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Thoughts on Rabbis and Golems

The very best rabbis make the worst golems.

A good golem is a mixture of crude image and an ineffable name of God. So a rabbi who drops the ball can sometimes get the mix wrong, or make the image too crude, or not crude enough, of the name of God, too ineffable or not ineffable enough.

While a rabbi who is not thinking too hard, and just making a golem according to the recipe, can sometimes get out of his head and just do it. He slaps the clay together so it looks crude but not too crude, he looks in the book and grabs a name that you can’t say but is obviously a name of God, ba-da-bing ba-da-boom and there’s your golem.

Somebody told me once that these bad rabbis who are good at making golems actually don’t know that’s what they’re doing. They don’t think they are making a crude image of a man — they think they are making a good image of a man. They don’t think they are handling the ineffable name of God just right, so they stand on the molecule-thin membrane separating saying from not saying. They just think it’s ok to write down one of the supernal names of God and stick it in a pile of wet clay because they want to make a golem, and don’t even realize the contradiction at the heart of their project.

To which I say, I don’t know if such people exist or they don’t, but if they do, they’re not rabbis.

They’re golems~

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Nude Killers on Rollerskates

I asked a friend of mine who has some experiencing writing and publishing books if he had any advice about titles, and in particular if there were any mistakes to be avoided.

He paused and thought. “Well,” he said “I would avoid the mistake made by the author of “Death on America’s Highways”.

“You mean the collection of heartwarming memories of the author’s Gram in Yorkshire?”

“The same. “

“Are there any other poorly titled works you’d suggest I take under advisement as a lesson in what not to do?”

“There are indeed. I think “Rambles Through My Library” was a very poorly titled work.”

“The autobiography of a man who spent seven years a hitman in the Camorra? I read that. I agree.”

“And “Scratched: The Hideous Underworld of People Who Force Others to Have Sex with Tigers” — that was ill-titled in the extreme.”

“The history of math in Holland in the 60s?”

“Yes. I could think of a dozen better titles for that one.”

“Exactly. Like “Arson at 20,000 feet!”

“Or “A Nipple Ring for Constantine. Or even the simple title “Patton:A Biography” or “How to Care for an Ailing Cat.”

“Who do you think was the best title of our generation?”

“Well the best and worst were the same man, that author who titled all his works the same thing: King Without a Crown. So King without a Crown for example–

“His saucy limerick?”

“Yes. Ill-titled. King without a Crown–“

“His opera about the birth of Gauss?”

“Execrably titled. But King without a Crown on the other hand–

“His vignettes about sailboats in New York City Harbor in the 1940s and 50s?”

“The same. Now, there was a work with a good title!”

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Dog Honey

When I was a kid and I got sick I had a friend who used to bring me tea sweetened with “dog honey.” Okay he was not my friend, he was my father. Okay, honestly, my Mom said he was my father, but I truly doubt it — that woman lied a lot!

When he got very, very old and couldn’t get out of bed and wondered if I should confront him that dogs don’t make honey. I wondered even if I should pick at the issue with the tip of a finger! “What are dogs?” I asked him the morning of the day he died. He didn’t answer much, not ever, and certainly not then, but I think he said, if I remember correctly (and I truly doubt it — my memory lies a lot!) dogs are the ones that walk.

Luckily in my job in the decades after that I had access to a computer which had Internet and I could do a little research on what it was that walked, what were the ones that walked, and I learned that bees (the ones that fly) are not the only ones that make honey! I was a lucky boy! Fine, man. But ants make honey, earwigs make fun, lacewings make honey (okay they fly) and something called Stellar’s Boring Beetle makes enough honey to feed a brood of grubs.

COULD THAT HAVE BEEN WHAT MY FATHER MEANT BY DOGS? The ant, the earwig, the lacewing (well probably not cause it flies) or Stellar’s Boring Beetle?

Maybe dogs do make honey, if that is what he meant by dogs! And then I could be happy again, and not worried all the time! Lucky boy! I could be! Lucky man! And somebody would finally want to marry me, cause I wouldn’t be broody and anxious all the time.

But nobody wanted to marry me it turned out because I have a gigantic nose. And also gigantic ears. And an annoying personality (constantly asking for reassurance and then making fun of whatever reassurance you provide). The trifecta of not-want-to-be-married-to-that traits! Poor me! Also self-pity. Ears, nose, personality, self-pity. The Four Unmarriagable Traits.

So I turned lonely. And lacking anybody to attack I turned inwards. I attacked my Comforting Idea. Because, why the fuck would he call Stellar’s Boring Beetle a “dog”. Because it walked? Because it made honey? But my Dad was an unemployed paper box salesman! He didn’t have a computer with Internet! He didn’t know about obscure beetles that could make honey to feed its brood of grubs!

Oh Shiva, Lord of the Dance! Tell me, what is sugar? What is sweet? Is sweet whatever keeps the cell alive?

Is the love of the dog that brings comfort to us a form of sweetness?

Is the love my friend — or perhaps father — brought to me — sweet?

