were just standing literally standing alone.
RDW: 1:08:51 Yep.
EW: 1:08:51 And I always thought what a great aspect to have this be normal to stand alone. Now I bring that up because I was thinking recently About the weird fact that I know all of the names of the senators who oppose the patriot act in the wake of 911. Right? Because they’re all named Feingold. Russ Feingold was the only guy to vote against the patriot act when it was passed because the country was in a fever to do something to take away people’s rights. And one guy said no, right. I don’t remember anybody’s name on the other side of that vote. Right. There’s something about standing alone, which is, I think speaks to our best impulses.
RDW: 1:09:40 Yes, I mean, I certainly understand that the indispensable quality to lead a good life is courage. And that courage is hard. And you see it on display every single day, when in Twitter, which is a universe that you and I both inhabit, and Facebook and other places. The
EW: 1:10:09 I should warn you apparently I suck, I’m an idiot, and I totally don’t get it.
RDW: 1:10:12 Exactly. There you go. To say something that is against the orthodoxy of the side that you have up to then identified with
EW: 1:10:21 Yeah,
RDW: 1:10:22 is I’m, you know, I probably like you I get attacked from the left and the right. And I have people all the time who tell me that I’m clearly a conservative and other people tell me that I’m clearly a liberal, because actually, I vary and my reaction is different, right? Like the different things so it’s very, but it’s very hard. It’s really very hard. And I remember after after the same sex marriage thing. I remember saying to my daughter, something really wonderful that Churchill said after the Boer War He said it’s exhilarating to be shot at without result, which I thought was great. And I said, you see all these people who were angry at me and all of them wrote bad things about me or said bad things about me
EW: 1:11:11 because you came out for
RDW: 1:11:12 because I came out for same sex marriage. And I said, I would start to do same sex marriages and a lot of members of my congregation and elsewhere they were, it was such a big controversy. It was literally on the front page of the New York and the LA Times. That’s how big a deal it was. There were a lot of attacks and some of them were very vicious as you can imagine. But I wanted her to see that it was okay to say things that people I said the people who love me still love me and the people who hate me still hate me. And some of them may be moved into one category or the other. But in the end, you know, it’s not the
EW: 1:11:48 How fast is this normalized? I remember, I remember that it was
RDW: 1:11:52 it took a while
EW: 1:11:53 I think to be honest,
RDW: 1:11:54 oh, you’re talking about gay marriage.
EW: 1:11:55 Well, I’m
RDW: 1:11:56 incredibly fast
EW: 1:11:57 I don’t even call it gay marriage
RDW: 1:11:58 or whatever it is.
EW: 1:11:59 Whatever it is. But like
RDW: 1:12:01 the fastest I’ve ever seen
EW: 1:12:02 six years ago, I heard the word, a man say the word husband for the first time about his partner. And I thought, Oh, I didn’t know how that resolved. How would how would the words even be assigned
RDW: 1:12:12 right
EW: 1:12:13 Now it’s the most normal thing in the world. And the other odd part about it. The other one that went that fast was smoking it was like no progress. No progress or progress.
RDW: 1:12:22 Yes,
EW: 1:12:22 you can’t smoke in a bar. I mean, like, people, right? Okay.
RDW: 1:12:26 Those are the two fastest structural changes that I
EW: 1:12:29 well, but it makes me wonder how many of these things really just require one penguin to jump into the water and find out that there’s no leopard seal that can take it before there’s a mass exodus? I think right now, nobody believes in the New York Times, or Fox or CNN, we, we know that they’re all compromised.
RDW: 1:12:51 Yes.
EW: 1:12:52 And we also know that for example, the Democratic and Republican parties are are worthless. They’re standing in the way of our future. And what we don’t know is how to get out of these we’re in a we’re in a straitjacket imposed by people we didn’t elect didn’t choose, that are not functioning according to the best aspects of those traditions. I mean, I haven’t I’ve I was a critic of the New York Times in the 80s it’s something different now. It’s and these these things are not wholesome, they’re not ours and we need to get rid of them and part of what the portal is is a search for a way out if I don’t like either political party if I don’t like any of my sense making organs for journalism, how do I escape this?
