This post is part of the series “Scientific Naturalism and Rationality Meets Judaism“.

Tears for Meshiah

I have a lot of ideas pending for this blog. I think I will write them all down only next week, once I am already out of the Yeshiva. Now I want to share one experience I had yesterday at a wedding. I sat next to a man who is one of the best younger teachers here, I think he is approximately my age. He is very devoted to Judaism and is almost like a “walking library”, so to speak, and a very interesting person to talk to. Call him “Shlomo” for the sake of this post (fake name).

During the wedding we all got quite tipsy and as it sometimes happens, Shlomo got very emotional and existential (in a very Jewish way, see below). You know, this situation where you drink a little too much alcohol in a company of close friends, emotions may start become overwhelming. Shlomo cried. His eyes were in tears and his voice trembled. I could feel his pain. I was touched by his emotion very deeply. Shlomo is a first-generation American. His parents and grandparents were holocaust survivors. The pain of war echoed in his tears. The bottom line of his existential suffering was: Where is Meshiah? We want Meshiah now! We will never stop believing in God. We will never stop studying Torah! But we want Meshiah to come now! Haven’t we suffered enough while waiting for Meshiah for 3000 years? We haven’t forgotten God!

I don’t really know what to make of it. On the one hand I am deeply impressed at the eternal belief in a paradise-like future promised by the coming of Meshiah. I am myself quite optimistic of the future, my version of the Meshiah being a successful AGI or something along these lines. In Judaism the promise of Meshiah is intertwined with all the suffering that our ancestors have experienced throughout history. Meshiah is viewed as the final redemption of the Jews (and not only Jews). Once Meshiah comes all will change for the better. However, the belief in Meshiah contains so many surrealistic elements to it that I can’t wrap my head around the fact that there indeed exist smart, intelligent and even wise people (a lot of them!) who take the prospect of Meshiah with total seriousness. After feeling Shlomo’s emotion I no longer can doubt the sincerity of this belief. It is totally 100% sincere. His words still echo in my brain. “I will not die before Meshiah comes!” screamed Shlomo and bursted into tears.

Normally I would take this as delusional. But Shlomo isn’t delusional. That would be a wrong conclusion. He has a conceptual framework to understand the world. A conceptual framework to deal with suffering. An optimistic one and an encouraging one. It is not an existential crisis of the form “The end of the world is coming tomorrow”, instead it is an existential crisis of the form “The world will be a paradise in a matter of minutes as soon as Meshiah comes. Why hasn’t it happened yet?”. I am all for having this kind of existential crisis (a “positive” one) myself, but NOT at the expense of a truthful picture of the world. Truthful for me.

The contradiction I experienced was that on the one hand I totally understood the pain of Shlomo and I felt it with him. I also have relatives who were killed by Nazis. I also want everything to turn out well in the future and I do believe that it is possible. On the other hand part of my brain went “The day I will take the promise of Meshiah as literally and as wholeheartedly as Shlomo, in the eyes of the present-day-me I will be a delusional fanatic, and I am committed to do everything in my power to stay away from that”.

That’s all I can say. I will leave it to my readers to see what to make of this (“paradox”?).

12 replies
  1. Dominic Reichl
    Dominic Reichl says:

    “Truthful for me.” Although I appreciate the sentiment underlying this relativistic spin, I do think it is false. Groups of people have different conceptual frameworks, yes, but they are not epistemologically incommensurable (see Davidson’s paper on conceptual schemes). Therefore, “truthful for me” belongs into the category of undue intellectual humility. More specifically, if we have two different frameworks for making predictions about the world, we can use probability theory to determine which framework is better.

    Also, what’s the use of an overly optimistic framework when all it does is constantly make you suffer the pain of failing to fit reality? It’s like an ugly chick who is sincerely convinced that she will model for Victoria’s Secret one day: would you rather admire her “strong spirit” and optimism, or pity the suffering it’s causing her? Delusion is the proper term here.

    Reply
    • Vadim
      Vadim says:

      Thanks for the reference, looks like something I need to read. I am coming to think that religious statements need to be taken as descriptions of a certain type of psychological coupling with the world which is different from epistemology. Remember my post about how acrobatics teacher gives weird advice of the form “Once you jump, a string is attached to your chest and someone pulls that string up” and you said that when squadding you should imagine as if you are ripping the floor into pieces? That’s the level at which religion operates. Or at least its status is similar with respect to phenomenology and epistemology. I can imagine some bodybuilder shouting with a lot of emotion “Tomorrow I will rip the feaking floor into PIECES!!!” how about that? Now, of course there is a point when it will become delusional, but where exactly is it…? Just putting it out there. Could it be just a totally different level of relating to the world?

      Reply
      • Dominic Reichl
        Dominic Reichl says:

        What world are religious people psychologically coupled to? The real world or some idealized projection? In the latter case, we could also speak of decoupling (and the ensuing detachment might well have had great survival value for the Jewish people, historically speaking).

        In the acrobatics example, the cognitive trick has a well-defined purpose, invokes basic intuitions about physics, and never leads to confusion about whether there actually is a string or not, whereas in religion, none of this applies.

