The Economic Dimensions of Democratic Politics

In an op-ed last week, The New York Times editor, David Leonhardt, advised voting for a Democratic Party candidate for president based on the enthusiasm he or she excites in you, but also on how well the candidate’s program appeals to economic populism.  “A substantial majority of Americans favor a populist agenda — higher taxes on the rich, better federal health insurance, more government action to create good-paying jobs and so on. The Democrats did so well in the midterms partly because of the populist campaign many of them ran…I think their best chance of winning in 2020 involves a campaign centered on fighting for working families.”

Over the next few blogs and reviews of several recent books on contemporary economics, I want to put forth an argument that, whatever the value of the first criterion for casting a vote to select a Democratic Party candidate, I suggest that, while fighting for working families is certainly legitimate, and both sides make a claim to do so, that should not be done on the back of populist economics. For what you sow, so shall you reap.

Republicans say their program of reduced taxes not only helps the rich but benefits the working individual by creating more jobs, creating a need for workers and a need to compete for workers which in turn will lead to higher wages for them. Democrats who follow Leonhardt’s lead think in terms of minimum wages, rules to strengthen collective bargaining, taxation policy that redistributes wealth rather than offering incentives for accumulating it and sometimes protectionism. Republicans supposedly support a balanced budget and then run up deficits their Democratic opponents are afraid of lest they be accused of ruining the economy. Republicans, therefore, set aside PAYGO, the congressional rule that increases in spending be matched by cuts elsewhere, when it suits them. The G.O.P. 2017 budget did precisely this.

Projecting an image of a Democratic Party in fear of budget deficits places restrictions on righting the wrongs of the past through increased benefits and laws to redistribute income. This was the position of Nancy Pelosi’s critics when she ran to be speaker of the House of Representatives. Pelosi, however, resisted their criticism and resolved to abide by PAYGO. However, economists like Paul Krugman argue that austerity and budget restrictions impede economic growth and lead to economic stagnation by ignoring or setting back the need to invest in infrastructure and in human resource development for example. I want to question whether either approach is better or worse, or even whether a choice has to be made in the face of the globalizing technological economic forces driving modern economies.

This Central debate within America has to be set within what is taking place on the global level. Richard Haas, and many others, look upon what is happening with an apocalyptic lens. The liberal world order, which began in the seventeenth century and was greatly expanded and refined after WWII with a set of institutions, is at the beginning stages of disintegration. That order was based on an idea of promoting the economic well-being of everyone on this planet by constructing an international system based on the rule of law and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each country within a world order.

One factor that has contributed to the disintegration has been the very instruments seen to be the culmination of integrating the whole planet, namely the internet and, more specifically, social media. For what set out to enhance worldwide communications has created a crisis for open societies and the freedom of the mind that was the pillar of the liberal world order. George Soros as Cassandra has written that, “The current moment in world history is a painful one. Open societies are in crisis, and various forms of dictatorships and mafia states, exemplified by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, are on the rise. In the United States, President Donald Trump would like to establish his own mafia-style state but cannot, because the Constitution, other institutions, and a vibrant civil society won’t allow it. Not only is the survival of open society in question; the survival of our entire civilization is at stake. The rise of leaders such as Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Trump in the US have much to do with this. Both seem willing to risk a nuclear war in order to keep themselves in power. But the root cause goes even deeper. Mankind’s ability to harness the forces of nature, both for constructive and destructive purposes, continues to grow, while our ability to govern ourselves properly fluctuates, and is now at a low ebb.”

Soros is far from alone. Who would know better than John MacWilliams, who heads the Department of Energy where the internet was invented? He insisted that whenever we interact on a telecommunications device, someone not invited is listening. In fact, many are listening. Michael Lewis in The Fifth Risk, which I will review, dubs this the first risk. When married to the fifth risk, the failure to manage this (and other risks) by denigrating management in favour of ideology, by denigrating knowledge in favour of ignorance, offers the anti-intellectual tools to destroy the modern liberal order.

Why the increase in quasi-fascist and fascist states? Because the policeman (America) of the world has given way and surrendered the responsibility of regulation. Democratic values were viewed initially as being protected by military interventions and crusades. That resulted in a propensity to concentrate power in hegemonic states, unfortunately.  International institutions were created to foster a world of interdependence that could counteract that propensity. The result, as Joseph Nye and others argue, was an unprecedented level “of prosperity and the longest period in modern history without war between major powers. USsis leadership helped to create this system, and US leadership has long been critical for its success.”

However, in our digital age, giant, mostly American, platform companies have turned the greatest political power ever seen on this earth into an impotent giant as companies, that initially played an enormous role in innovation and liberalization, have fallen into the hands of interests which are primarily transactional, focused on promoting consumption rather than liberty in what Yanis Varoufakis dubs “the relentless commodification of privacy.” That, they argue, has made privacy and individual autonomy no longer possible. Innovators, like Mark Zuckerberg, have lost control of the Frankenstein they created.

Pseudo-knowledge – actual false claims – become the headlines people absorb and think of as knowledge. The weighing and evaluating of conclusions are set aside in favour of mass appeal. Sound bites are the clowns of this pseudo-cognitive world, sweeping minds and feelings into mass hysteria. Stop the merry-go-round. I want to, I need to, get off.

However, when it comes to the real world, our material world, our world as understood through economic science, the conclusion that the world is going to hell in a handbasket is offset by the cheery remarks of a leader that the country has the lowest unemployment levels and extraordinary rates of growth of that economy, blissfully ignoring the forces building up. Many if not most analysts see a collapse on the horizon. The volatile Wall Street stock market is just the foreplay for a 2020 depression that will make 2008 look like a blip on a screen and even the mode of management in 1929 seem like a cakewalk.

The fiscal policies of the U.S. are viewed as unsustainable. The period of sustained and synchronized growth has lost steam and is nearing a collapse, Unlike 2008 and 1939, governments no longer have the tools to reverse course according to Nouriel Roubini and Brunello Rosa.

2019 is supposed to be the tipping point with the U.S. running up unprecedented deficits, China has responded to the American-initiated trade war with even looser fiscal and credit policies as Europe limps badly as it still tries to recover from the centrifugal fragmenting forces threatening to throw a united but fragile unity into dozens of pieces. The protective devices of banking unification are proceeding too slowly and are too weak. Fiscal policy coordination is inadequate as political rifts and schisms grow exponentially. Political uncertainty across Europe, especially in the mainstays, France and Germany, grows as the domestic drivers of economic growth weaken and exports suffer because of the American-led trade war with China on a macro scale and the cancellation of the American decision to lift sanctions on Iran decrease trade on a more modest level.

Why? For many, the new communications system and the digital age are not the primary villains. Neoliberal ideology and “public choice” theory emphasizing the reversal of the regulations introduced following the 2008 crisis, are. The dominant economic model is becoming totally incongruent with the actual historical patterns on the ground which demand and need much greater intervention and management of the economy rather than greater anarchy. In spite of many efforts in place, the policy direction is working in reverse even though, in Europe, there is at least a plan in place to counter these trends and to maximize economy strengths in ingenuity and high-end manufacturing.

We have a communications crisis. We have a fiscal crisis. We have a governance crisis. In a globalized economic world with a pressing need for global management of a natural climate crisis of unprecedented proportions coming at us, we need more integration, not less, more governance not less, more regulation not less. But the signs of an emerging system of global governance are all pointing in the wrong direction. The tide of increased global trade that has contributed so much to rising worldwide prosperity is in retreat as the global trade game has shifted from free trade to increasing reliance on mercantilism, that is, regulation and intervention precisely in a way it is not only not needed, but is destructive to the international order. And central banks can no longer cope with the variety and size of the challenges that states face.

The startling part of it all is that we are just on the edge of vast improvements in productivity resulting from the digital age as machines not only replace the need for our muscle. Artificial intelligence is on the brink of displacing many levels of decision-making that can be better managed by electronic rather than by human intelligence. Look at how out of synch economic policies are. Tax policies in the U.S. and elsewhere increase inflation and impede investment just when more intelligent management of the economy is needed, not less. Most of all, there is public discord that grows as economic inequality grows and as the graduates of even our universities no longer see a route to owning their own homes unassisted by inherited family wealth.

In other words, the problem is not just economic disruption, but an earthquake taking place in our institutions of governance both domestically and internationally. On the macro scale, even as Democrats re-energize themselves in America, the institutions of liberalism and democracy appear to have weakened so much that salvation appears almost impossible. On the micro level, our youth face a housing crisis and young families face an eviction crisis as they face mortgage renewals at rising rates that they cannot support. At the same time, all my moves, all my plans – for travel, for work, for leisure – to eat, sleep and be merry – are being tracked as advertisers both monitor and target our desires. The surreptitious mapping of our habits and desires work to erode autonomy and individuality. Freedom then becomes reinvented as celebrity. Glitz and glamour displace gravitas and critical reflection. And opinion displaces fact as a foundation for decisions.

On a more mundane, but the most painful level, debt is punted down the line to future generations. Further, the problem is not only the exploding federal debt, but, as Carmen Reinhart has written, the high issuance of corporate collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), the new temptress on the financial runway that has pushed corporate bonds aside. High-yield corporate debt instruments are the emerging market within the U.S. economy, but the rapid rise is even greater in Europe where yields are even higher. Of course, these are of very different order of magnitude than in 2008, but they hit the productivity rather than consumer side of the market. Thus, these could be the equivalents of the high-interest poorly secured bundling of mortgage obligations in the first decade of this century that led to the 2008 financial crisis as the money is borrowed by weaker corporations and with more questionable valuation of the collaterals. And the debt is arranged through third tier lightly regulated banks. Do all capital surges end badly?

Unprecedented unemployment levels, owing almost entirely to the rapid increase in the service sector, in the atomized environment of outsourcing, does not produce increased income resulting from increased competition for workers. Expected increases in income have not been forthcoming. Thus the rise of Trump in America, of the Brexit fiasco in Britain, of Macron as a fleeting shooting star, not to count the quasi-dictatorships in Russia, China, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines and Brazil, to list some of the major ones which still exclude totalitarian oppressive regimes such as North Korea or Myanmar, and imploding governments such as that of Venezuela, are all part of this trajectory towards disaster.

The rise of populist political parties and leaders with increasing influence almost everywhere threatens economies that depend on facts, on analysis, on knowledge-based decisions instead of whims and ignorance. Trump and other leaders on the right avoid comprehensive and coherent policy platforms for they are impossible to come by in an era dominated by ignorance and impulse, lies and braggadocio. Agility declines. Rigidity sets in.

Other Cassandras, such as George Brown, appear as optimists, for they still believe that steps can be taken to save the world from the collapse of a liberal globalization and a planet destroyed by climate change. How appealing then are the corrective measures promoted by The New York Times editor, David Leonhardt? There are two: based on enthusiasm in a candidate for public office who excites you; and choosing on the basis of how well thought out a program the candidate offers that simply appeals to economic populism. I will argue that they feed the beast rather than stopping it in its tracks.

Reviews of economic books follow.


With the help of Alex Zisman

The Competition for Recognition Part V The Moral Compass: Division on the Political Right

Is Donald Trump a by-product of the failure of liberalism which sold out to identity politics and the politics of resentment in accordance with the views of Jordan Peterson? Is Donald Trump, as Dummitt declares, the most triumphant exponent of “Be true to oneself” and representative of those who feel unrecognized and who are willing to defy social convention from the right? Dummitt declared that the moral compass in the modern world on the left as well as on the right, was rooted in the authentic self – “to thine own self be true” – rather than, say, custom or religious edicts. Is this accurate?

Whether or not the above is true, will the winner in this competition be the side which invokes the morally superior identity? If conservatives favour market and individual freedoms versus excessive bureaucracy and taxes, while the left liberals attack social and religious conventions that impose restrictions on sexuality, gender and race, is the present polarization simply a fundamentalist evangelical conflict between two definitions of moral purity and the claim that each is the real outsider, the real excluded, while each should provide the moral compass for the modern world?