Was he the dog?

Was that his honey?

Oh Shiva if you know the answer to these questions, send me an email, or an old-fashioned letter with a stamp on it, or a text, or a divine signal, of whatever kind you choose, even if it is one that someone like me will almost certainly miss, having my mind on lower things, like a moment that is a bit more peaceful than its fellows, or the whir of insect wings in the early morn.

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Rabbi Abulafia and the Marsh Demon

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My teacher Rabbi Jose had been Rabbi Abulafia’s student when Rabbi Jose was sixteen and Rabbi Abulafia was very, very old, so because I was able to study with Rabbi Jose in his old age, I am now, despite the fact that I am no rabbi but a dealer in cardamom and other exotic spices, the most enlivened ring in the chain of rings that leads back to the Great Magnet himself, Rabbi Abulafia.

When my father expelled me from my house for challenging him and I took to the roads and slept behind bushes, with no companion but an empty stomach and the rain, and the stars, I went to the house of Rabbi Jose for wisdom, and, since wisdom although free, is never dispensed without a test, he challenged me.

This was his challenge: “A master of the old days yclept the Divine Empedocles taught that the two great principles are Love and Strife. Could this be right? Show your work.”

And this was my response to the challenge: “Empedocles could not be right. Because if we love strife, then that love of strife is strife, and if we contend with strife, then that strife with strife is love. But the love of strife and the strife with strife, are both strife, and we know this. But we could not know this, if it were true, as the Sage Empedocles would have us believe, that the sum total of all there is is love and strife.” I slept by the fire with the other students and ate a bowl of porridge the next morning, because my answer pleased Rabbi Jose.

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Although it pleased him, it did not please me. I felt I had won my night by the fire and my bowl of porridge, and the praise from the master, by a trick. I spoke words that perhaps answered the Rabbi’s question, but I did not understand them, I was as it were, a man who pays a debt with an envelope under seal, whose seal he does not break, and who therefore cannot truly feel the debt has been repaid — because what if within the envelope was not a bill of tending, but simply a request for mercy?

“What troubles you, Chaim Menashe?” asked Rabbi Jose that evening as I mopped the floor of the kitchen where his enormous cat lay stretched out poring over its seemingly fruitless studies.

(The rabbi placed its food in front of it arranged in the forms of the letters of the alphabet; he hoped to teach it to read.)

I wondered whether I could be honest with him. The night was cold and I did not welcome another pillow of stone, or supper of air.

But why my conscience asked me go into the house of truth if one wishes to lie?

I told the Rabbi the truth.

“I do not truly understand the problem with the views of the sage Empedocles on Love and Strife.”

“Let me tell you a story.” said Rabbi Jose.

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During his last days Rabbi Abulafia entered into a battle with the Bishop of Rome, who styled himself the Papa, or “Pope”. Each of them had a a covy of assassins who wove in and out of the camps of the other leader, pressing here, testing there, looking for an advantage. If Abulafia’s men slew the Pope, he would become Pope. If the Pope slew Abulafia he would gain access to his library, including the Tome of the Angel Raziel, and he would be able to storm Heaven.

One night as Abulafia reclined in his tent, taking accounts of the Pope’s movements from his spies, and plotting his possible location on an immense chessboard, two hundred squares at one side, his servants rushed in to announce the arrival of a visitor. A tall young man, fair of countenance, with long beautiful red hair and a single mustachio curling over the left side of his nose, offering his assistance. He had a map of the sewers of Rome and would lead the Rabbi himself to the privy of the Bishop, there for to slay him. “A moment, my friend.” said the Rabbi and left the camp.

The Rabbi strode into the throne room of St. Peter’s basilica and sought out the Pope. The Pope’s swissguards pointed their halberds at his throat. “Shall we slay him, Pontiff?” they inquired. “The Book of the Angel Raziel will be in your hands tonight, and by dawn tomorrow you will sit triumphant upon the Throne of Heaven!”

“Wait.” said the Pope, because although evil, he was wise. “Let us here what he has to say.”

“Bring him to me!” shouted the Rabbi.

“Who?”

“The beautiful young man who came to you offering his assistance! The one whose mustache curls under the RIGHT side of his nose!”

The Pope’s Swiss guards brought forth the man. The assassins of the rabbi brought forth his man. They were both tied together to a black rooster and burned, as they burned it smelled like marsh gas — they exploded in a puff of pestilence and were gone.

“What manner of شعوذة shueudha was that?” asked the Pope of the Rabbi.

“These creatures are generated by the pestilence of the soft rises outside your city. They are marsh demons. When strife occurs they offer themselves to both sides as helpers.”

“Why both sides? Why not the side of evil?”

“They know that whenever two sides contend to the death that is evil enough for them. They do not need to choose which is evil or which is good, Pontiff. They know one side or another will win, and when that happens they will have the trust of the ruler. If you had won, that demon would have been sitting on the throne of God himself come dawn.”

“And if you had won, Rabbi?” asked the Pontiff.

“Something far far worse would betide.” replied Abulafia.