RDW: 1:13:38 I don’t look I have been a registered independent most of my life for exactly the reasons you express was I didn’t think that either one sufficiently represented what I thought about the world for me to be one or the other and and that is even truer today than it has ever been in my lifetime. And and I would say that the amplification of this kind of conversation and the kind of conversations that you have with the people in your world and circle, that’s hopefully that will start to spread out. It was in the 19, late 1980s, that the first article was written by Andrew Sullivan, about same sex marriage. So that’s an incredibly fast social, that was the first time it was mentioned, a very fast social change. This could I mean, the the structures are clearly under stress. I don’t know how fast things collapse. I mean, the night before the Soviet Union went away, everybody thought it was going to last forever. So maybe there are structures inside of the states that people think will be ever enduring that will transform before our eyes as a result of the portal. The portal will give them a new
EW: 1:13:39 inshallah, rabbi, inshallah
RDW: 1:13:52 will give them a new way to be or Be’ezrát hashém as we as we say on our side of the. Yes, yeah, exactly. I think it’s good. I like that I look a half of my congregation, maybe more is from Iran.
EW: 1:15:10 Right.
RDW: 1:15:10 And so inshallah is a very common
EW: 1:15:12 Well, can we talk about our weird similarity with Islam because I think both you and I have commented on this aside from the part that is like crazy, murderous, anti-feminist, etc, etc. I just love it there right? Like I’m very Islamic philic the strength of the community, the warmth, the food, the generosity, the discomfort with direct depictions of the Divine. I mean, there’s tremendous homology between Jews and Muslims. In fact, I think they opened up a kosher deli in Harvard Square and all of my Muslim friends were eating at the kosher because hallal was close enough to kosher.
RDW: 1:16:06 It is agonizing. It’s agonizing because first of all, Jews and Christians have reached a rapprochement that would have been unimaginable in previous generations. And so one can hope that the same thing would happen with Islam and Judaism. Right now, so much of the of the focus is political, which is also a problem in general. You know, when people have nothing, no cultures in common. All the talk turns to politics and politics swallows everything. And because America doesn’t have a common culture anymore, nobody watches the same shows or reads the same books or listens to the same music this
EW: 1:16:51 sort of that game of thrones thing was pretty big.
RDW: 1:16:54 It was pretty big, but my guess it was pretty big. It even there.
EW: 1:16:59 Yeah, yea yea
RDW: 1:16:59 it wasn’t big. Like, you know,
EW: 1:17:01 like Walter Cronkite.
RDW: 1:17:02 Exactly. So everything becomes politics and when politics starts to swallow everything, including relations between religions, it it I don’t want to say it poisons it, but it poisons it.
EW: 1:17:14 Well, I’ve been looking to humor in music, and I want you to check out my favorite band.
RDW: 1:17:20 Okay.
EW: 1:17:20 My favorite band is a band called The Kominas
RDW: 1:17:23 alright
EW: 1:17:24 I think they’re out of Boston. And I think the word kominas means like bastards, like the momsers, you know,
RDW: 1:17:30 yeah,
EW: 1:17:31 and they are a bunch of, I think, Muslim graduate students formed something like this. And they started off doing Islamio-punk. So they had a song called suicide bomb the gap. And they had another song called Sharia law in the USA, and their, their album was wild nights in Guantanamo Bay. They were so funny and witty, and they were actually doing super dangerous
RDW: 1:18:01 it sounds like it
EW: 1:18:02 right like if you perform this stuff in Lahore or someplace, you know, it’s no joke. But because they were, you know, they were clearly like witty and introspective and playing with the dangerous stuff and doing it in public. I felt this instant connection. I think that they’ve told me that they’re, they’re not happy with me or I’m sure it’s they don’t know me or because I hang around with Sam Harris. But I I’m looking to boost the signal of all of these people who are willing to struggle in public.