If this depiction of the core of current polarization is accurate, can that polarization be overcome by avoiding the dichotomy of left and right and giving priority to traditional liberal and/or conservative references, say citizenship or to an overarching social order, that is, making a strong shared identity more basic than the identity quests that divide us? Such a solution would once again prioritize our customs and shared values that emphasize the rule of law, free speech, the right of self-expression and public civility. Or do we have to reach back further in our history, into the biblical narrative, a narrative of constant tension between ethical imperatives and historical propensities?

As I see the American political battleground, a four-way fight is underway. On the right, for now, the populists have won. On the left, the Left Liberals remain in charge, but the democratic socialists are in the process of mounting stronger and stronger challenges.

The overall battle can be represented by the following chart:


  Democratic socialist Left Liberal Conservative Populist
Substance Benefits Protections Markets Identity Wars
  Group rights Civil rights Human rights Foetal rights
Process Challenge incumbents Defend Incumbents Surrender


Challenge incumbents
  Voter registration Voter registration Voter Suppression Voter Suppression
Overview Class war Common membership Common membership Cultural War
  Resentment – Identity Politics Appreciation Appreciation Resentment – Identity Politics

Tomorrow, I will focus on the battle on the left. Today, attention is focused on the victory of right-wing populism over traditional conservatism in the internecine war on the right.

I begin with modernity and the moral purity of the economic right as best expressed by Friedrich A. Hayek. (See Individualism and Economic Order.) One type of individualism [economic] leads to freedom and spontaneous order. The other type of individualism [cultural] leads to a controlled economy and imposed order rooted in collectivism according to Hayek. For many, this implies that the only collectivist challenge comes from the left. However, there is a collectivist, a nationalist, challenge that comes from the right.

The Trump presidency is a case of deliberate inauthenticity, a case of wearing the mantle of market freedom, but organizing a takeover by collectivists who are nationalists, that is, by a group identified by their common loyalties. Order is imposed by a singular leader claimed to embody the nationalist spirit even if the actual spirit consists of lies, degradation of customs, racism, degenerate language and de facto narcissism. The playbook and the philosophy of fascism has not fundamentally changed since Giovanni Gentile, the Italian philosopher, set down the tenets of fascism in the book, The Doctrine of Fascism that he ghostwrote for Benito Mussolini.

Gentile misinterpreted Hegel and put forth what he called a neo-Hegelian view that extolled collectivism and denigrated individualism. There was no objective reality or reference points external to the self. Hence, this variation of the proposition, “To thine own self be true.” The true subject was not an abstract “I,” an individual postulated as an abstraction in an ideal world where that “I” enjoyed a full panoply of protections. The true subject was embodied, was an actual individual, a concrete rather than abstract individual. There was no true manifold objective world and no true abstract individuality. Truth was to be located in the subject, the heroic subject that asserted agency on behalf and in the name of the national collectivity. The objective world was only a projection of that individuality. Experience is only a product of what is projected; objectivity does not provide boundaries for this narcissism in the name of the collective.

There are no lies since the only truth that exists is that projected by the mind of the “wise” leader as the divine is conceived of as immanent in such projections. The leader is the “truest” believer in himself. The objective world must conform to this form of subjective Being.

Let me make these abstractions concrete. Ryan Costello lost his seat (the 6th Congressional District in Pennsylvania) in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections (see The New Yorker, 12 November 2018). He is an example of a traditional or moderate Republican, a conservative centrist. He was willing, even eager, to have government catch up with technical advances in renewable energy. He was willing to work with the Democratic opposition across the aisle to improve health-care delivery and introduce reasonable immigration controls.

“And then Trump gets elected. And the norms of politics all just blow up and you’re trying to figure out how to orient yourself when the rules don’t apply anymore, and you’re allowed to say and do things which used to be disqualifying.” Trump lied. Repeatedly! Often! Daily! Without due process, Trump banned entry to persons from seven Muslim countries. Without due process, Trump took away the White House press pass of CNN’s Jim Acosta. Costello wanted the Mueller investigation into election collusion with the Russians to go forward without any political interference. But the leader of his party, the president, denounced the FBI as corrupt, denounced the press for spreading fake news, insulted black female reporters while insisting on decorum at White House press briefings.

Costello faced a choice. Complicity with Trump or disloyalty to the Republican Party that had been taken over by Trump and his followers. He chose to walk a tightrope, generally ignoring the depths of degradation of his party’s leader, occasionally publishing on Facebook his own dissent towards Trump’s latest malfeasance when it became too extreme, but expressing no interest in condemning or censoring the president in the House. He chose not to accompany Jeff Flake of Arizona into the political wilderness. He allowed fear to determine his choices.

However, he faced chaos from the left as well as the right and barely escaped being shot by a Bernie Sanders supporter who critically wounded the Majority Whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, at a Republican charity baseball game. However, the bulk of artillery aimed his way came from the right even as he tried to sidestep Trump’s racism and Trump’s ignoring and ignorance of the Constitution and the rule of law. Costello faced either the ire of the voters in Pennsylvania or the ire of the President who would back an alternative Republican candidate in the primaries in Pennsylvania’s sixth district. He avoided the latter only to see his political career destroyed (at least for now) by the former. His principles of balanced budgets, free trade, upholding the Constitution, the rule of law and the separation of powers had all crashed and burned much earlier as prudential silence morphed into the “habitual muteness of the acquiescent.”

The politics of total war against party dissidents and politicians with backbone and character meant that reasonable compromise was no longer the language of politics. Extremism, zealotry and populism were. Conspiracy theories were floated in the air like hundreds of sky lanterns, even though everyone knew they were fire hazards. Republicans moved from being the upholders of institutions and their values to participating in the destruction of norms and institutions and engaging in voter suppression and gerrymandering. Shock value and publicity seekers usurped the role of thoughtful and reflective independent minded politicians.

But the roots lay in those same institutions. For the core issue of getting a foothold on the race to power depended most on the commitment of a core group of party members in a district and/or actually recruiting those members for the nomination. In a far less democratic Canada, constituency nominations depended, in most suburban ridings, on getting one ethnic group, or an alliance of two ethnic groups, who could deliver the signatures to party membership and their votes on nomination day. 1-2% of eligible voters could choose the candidate for their party, and, depending on the national race, could coast to victory.

In the USA, the nomination depended less on getting the support of a core of party members in a constituency party meeting (as in Canada) than on winning a popularity contest in a political primary, that is, in electioneering that never stopped and depended on the energizer batteries of politics – money and human time. The kind of publicity adopted depended on the intellectual, policy and publicity silos of your side. Decency, rationality, objectivity and a primary concern with truth had largely been shovelled into the ashbin of history, though to different degrees and with respect to different key issues. Core support came from two sometimes overlapping sources: evangelical Christians who had already subscribed to surrendering the individual self to a higher “divine” self, who appeared immanently in history; and resentful white Americans who felt they had lost their place in history.

Totally contrary to Christopher Dummitt, the core reference point has been neither authenticity nor moral purity, but expediency, opportunism and ambition. People’s rule had replaced party rule and the people were no longer an aggregate of individual voters, but an ideological tribe in which the members demonstrating the greatest zealotry won over the mob. Rallies, not debates, became the central focus of an election campaign by both the socialist left and the populist right.

However, on the right the collectivists, the nationalists, emerged victorious. Each day that passed witnessed the defeat of another compromiser, of another compromise, of another part of objective reality. Climate change impelled by human activity, according to Trump, was not a major contributing cause to the tremendously destructive fires that so recently laid waste to enormous tracts of land and even a whole city in California. The fact that these were not forest fires but largely shrub lands, the fact that, in any case, forests were not managed primarily by the State of California but by the federal government that owned the majority of forest tracts, the fact that “sweeping forests” was not an idea passed on by the Finnish Prime Minister as a forest management tool or that it was even a useful one, did not matter. Trump, as usual, mouthed off in ignorance and pronounced that there would be no more such fires. More than that, he pronounced his own personal view of nature as simply an extension of his own wishes rather than an independent reality.

“I have a strong opinion. I want great climate, and we’re going to have a forest that is very safe.”





Descent into Hell: Parshat VaYeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3)

The problem with old age is that we spend far too much time seeing doctors and trying to keep an old and decrepit chassis working. Ignoring times spent in labs for various blood and urine tests, for x-rays and Dopplers, echograms and neurological tests, this week alone I saw my general practitioner, my heart doctor and my sleep doctor. And today I head to the Toronto Western Hospital to have my eye measured to prepare for surgery and the removal of cataracts.

Not only do these visits take time, but when I meet old friends, we spend too much time reciting and comparing our ills. But it is not only with friends. Yesterday, I was on the phone talking with my youngest son for about two hours – he lives in Vancouver – and he was upset that I had not kept him up to date on my health and my treatments. And then there are the visits – to friends who have really serious health issues. I miss them. I want to see them. I want them to keep going even as I tire of the effort to keep going myself. Illness consumes time.

Why then bore you with such issues? Because I could use some help. I visited my sleep doctor yesterday – or perhaps it was the day before. I, to my surprise, had not seen her for quite awhile. I went to check whether my CPAP breathing mechanism that I use at night was set at the correct pressure. I made the appointment before I found out that taking a diuretic pill once a day got rid of the excess water in my legs and lungs that evidently accounted for why I had been feeling so tired. Hence, the breathlessness I had been experiencing. Perhaps that is why I was even more cheerful when seeing her than I perhaps usually am.

She told me that she likes to see me and missed me. How often does a doctor tell you that? Patients with sleeping problems are normally grumpy and melancholic. They feel sleep deprived and wish they could sleep more. In contrast, she said, I seem to be the rare – very rare evidently – a patient who comes to see her who is upbeat, tries to tell funny stories and cheers her up. I do not complain about lack of sleep for the fact that I need much less sleep pleases me enormously as it allows me normally to get my blog written before breakfast.

However, this time I had a real problem. I had a horrible nightmare early in the week. I had watched the news and the frightening fires in California where flames skipped over three football fields in minutes. I watched on television as families in cars escaped through walls of flames when they could barely make out whether they were fleeing the fire or getting into it. The children in the car were panicky as a father tried to reassure them that they should calm down. They would escape, he insisted. They evidently did so; that is why we could watch their car video that they had made.  Unfortunately, perhaps 200-300 did not escape.

I had gone to sleep about 10:30 p.m. and instead of waking up around 3:30 a.m., I woke at 11:45 p.m. I woke shaking. I could not get back to sleep. I also could not write. This is very unusual for me when I can be sitting at my desk writing within 60 seconds of waking up. I also do not usually remember my dreams. My sleep rhythm is unusual since I enter a deep sleep almost as soon as I put my head on my pillow – perhaps it can take as much as 30 seconds. And when I wake up, I am not drowsy but fully awake. But this past week, I could not write for two mornings in the aftermath of that nightmare. I missed writing two blogs.

However, this dream – or, rather, nightmare – was vivid in my memory. I was shaking when I awoke. In that dream, I had been in Africa working when I received a phone call that there was an enormous fire in the region where we lived back home – and home seemed to be California rather than Toronto. The caller told me that they had not been able to locate my wife and my two youngest children. In the dream, they were 6 and 9 years old at the time – so the dream was set almost 25 years ago.

I immediately flew home and began looking for them. The dream consisted almost entirely of that search – a futile search for I never found them. I passed houses with flames 30-40’ in the air. I passed cars engulfed in flames and tried to peer into them to see if my missing wife and two youngest children were in those cars. The dream went on and on, searching and searching but finding nothing. But the most peculiar part of the dream is that when I walked endlessly among these flames, I was freezing cold. I felt like an iceberg – assuming an iceberg can feel. I was frozen and never warmed up.

I told my sleep doctor that the dream had stayed with me all week, not only because it had been so horrific and because it had shaken me up so much, but because I could not figure out what it might mean. I usually find I can find an interpretation that seems to make sense. However, in this dream, the only thing that seems to have been clear was that the videos of the flames and the children in the escaping cars had probably set off the dream. Nothing else.

Of course, my sleep doctor was not a dream doctor. Her expertise was in the mechanics of sleep and not its imaginary content. I did not expect her to help me interpret the dream. I merely wanted to explain my physical tiredness succeeded by relief via a diuretic and then my mental tiredness brought on by a dream. I welcome any efforts at interpretation. In this there remains hope. For my readership offers me the opportunity and the audience to try to understand that dream.

But it is not my dream that I want to write about, but Jacob’s.


