Friday, May 15, 2009

Introduction Part II

Okay, so here we are. Yeshiva, learning, shteiging, and enter Mark Twain. In my last year of high school I was very shtark, but also very naive. When I started researching my essay assignment on Mark Twain, I thought it would be a typical assignment that I could blow through with minimal time and research. But I was wrong. As I was going through the material, I came across a book of essays and unfinished work. Now, theoretically I'm sure that everything in the yeshiva library was supposed to have been combed through, to make sure there was nothing chas veshalom inappropriate for a yeshiva bochur. Mark Twain however, probably received a free pass. After all what could he possibly have written that could be considered offensive or misguided by frum people? He writes about kids painting fences right? Wrong. In his story 'The Mysterious Stranger', he tells of a seemingly omnipotent child, a mysterious stranger named Satan who meets and interacts with normal children. The part of the story that really struck me was when at on point, Satan makes little clay figurines for all the children to play with and brings them to life. They can walk, talk and make their own decisions; they’re basically tiny, mini-people. After their playtime is up, Satan begins to mush all of the little people back into clay. The other children protest, asking how he can kill the living beings, and Satan does not even comprehend the question. He created them, and so he can do as he likes. The children ask Satan how that can be, arguing that those people were alive and had intellect, and in light of that, he did not have the right to end their lives. To which he responds

"[Intellect?] Nothing that resembles it. At a future time I will examine what man calls his mind and give you the details of that chaos, then you will see and understand. Men have nothing in common with me - there is no point of contact; they have foolish little feelings and foolish little vanities and impertinences and ambitions: their foolish little life is but a laugh, a sigh, and extinction; and they have no sense. Only the Moral Sense. I will show you what I mean. Here is a red spider, not so big as a pin's head. Can you imagine an elephant being interested in him - caring whether he is happy or isn't, or whether he is wealthy or poor, or whether his sweetheart returns his love or not, or whether his mother is sick or well, or whether he is looked up to in society or not, or whether his enemies will smite him or his friends desert him, or whether his hopes will suffer blight or his political ambitions fail, or whether he shall die in the bosom of his family or neglected and despised in a foreign land? These things can never be important to the elephant; they are nothing to him; he cannot shrink his sympathies to the microscopic size of them. Man is to me as the red spider is to the elephant. The elephant has nothing against the spider - he cannot get down to that remote level; I have nothing against man. The elephant is indifferent; I am indifferent. The elephant would not take the trouble to do the spider an ill turn; if he took the notion he might do him a good turn, if it came in his way and cost nothing. I have done men good service, but no ill turns.

"The elephant lives a century, the red spider a day; in power, intellect, and dignity the one creature is separated from the other by a distance which is simply astronomical. Yet in these, as in all qualities, man is immeasurably further below me than is the wee spider below the elephant.

"Man's mind clumsily and tediously and laboriously patches little trivialities together and gets a result - such as it is. My mind creates! Do you get the force of that? Creates anything it desires - and in a moment. Creates without material. Creates fluids, solids, colors - anything, everything - out of the airy nothing which is called Thought. A man imagines a silk thread, imagines a machine to make it, imagines a picture, then by weeks of labor embroiders it on canvas with the thread. I think the whole thing, and in a moment it is before you - created.

"I think a poem, music, the record of a game of chess - anything - and it is there. This is the immortal mind - nothing is beyond its reach. Nothing can obstruct my vision: the rocks are transparent to me, and darkness is daylight. I do not need to open a book; I take the whole of its contents into my mind at a single glance, through the cover; and in a million years I could not forget a single word of it, or its place in the volume. Nothing goes on in the skull of man, bird, fish, insect, or other creature which can be hidden from me. I pierce the learned man's brain with a single glance, and the treasures which cost him threescore years to accumulate are mine; he can forget, and he does forget, but I retain.

"Now, then, I perceive by your thoughts that you are understanding me fairly well. Let us proceed. Circumstances might so fall out that the elephant could like the spider - supposing he can see it - but he could not love it. His love is for his own kind - for his equals. An angel's love is sublime, adorable, divine, beyond the imagination of man - infinitely beyond it! But it is limited to his own august order. If it fell upon one of your race for only an instant, it would consume its object to ashes. No, we cannot love men, but we can be harmlessly indifferent to them; we can also like them, sometimes. I like you and the boys,[...]and for your sakes I am doing all these things."

My mind reeled. I had never experienced such biting and incisive sarcasm before. It had never occurred to me to think beyond the areas of might and power and will, (which was how most of the ideas of god were framed in my mind), to the areas of rights and perspective and circumstance. Does might make right? Can power and perspective be so subjective as to be irrelevant? Should particular circumstances be able to override a specific will? The allegory became clear to me. While we may be nothing in the eyes of something more powerful, we are still something. Our value is inherent. Our lives and the meaning of our lives should not and more importantly, could not, come from anything but ourselves. The idea that someone or something else could define the value in our lives was ridiculous, because the fact that we find meaning in ourselves is meaning enough. No one can stand behind Satan’s view, because we understand that while the figures mean nothing to him, they mean something to themselves, and that means they can no longer be considered as nothing. To say that he has the right to decide our fate, would be to say that our own value and ideas and thoughts mean nothing and are worthless. And yet somehow we seem to have no problem accepting god as the arbiter of value and meaning in our lives. How can we accept that, without negating all value in ourselves as rational thinking people? At best, according to this, god was indifferent to us. At worse, enraged. But love? It was never a possibility.

I remember clearly, sitting in the library all shocked and stone still. My world was turned upside down, my whole paradigm shifted. Instead of ‘How can I prove to others that my god is the true god’, it became, ‘How can I even know there is a god, and even if there is, who says there’s a way to know anything about him.’ I didn’t move for well over an hour. I couldn’t. My certainty in my god and my religion had been what defined the last four years of my life. How could I go on?

One more part left! Coming soon!


  1. Fascinating stuff.
    For me, reading Animal Farm in ninth grade had a similar effect on me. I stayed in the yeshiva system another eight years or so.

  2. Thanks. I really liked Animal Farm too once I started reading, but 1984 always struck a deeper chord with me. I think i had something to do with the way that religion seemed to want to completely contol every aspect of life...

  3. This is fascinating. There were several books that conspired to a loss of faith on my part, including - unbelievably, the "Interview with a Vampire" series (The books are nothing like the movie). The book introduced the concept to me that God might not be "perfect".

  4. this excerpt can be mistaken as an excerpt from the Tanya (if you read blurry).

    Yes there it is speaking of G-d and he reaches out his hand and cares with Torah.

    Imagine the elephant would ask the ant for a favor -- instant esteem in its eyes where until then seemed ... well just as the author explains at length.

    G-d's love makes us matter to him-- he asked us to learn Torah -- his wisdom which is one with him and commanded us thus and so and therefore he cares for us.

    The ant hugs the elephant.

  5. >That anon is Garnel. Guaranteed.

    You are fixated. Get counseling. Now.

  6. Anon: The book only made me begin to question. Now, I am a full fledged atheist for many other reasons; so while the book deals with how god can relate to us, I don't believe in god.