RDW: 1:18:32 Yes. Because that’s what that is what you need. And you as you said, you need those lone voices I still have in my head. About 10 years ago, we had a bunch of scholars from around the world, religion scholars, they were graduate students and some professors who came to a service at the synagogue. And afterwards a guy from Pakistan, said to me, You know, I, I’ve never been in a synagogue. I had no idea what Jews were like. You’re completely different from everything I learned growing up and the service is different and everything is different. And I should just do me one favor when you go home, tell people, and he said, no one will believe me,
EW: 1:19:10 no one.
RDW: 1:19:11 And I thought, no one will believe you. I mean, what do you do with it?
EW: 1:19:14 We got to. We got to do something better with this. I used to travel in the Islamic world, openly as a Jew. And I can tell you, I was treated so incredibly well.
RDW: 1:19:25 I believe it
EW: 1:19:25 I always was concerned that this was a stupid way of making a statement, and I would not do this now. I don’t think I would do it today. Only one place I ever encountered open anti-semitism was in Cargill, on the border between India and Pakistan where its said that if every Muslim would simply dump one bucket of water on the state of Israel, it would soon be washed to the sea or something like this. So I did very often have the experience of somebody saying I’d never met a Jew before. And I had a completely different idea of who you would be. There is the aspect in return which is I don’t know what we do about the problem with some portion of Islam, having become cancerous and being spread
RDW: 1:20:15 Yes,
EW: 1:20:15 through this internal network and so much that is wonderful, wholesome and decent. co-traveling with this sort of jihadist impulse. You know, look, we have our own crazies.
RDW: 1:20:31 It’s true, but it seems like in terms of a threat to the world. This is right now the preeminent
EW: 1:20:39 well we got to be able to talk we look we have to be able to discuss this and the thing that I found, I would say, my friend group has probably at its maximum was about 30% Muslim. And the thing that changed my thinking about Islam and Judaism it began with a lunch. And there were three couples one Jewish, which I was part of one Muslim, where we’d fix them up, and then one mixed where we had also fixed them up, one Jew one Muslim, so the subject of Islam and terror came up. And the table split straight down the middle with respect to whether there was a connection between Islam and terror, with Jews on one side and Muslims on the other, and the Jews were all saying this is a terrible blood libel that Muslims have been tarred with and the Muslims said, What the hell is your problem Jews? This is a serious problem in our community. And you better wake up to the fact that this is something you have to be able to talk about. And it was very strange because we were each doing the work of the other community
RDW: 1:21:49 very interesting. I, I have not had I haven’t had that problem because as I said, given that so many of my members grew up in Iran. They have no problem. Talking about what their perception is. And they consider Iran in particular, to be the great rogue state and the leadership of Iran to be as dangerous as virtually anything in the world. Although many of them not all, but many of them have a lot of confidence in, or at least a lot of affection for the people and think that they’re very different from their government.
EW: 1:22:25 Well, that’s certainly that is the case. But the other issue with Iran, let’s be honest, is that Persians are one of the most accomplished people on the face of the earth. They are excellent game players, and they are a force to be reckoned with. And so there’s a certain kind of respect that one has to have for Iran as a major intellectual, cultural, and military powerhouse. And so part of the fear of Iran comes out of a reverence for Persian culture. What I, what I want to do is to try to get out of this black and white thinking so that we are actually able to talk about different problems of these communities and to say, here’s what here’s what’s good. Here’s what’s bad. For example, one of the things that I think you and I both struggle with, is how to talk about the need, that you and I may feel to support Israel, you know, in the context of being somewhat open about Israel’s various failings and brutalisms of a community that it should not and does not wish to be occupied.
RDW: 1:23:40 Right. It’s very hard to talk about Israel these days in any kind of any kind of sophisticated way because the camps are so as you said, that they’re so polarized and, and the and also the stakes for the sides are so high. Yeah, it’s that kind of political conversation gets overwhelmed by the loudest voices on each side of the conversation and and it’s just it’s very hard and and and invariably it doesn’t take place in a vacuum. I mean, look, even the Israel-Palestinian issue doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It’s part of a much larger picture of the Middle East in general. And
EW: 1:24:31 talk about the Ottoman-Palestinian issue.