10 And Jacob left Beer sheba, and he went to Haran.   י

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה:

11 And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place.   יא

וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵֽאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא:

12 And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.   יב

וַיַּֽחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹֽרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ:

13 And behold, the Lord was standing over him, and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your seed.   יג

וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְהֹוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֘ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

14 And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall gain strength westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth and through your seed.   יד

וְהָיָ֤ה זַרְעֲךָ֙ כַּֽעֲפַ֣ר הָאָ֔רֶץ וּפָֽרַצְתָּ֛ יָ֥מָּה וָקֵ֖דְמָה וְצָפֹ֣נָה וָנֶ֑גְבָּה וְנִבְרְכ֥וּ בְךָ֛ כָּל־מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה וּבְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

15 And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.”   טו

וְהִנֵּ֨ה אָֽנֹכִ֜י עִמָּ֗ךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּ֨יךָ֙ בְּכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵ֔ךְ וַֽהֲשִׁ֣בֹתִ֔יךָ אֶל־הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את כִּ֚י לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱזָבְךָ֔ עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִם־עָשִׂ֔יתִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי לָֽךְ:

16 And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know [it].”   טז

וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַֽעֲקֹב֘ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי:

17 And he was frightened, and he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”   יז

וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם:

18 And Jacob arose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had placed at his head, and he set it up as a monument, and he poured oil on top of it.   יח

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֨בֶן֙ אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֔יו וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֹתָ֖הּ מַצֵּבָ֑ה וַיִּצֹ֥ק שֶׁ֖מֶן עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ:

19 And he named the place Beth El, but Luz was originally the name of the city.   יט

וַיִּקְרָ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל וְאוּלָ֛ם ל֥וּז שֵֽׁם־הָעִ֖יר לָרִֽאשֹׁנָֽה:

20 And Jacob uttered a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear;   כ

וַיִּדַּ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב נֶ֣דֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־יִֽהְיֶ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים עִמָּדִ֗י וּשְׁמָרַ֨נִי֙ בַּדֶּ֤רֶךְ הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽנֹכִ֣י הוֹלֵ֔ךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִ֥י לֶ֛חֶם לֶֽאֱכֹ֖ל וּבֶ֥גֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ:

21 And if I return in peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my God;   כא

וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה לִ֖י לֵֽאלֹהִֽים:

22 Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.   כב

וְהָאֶ֣בֶן הַזֹּ֗את אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֨מְתִּי֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה יִֽהְיֶ֖ה בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י עַשֵּׂ֖ר אֲעַשְּׂרֶ֥נּוּ לָֽךְ:

Jacob had his dream while lying on the ground with his head on a rock. I was in bed with my head on a pillow. In Jacob’s dream, there is a ladder connecting heaven and earth. In my dream, earth has become a fiery hell. In Jacob’s dream, angels skip up and down the ladder; it is a sulam with the same numerical value as Sinai that adumbrates Moses’ encounter with God at Sinai. Jacob wakes from his dream in amazement. I woke from mine in anguish, despondent, dejected and wretched.

In my dream, I plod along horizontally. There is no skipping, just despair. If God stood over Jacob in his dream revealing himself to Jacob and promising that the land on which he rested his head will be given to him and his progeny, there was no God in my dream. No angels and not even Satan. I was alone in my dream, very much alone. And I walked in a landscape that no one would want to inherit.

Jacob flees his life of cheating his brother and wrestling away Esau’s birthright and blessing. Finally, between his home and that of his uncle, he is able to lie down and have a dream. But in my dream, I can only wander endlessly and aimlessly. I cannot even look forward to wrestling with God at the ford of the Jabbok River.

When Jacob awoke from his dream, he entered into a covenant with God, namely that, as long as God was with him and protected him and guided him, as long as he gave Jacob food to eat and a garment to wear, Jacob would remain His loyal servant. There was no one in my dream protecting my wife and children. There was no one guiding me as I trudged along amongst the flames and through the smoke without direction. And I felt only cold. Where Jacob had seen the house of God and the gate of heaven, I wandered the streets of hell.

The next morning after the dream, I went to synagogue and recited the kaddish. It was my mother’s Yahrzeit, the anniversary of her death eighteen years ago. It was morning and I recited the Shaharit prayer, the morning prayer that Abraham had supposedly established. Though I went through the motions and had amiable conversations with my friends, my heart was not in it. And it was a prayer for my mother. I felt more like Isaac, but in a paved over field with burning houses and cars on all sides. But in my dream, there was neither any prayer that poured out of me, nor conversation either. I saw no one. I asked no one. I searched, but the streets were deserted. It was certainly not Jacob’s evening prayer for there were no encounters at all.

In fact, the smoke was so thick, I could not tell whether it was morning, noon or night. It was true hell for the different times of the day had been obliterated. And I did not ask God to take me out of the darkness of that day into the light. Was this a world that God would inhabit, for it was truly a scorched earth unsuited to bring forth food, for sustaining animals and allowing beautiful yellow and purple flowers to grow. It was a world of gray on gray except for the brilliant red of the flames. It was a world that no one owned and no one would even want to own. The world was indeed illuminated, but not by the sun’s light, not by God’s light, but by the darkness and the flames that make up hell.

The celestial spheres, the sun and the moon, were blocked out by billowing black and grey smoke. And there was no one in charge of a world headed towards hell. God had abdicated. God had also fled the flames and abandoned His responsibilities. And I could not find my wife or my youngest children. Instead of the darkness providing an ambience for intimacy, there was nothing. There was nothingness. There was no God to embrace me in my fear, in my terror. There was no God with whom I could even make a deal, draw up a covenant, one in which we could exchange mutual promises and obligations. I did not feel, as I usually felt, when I awake in the very early hours of the morning and would write until I saw the light of day beginning to form outside of my picture windows in my study. I was not merely insecure, tired and wary as Isaac always seemed to be. I was petrified and identified with Jacob who loved bright colours and innocent jokes to cover up his profound terror. Deep down, he felt hopeless and was in despair, for a night of intimacy with his God had been lost. It was a night in which, except for the flames, all cows were both black and dead.

There was no progress in that dream, from hope to worry and trepidation. Instead of God turning on the lights, the flames were subsiding and left only burned out collapsed homes and frames of vehicles in a bleak landscape. Would the lights come on again? Would I see my wife and two youngest children again? I was so obsessed that I could not even thank an unknown God that my older children were safe and living elsewhere.

I pray every day that God renews His creation if there is a God and if God is still working at His job. I pray that each day will be a brand new day, a day full of creativity, a day of renewal when the world is always experienced anew. But the world had died. It had been torched.

I have never been concerned with whether God existed or not. The issue was never for me whether I believed or did not believe God existed. The issue had always been whether I believed that if God existed, that I was worthy of His faith in me. But in that bleak landscape, I feared that I had lost the faith in myself, the real faith that sustained me, that the world was and would be born anew every morning with a different pattern even though the elements were identical, that at night the angels ascended and descended the ladder in continuous motion, like elves, to renew the world for another day even though fascists and Nazis driven by the politics of resentment were in pursuit.

Will my family, will all families, be so blessed as I have been blessed? Will they even have a ladder to climb?

From Is to Ought

Ben Rhodes The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, New York: Random House, 2018.

In the Prologue of Ben Rhodes memoir, he describes how, in his last meeting with any head of state, Barack Obama passed the torch onto Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada. “You’re going to have to speak out when values are threatened.” Trudeau promised that he would “with a smile on my face. That is the only way to win.” Obama was an American, a liberal American, who believed that morality framed coercion and military might. “American leadership depended on our military, but was rooted not just in our strength but also in our goodness.” (25) And that goodness was built into institutions and laws but backed up, if need be, by force. (48)

A smile would not do the job. Yet Obama, flummoxed in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump and emergence of autocrats around the world, conscious that his best ally, Angela Merkel, had been severely wounded, could only reach out to a Canadian leader who led with a smile and not even a soft voice. Further, and more importantly, Canada did not carry a big stick.

The real mantle of leadership had been stolen by Donald Trump, a would-be autocrat. He was willing to meet with other autocrats around the world – without any preconditions – North Korean, Russian, Turkish, even Iranian. Trump was blasted in the liberal press for doing so. Yet, when Ben Rhodes joined the Obama presidential campaign, his Democratic contender also had promised to meet US adversaries without conditions. As Rhodes wrote, “[T]he reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is somehow punishment to them, which has been a guiding diplomatic principle of this [the Bush] administration, is ridiculous.” (12) Hillary Clinton, Obama’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, disagreed. She called Barack Obama naïve. Republicans, the same ones who as sycophants and toadies, defended Donald Trump when he did it, called Obama much worse.

Diplomacy without preconditions was not the only tactic Trump stole from Obama. “Turn defense into offense.” (18) “Restore America’s standing around the world.” (22) When Trump ran on a version of the latter, Obama made fun of the slogan, “Make America great again.” “America had always been great,” insisted Obama.

There is, of course, a difference between Obama and Trump. For the latter, such diplomatic meetings are simply transactional and the Donald believed that he was and is master of the deal. Obama believed, and his legacy – the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris climate agreement for which leadership had been passed to China and Xi Jinping, the negotiations with the military junta in Myanmar – proved it, that diplomacy rather than inter-personal deals work. But a diplomacy capable of setting aside mindblinding and politically binding assumptions. In every single case, Donald Trump in his first two years in office proved that he was the master of and replacing professional diplomacy with personal transactional gestures.

The destruction of many of Obama’s overseas achievements had as much to do with personal animosity as Trump’s propensity for demolition, and both certainly more than the absence of any substance in his foreign policy. Donald Trump had been a leader in the blatantly racist “birther” movement, the false claim that Barack Obama had not been born in the US. Obama had folded before the media onslaught and finally acceded to releasing his longform birth certificate. That quieted but did not close down the flow of fake news. More importantly, a few days later after the birth certificate release, Barack Obama had his revenge at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. In a series of spot-on jokes, he humiliated Donald Trump in the media and before the American public. “No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter – like, did we fake the moon landing.” (132-133) Trump’s unwinding of Obama’s many successes was Trump’s revenge.

The Obama administration did have its own share of failures – dealing with Russia over Georgia (inherited from Bush), Crimea, the Ukraine and Syria, as well as Syria itself and, of course, the disastrous Libyan initiative, the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the incoherence of the US policy towards Egypt, and the fiasco of Afghanistan that I wrote about in the Farrow book review. What is worse, Obama and Rhodes knew that, “the Taliban could not be defeated so long as it had political support in Afghanistan and a safe haven in Pakistan.” (73)

Obama had kept Robert M. Gates on as Secretary of Defence and initially backed the failed strategy of counter-insurgency in an arena in which it could not and did not work. Vice-President Joe Biden was the only individual in the administration who consistently and persistently opposed a troop surge and argued that the US military was jamming Obama. (65-6) So what was Obama’s rationale if America was not going to defeat the Taliban? “We need to knock them back to give us space to go after al Qaeda.” (75) The troop surge was approved.

But perhaps Egypt was even more telling than Afghanistan. Obama and Rhodes knew that in a repressive society like Egypt’s, a democratic election would probably lead to the victory of an Islamist Party, the Muslim Brotherhood. (54) Yet the Obama administration backed the removal of Mubarak and fell back on the position that America would “judge any political movement by whether they choose to act and govern in a way that is consistent with democratic principles.” (55) But what if that political movement, though noisy in its demonstrations, was marginal in its political depth and the real choice was between two other movements – one rooted in the military and the other in the religious establishment? How should America act when faced with a Hobson’s choice when, in the end, military coercion was the real and only power? That same effort to achieve a balance between two incompatible political perspectives would prove to be the root of the Obama administration’s enormous but fruitless efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

It would also be at the root of Rhodes’s failure to comprehend the limitations of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Rhodes expends few words on the doctrine and I cannot elaborate n it here, but it is clear that he aligned with Samantha Power (82) and, to some extent, Susan Rice, who believed that the R2P had to be a bedrock of American foreign policy – that is, liberal state had the right to intervene with force when a state persecuted its own citizens or could not protect them from other s bent on destruction. Obama never bought into it. Rhodes in his book never explains why except to suggest that Obama was more a realist than the small idealist cohort he had working for and with him.

