Science has taught us that we are limited by our instruments: with the naked eye; we cannot see infrared or x-rays; our ears cannot detect entire frequency ranges; our noses are not tuned for a world of scents available to both animals and mass spectrographs. Within the physical world, we have long since accepted that our perceptions cannot capture the full range of data.
But there is more to the world than what can be physically measured. Indeed, even trying to use the tools of science to measure the value of a sonnet, a rousing speech, or the shared joy within a loving marriage is a fool’s errand. We need to accept that there is a world that is beyond the physical, a world that may be created by words and concepts – like those of love and freedom, a world that delivers its own reflection within the human soul. This is the world that gives us hope – or despair. Just because we cannot see the spiritual plane does not mean it is not there – any more than the fact that we cannot see G-d does not prove that He is not there!
At some level, even for those who think the physical world is the only reality, it seems clear that people are guided or limited by their worldviews. If someone believes in the American Dream, that sense of optimism can lead to self-fulfillment. Alternatively, if someone believes in unalterable fate and destiny, there is a decided absence of imagination and hope, especially among those who are born into poverty.
For lack of a better term, allow me to henceforth refer to the measurable world as the “physical world,” and the non-measurable world as the “spiritual world.”
I want to go even further. And there are two propositions, both supported by the Torah:
1: Unwillingness to acknowledge and accept the existence of the spiritual world makes it impossible for us to rise above the level of mere animals.
2: The spiritual world is an echoing mirror of what we do in the physical world. In other words, we create and modify the spiritual world through the choices we make. As far as we know, we are the content providers for the spiritual realm.
Let’s start with the first adherent: a person who does not acknowledge the existence of a spiritual world. Such a person denies the existence of a soul (considering the concept to be something of a myth). To them, love can be described and explained using hormones in the brain, and essentially all human decision-making can be boiled down to an essentially deterministic set of inputs and outputs. To such a person, there is no real romance, no “true” love, and certainly no spiritual divinity beyond the things that can be seen in the world around us. They claim that the entire world is only what they can see and feel – in other words, that humans are nothing more than animals, and that there is no spiritual plane at all!
I believe that this mindset is quite common today, especially in the “enlightened” atheist West. It leads to very poor relationship-building (since everything beautiful and mysterious is reduced to physical phenomena), and putting the natural world first and foremost. It also emphasizes that humans are animals – by which its practitioners suggest that we should be nothing more or less than animals, slaves to our instincts and desires, and incapable of unique creations, thoughts, or even relationships.
The second proposition is far more central to the Torah – and quite possibly, one of the concepts that exists in Judaism but not in Christianity. This is the concept that mankind creates and modifies the spiritual world through the choices we make.
Where does my contention come from? An extensive set of commandments that have everything to do with a world that cannot be quantified or measured using any instruments we know: the spiritual mirror to the physical world.
The specific commandments include eating designated holy food while being spiritually unready (Lev. 7:20-1, 22:3), intimacy with a woman who is spiritually unready (Lev. 20:18), and choosing to remain spiritually unready when there is an option to be spiritually cleansed and become able to spiritually elevate (Num. 19:13). It all sounds very abstract, but it boils down to a simple core concept: the Torah is telling us that our words and deeds create results in the spiritual mirror-world.
This assertion runs directly counter to modern sensibilities. People do all kinds of things with their bodies and declare that they don’t matter, because what we do with our bodies is not important in any larger sense. “It was only sex,” is a familiar refrain. This way of thinking is deeply, profoundly anti-Torah. If we deny that there is a spiritual plane, we deny that our lives matter, and that our choices matter.
These specific commandments are “red lines” within the Torah: violating them invokes being cut off from the people, being cut off from a relationship with G-d. Someone who fails to appreciate and understand that their actions have a massive mirrored impact in the spiritual world has reduced their life and impact on this world to that of an intelligent animal. A Jew must see ourselves as part of a much bigger and more ambitious picture: that everything we do, as small or large as it may appear, makes an impact on that spiritual world – even to the point of making an impact on G-d Himself. As the text makes clear, mankind can change G-d’s mind, which makes us potentially very powerful, indeed!
I submit that this way of seeing things also helps give meaning to what happens to this world after we are no longer alive. In a physical sense, dead is dead. When we are gone, we are – by definition – no longer here. This is true if the only way we can measure someone is by the space they fill, or the resources they consume or create – in other words, by their physical presence as living beings.
But we also know that great figures in history are still with us, because their thoughts and deeds influence our lives. It is true for not-famous people as well: those who loved us in our past have left an echo of themselves, even when they no longer live. When people – even those who did not procreate – leave this mortal coil, there is an imprint on everyone they interacted with while living, through every kind word, gesture, or expressed thought. Some memories are specific and more tangible than others, but all interactions leave some kind of a mark, even a subtle one. In the spiritual mirror world around us, all the things we did while we were alive leave an impression that carries on after we have passed on. Our lives make a difference for having been lived.
A key definitional part of what it means to be a Jew requires each of us to embrace that what we say and do leads to a corresponding impact on the spiritual world.