Thursday, July 23, 2009

Jerusalem as Shadowland

In his latest novel, Man in the Dark, Paul Auster refers several times to the Italian philosopher-priest Giordano Bruno, a name I hadn’t come across in years. Bruno, a Dominican monk who was burnt at the stake in Rome as a heretic at age fifty-two in the year 1600, held any number of religious, scientific, and philosophical opinions the Catholic Church found sufficiently untenable to warrant that he be silenced permanently. But the part of his thinking that Auster finds so appealing has nothing to do with religion or, really, with science—among other things, Bruno also agreed with Copernicus that the earth revolved around the sun—but with an idea that appealed to me when I first came across it years ago and which still calls out to me: the notion that, if the Creator is truly infinite in nature, power and creative energy, then it must follow that there are an infinite number of created worlds. How could there not be?

It’s a terrific idea and, depending on where you’re coming at it from, either an unnerving or a supremely engaging one. This is how one of the characters in Auster’s book explains it: “There’s no single reality, Corporal. There are many realities. There’s no single world. There are many worlds, and they all run parallel to one another, worlds and anti-worlds, worlds and shadow-worlds, and each world is dreamed or imagined or written by someone in another world. Each world is the creation of a mind” (Man in the Dark, page 69). Who could not find that an appealing thought? Bruno clearly meant it to mean that there are whole universes parallel to our own out there that are populated by people—or by beings of some sort—as unaware of our reality as we are of theirs. And that’s how Auster understands it as well. (I think my readers will like Auster’s book, published in 2008 by Henry Holt and available through all the regular on-line sources and in bookstores. I haven’t loved all his books to the same degree, but they’re all worthwhile and the earlier ones are terrific.) But for Jewish people considering the concept, it provokes an entirely different set of ideas.

In our world, the notion of alternate universes has traditionally been understood temporally rather than spatially. In a remark cited several times in the ancient midrash on Genesis called Bereshit Rabbah (and here and there elsewhere as well), the famous Rabbi Abbahu, who lived in Caesarea at the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries C.E., can be heard to comment that in his opinion the creation of the universe was not the first but the last of God’s creative endeavors...and that the Creator had, when our world was made, already (and for some time) been creating worlds and then destroying them when the results were not quite what the Doctor had meant to order. The obvious theological problem of how an all-knowing God could possibly create an insufficient world, Rabbi Abbahu deals with by imagining God almost whimsically scrupling to justify the process with the most laconic of all explanations: “This world (i.e., the world in which we live, the one being created in the first chapters of Genesis) pleases Me in a way those (i.e., the worlds made, demolished, then omitted entirely from Scripture) did not,” the rabbi imagines God musing aloud, rather in the manner of a potter smashing jug after jug until the “right” one finally comes off the wheel and not much caring that the uninitiated onlooker finds it surprising to learn that a master potter even could make an insufficient pot.

But that idea—that God created universe after universe until one finally appealed maximally—is not Bruno’s or Auster’s. Nor is their idea exactly the same as the astronomer’s assertion that the universe is ever-expanding, thus in a constant state of growth and self-generated flux. Instead, they have a different idea entirely, one far more challenging to conjure up: a universe in which an infinite number of worlds co-exist within the infinite Mind of the universe that is the Creator God of Israel rather in the same way an uncountable number of alternate universes come into being nightly as billions across the world fall asleep and dream up worlds that exist solely within the creative matrices of their own autonomous intellects. And the fact that those dreamers generally forget all about those worlds even before they are done brushing their teeth the next morning only makes the theory more interesting, not really any less likely.

These worlds constitute what William James coined the term “multiverse” to describe in his 1895 book, The Will to Believe, and the idea that the universe is a multiverse has only become more, not less, current in the century that has followed. If you are up to reading something challenging, but also incredibly stimulating, I recommend University of Pennsylvania physicist Max Tegmark’s essay, “Parallel Universes,” published originally in an academic tome entitled Science and Ultimate Reality: From Quantum to Cosmos (published by Cambridge University Press in 2003), but which you can very conveniently find on-line as a printable pdf file at It’s not easy reading—and that is really to say the very least—but it’s terrific work...and I say that as someone who feels certain that he only understood what the man had to say on the least profound level possible. Still, if you have been casting around for something truly stimulating (and, yes, slightly humbling) to read, this would be my best suggestion of the week!