However, R2P was fundamentally flawed. This doctrine had originated as a Canadian initiative. It advocated the right of any foreign power to intervene when the government of a state targeted its own people. Within a very short time after its formulation, it was adopted by a unanimous vote of the United Nations. Except the vote was only unanimous because the heart of the doctrine had been cut out. Humanitarian intervention would only be permitted with the approval of the state being targeted. Once again, sovereignty trumped moral principles.

Further, it could and never would be applied in the Chinese mistreatment of the Uyguars or even the military junta mistreatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Sanctions certainly. But not coercive intervention. In the easiest situation possible, with a UN peacekeeping force on location and the government perpetrators on the ropes in its fight with a Tutsi-led military force, the world had failed to intercede and stop the genocide in Rwanda. Diplomatic exhortation and lofty principles were no substitute for action on the ground.

Perhaps Obama’s greatest success in the domestic arena – not the Affordable Care Act, but the salvaging of the world economy – was also his greatest failure and paved the way for the rise of Trump. This was in the domestic arena and not foreign affairs to which Ben Rhodes had dedicated his talents. The 2008 economic crash was a direct product of President Bush and, to some degree, his predecessors. Obama inherited an economic mess.

Ben Rhodes wrote the following words for Barack Obama. “Jobs have disappeared, and people’s life savings have been put at risk. Millions of families face foreclosure, and millions more have seen their home values plummet…So let’s be clear: What we’ve seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed.” (33) Ben made Obama sound like a Marxist. Talk about hyperbole! The 2008 economic crash, the greatest since the depression, was the final epitaph for capitalism, not just for a failure in banking regulation. Capitalism had completely failed. This is how the statement sounded.

However, the philosophy referred to was not capitalism but one version of it – trickle-down economics and deregulation. Further, even on that there was no final verdict. In fact, Barack Obama in part made possible the restoration of that capitalistic ideology to pre-eminence after two years of his presidency and totally cleared the road from any blockage to it by contributing to the election of Donald Trump. How? Precisely by overstating the failure and understating the consequences of the 2008 economic crash. Not just jobs, but hundreds of thoUSnds of them were wiped out. Millions of families not only faced foreclosure but were, in fact foreclosed upon when Obama bailed out the banks without helping those who bought homes that were now financially under water.

Ben Rhodes was a foreign policy speechwriter and adviser and was not up on domestic policy let alone economic policy. There is an enormous problem with trickle-down economics, but that was NOT the issue in the 2008 economic crash. Rhodes not only failed to hit the target, but grossly understated the effects on the average American just as he overstated the implications of the crash for capitalism. In his memoir, he never seemed to notice this oversight.

Unfortunately, the same disposition applied to foreign policy. When North Korea tested a ballistic missile in the very beginning of Obama’s presidency when he was in The Czech Republic, Ben Rhodes added a few sentences to Obama’s address to the Czech people. “I sat at my computer inserting a strongly worded warning to the North Koreans about the isolation they’d face for continued nuclear and missile tests.” (42)

When Trump was in the same position, he threatened fire and brimstone and then met with Kim and called him a wonderful guy who likes me. Greater isolation! North Korea had survived for years, though barely, against the greatest international deep freeze applied to any foreign state in the post-WWII period. And the country still persisted in its nuclear and missile development program. Rhodes’s and Obama’s threat rang totally hollow at the time. More significantly, eight years later, Ben Rhodes failed to notice let alone be self-critical of such a shortcoming. And this in spite of the deep faith of liberals, like Barack Obama, who held a progressive view of American history and “the capacity for self-correction” (43) to which Obama (and Rhodes) attributed America’s purported exceptionalism. But what if this purported exceptionalism rested as much on the failure of America to be deeply self-critical and to truly engage in self-correction at a fundamental level?

Louis Menard wrote a review of Rhodes’s book and claimed it traced the evolution of a political junky from an idealist to a realist. Unlike Farrow’s book, Rhode’s memoir is indeed a book in which observation and self-reflection are woven together by a fine writing style, but one which only records faces and clothes and settings when they are directly pertinent to the narrative. But Menard is wrong. The shock is that Rhodes never became disillusioned about his ideals. Tired, certainly. Sometimes depressed. At other times simply resigned. But he is indefatigable in holding onto his ideals. That is perhaps why Obama loved him. That is certainly why Rhodes worshipped Barack Obama.

As with his previous co-authored book with a former congressman, Lee Hamilton, (Without Precedent: Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission), Rhodes’s book is a very inside story, but of the day-to-day crises and pro-active stances of the Obama regime from the campaign through eight years in the White House. During that time, Ben Rhodes began working as a speechwriter and foreign policy advisor for Obama in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President and ended up serving for eight years as deputy national security advisor with oversight over speechwriting, public communications and relations as well as undertaking specific diplomatic missions himself.

During that time, according to Rhodes’s reflections on his service and the Obama administration, the arc of history did not move from idealism to realism but, rather, a realization that “the world (w)as (and is) a place that could – in some incremental way – change.” (421) As he ends his memoir, at “I was a man, no longer young, who – in the zigzag of history – still believed the end of his service to Obama, to the American nation and to his own ideals, in the truth within the stories of people around the world, a truth that compels me to see the world as it is, and to believe in the world as it ought to be.” The book is not about the decline of his ideals, but increasingly focuses on the actual challenges to those ideals and the efforts made to overcome those challenges.

Holbrooke, with his idiosyncratic personal characteristics for a diplomat and his pursuit of realism in the conduct of foreign relations, was Farrow’s flawed hero. Barack Obama is Rhodes’s idol, an idol he did not worship from afar, nor even merely up close to reveal the crevices that began to appear on Obama’s boyish good looks, but one whose mind and heart and guts Rhodes entered into wholly and without reservation, even in the odd moments when he disagreed with his leadership on a particular issue.  Rhodes learned to focus on a small portion of the grains of sand on the earth than on the even greater number of stars in the sky.


With the help of Alex Zisman

The Day I Could Not Get Home

I returned to bed, as I often do when I finish writing in the morning, to get an hour and a half more of sleep. Instead, I awoke 23 minutes later, literally shaking. Actually, 23 minutes had elapsed between the time I left my computer and the time when I reopened it. I remember my dream very well, almost the whole of it.

By way of explanation, I have an abnormal sleep pattern. I sleep fewer hours. When I wake up, I go from a deep sleep to a wide-awake state almost instantly. Between the time I am awake and the time I turn my computer on, perhaps a minute has lapsed. More if I pause for a pit stop.

My REM sleep comes at the beginning of a sleep cycle rather than at the end. Most people begin their sleeping with non-REM sleep. Excuse the technical babble, the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) part of sleep is when a person dreams. When I am at the sleep clinic overnight (I have been there three times and the doctor is scheduling a fourth, this time, for a 24-hour period rather than the usual overnight stay in the sleep clinic), I usually leave at about 3:30-4:00 a.m., though last time, at the request of the technician, I stayed until 6:00 a.m. Because of the positioning of my REM cycle, I rarely remember my dreams.  I don’t mind. I hate dreaming.

I am sure the following has plenty of scientific errors because I have not read up on the subject, but this is my impression of the science of sleep. I have based it on my talks with the sleep technician more than my medical sleep specialist. I used to say that I rarely dreamed. My REM portion of my sleep cycle tends to be shorter – usually 15 minutes compared to a normal period of about 30 (or even 45) minutes. When I am in REM sleep, the graph produced on the EEG machine, the electroencephalograms, shows small but much more frequent waves.

During the REM phase, I exhibit sleep apnea – a very short period when there are no waves at all. Usually, during my REM period, I have about 1 episode of sleep apnea per minute of sleeping.

When I am on a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine at night to ensure more regular breathing, these short sleep interruptions are reduced by 25%. The CPAP machine increases the air pressure in my throat to prevent the collapse of my airway when I breathe by feeding humidified air under pressure through a mask to my throat. It usually stops or reduces snoring. But I do not generally snore. I have stopped using the CPAP machine because the decrease in apnea is too little to offset the inconvenience and discomfort of putting on a sleep mask and taking care of the machine. In any case, my apnea is very mild. And it now seems unlikely, at least to me, that my apnea results from temporary closure of my airways, but is more likely strictly a neurological problem.

My NREM (non-REM) cycle is not abnormal, at least I have not been told it is abnormal, except, if I recall correctly, the deep sleep of the NREM cycle takes five-sixths of a full cycle rather than an average of about two-thirds. Further, I have fewer cycles per night before I wake up, only this is somewhat offset by the 2 or even 3 short naps I take during the day. To simplify, the two columns – and they really are a gross oversimplification – compare the two different NIGHT sleep patterns:

                                        Normal                            Mine

                                        (in minutes)                     (in minutes)

NREM Sleep                   60                                    75

REM sleep                       30 (vary in length)           15

Total sleep cycle (ave.)   90                                     90

Number of cycles/night    5 (or 4 = 7.5 hrs.)            3

Total night sleep          540 min. = 9 hours              270 min. = 4.5 hrs.

I think I have engaged in enough techno-babble in an effort to stall writing about the dream itself. The latter is so vivid in my memory, both in the details and in the emotional effect. I present a very much shortened version.

In the dream, I went out in the morning to explore different parts of the city – the Brickworks where there was an artisan’s market, the stores along Queen St. W., the new park under the Gardiner Expressway (which I have never seen so I am curious about how the real one compares with my imagined park), the ferry across to the island, Fort York. I even got out to the zoo. And other spots. All in a few morning hours. And I do not drive. That is one great advantage of dreams – you cover a great deal more territory than in real life.

The last spot was on Queen St, in Parkdale. Somehow, I had managed to gather a group of people to follow me. We were in a partying mood. I think this scene was influenced by the early scene of the series I started to watch last evening, When They See Us, about the Central Park Five wrongly accused and convicted of raping a female white jogger in 1989.

If you recall, Trump put full page ads in the newspapers advocating that those convicted be given capital punishment. He has never retracted that advocacy, even though the five were freed because the convictions were trumped up and the five teenagers were all exonerated.

In the early scene of the series, young Blacks and Latinos from Harlem in New York City gather together in a festive mood to go into Central Park in New York. I abandoned watching the film because it was too painful to watch the manipulation and threats to which the young boys were subjected by the police, the manipulation of the parents as well, the lies, etc. They had no legal representation when they were being bullied and questioned (lied to). It was torture for me to watch and I went to bed.

In my dream, I do not know how many people collected behind me – perhaps 15 or 20. We went from place to place. In our perambulations around the city, I ran into two medical doctors who had taught at UofT who were friends and they joined the pack. Suddenly, I decided we should all go back to my house for refreshments. As I led them up and down the street where I said I lived, I could not find my house. I was on Robert Street, just north of College. As I went up and down in my vain search, my followers dropped away. Eventually, only the two doctors were left. We were on College Street and I got down on my haunches and wept. I wailed. I cried. I was totally disconsolate. I could not find my home. It had disappeared.

Then I remembered my wife’s phone number. I would call her to ask what happened to our house. I borrowed a cell phone. I did call. She was at home. I said that I had been walking up and down Robert Street looking for our house. It had gone. It had disappeared. “But it is here,” she replied very frightened. “We live on 66 Wells Hill Avenue, not Robert Street.”

I woke up.

If I typed quickly as I usually do – I am a two-finger typist – I would often hit the wrong letter. I was making at least 3-4 mistakes per line. Sometimes I would conk out for a short few seconds and recognize that I had done so because the letter I was typing – say a “c” – would be typed right across the screen: ccccccccccccccccccccccccc. At other times, I would repeat the 3-5 word phrase. It was very hard to keep focused and to keep a moderate rather than my usual fast pace. Even then, sometimes I forgot where the letter was and I would have to quickly look for it. Or I would forget to type a letter. The above should have been written in 20-30 minutes at most. This piece has taken me two hours to write.

Part IV: Bruno – Science, Magic and Memory

In his 1582 volume, Shadows, Bruno openly alludes to the magic statues of Asclepius, seen on medical symbols holding a staff with a serpent wrapped around it. Asclepius was the Greco-Roman god of medicine and son of Apollo, the god who could see through all time – past, present and future. He gave birth to five daughters, each one expressing a different aspect of the healing profession – hygiene and prevention, treatment and recuperation, its process, its signs (e.g. red cheeks) and, last but not least, panacea, the goddess of cure-alls. Asclepius was the god not only of healing but of truth and prophecy as well.