RDW: 1:24:33 Yeah, exactly.
EW: 1:24:34 and the Jordanian-Palestinian issue.
RDW: 1:24:35 That’s right. I know, which is really important. And, and also, because what people don’t realize and Matti Friedman, who is a journalist in Israel and an author of several really fine books, talks about this a lot is that that half of Israel’s population comes from the Middle East. We think of it as sort of Europe sitting in the Middle East, but it’s not. The culture is from the Middle East. The music is from Middle East, the food is from the Middle East. And so it’s actually in some ways, he says this to be a little provocative, but it’s somewhat true. It’s partly a creation of the Arab states, who, after all expelled their Jews who ran Israel. And so there’s this larger mosaic of a struggle all through the Middle East about what kind of culture will be created there. That makes it not so easy to just talk about, these people are good in these people or bad. It’s, it’s as you said, these conversations require more time and thought and nuance than we generally give them.
EW: 1:25:37 well, but I guess one of the things that really concerns me and maybe I can do this first with the US and then take the same lens and put it on Israel, or let’s start with the US, Britain, and then Israel. I am a huge fan of all three of these countries. Part of being attached to these cultures is being able to talk about the act. You use the word paskudnyak right, but the no the just like the dirty disgusting things that each of these cultures have done, and including in the US context, my family was not treated well by our country during the McCarthy era. For the you know, Jews were going for far left stuff,
RDW: 1:26:24 right.
EW: 1:26:25 Some of it dipped into communism and the anti-com, you know, I’m weirdly against communism and against anti-communism, I view them as twin scourges. With all my knowledge of this country and all of its crimes and all of its lapses and its failure to live up to its own ideals and the transgressions of the Dulles brothers, all this stuff. I love this country. And it’s not the love of a child. For a perfect idealized parent before teenage years set that straight. It’s a mature love saying I know what a nation is. And I know that they have to lie. And I know that they have terrible periods in their histories and all told, this is this is really an important and fantastic place. That’s how I feel about England. I mean, God knows those people were brutal.
RDW: 1:27:17 Yes,
EW: 1:27:18 in the colonial era as to all sorts of people, but it’s not, you know, you see these people in Hong Kong. Yeah, you know, waving British flag.
RDW: 1:27:26 That’s right,
EW: 1:27:26 you know, with Chinese faces, and you realize it’s a much more complicated situation, that in Bombay, where my wife is from, you know, you get into conversations with people and it’s very, like, here’s the good stuff we got from the Brits, here’s the bad stuff. This is the same for me with Israel. I don’t want to have to say hey, you know, we’re we’re so moral. We’re so wonderful. We’ve done everything perfectly, because we haven’t
RDW: 1:27:50 right.
EW: 1:27:50 But it doesn’t negate the need to support this state. I don’t understand why it is that I’m in some situation, where people say well, don’t you Realize that they’ve done this, that and the other horrible thing. So you know, you should be against them
RDW: 1:28:04 right, yes. Well, I mean, this guy, I would say if there’s one underlying theme that has run through the I don’t know how long we’ve this, we’ve been podcasting but how
EW: 1:28:16 Fourty years rabbi,
RDW: 1:28:17 it seems like it is. But, but just like in the desert every single day has been meaningful. But if there’s one theme it is the rejection of absolutism and simplicity for complexity and the willingness to hold two sides and say they’re both valid. And that’s what I think we have lost increasingly in this culture is that everybody, everybody is a crusader for for the black and the white and not for all the shades in between which is really where all of us live for most of our lives, we just don’t apply it to the great issues but we need to.
EW: 1:29:05 Alright, I got two more topics and then I’ll let ya out,
RDW: 1:29:07 okay.
EW: 1:29:08 Okay. First one is kind of a dangerous one, which is that I’m watching the Holocaust survivors in my life dwindle to a handful and mostly they were child,
RDW: 1:29:21 right.
EW: 1:29:22 Children during the period.
RDW: 1:29:23 Yeah.