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“And so I ask you, Chaim Menashe” said Rabbi Jose were the pair of marsh-demons lovers of strife, or strivers against strife?”

“I don’t know.” I answered.

“And did the Rabbi and the Pontiff in standing up to the tricks of the marsh demons, show that they loved each other? Or that they loved something, more than they loved their strife?”

I was silent.

That night as the enormous cat lay by the fire, purring and twitching and forgetting its lessons, I packed a loaf of bread and left the rabbi’s house. I knew that I was a base creature, not worthy of knowledge, and knowing that I resolved to pursue wealth instead. I decided to go to sea and travel to Damascus, where I would live by selling spice.

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The Most Dangerous Game

The most dangerous game is the game that when you play it, you forget that you’re playing a game. Examples: the money game, the status game.

The Tarot is an interesting example. It started out as a game. Then some people, as a game, decided to pretend they thought it had meaning. And then people started to see the meaning in their lives.

It did have meaning — it’s meaning was — look at the most seductive game there is, the one that really captures the intellect, the heart, the soul, and the imagination (wands, pentacles, cups, swords) — it is still just a game.

The better the game, the deeper our understanding of what life is like if we stop playing the game. Because that’s the real meaning of the naked man and woman facing the Devil. The Devil is the Tarot.

The ace of cups is full of flowing water — the water that moistens our lips and damps our meadows with dew, when we let the cards flutter down from our hands, like butterflies.

And that, is called winning the game!

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“Contending with Devils, Bargaining with Demons”

Is a phrase use to describe a situation like this: say for example you work at a company where the bosses of the resource management department are cruel and competitive egomaniacs, and their bosses in turn, in the sales department, are rapacious and barbarous pirates, and you wish to protect your direct reports in the overseas acquisitions department from the depredations of the managers in resources, you may slake their ravenous egos by insulting someone sideways from where you stand on the org chart, in for example, accounting, in order to earn credibility with resource management, so that when push comes to shove, you can defend your direct reports from the brutality of the blood-guzzling flesh-chewers in sales. Wouldn’t it be nice if we dealt with angels or even humans rather than demons or devils, who must be given a shred of flesh to avoid feeding them the whole arm? It would indeed, but it’s not.

Sometimes I worry that I might be a trophic egg, which is not a trophy wife, it is an egg that a creature brings forth to feed its siblings. What kind of mother is that? If a human mother, a bad one, but if the fungus-loving beetle, a good one, bringing forth thirty trophic eggs to feed the three glorious offspring destined to survive.

Is that the sacrifice? To know that sometimes to bargain with demons and contend with devils, one must make the sacrifice called Chod, and make a pile of one’s own heart and brain and organs and put it on a silver dish for them to batten on?

Is that the sacrifice? Wouldn’t it be nice if they didn’t demand their sacrifice? Wouldn’t it be better if they only required the willingness, but not the execution, if the demons and devils with their bargains and their contestations, only wanted us to walk up to the cliff’s edge but no further?

Or if the edge of the cliff had another edge, and that had an edge as well, so that even though the earth is slipping away beneath my feet I can still grab something? And dragging myself by that root, or branch, or stem, palms bleeding, I haul my shivery shakey ass onto solid ground and see the VP of sales smiling.

He gives me his hand, old Brad and says “Eric! You’re all right!”

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Getting the Right Answer, Winning the Game

Fascinating philosophical story in Janelle Shane’s book on AI “You Look Like a Thing and I love You”.

Programmers were trying to figure out the optimal strategy in a game of tic-tac-toe with an infinite board, and had programs play each other gazillions of times. It turned out the optimal strategy was to play your second x as far away from the first x as possible. This would cause the machine playing you (you are an AI too in this example) to crash trying to model that huge playing board, and you’d win by forfeit.

It made me think that if you took robots and gave them bodies and asked them to generate the optimal strategy for chess, it might turn out that the optimal strategy is to pick up your pawn, kill your opponent with it, and then place it on the board. Your opponent would forfeit the game due to death.

Is it the optimal strategy really? No! You’d go to prison. And this raises the interesting point that the purpose of chess is not to win. The purpose of chess is to have a good time, build a social relationship with the player, something like that.

And yet the notion that the purpose of chess is not to win is something it’s easy in our society to miss . I think that’s a contingent historical fact. We live in a world where certain people are rewarded for winning games (the game to make money, the game to make the prettiest picture) and are allowed to ignore the actual purpose of these activities.

This is true of test-taking also. People are rewarded for getting the right answer on the test. But sometimes the purpose of the test could be better served by giving a different answer, or no answer, or refusing to take the test, or helping everybody in your class get the right answer, so you all get a break.

It’s a similar illusion that comes from a similar social peculiarity — rewarding people for getting the right answer on tests, rather than living well and helping others to do the same.

It’s a bad thing. It’s an interesting example though of how what seem to be big philosophical talking points (eg “the facts don’t care about your feelings”) are actually philosophical mistakes, that follow from prejudices which follow in turn from contingent, not-so-great features of our society.

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