It was those lesser and more hidden features of Asclepius to which Bruno was really referring, for they were about magic while healing was about science. Bruno in his life unequivocally swore absolute obedience to both truth and prophecy. Recall though that Zeus, the chief god, who feared that Asclepius might teach humans immortality, executed him with a thunderbolt. The Catholic Church would use the more mundane means of fire to murder Bruno. Further, unlike the funeral pyre Apollo built for his only true love, Coronis, whom he had murdered in a fit of jealousy, Bruno was burned alive. In contrast, Apollo saved the life of the unborn foetus of his love for Coronis who grew up to be Asclepius. After Asclepius’ medical training under a centaur, he joined Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece before he set up his medical practice. For Bruno, the Golden Fleece would always be both truth and Truth.

And the magic? It was concerned with Truth. Not science but herbs, herbs that could not only heal but could bring the dead back to life. Asclepius learned this magic when he was in a jail cell of King Minos of Cretewhere he was cast because he could not bring the son of the king back to life. The king had murdered his son in a fit of rage. In jail, Asclepius saw the mate of a snake bring her crushed and chopped up partner back to life (hence the two snakes wrapped around the staff of healing that is the symbol of medicine). After first disappointing King Minos, Asclepius learned the art of resurrection. For learning this latter magical art, Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt.

Hence, the reality that medicine is both an art and a science. The art requires intuition and empathy with the other rather than the objectivity and detachment of science. The art requires humility whereas it is the scientific, not the magical side of medicine, employed by itself that can turn doctors into gods. Unfortunately, as we shall see, Bruno’s objectivity made him extremely arrogant while his love of mysticism never seemed to teach him the importance of humility and identification with the problems of the other.

In Shadows, the skill in memory is based on a fundamental division between rules for places or locus, that he calls subjectus, and the image that he calls adjectus. They appear to correspond to what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called the cognitive and the fictional imagination – except Bruno’s names seem counter-intuitive because the fictional imagination would seem to be subjective while the cognitive imagination is objective. However, Bruno calls the latter adjectus, in Latin, ‘to add to,” not objective. Further, subjectus in Latin means “to place under.” The cognitive imagination is indeed subjectus because it begins, as Adam does, with categorization. In contrast, adjectus refers to the fictional imagination, the characterization of which is breaking rather than imposing boundaries.

It seems clear then that cosmology relies on subjectus while mysticism relies on adjectus, the objective world of science and the subjective world of the magically animated imagination respectively. The former characterized Bruno’s Aristotelian inheritance, except that he combined it with empirical observation. For him, the senses and the understanding were two necessary sides of the same activity. Hence, his respect for Aristotle and for his acolyte, Saint Thomas Aquinas, who, however, had framed his memory rules to exclude magic, to exclude the Ars Notoria.

The Dominicans trained Bruno in his skill of memory. Further, that is also why readers generally ignore the credit that Bruno gives to the objective or cognitive imagination because Bruno concentrated on offering much more material on the innovation of the Renaissance and its focus on the occult. That focus was presented in Shadows by the figure of Hermes Trismegistus. Nevertheless, Bruno never backs away from his praise of Aquinas and Aristotle even though he insisted that he went well beyond them.

Thus, in his dialogues, Hermes Trismegistus is in conflict with rationalists like Logifer the Pedant, Vigilius and Erasmus. The works of the former are seen to be akin to religious revelation. Adjectus is unerring, akin to the insights of the Egyptian priests and captured by the image of the rising sun. Later in the 19th century, Hegel would identify subjectus with the setting of the sun at which time the Owl of Minerva appears. The wise Owl of Minerva looks backward in time. In contrast, the rising of the day focuses on adjectus; it is prophetic and announces the world that will be unfolding before our eyes. It captures the Truth because it avoids the fallacious senses.

The great teacher of the art of memory was Giulio Camillo whom Bruno studied in the Dominican monastery. Camillo was a polished Venetian orator, always well-organized and neoclassical in his presentation even when he insisted that the core of his rational system was esoteric and occult. Bruno, on the other hand, even though he had mastered logic and reason, was unrestrained and wild, passionate and inventive and inverted the Camillo memory system into a mystery cult.  The south of Italy, the world of Naples, was envisioned as superseding the Venetian (later Milanese) north.

Astrology offers a cosmological system, but one which does not separate the heavens from the earth as in the Torah, but insists that there is a correspondence between the order of the upper world and that of the lower. Alchemy was another occult “science” for it claimed to be in pursuit of the secret by which one thing could be transformed radically into another. Another pseudo-science developed during the sixteenth century was physiognomy whereby facial characters are used to reveal character – big noses mean that a person is greedy. These were pseudo-sciences because they relied on an admixture of subjectus and adjectus. Bruno insisted that the two methods of memory belonged to two radically different worlds and he did not buy into the Magia Naturalis of the famous magician of the mid-16th century, Giovanni Battista della Porta.

Della Porta distinguished natural from artificial memory. However, the latter, associated with what Bruno called adjectus, was entirely confined to order and system that merely used rooms of pictures, especially those of Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, or the insides of palaces or geometric figures or even human figures as a means of arranging memories in a systematic order. Magic was excluded.

Bruno was possibly most influenced by Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) who had an epiphany and replaced his subjectus memory with a new emphasis on adjectus. He broke the stranglehold of rationalists like Aquinas; Bruno undoubtedly read Agrippa’s manual on magic. This was the real Hermetic secret of memory. Towards the latter part of the 16th century, the occult tradition became more daring.

Since we are largely descended from the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment Talmudists, this romance with the occult may seem strange. Stranger still, why is it that an occultist like Bruno learned to love Jews through the Kabbalah while rationalists from Erasmus to Voltaire found them so repulsive? Instead, Bruno used incantations and the signs of the zodiac, the magic of the alphabet used by Hebrew mystics and the correlation of letters with numbers, to stretch the mind and create perhaps the most powerful expression of the art of memory in history.

“A wheel within a wheel,” but is it the rational will used in service of the imaginative one or is the imaginative wheel subordinated to the cognitive imagination? Bruno specifically cited De auditu kabbalistico as a source of inspiration. In the Torah, and in many rabbinic commentaries, the number 40 has a magical quality. For Bruno it was the number 30. As he wrote, “the Jewish Cabalists reduce to ten sephiroth” the realm that he expanded by a multiple of three. But why not four? After all, the secret name of God is a tetragram. For the Kabbalists, the world has four cardinal points.

The secret is found in cosmology. For the inanimate world is created in the first three days – correcting for slipshod copiers – and the animate world in the next three days. A week consists of 3+3+1 days. A lunar month, however, consists of 4×7 or 28 days. What is the source of 30? Judas sold out for 30 shekels of silver. The secret may be that the figure of four belongs to the realm of rationality. Thus, rational decisions themselves have to encompass four quadrants as follows:

A Frame for comprehending rational decisions:

  Present Future
Abstract Intentions & categorical imperatives
fundamental principles
Goals and ideals
Concrete Particular circumstances Consequential

In contrast, in the world of magic, in the world of evil, three is the predominant number. In the Garden of Eden there were three characters: Adam, Eve and the Serpent. But the tale began with one and then only two. Further, the creation of the world began with two elements, water and wind (air) and from those two, by distillation, we got earth by evaporation and excluding water. With blowing wind and lots of rain, the earth is lit on fire and rises as lightning criss-crosses the heavens.

All systems in all cultures begin with a fundamental duality, a Yin and Yang by which the basics of the world can be understood. That complementary duality becomes a polarity when one pole can be converted to another as we move along a scale with the two opposites as poles rather than two mutually exhaustive realms (Yin and Yang). The two becomes four when one duality is married to another to produce four quadrants. Magic is found in the three and rationality in the four.

In the magical realm of Bruno it works by creating sets of thirty (3 x 2 x 5 (3+2)) = 30 and 30 x 5 = 150. That is Bruno’s magical wheel. Once one understands the basis of the system, once one learns to file everything in terms of this system, then memory becomes relatively easy.

I should have been born in the Middle Ages then I would not have to look up and check everything. Perhaps I too could have married rational and intuitive thought.

Hasa Diga Eemowai – B’haalot’cha Numbers 8:1 – 12:6

Numbers Chapter 11 begins: “And the people were as murmurers, speaking evil in the ears of the LORD; and when the LORD heard it, His anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and devoured the uttermost part of the camp.”

Pantages Chapter 11 begins: “And the people were as blasphemers, speaking of God irreverently and impiously.” For they sang, “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a piece of Ugandan gibberish in the musical, The Book of Mormon. When the people heard it, their funny bones were tickled and their spirit was moved so that they bent over in belly laughs.

No fire came as a result of this sacrilegious music. If Lion King was consecrated to God, The Book of Mormon stole the music and mocked Disney’s feel-good lyrics of “Hakuna Matata.” Without hiding, but putting on full display, The Book of Mormon is overtly a “stealer of sacred things,” of the sacred beliefs of Mormons, of the sacred elevated state of the Lightness of Being of Orlando, Florida, of both Christianity’s teachings of Jesus and Judaism’s teaching of Torah and the Ten Commandments, and, in the end, openly and guilty of the crime of generally stealing what is consecrated to God.

The word “sacrilege” derives from the Latin, sacrilegium, “temple robbery,” and from sacrilegus, “stealer of sacred things.” The word means the profanation of anything sacred and, believe me, nothing seems sacred to the provocateurs, Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez, just as nothing was sacred to Parker and Stone’s TV show, South Park. The musical is scatological, profoundly profane, vulgar, ribald, inappropriate, outrageous, rude and crude, irreverent with absolutely nothing that is politically correct. Boy, is it funny!

The lyrics of “Hasa Diga Eebowai” are as follows:

We’ve had no rain in several days

Ugandans: Hasa Diga Eebowai!

Mafala: And 50% of us have Aids.

Ugandans: Hasa Diga Eebowai!

Mafala: Many young girls here get circumcissed. Their clits get cut right off.

All: Way-oh!

Women: And so we say up to the sky

Ugandans: Hasa Diga Eebowai!
                  Hasa Diga Eebowai!
                  Hasa Diga Eebowai!
                  Hasa Diga Eebowai!

Mafala: Now you try! Just stand up tall, tilt your head to the sky, and list off all the bad things in your life.

Elder Cunningham: Somebody took our luggage away!

 Ugandans: Hasa Diga Eebowai!

Elder Price: The plane was crowded; and the bus was late!

 Ugandans: Hasa Diga Eebowai!

Mafala: When the world is getting you down; There’s no body. When the world is getting you down, There’s nobody else to blame.

Ugandans: Way-oh!

Mafala: Raise your middle finger to the sky; And curse his rotten name! Raise your middle finger to the sky; And curse his rotten name!

Elder Price: Wait. What?

Elder Cunningham: Hasa Diga Eebowai!

Ugandans: Hasa Diga Eebowai!

Elder Cunningham: Am I saying it right?

Elder Price: Excuse me sir, but what exactly does that phrase mean?

Mafala: Well, let’s see… “Eebowai” means “God.” And “Hasa Diga” means… “Fuck You.” So I guess in English it would be, “Fuck you, God.”

Ugandans: Hasa Diga Eebowai!

Elder Price: What?

Mafala: When God fucks you in the butt

Ugandans: Hasa Diga Eebowai!

Mafala: Fuck God right back in His cunt!

Hasa Diga Eebowai!
Fuck you, God!
Hasa Diga Eebowai!
Fuck you, God!

Elder Price: Excuse me, Sir, but you should really not be saying that. Things aren’t always as bad as they seem!

Mafala: Oh really? Well take this fucking asshole, Mtumbo, here. He got caught last week trying to rape a baby!

Elder Price: What? Why?!

Mafala: Some people in his tribe believe having sex with a virgin will cure their AIDS: There aren’t many virgins left, so some of them are turning to babies!

Elder Price: But that’s horrible!

Mafala: I know!