EW: 1:29:24 I am increasingly convinced that we are wasting the twilight of living memory of the Holocaust by not approaching Germany and offering a much deeper reconciliation than we have today. That in some sense, we got bound up we Jews got bound up in German culture. Obviously, Yiddish language is Middle High German have infused with it
RDW: 1:29:55 yes.
EW: 1:29:55 We benefited a great deal from Germanic and Teutonic thinking and they benefited a great deal right from having us as a community attached to them.
RDW: 1:30:05 No question.
EW: 1:30:06 We were in some sense may have been too similar and cause some problem because if you think about the German contributions in the 1700s 1800s
RDW: 1:30:16 Yeah.
EW: 1:30:17 incomparable
RDW: 1:30:18 Yes.
EW: 1:30:20 Should we be using this time before the last who remember this period to come up with a deeper reconciliation between the two cultures.
RDW: 1:30:30 I’m not sure what that would look like, if you would
EW: 1:30:34 oh for example, you know, klezmer, the Jewish jazz,
RDW: 1:30:37 yes.
EW: 1:30:38 died out pretty much as a tiny canon of recorded material. And it got revitalized because Germans were willing to pay for modern
RDW: 1:30:50 right so what but but what but what would it mean? I mean, what are we not doing that we should do? We should encourage Jews to travel to Germany, we should I mean, there’s a pretty close relationship of Germany and Israel, for example.
EW: 1:31:04 Yeah, I’m talking a more personal relationship. I feel very weird about
RDW: 1:31:10 right
EW: 1:31:10 about the connection. I still don’t feel I drive a Volkswagen. I don’t feel really comfortable with it,
RDW: 1:31:17 right.
EW: 1:31:17 I mean, there’s some sort of ceremonial, ritualistic thing of letting young german I worried about the German guilt and the whole migration crisis, where Germans are still saying, we are not Nazis,
RDW: 1:31:30 right.
EW: 1:31:30 And I’m looking at these people and saying, you know, you’re maybe something problematic in the cultural lineage. Yes. But don’t overdo the guilt because that’s going to snap back.
RDW: 1:31:39 I do remember years ago, I went to Germany as part of a delegation of Jewish leaders with from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and it was an amazing trip. And I don’t know if they still do that. But I just I think that you’re you’re up against a deeper problem, which is that Americans in general American Jews also don’t connect to any foreign country particularly. We are so I had a group of this past about, I don’t know, three, four months ago Frank Luntz brought a group from NYU Abu Dhabi. So there were students from all over the world. And most of them from the Middle East. They brought them to the synagogue and I spoke to him about a range of issues. And one of them said to me, what makes America what’s America’s greatest blessing or its greatest gift? And I said, That’s easy. Canada, Mexico, ocean, ocean. I said more than anything else. Because think of where you live and how you have all these different you know,
EW: 1:32:42 yeah,
RDW: 1:32:42 competing colors around you. I said, we have to really I mean, yes, we once had a war with Mexico but we have two countries on our border that pose absolutely no threat to us. Immigration aside, I’m talking about threat threat and military threat
EW: 1:32:56 amassed right on the border.
RDW: 1:33:00 And the oceans have never attacked us.
EW: 1:33:01 Yeah.
RDW: 1:33:02 Except once in jaws that was it. So the so the the isolation, that’s why Americans don’t speak foreign languages. That’s why we don’t generally know foreign countries very well. And that, I think is part of the reason why we haven’t come to know Germany better. I think it’s more to do with that even then, with a cultural reluctance to do it.
EW: 1:33:24 I’m convinced that if we don’t get to know Germany better, as you say, we will not come to understand ourselves. beacuase a lot of our history was bound up and I believe that a guilty Germany is a danger to the planet and that we are enough to release modern Germans from some of the horror of the guilt because it wasn’t them the
RDW: 1:33:46 no modern Germany German is guilty. I mean, unless maybe they’re in their 90s but but but
EW: 1:33:52 that’s what I’m saying the last last. of them
RDW: 1:33:54 Yeah. But anybody under I guess 80 I don’t know I’d have to do the exact
EW: 1:33:59 The reason it’s on my mind is I suppose, yeah, I had thought that I might open the podcast with a cousin. I’d never met Eva Kor, who was a Mengele twin who forgave Mengele.