        Reply
        • 0tt0
          0tt0 says:

          Dominic, I think these are not sufficient grounds to accuse Vadim’s intellectual humility as false. Please indulge me for analysing a few of your specific examples:

          First, you say “if we have two different frameworks for making predictions about the world, we can use probability theory to determine which framework is better.”

          Maybe, if the different frameworks are hypotheses in the same sample space with one another (and, I presume, observation, which I think is strictly what can be predicted – i.e. can be part of a probabilistic inference – not “the world”), a set of hypotheses over which there a definite and consistent probability distribution can be defined. (I suppose this is the probabilistic version of what you refer to as commensurability). It is not clear to me that this is at all the case with, e.g. “I will not die before Meshiah comes!”

          Is it really a medical hypothesis about one’s rational life expectancy, given probabilistic information, logically coupled to a theological hypothesis about…what? What is coming of the Meshiah, anyway?
          What (probably) happens ‘when the Meshiah comes’?

          As to, “what’s the use of an overly optimistic framework … It’s like an ugly chick who is sincerely convinced that she will model for Victoria’s Secret one day: would you rather admire her “strong spirit” and optimism, or pity the suffering it’s causing her? Delusion is the proper term”

          Worth having a look:

          “Harlow was reportedly called a “cow, zebra, and all manner of other disparaging slurs” throughout her childhood by students both black and white. The verbal harassment led to her changing schools numerous times and dropping out of high school, after which she contemplated committing suicide.”

          “In 2018, she modeled at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show”

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winnie_Harlow

          Note it would be a circular argument saying ‘well she must really be beautiful after all, not ugly, and the bullies were just wrong, proven in the end since she went on to model for VS’ or ‘I think she is beautifu’. This is insensitive to the historical variability in fashion beauty standards and amounts to assuming fashion is a self-correcting business in pursuit of real beauty the way science is in the business of seeking real truth… I would rather credit religion and faith of being in this kind of business – though what exaclty they seek is not so clear – than the fashion business!

          (BTW I’m not picking these arguments to lambast you, just to point out some things that occurred to me reading your posts, and point out there may implicit in these statement views of the world that are fixed, immutable and self-contained similar ways to what you find reprehensible in “the religious view” of the world. I may be wrong, of course – after all, I’m basing this judgment on the evidence of just a few posts).

          Oh, and everyone out there have a good pentecost 😉

          Reply
          • Dominic Reichl
            Dominic Reichl says:

            Hey 0tt0, thanks for your reply.

            I agree that the speech act “I will not die before Meshiah comes!” should not be interpreted as expressing a testable hypothesis. It is simply an interjection. Nonetheless, Shlomo either has an underlying expectation of a certain observation or he has not. In the former case, we are able to formulate a testable hypothesis (except the time span is potentially eternal, which would open another discussion); in the latter, he is expressing feelings that are irrational because he does not even know what we wants or expects.

            Ad the Winnie Harlow case: From a Bayesian perspective, a single counterexample does not disprove a theory because the traditional problem of induction does not apply. I could have also given the example of someone who spends all her money on the lottery: she is wrong to believe that her “investment” will make her rich (and delusional if her conviction stems from an unrealistic self-image comprising the belief that she cannot fail), even though you could give me hundreds of examples of gamblers for whom it worked out well.

    • Batman
      Batman says:

      I’m not sure I get the content about optimism.
      Are optimists generally suffering all the time because their estimates are always better than reality and pessimists are exuberant as their predictions are always better?

      Reply
  2. Dominic Reichl
    Dominic Reichl says:

    One more thing because you seem so inspired by the fact that the average IQ of Jews is higher than that of the general population: what does this lead you to conclude? That their worldview must be more intelligent than that of other groups? (That’s what I sometimes read between the lines of your posts.) Or could it not be that merely their rationalizations for that worldview are supremely intelligent? Moreover, the average IQ of hard scientists is way above that of Jews, and they have a very different worldview (which need not imply that scientists are the master rationalizers.)

    Reply
    • Vadim
      Vadim says:

      Not that their worldview is any more truthful. But that their lifestyle and system of psychological indoctrination is somehow intertwined with high intelligence. I don’t know how exactly, but yes, it is an inspiring conundrum.

      Reply
  3. Anssi
    Anssi says:

    There is something deeply beautiful about bringing together the “eternal waiting/infinite patience” on one hand and the “immidiate NOW/desperate impatience”. There is nobility in it that is hard to describe. Embracing the opposites…

    Thanks for this story again.

    Reply
  4. Anssi
    Anssi says:

    “Haven’t we suffered enough while waiting for Meshiah for 3000 years?”

    Could it be possible to see that the suffering of 3000 years is no more than thoughts in ones head? Not much different from a fictious suffering in, say, Harry Potter sagas…or a last nights dream. It has no actual reality, only the human thought keeps it going and, sadly, often replicating itself. Only the present moment ever exists, and in its purity it can offer the very liberation one used to seek in the future (which also exists in thought only).

    Reply

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