Yet in spite of the incessant f-bombs, the horrors referenced and grossly exaggerated in Uganda, the myopic self-centredness of the leading youthful Mormon elder whose complaints extend to his stolen luggage, the crowded plane and the late bus, this is a sunny upbeat musical. The Torah says: (11:6) “Take the Levites from among the children of Israel, and cleanse them.” The Mormon youthful missionaries are told to take anyone, since 1978, even Blacks, and both cleanse and convert them to have faith in the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

That is done simply by baptism. In the Torah, (11:7) “thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of purification upon them, and let them cause a razor to pass over all their flesh, and let them wash their clothes, and cleanse themselves.”

In Uganda, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are like Eldad and Medad, moving about the Ugandan rather than the Israelite camp, prophesying this time to the Ugandans, for they have a universal message that doubles on the traditional Christian one – Jesus is great and America is great.  In Numbers 11:27, “And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said: ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp’.” In essence, the Mormons have the same role.

The parashah this week is tracked by the plot of The Book of Mormon. Both begin with a departure, the Mormons from their training camp for their missionary work, in Uganda for the two heroes of the story: handsome and tall, blue-eyed self-confident, Elder Price with a beautiful toothpaste smile, and the shlumpy, Jewish-looking, insecure and friendless Mormon, Elder Cunningham. The Israelites begin their trek across the desert, but in a totally opposite state of mind. They are complainers. They bitch and they shrie.  “The same food everyday. We want meat.” The Mormons, whenever doubt or desire creeps into their souls, they are told to repress, not express, their anxieties and neuroses. “Turn it off.” Like a light bulb.

Number 8:1-14 is about the job of “setting souls on fire” which is the task set before the young male Mormon missionaries in Uganda, even though Elder Price had his heart set on the ersatz fantasy land of Orlando. But they no sooner try to do so in Uganda than they bat zero. They must start not only fresh as Mormon males always appear to be, but afresh.

Look at the contrast between the whining and wailing and complaining Israelites and the optimistic Mormons for whom the power of faith and of positive thinking in bred into their bones. Moses was desperate. How could he lead such an ungrateful and ungovernable people? He needed help. Call on the elders, real elders, not ones called elder who are fresh out of missionary training school.

What is the substance in Chapter 11 of Moses’ message to the people?

18 And say thou unto the people: Sanctify yourselves against to-morrow, and ye shall eat flesh; for ye have wept in the ears of the LORD, saying: Would that we were given flesh to eat! For it was well with us in Egypt; therefore the LORD will give you flesh, and ye shall eat.

19 Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days;

20 but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you; because that ye have rejected the LORD who is among you, and have troubled Him with weeping, saying: Why, now, came we forth out of Egypt?’

21 And Moses said: ‘The people, among whom I am, are six hundred thousand men on foot; and yet Thou hast said: I will give them flesh, that they may eat a whole month!

Give them enough so that it comes out of their kishkes, perhaps as dysentery. The shmiel, Elder Cunningham, who had never read the Book of Mormon because it was bor-r-ring, however was a rich fantasist. He repackaged the myths of the Mormon Church in a stew that the Ugandans could grasp and be inspired by. So Eldad (Cunningham) and Medad (Price) went about and among the people. Sarcastically, Medad griped as Moses did, “(11:29) And Moses said unto him: ‘Art thou jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, that the LORD would put His spirit upon them’!”  Medad thought, if Eldad, who was destined to be a follower, could be a prophet, what has this world come to when he, Price, was the one destined to have great success.

11:30 And Moses withdrew into the camp.

And Price withdrew from the field of converting others. Cunningham succeeded where all the straight-laced handsome young men failed. But it turned out initially to be an illusionary success. However, instead of God’s wrath getting so strong that He “smote the people with a very great plague,” those converted by Cunningham turned out to have greater faith in his fantasies than Elder Cunningham had himself.

It’s never too late and Elder Cunningham is saved in turn by the beautiful Nabulungi with the voice of an angel. Just as Moses wed a Cushite woman, and set the gossips voices atwitter, it is clear that Cunningham and Nabulungi, as unlikely it may seem from appearances, are destined for one another. For, as the Lord said, (12:6) “Hear now My words: if there be a prophet among you, I the LORD do make Myself known unto him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream.” It is not the philosopher who thinks in clear and distinct ideas or the Mormon missionaries who wear crisp white shirts and carefully pressed gray trousers, but the fantasist, the dreamer, who captures the greater world in visions who can make this world a better place.

So, too, the scatologists [I know there is no such word] who execrate all things, but with laughter

Part III: Bruno and Kabbalah

I was brought up to believe that the core of Judaism was Halacha – the laws and commandments of the Torah. Giordano Bruno insisted otherwise, that Torah was a tale of magic and myth, letters and numbers. Bruno is a key figure in Hermetic Kabbalah (Cabala or Qabalah) or Hermeticism, the mystical tradition that developed in the West during and after the Renaissance independently of Jewish Kabbalah. There is also a separate tradition of Christian Kabbalah.

Some argue that he was in his time a Hebrew Kabbalist. After all, as I wrote before, he had denied both the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. Further, he was “the only known sixteenth-century philosopher to have been excommunicated from all three major [Christian] confessions: Roman Catholic (Naples, 1576), Calvinist (Geneva, 1579) and Lutheran (Helmstedt, 1589).” Finally, he was stiff-necked and stubborn and lived up to the caricature of the Jew more than almost any Jew one can recall. 

That hypothesis of Bruno as secretly a Jew is perhaps contradicted by Bruno’s end – he willingly went to his death byfire on a wooden pyre. Jews generally sought to avoid such a fate. Bruno, in the end, was a Christian because he virtually deliberately died for what he believed. Most Jews, even if they converted, continued to be Jews and did not need martyrdom to prove it, even as they were often martyred in pogroms and even though a number of Jews were martyred because they refused to be converted. But generally it was not because they went out of their way to confront the Inquisition as Bruno seems to have done. The thesis is also contradicted by his attributions, namely to the vast literature ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, the named author of the Hermetic Corpus, who knit together the beliefs of the Greek and Egyptian mystery religions.

However, Bruno did deny holding the heretical beliefs for which he had been charged. But no sooner did he do so than he then used his formidable intellect to undercut the arguments of his accusers, thereby clearly indicating that he was willing to say anything they demanded, but that he was unwilling to surrender his commitment to his own beliefs.

Bruno was a systems thinker who did not write systematically. But he did combine his cosmology and physics with psychology and ethics into a systematic expression of neo-Platonism that he probably learned from the Florentine Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499). Ficino’s patron was Cosimo de’ Medici, thereby connecting us back to Machiavelli. Ficino translated all of Plato’s works from Greek into Latin by 1469. The neo-Platonism can be traced back to Plotinus, a Greek philosopher who, in his Enneads (CE270), insisted that the world was based on three principles: the One, the intellect and the soul. We find the same neo-Platonic influences in the Jewish Kabbalah tradition, particularly in Hasidism.

In Bruno, the intellect and the soul were the two opposite manifestations of the One, an unequivocal articulation of the Neoplatonist view of the world’s ensoulment. This inheritance suggests that Bruno was as sceptical of the modern notion of progress as he was of the traditional tenets of Christianity. After all, he taught that ideas oscillate between extremes, a belief, common to many. However, thought was in constant internal tension rather than seeking a balance at an inertial natural point. This resulted in dialectic in search of the absolute, but encountering failure at each new level when the contradictions become known and incorporated into self-consciousness at an even newer level.

There were other assertions of Bruno that distinguished him from the Jewish mystical tradition. Sometimes he followed the target of Josephus’ criticism. Bruno attributed the story of Exodus in the Torah to an inversion of an Egyptian narrative. At other times, Bruno called the Torah itself the Kabbalah. This superficial facsimile of a paradox is explained by scholars to be a result of Bruno’s efforts to incorporate Jewish oral lore and to turn the tale of the crucifixion of Christ into a Kabbalistic tragedy. At the same time, he tried to hide his literally “outlandish” theology from the Inquisition. Jewish truths, however, were embedded in universal revelation, some of them directly. An example was Job, for the theme of Job’s seemingly unwarranted suffering, according to Bruno, could be traced back to the Chaldeans. After all, Job had actually lived in the Land of Uz.

As a result, Bruno had no difficulty in justifying to himself his syncretic pattern of incorporating Holy Scripture with Kabbalah and the ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and the ancient Egyptian and Greek mystery religions. In his vision, one of the four principles of corporeality is the Universal Soul.

In the Jewish Kabbalah, the human soul has three elements: nefesh, ru’ach and neshamah. The nefesh is the given, our DNA, the instincts and appetites we inherit that correspond to that portion of the Universal Matter assigned to each individual. Ru’ach, our ability to distinguish right from wrong, develops based on our education and experience as our DNA interacts with the world around. Neshamah (נשמה) is the higher soul distinctive to humanity and is related to the purest form of the Universal Intellect. That can be directly related to God as present in each of us. 

The Universal Soul is closest to what Christians called the Holy Spirit that gives us our character, both ethical and cognitive. In Christianity, the Holy Spirit, as the only active principle, operates through grace. However, if it is embedded within the material world, as in Bruno and the tradition of the Kabbalah, then the interaction between an individual’s material being and his or her environment enables us to understand human initiative and creativity rather than any reliance on an external agent.  

In Jewish Kabbalah, in addition to nefesh, ru’ach and neshamah, chayyah, the awareness of the divine, is possessed only by a few. Yechida, full union with God, is realized only by the most enlightened. Bruno considered these same “rare few” creative geniuses were both divine and heroic, inspired by “a superior light” or “love” in The Heroic Frenzies. 

As I indicated in my opening and as I will elaborate in my final remarks on his memory palace, this movement upwards can be enhanced by memory to enable the soul to move from multiplicity towards unity, and, not surprisingly, to move back to comprehend multiplicity within an overarching unity. In the Kabbalist tradition, it is this that makes prophecy possible (ru’ach hadkodesh), but is also the source that provides joy on shabbat (neshama yeseira) and on the day of a bar or bat mitzvah (neshama kedosha).

One major difference is that the idea of reincarnation enters into Hasidic Judaism after the Renaissance, but has no parallel track in Bruno. On the other hand, the steps to uniting with the soul of God were similar, including scepticism concerning any objective or scientific conclusions and the belief that faith and revelation are superior to the intellect. In Bruno, this meant rising above subjectus, separation and categorization, into a realm where the effort can be made to reconcile opposites.

On the other hand, astrology, the linkage between the movement of the heavenly bodies that hold sway over an individual’s destiny, is a central element in the Hermetic tradition. In Fisino, “there is absolute continuity between the old magic and the new. Both rest on the same astrological presuppositions; both use in their methods the same groupings of natural substances; both employ talismans and invocations; both are pneumatic magic, believing in the spiritus as the channel of influence from the above to below. Finally, both magic and astrology are integrated into an elaborate philosophical context. The magic of Picatrix [an ancient Arabic magical handbook Ghâyat al-Hakîm presented in a framework of philosophy (and translated into Latin in 1256); and Ficino’s natural magic is fundamentally related to his Neoplatonism.” (Yates 1964, 81) In Israel today, it is estimated that 11% of Jewish Israelis take astrology seriously.

The inheritors of the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition assailed the traditional clergy or Reform, Conservative and even Orthodox rabbis. Bruno even more vigorously criticized the clerical caste and monks imbued with “a foul-smelling melancholy.” Laws and regulations were needed by the masses to assist them because they could not achieve enlightenment, but one did not achieve enlightenment through obedience to laws. This mystical tradition traced its roots to Ezekiel and to the 12th century where illustrious rabbis of mysticism lived in Provence in France (Moses Nahmanides and Rabad of Posquières) and the Zohar that appeared in Spain. By the time of Bruno, the centre of this Jewish mystical tradition had migrated to Safed in Israel and was in the hands of Moses Cordovero (1522-70), Ari Isaac Luria (1534-72) and Chaim Vital (1542-1620). Bruno never traveled to Spain or Palestine and there is no evidence of contact between Bruno and these Jewish mystics.