RDW: 1:34:09 Wow.
EW: 1:34:09 And I just spoke to her and she said, Yeah, I’ll do it when I come back. Right. And then she went to Auschwitz for her annual pilgrimage, and she died in Poland on the trip.
RDW: 1:34:19 Wow.
EW: 1:34:19 So I’m, it’s very much on my mind.
RDW: 1:34:22 Right? I will be there. Actually, this year, I’m doing the march of the living in March or April right after
EW: 1:34:28 I don’t think I could do it.
RDW: 1:34:29 I’m gonna do it this year have never done it. So. And what’s the second issue?
EW: 1:34:33 The last question,
RDW: 1:34:34 the last? Yes.
EW: 1:34:36 Let me imagine that we were able to learn our own source code in physics. Mm hmm. So that at after this, whatever this final theory might be,
RDW: 1:34:47 yeah.
EW: 1:34:49 There was no reason to keep searching mathematically for a more complete theory. How would that affect potentially your relationship to Judaism? And can you conceive of what the kind of shape and nature of such a theory would be, scientifically so that we stopped asking for further refinements and to push further.
RDW: 1:35:12 So I think first of all, for me to talk to you about what a final theory in physics would look like, is is it presumption that all your listeners just must be cracking up at
EW: 1:35:24 we are both in the transcendence business, sir,
RDW: 1:35:27 but I mean, I like I always liked the Robert Jastrow image, which you may know that he said, When physicists you know, climb that final mountain, they’re going to find God looking at them from the other side. I know you’re rolling your eyes. I don’t know if people listening can see that. I always liked it. I liked the image. Come on a little poetry in your physics. I’m sure you can. I have no doubt about that. I think that the I have, I don’t believe that it’s possible and I’ll tell you why. I say that. I have a deep and abiding faith in the limitations of the human mind. And by that I don’t mean that we can’t do astonishing things. But part when I asked people sometimes this is how you can tell if you’re religious. Is there a mystery at the heart of the world? Not a puzzle, but a mystery because a puzzle you can figure out but a mystery is, is in principle unfigureoutable,
EW: 1:36:26 sort of what I’m asking.
RDW: 1:36:27 And I really believe that there is a mystery at the heart of the universe, not a puzzle, so that we won’t ever have the kind of final theory that you’re talking about. Because the world is created by something infinitely greater than anything we can imagine. I when I have to talk about God to high school kids, for example, and I tell them, Look, I have I have no idea what God is. I have no idea. I said, think of it this way. When you were two years old. Could you ever imagine what a 14 year old is? Not only could you not have imagineed it but you couldn’t have imagined what it is that you can’t imagine. So I assume that whatever is out there that whatever is ultimate is so far beyond anything that I or any human being can conceive of that. I think our fate is to always search and be more and more and more comprehensive, but never to achieve the kind of finality that you are. That is suggested by your question.
EW: 1:37:26 That’s really weird to me. I’ll give you two examples of why it doesn’t work.
RDW: 1:37:31 Okay,
EW: 1:37:31 for me,
RDW: 1:37:32 yes,
EW: 1:37:32 I’m not saying you’re wrong. The first is the number of different phenomena that were encompassed by Maxwell’s equations. I can really write Maxwell’s equations in a modern context in one line doesn’t require four different equations. And all of that stuff about x rays and UV and visible light and magnetism, and electricity. It’s all subsumed in this one damn equation. Okay, so there are these condensations where You realize that it’s much simpler than you ever imagined. So one, I think you’re discounting the amount of unification the idea that every living thing is predicated on 20 amino acids and four nucleotides so far as we know, or that everything that you see out there is just up quarks down quarks, electrons or whatever we use to stick them together. It looks very varied, but the the set is very small. The other thing I might say is imagine that you begin in a neighborhood and you’re exploring the planet and every time you walk in a direction you find new, wondrous, magical things you’ve never seen before.