And all that brings me to the nine days that stretch before us, the days between the first of the Jewish month of Av and the great midsummer fast day on the ninth day of that month (called Tisha Be’av, the Hebrew for its date) which falls next Thursday. In some ways, the Jewish people itself is proof of the plausibility of the multiverse theory. Or at least it feels that way as we allow history to fall away and journey instead into a parallel universe in which Jerusalem lies in ruins, life in exile is not something we have somewhat perversely chosen to endure but a horrific destiny imposed upon us by others, and in which there is no more monitory symbol of the fragility of the covenant that binds God and Israel than the smoldering ruins atop the Temple Mount. It is a world we enter briefly before it vanishes like smoke in the wind, like a nightmare dreamt just before dawn that loses its capacity to terrify almost instantly once we awaken and re-enter our “real” lives, like a sugar cube in a cup of coffee that vanishes immediately upon immersion and can only be tasted for as long as we linger over the cup and then is gone—except as a memory— wholly and without a trace.

This approach is, to say the very least, not a popular one. More liberal prayer books, their editors missing the point I believe almost entirely, have revised the liturgy to link the ancient destruction of Jerusalem to its modern rebirth as the capital of Israel. (The obvious question that arises directly from that kind of revision—why the Ninth of Av should still be fast day at all in our day—they leave for the most part unasked, so also unanswered.) More traditional prayer books, declining to nod even cursorily to the fact that the city the liturgy describes as desolate, uninhabited, and uninhabitable is in reality none of the above but is actually the vibrant, entirely built-up capital of the Jewish state, appear to require worshipers to seek God, the Truth of the Universe, along a path strewn with inaccurate statements, not to say lies, about how things actually are in the world.

But this theory of the multiverse seems to me to offer a third way, one neither piously inaccurate or blithely insensitive to the pain Tisha Be’av (to use the Hebrew name for the Ninth of Av) engenders in every sensitive Jewish soul. We live in the world we live in. Where else? But there are other worlds too, alternate worlds that our infinitely creative Creator has created as the anti-worlds and dream-worlds and shadow-worlds that grant the world we actually do inhabit its mystery and its haunting, not-all-you-see-is-all-there-is nature. In our world, in the real world, Jerusalem is the thriving capital of Israel. But Jerusalem also lies in ruins...and not merely in our recollective consciousness either, but in an alternate world, a dream world that we collective choose to enter slightly for the three weeks before the great fast, then more intensely for the nine days leading directly into it, and then even more intensely than that on the day of Tisha Be’av itself. And that is what lends Tisha Be’av its enduring worth, not the “mere” fact that it memorializes the day a bad thing once happened. Indeed, its true allure lies precisely within the momentary understanding the day vouchsafes the faithful that the world we perceive is just a midrash on the world God created. It is the thought that we live in one universe among uncountable others that draws us in, that encourages us to look past the tumult of modern-day Jerusalem and momentarily to focus our gaze on the b-side of existence, the part (and here I address myself specifically to readers that know what the b-side of a record is/was) that exists as fully and as really as the a-side, but which is just not the side playing at present.

Drawn into a world that doesn’t exist but somehow could, tradition offers a fast that should be passé but somehow isn’t. To me, Tisha Be’av is Multiverse Day, the one day a year that I allow myself just briefly to wander into the endlessly reverberative land of echo and fantasy in which our Holy City lies in ruins and we, condemned to exile, lift our hearts in prayer to God, the great Comforter of Zion and the Rebuilder of Jerusalem not because it says in some book somewhere that we are supposed to, but because, finding God to be our haven and the source of our strength, we feel ourselves to be unwilling, even perhaps unable, to do otherwise.

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