Yet the two traditions arrived at overlapping positions and conceptions (such as the use of the Heavenly Palace discussed in the next blog) through parallel tracks from a distant vanishing point. The ten divine sefirot or emanations of God imitate those of Plotinus. Meditation, a focus on the various names of God, meditation and visualization (yechidim in Hasidism) are common to both mystical traditions. The goal in Hasidism is purity to enable a return and reunion with God through God’s presence (Shekhinah). Bruno would make his most important contribution via visualization and the art of memory that I will take up in the next blog. 

To be continued.

Part IIC: Giordano Bruno and the Four Causes

In the Aristotelian view and in Bruno, there are four causes: material, efficient, formal and final. In his work, Cause Principle and Unity, Giordano Bruno not only challenged the cosmology of both Aristotle and its Christian and Jewish adaptations, but set out to shatter the whole world view that unfolded from the Aristotelian characterization of these causes.

For Aristotle, God is the first cause. Why? Because God is the final cause, the destination of a world seeking to settle into a natural order. It is a teleological view of the world. Bruno follows Aristotle in defining the final cause as the perfection of the universe. However, there is no natural pre-established order. Just as the world is Becoming rather than Being, God, too, is Becoming rather than Being. God is, “He who I shall be.” God is not complete but is He who reveals Himself over time. Thus, though perfection is the final cause, perfection, in contrast to Aristotle, does not exist.

Aristotle had a conception of potentiality and actuality. Potentiality is the possibility things were said to possess while actuality is the realization of the potential. Just as Being precedes Becoming in Aristotle, actuality is the activity, motion or change that fulfills what is already potential. Guidance counsellors who sit with students and insist they must discover who they really are, what they really have the potential to be, then work to realize that potential, are acting as Aristotelians. In that sense, the students have a possibility, but have to exert effort or will to make that possibility an actuality. On the other hand, since humans are animate beings, their destiny is built into them. Only one actuality can result from fulfilling a potentially. There is a necessary connection between possibility and actuality.

In contrast, in the case of inanimate matter, such as the water that lay over the deep, an external agency was required to give inanimate material a form. Copper piping is a possible outcome to giving form to copper ore, but this is but one of many possibilities. Further, not only does the agency belong to another, but so too does the final destination, though the possibilities are finite dependent on the potentiality of the material.

In Bruno, the marble of the statue and its form were constituents; hence, they were principles, the marble being the material, the form the formal principle. The other causes, by contrast, were extrinsic. A sculptor was the efficient cause of a statue who made it into what it became. He did so with a particular goal, e.g, David, an end, a final cause, in mind. Neither the sculptor nor his purpose were constituents of the finished piece. Analogously, the Universal Soul and Universal Matter were the two principles immanent in all things, whereas the Universal Intellect was the efficient cause of all things and so extrinsic to them. It also operated in accordance with a final and therefore extrinsic cause: the perfection of the universe as a goal rather than a given.

Christians read Genesis as setting out God’s redemptive plan for His creation. Under the influence of Aristotle, Christians read the Biblical text as a story of the effort to re-establish the natural order of the universe. When an external agent gives form to inanimate material, that party must do the best it can to fulfill its potential in giving shape to material. That is how perfection is achieved. However, in Bruno, there is no natural cosmological order; order is not only created but it is creativity that establishes order. The world begins in chaos and only God or the Universal Intelligence gives it form. In the process, as in Aristotle, the destination of this world is perfection. However, in Bruno, that perfection always remains a possibility and never an actuality, otherwise all potentiality would evaporate.

God’s creative activity in the Torah is about putting in place that which is good, not that which is either better or best. The language is about satisfaction, not perfection. Yet, in his own Commentary, Rabbi Gunther Plaut wrote that, “However one interprets the nature of God – as person or as process, as individual reality or as generalized principle – there are three basic ideas which the contemporary reader can share with biblical man and which are implicit in Genesis.

THAT God, as Father or Creative Force, provides all creation with purpose and that therefore to understand God means to understand one’s own potential;

THAT God, as Lawgiver, validates the principle of justice and righteousness which must govern the affairs of men;

THAT God, as Redeemer, guarantees the ultimate goals of existence and enables man to find meaning in his life.” (pp. 21-2)

God instills purpose right at the point of creation in humans. God provides the rules of justice to enable good governance. God is also the guarantor of fulfillment so that it is only by and through God that a person can realize his potential. This is a religious version of Aristotelianism.

In Bruno, purpose is discovered; it is not a given. The laws of nature that provide the rules are a result of the interaction of unformed matter (water or the deep) and are not a unilateral divine product. Thus, the laws of nature too come into being and are not a given. Finally, there are no guarantees, by God or anyone else. Results depend on what an individual brings to the table, the environment and how the two interact in relation to the divine force.

In Bruno, Plaut’s manifestations of God need not be. Bruno would also question Plaut’s statement about purpose. This is because Bruno gives a different meaning to efficient, formal and even final causes.

In the Bible, there are two sides to God’s agency. On one side, God’s hand gives shape to the world. On the other side, God’s word determines the form or categorization in understanding things. Classes, species, genera – all definitions and rules, including the discovery of the laws of nature, come about via words and language. Thus, since humans have both hands and language, they are partners with God in giving shape to the world. Bruno calls God’s word the Universal. Unlike Aristotelians, where God is transcendent and external to this world, for Bruno, the Intellect is the formative and organizing force which operates from the depth of nature.

By the 19th century, this would become Darwin’s theory of evolution, for Darwin married survival to upward and onward movement and change. Hence, though embedded fully in nature itself as process, the efficient cause is clearly temporal and mediates between the formal structures created and the chaos of matter. The laws of nature are the result. This process can provide humans with ethical and legal norms, but humans can use language as well and can determine among themselves the ethical and legal norms to govern their conduct.

This is radically different than Aristotelian teleology and the conception of potentiality and actuality. Why then did Rabbi Plaut as a Reform rabbi echo Aristotle? Recall, he wrote, “That God, as Father or Creative Force, provides all creation with purpose and that therefore to understand God means to understand one’s own potential.” This clearly harks back to the Aristotelian version of Genesis wherein God provides what is potential and it becomes the human responsibility to make it actual. Nachmanides, claimed that on the first day, God’s creative act produced the first form and matter that constitutes the undifferentiated sky and earth and, thereby, the potentiality out of which actual different objects arise. The issue is whether potentiality refers to establishing possibilities or is the actuality contained wholly within the potential?

However, there is no potential/actual language used in the Torah text. Further, matter as water exists as does wind or air as an expression of God. The sky and the earth are not potential undifferentiated realms, but a division of the whole cosmos into two radically opposite realms. In terms of purpose, the goal is not perfection, but hope. God is hope. God is He who reveals Himself over time and in time, not because of a pre-existing imprint, but because creativity is applied to the imprint we inherit. Bruno went a long way in reading the Hebrew text as it is written rather than as an expression which needed to be wrapped in Aristotelian principles to be understood.

Bruno does capture the essence of Nature characteristic of the Torah as well as modern scientific conceptions. Reality is a unitary process in which matter is expressed as both content and form, but, in the end, it is not a singular perfection, but a packed world with a variety of species and genera. “Be fruitful and multiply;” that is God’s mission to humanity.

Obviously, this can only be an introduction to a very small part of Bruno’s cosmology. What I have tried to demonstrate is how Bruno escaped both the Aristotelian vice grip as well as the Christian redemptive portrait to paint a vision of the cosmos that was closer both to the biblical text and our contemporary understanding of nature wherein matter is the constituent principle of reality. Matter and soul, therefore, are but two sides of the same thing viewed from two opposite perspectives. Further, matter itself is divisible into the sensible, what we now think of as matter expressed in separate and specific entities, and the intelligible expression that captures the unity in things, a unity expressed at different levels. Here again, the separating and uniting, the extensive and intensive, are viewed as two aspects of the same thing. Matter given form always includes corporeality and incorporeality.

How did Bruno make that breakthrough? One thesis is that he did so by understanding the art of the Renaissance in which linear perspective played such an important part. To realistically portray space and depth in the paintings of the sixteenth century, a vanishing point on a two-dimensional surface was identified as the means of giving the painting a unity.

Bruno is a dialectical thinker who conceives the world as a unity of opposites where the divine is expressed everywhere and in everything as contradictions – eternity and instant, point and extension or body, maximum and minimum, matter and energy in our contemporary parlance. Each contradiction is resolved only to posit a new one. The process is never ending.

Michael Greenstein sent me a reference to show how Bruno was not only influenced by art but in turn influenced one of the most important novelists of all time, James Joyce. (Cf. Joseph C. Voeiker (1976) “‘Nature it is’: The influence of Giordano Bruno on James Joyce’s Molly Bloom,” James Joyce Quarterly: 14:1, Fall, 39-48.)

Let me offer you a few extracts, noting that it is clearly not coincidental that Molly Bloom in Catholic Dublin was Jewish. “Joyce’s women live in close contact with their senses…women…are flowing rivers and spinning earthballs, disguises for Nature, whom Joyce deployed in his life-long war with the proponents of Grace.” Joyce borrowed his conception of Nature from Bruno, wherein Nature is at once an eternal unchanging substance and, paradoxically, is expressed as ever changing, both as spirit comprising all possibilities, as multiple existences, and matter, that which is divided and re-divided from an initial, formless, indeterminate and undifferentiated unity, what I have called, and the Torah dubs, the Deep. Women, therefore, for Joyce, as expressions of Nature are formless rivers and formed spinning earthballs.

God is the divine immanent (as distinct from transcendent) intelligence in Nature which gives form to the inchoate and chaotic material fluid but unformed world. God, then is unformed material and formed substance, atoms, that occupy minimal space, and, at the same time, energy that occupies maximal space. “The least, therefore, is paradoxically the greatest; the trivial is the profound.” And that which is least becomes the most so Bruno is multiplied in a myriad of forms in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. As Bill Kuhns wrote, Bruno appears as Saint Bruno as well as Bruno Nowlan and other figures.

As Bruno argued in his Fifth Dialogue in his cosmology volume Cause Principle and Unity, “It is profound magic to know how to draw out the contrary after having found the point of union.” And it will be the creativity of what he referred to as magic that we can grasp and control the process. That takes us to the inverse of cosmology, the Kabbalah.

To be continued.

One of the notes that I received back on Bruno’s cosmology is the following, which I found worth including as an addendum.

There might be a way out from the apparent conflict between Aristotle prime elements and Torah / Physics / Plato attributes of God.

Aristotle’s prime elements: earth, water, air and fire represent, in my opinion, four basic states of matter: solid, liquid, gas and plasma.

First sentences of Torah describe manifested (revealed) attributes of God, or observable World in Physics:
Bereshit in Torah = Time in Physics. As you mentioned; the starting moment necessarily implies the preceding and following moments – time continuum. 
Heaven in Torah = Space in Physics
Earth and Water in Torah = Matter in Physics
Wind in Torah = Movement or Motion in Physics
Light in Torah = Energy in Physics

Therefore those distinctions should not be confused: one deals with modes of matter and the other with domains of existence. This wider view is also incomplete. According to Spinoza and to some degree Plato and Plotinus, those few manifested attributes of the World that we relate to, are insignificant to comprehend infinite attributes of God.

On Being versus Becoming relationship I would lean towards the view that Becoming is a part of Being but it is like an egg and chicken dilemma. Probably it is better to avoid a hard ruling on this subject not to become a victim of a paradox or an arbitrary overreach.

Bruno’s assertion that “the cosmos, in general, was not finite but consisted of an infinite number of solar systems like ours” got him executed by the Inquisition. We can see clearly in the light of last 10 years discovery (mostly by Kepler space telescope launched in 2009) of thousands exoplanets, that his assertion was correct. In the conservative estimates there are about 30 billion planets orbiting home stars in our galaxy and there are over 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe.

Part IIB: Bruno’s Cosmology – Aristotle, Christianity and Judaism

Let me be more systematic (more Aristotelian) and more grounded. Initially I will divide different views of cosmology initially into two very contrasting perspectives, the first I call a Christian religious version of Aristotle; the second I dub Jewish. As we shall see, the Christian view is not actually Aristotelian. Further, the Jewish view is not mainstream to Judaism. Jewish theologians in the Middle Ages from Saadia Gaon (882-942) to Abraham ibn Daud (1110-1180) and Moses ben Maimon, Maimonides or the Rambam (1135-1204) were also Aristotelians. Further, I have dubbed the second column “Jewish” even though it is a blending of Torah and Plato. I will elaborate upon that in the section on Kabbalah.