RDW: 1:38:38 Yeah,
EW: 1:38:38 you will incorrectly infer that if you keep walking, it will always be thus and there. You won’t see the age of inter… intercontinental exploration come to a close. I think you’ve discounted both of those things.
RDW: 1:38:52 Well, what I am what I would say to you is 500 years ago. You were in the position of that two year old, you couldn’t imagine what you couldn’t imagine. The Maxwell’s equations would answer, or that. I mean, look, I think about, I think about when I was a kid, and we used to think we’re going to travel around on jetpacks, if I had said to No, you won’t travel around on jetpacks, but you will hold all of human knowledge in your pocket. I would say you’re crazy that that couldn’t be. And yet now we do. I have a great deal of faith in the unfathomable I think that you’re making the opposite mistake, because we have figured out so much as compared to 1000 years ago. We are therefore close to the end. And what I think is, with every discovery, you will discover vast realms of ignorance that you haven’t yet even begun to tap that will make the idea of a final theory, a comprehensive theory
EW: 1:39:51 your mistaking what a final theory is there’s a question about going down towards the foundations and there’s a question about going up towards the consequences, I will agree that if we go down towards the foundations that tells us nothing about all the different ways we might arrange what we learn at the foundations to create emergence.
RDW: 1:40:13 So So what are you asking me about how I envisioned a final theory? I bet it’s math that would that would be mathematical that it would be
EW: 1:40:23 presumably, you know, we’ve been trying to come up with a theory of everything
RDW: 1:40:26 yeah, right
EW: 1:40:27 When you hear the words theory of everything, I mean, I always think that the the physicists who travel in that have never thought through the question of assume that you actually you know, that the dog caught the car.
RDW: 1:40:39 Yes.
EW: 1:40:40 Would Do you have any idea of what that would even look like? Because to say this is complete? Does it have no beginning you say unmoved mover? Like there’s no boundary condition? Maybe give you an idea of how crazy this is? Let me give you my version of God since you’ve given me some indication of yours. Okay, guys. I believe that God starts off being a boundary condition being a design constraint, completely inanimate nonsentient. And the reason that I don’t like the thing about get to the highest peak and you reach the end, and God is there is is that it mistakes, the magic that I think might happen, which is we’re worrying right now about artificial intelligence. We don’t realize that we are the artificial intelligence that arose in the system. And if Darwinian theory is true, right,
RDW: 1:41:33 right,
EW: 1:41:33 this bubbled up emergently
RDW: 1:41:35 right.
EW: 1:41:36 And then when we learn our own source code, is that what effectively creates a meaningful version of God because it started out inanimate and that we are that which will animate it because we are that which arose emergently within the system,
RDW: 1:41:51 so, I don’t know. I mean, I’m I’m tempted to repair to the Asimov story. Where the Supreme Intelligence you know, after it reaches its combination spits out a message and the message says, Let there be light. I don’t remember the name of the story. I remember reading it as a kid. But I, I think when the dog catches the car, it will discover that it doesn’t entirely understand what the car is. But I don’t know. I mean, it’s so far beyond what I am capable of understanding about the shape of the theory, as it exists now, never mind what the final theory would be, that I can only I can only take refuge in theological speculations. I don’t have physics or mathematical speculation and the theological speculation is, as in the quote, to quote one of the great church fathers Aquinas that were like that We’re emptying the ocean with a teaspoon.
EW: 1:43:02 Well, you know, the the part that I can agree with you is when people ask me what’s your best guess as to the meaning of life? I always think it’s a trap. But the sentence I come up with that, make sures you don’t spill out into any easy answer is, the meaning of life for me is the struggle to impart meaning to meaning. And that way, if you’ve decided that life is meaningless, or you say that you really know what the meaning of life absolutely is, you failed because you’re no longer struggling.
RDW: 1:43:32 Right?
EW: 1:43:32 And so everything that you’re talking about, speaks of the struggle which animates us and keeps us vital.
RDW: 1:43:39 That is a beautiful sentence on which to end.
EW: 1:43:41 Well, Rabbi Wolpe, thank you for joining us here. And we return you now back through the portal. You’ve been enjoying it with Rabbi Wolpe of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles, be well.