The Christian Perspective The Jewish Perspective
The universe was created out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). The material of water existed but had to be given form by a divine spirit (wind or air).
The universe was created at a specific moment of time. “in the beginning of God’s creating” – Genesis starts with a process already underway.
The world was created by an act of divine will. The world was created, by the hand of God working through wind on water, and through God’s words combined with air that resulted in light and the heavenly sphere.
Prior to creation, there was nothing. There has always been something, even if it was chaotic and unordered.
Time comes into being with creation. Even at the moment of the Big Bang, time existed, for a moment can only exist in time.

By the Middle Ages, the Jewish tradition had largely accepted the premises in interpreting Torah from both Muslim and Christian civilization. I mentioned the tenth century Jewish scholar, Saadia Gaon, the head of the Babylonian Academy of Sura. He wrote The Book of Beliefs and Opinions. It is self-evident in the first paragraph of that book that the Gaon is an Aristotelian rationalist. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel – the True, in the sense of evidently true, who verifies for rational beings the existence of their souls with certain truth, through which they find their sense perception to be sound, and know their knowledge to be accurate. As a result, errors are removed, and doubts are eliminated; arguments are clarified and proofs established. May He be extolled over the highest and most genuine praise.”

In the above, humans are the only rational beings whose souls search for certainty. This is not the case in Bruno. Heavenly bodies belonged to one of three genera of rational beings that populated the universe since they operated in accordance with a final cause. Humans, on the other hand were rational in proceeding from one thought to another and reasoned in order to execute their roles but never arrive at certainty. The other genus of rational beings are demons which were rational beings with rarefied bodies made up either of pure aether or different mixtures of aether and air or earth.

Space was the aether, the continuum existing throughout the universe. Using corporeal water, the aether binds corporeal atoms together. Everything is located in aether as spiritus, the motionless immaterial medium through which the soul as the animating principle works. 

In the Christian view, God is identified with Truth with a capital “T”. God is the ultimate source of verification for any truth. Humans qua rational can discover that truth, a truth which accepts the existence of souls whereas in Bruno, there is no certainty for humans. Against the scepticism of Erasmus and Bruno, in the Christian view, sense perception is verified as sound and as the foundation for developing convictions which are certain. Further, such truths are verified by rational arguments and proofs.

God had decreed laws of nature, but was not bound by them. Further, though the Christian view was Aristotelian, Aristotle was sometimes wrong. The world was not “eternal according to reason” and “finite according to faith.” It was not eternal, full stop. This was rationalism at odds with Aristotelian rationalism which was revived in the 9th century and became predominant by the 12th century. The pure Aristotelian propositions differed from either choice in the above five rows.

  1. The universe is eternal and was never created.
  2. Hence, there was no creation of the universe at a specific point in time.
  3. The world qua eternal was not created as an act of divine will.
  4. To even suggest that before creation there was nothing employs the concept “before,” clearly implying that time existed before creation; the above assertion is self-contradictory.
  5. To assert that something comes to be presumes that there was a time before when it was not and therefore time cannot come to be with God’s creation.

Which of these three positions is the accurate one, Aristotle, the Christian or the Jewish view? Abraham ibn Daud wrote ha-Emunah ha-Ramah, The Exalted Faith, in 1160, decades before Moses Maimonides wrote The Guide for the Perplexed. Both were Aristotelians. Both denied the previous precepts about creativity and cosmology in favour of the Aristotelian version. Both accepted the Aristotelian doctrine that the world consists of substance and accident, that is, ontologically substance trumps accident and accident is defined in terms of substance rather than viewing substance and accident as two perspectives on the same item or event. The implication: Being precedes Becoming, in contrast to the right column above that I have dubbed Jewish which focuses on Becoming as basic.

To be continued with a discussion of the four causes

Part IIA: Giordano Bruno’s Cosmology

At the beginning of the 20th century, The Catholic Encyclopedia described Bruno’s beliefs as follows: “Bruno’s system of thought is an incoherent materialistic pantheism. God and the world are one; matter and spirit, body and soul, are two phases of the same substance; the universe is infinite; beyond the visible world there is an infinity of other worlds, each of which is inhabited; this terrestrial globe has a soul; in fact, each and every part of it, mineral as well as plant and animal, is animated; all matter is made up of the same elements (no distinction between terrestrial and celestial matter); all souls are akin (transmigration is, therefore, not impossible). This unitary point of view is Bruno’s justification of ‘natural magic’.” 

Other than the last sentence as well as the negative spin, the summary is a pretty accurate summary of Bruno’s cosmology. Further, although there is some overlap, it was because of his cosmological convictions and not his hermetic mysticism that he was executed. As was the pattern in Germany during the Holocaust, the Inquisition kept meticulous records. During the trial, the Notary not only noted the questions Bruno was asked and his often very long answers, but every scream he let out when he was tortured. In 1593, when he was transferred from Venice, where he was captured, to the prison of the Holy Office in Rome, the Office of the Inquisition prepared a detailed and very extensive analysis of his writings that was put before the court, a record which we know only indirectly because the original records were lost.

Based on that evidence and analysis, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine boiled the heretical doctrines that he allegedly held down to the following:

  1. His rejection of “two real and eternal principles of existence” that were separate entities, soul and matter.
  2. His doctrine of both an infinite universe and infinite worlds in conflict with the narrative of Creation, for Bruno’s doctrine, in characterizing the world and the number of worlds as both infinite, denied the infinite power of God.
  3. Perhaps the most heretical of all, Bruno held that every reality, including all bodies, resides in the eternal and infinite soul of the world; there are no bodies without a spirit and some kind of intelligence.
  4. Bruno’s belief that substance is eternal and, though it transforms what exists, it creates nothing.
  5. The astrological assumption that terrestrial movement was influenced by the changes in the arrangements of the stars (astrology); though widely held by the populace, astrology was antithetical to Catholic science.
  6.  Bruno’s designation of stars as “messengers and interpreters of the ways of God.”
  7. Bruno’s embodiment thesis that both the “sensory and intellectual” soul are earthly.
  8. Bruno’s critique of the Thomist belief that, in humans, the soul, an independent spiritual reality, was held captive in the body.

Unlike Plato, for Aristotle the soul, though different from that of body, was embodied and not separable from the body. Humans get their individuality by the way the soul interacts with a body in a particular person. The highest function of the soul can be found in humans, that is the intellect that sits atop the appetite (the nutrient aspect) and the sensitive, both of the latter common to all animals. Bruno, however, argued that not only was the soul embodied, but that there were many more aspects to the soul than animation, sensitivity and intellect. Bruno found the tripartite division of the soul false to nature and, further, that animals possessed their own intellects and, in some ways, were wiser than men because of how their bodies had specialized.

Bruno cited the spider as an example. The critical difference in humans is that they have hands, or, in modern evolutionary theory, appositional thumbs. Differences in intellect depend on different configurations of bodies. There is thus no singular hierarchy such as the great order of being. As Montaigne would also claim, natives or indigenous peoples (that explorers had so recently discovered) were in many senses intellectually superior to their European counterparts. The religious beliefs of our First Nations were closer to and derived from observing nature closely. In Bruno, they were more akin to animals, not in any negative sense; their intellects so dominated their animal bodies that there was no internal struggle but they could move and act intuitively.

Bruno’s cosmology began with his amendments to the heliocentric Copernican theories. His vision of the created world stood in stark contrast to that of Aristotle who taught that the heavenly bodies were eternal and moved to try to return to their “natural” place in the universe and, of course, to the Ptolemaic vision of the universe. Aristotle taught that the universe was finite wherein there was a superlunary region made up of aether that was incorruptible. Bruno inverted both theses. The world came into being and was not eternal. Further, that world was infinite consisting of many solar systems.

In the Torah, as God is beginning to establish order out of chaos, He already has water and wind (air) with which to give form to the world. In the beginning of God’s creation of heaven and earth and darkness over the face of the deep with wind sweeping over the water, God creates light and divides the light by a process of separation from the dark.

Genesis Chapter 1 בְּרֵאשִׁית

א  בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
ב  וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם. 2 Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.
ג  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר. 3 And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.

Do you translate בְּרֵאשִׁית as “in the beginning,” implying a starting point, or do you translate it, as in the Plaut version, “When God began to create,” or, even more clearly expressing process, “In the beginning of God’s creating”? The latter most clearly emphasizes a process already underway rather than a beginning point. What seems clear and unequivocal, in spite of Jewish and non-Jewish interpretations that God created everything, is that earth, made up of water, the deep, pre-existed. God gave it form. How? By wind, or the primary element of air which came from God and which swept over the waters of the deep.  This was also Bruno’s thesis.

In other words, the world comes into being and is not itself eternal. It comes into being as a result of two substances, water, which exists independent of God, and air or wind which comes from God and is used to give form to the world. If God is eternal, then wind or air is eternal, as is water which acquires its form as a result of God’s breath. Then the world as such is a finite created entity. Of the two basic substances, entities which are characterized by extension, water is not divine while wind or air is. Further, God did not create the world ex nihilo. (See Plaut’s first footnote in Genesis.)

This is the foundation of Bruno’s cosmology. Contrast this with Aristotle and the Christian (and Jewish) theologians under Aristotle’s sway. In Aristotle, there were four, not two, prime elements: earth, air, fire and water. In the cosmology of Aristotle that Bruno rejected, earth and water are at the centre. Revolving around the Earth are concentric circles of two other sublunary elements, air and fire, beyond which can be found the inner sphere of the sun, moon and planets and the outer sphere of the stars. It is a world depicted as four concentric circles.

For Bruno, as stated above, there are only two basic elements, water and wind or air. “Water is that which produces union, density, thickness and gravity.” Water is the Universal Matter which, when combined with the Universal Soul which is air or wind as an expression of God, as an expression of divine action, results in the universe. From a different angle, earth and water were two sides of the same thing, with earth representing contraction or solidity resulting from the wind evaporating the water. It is the non-divine residue of water which is characterized by solidity or minimal extension rather than liquid indefinite extension.

It is as if Bruno had discovered that the material universe was based on two expressions of the same thing, matter as condensed energy that occupies minimal space, corporeal matter without intelligence, and energy that views the same entity as occupying the maximum space available and is both incorporeal and intelligent. In other words, Bruno depicts a version of Einstein’s E= m. Such a view is consistent with envisioning the creator God as dealing with pre-existing water and his own breath. Through distillation and condensation, the earth below is created. The evaporated water combined with air becomes fire, which, like air, and unlike water and earth, is incorporeal. In other words, solid items are the residue that makes up earth. Earth represented spatial contraction. Water was a continuum characterized by the principle of corporeal extension. Bodies consisted of two or more dimensionless atoms bound together by water.

To sum up, air or wind remaining from the divine giving form to the deep also results in fire when combined wit,h rather than considered separate from, water.  Then there was light. Water and air are primary. Earth and fire are secondary. Earth was made up of atoms, not microscopic entities like the atoms of Democritus and Epictetus or modern atoms that can be “split,” but indivisible entities because their circumferences and diameters were equal.

In sum, as in Thales, water was the Universal Matter. Air was the Universal Soul. Combine water and air and the result is the Universal Intellect that provides any body with an animating spirit or gives the soul fire. Distill out the water and the result is earth.

“God said, ‘Let there be light’.” (Genesis 3) We have a three-step movement. Step 1 depicts what we begin with. Water exists outside of God. Wind (ruah) is one expression of God. Wind or air working on water results in the solid earth as a residue, the second step. As the residue settles out, and the water evaporates, the divine element remaining combined with air is fire. Unlike earth which results from God giving form to the world through wind, fire comes into existence as a result of the word. God speaks and there is light. Evaporated water or mist combined with the word rather than hand of God resulted in fire, which, as we shall see in the next section on the kabbalah, represents the soul governing all things.

Finally, because the universe was infinite and not finite for Bruno, all possibilities and manifestations were possible over time. The daily Ptolemaic rotation of the firmament around the Earth was an illusion, a product of the earth being round and rotating on its own axis as it circled the sun. The cosmos, in general, was not finite but consisted of an infinite number of solar systems like ours.

To be continued