Todd Berman

How the Wachowskis Got Shavuot Wrong

“Cardinal Newman wrote “what this country needs is not less superstition, but more superstition”…If pressed to the wall, I opt for Newman without reservation. But of course we ought not, we cannot allow ourselves to be pressed to the wall.” Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, By His Light p. 195

“You think that’s air you are breathing now?” Morpheus in the Matrix

Despite my natural rationalist tendencies, I have often been stirred by the mystical. Some, perhaps, are unaware of the riptide of Kabblah which constantly sweeps many religious thinkers towards the oceanic sea. The waves of desire to commune with the Divine and transcend the world around beckons. Although far from a mystic, having dipped my toes in that world, for years I have wanted to critique one of my favorite movies.

The Wachowskis’s time transcending tale, the Matrix, intrigued me for its mystical leanings. Viewing a boy bending a spoon, our hero, NEO (or the ONE), seems shocked. The boy responds,

“Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Boy: There is no spoon.

Neo: There is no spoon?

Boy: Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”

The self. The real. As Neo’s mentor Morpheus proclaims, “What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. ” This idea seems to fit well with both mystical notions and those of some students of neuroscience.

In the latest edition of Quantam Magazine, Cognitive Scientist Donald Hoffman explains his research denying that the human brain accurately conveys reality. “As the physicist John Wheeler put it, “Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.” Hoffman discusses in the article and a paper he published a few years ago, the evolutionary advantages he sees in the disinformation our brain tells us. Cutting edge neuroscience suggests that we live under some sort of illusion. Not a far throw from the magisterial world of the Matrix created by the Wachowskis sixteen years ago. Yet we lack a supply of red and blue pills to allow us to go down the rabbit hole. We can only discuss such notions in the abstract – in a way similar to the manner Kabbalists try to discuss the reality created by God.

I first became intrigued by the intersection of mystical thought and computer artificial intelligence after college while studying Hasidic writings after having studied computer design and artificial intelligence. When reading Hasidic and Kabbalistic works describing a view of reality both imperceptible and incomprehensible to the human mind, I immediately thought of computer design. Sitting in front of a computer screen looking at icons and windows slowly realizing that we can peel that perception away to levels of code to machine language, to circuit boards and microchips flowing with electricity. In Hoffman’s words, “That’s an interesting thing. You could not form a true description of the innards of the computer if your entire view of reality was confined to the desktop. And yet the desktop is useful. That blue rectangular icon [on the desktop] guides my behavior, and it hides a complex reality that I don’t need to know. That’s the key idea. ” As I sit here typing, what am I doing? How do the keys, screen, and my mind fool me into thinking I am not just manipulating electric current and being manipulated by it?

A similar notion appears in Kabbalah. When we perceive our physical reality, we can get stuck viewing the trees and not the life force of God which flows through them. Without the mind altering pill offered by Morpheus we must use our inner vision to view these other worlds. Is this a keyboard upon which I type this article or a part of the Divine overflow which I picture as one. In the great Hasidic work, Tanya, the first Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi suggests that only an elect few can transcend this world to the point of seeing the Divine truly in nature. Only a few can “clarify the physical” to the point of really connecting their inner soul to love God (see Introduction to Sha’ar Yichud VeEmunah.) The graphical user interface (GUI) of all existence grants us the illusion of true reality when something much deeper lies at the bottom.

Moving from the holy to the profane, this notion of transcendence informed me of a mistake, I believe, the Wachowskis made. They were not willing to go far enough. In the climactic battle scene the agents of the Matrix shoot Neo. With his new found abilities, Neo is able to dodge their bullets. But is this really how things should have played out? I think Kabbalah offers a different view.

I was greatly excited to discover the following passage written by The Sochatchover rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (1855-1926), in his Shem MiShmuel:

“the person who is most purified and sees that God’s presence fills the world, other powers [literally magic] have no hold…the only reason to fear war with enemies is from the perspective of [Divine] hiddenness and [mystical] contraction (Tzimtzum) for if not (from this vantage point) the sword lacks the ability to cut and all similar [weapons lose their potency] when opposing the Divine will…” Shem MiShmuel VaYishlach 5672

Indeed, one who connects to God through something akin to the unio mystica doesn’t need to dodge bullets, because there are in reality, to paraphrase that little bald boy, no bullets. Had the Wachowskis taken their mystical views to their natural conclusions, Neo would have seen both “the real” world and the Matrix world. He would have transcended the illusion. This is no easy task and the Tanya tells us only unique individuals can do so. In the world of neuroscience as in the world of mysticism one must walk lightly.

But what about those of us who feel less mystical. In the parlance of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, “Halakhic man’s approach to reality is, at the outset, devoid of any element of transcendence.” What of those who disregard the positions of certain scientists and cling instead to a mundane understanding of Descartes’s maxim? Those of us landlubbers for whom the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai speaks on a more earthy plane?

I sense that the mystical metaphor offers an opportunity to create a more holistic vision. As Peter Berger opens the The Sacred Canopy, “every human society is an enterprise in world building.” From a social and psychological perspective, we are all creators and interpreters of our own world. In a real sense, Judaism, Torah, Halacha, enable us to place our lives and worldview within a religious frame of reference. Space and time are vehicles to reach God. For the rationalist, it is not that physical swords don’t exist – but within the rubric of a Torah life infused with a striving of contact with the Divine, they lose any meaning. Life becomes God focused and our experiences become unified with the Divinity.

Nachmanides famously counted the act of remembering the giving of the Torah at Sinai as one of the 613 mitzvoth in the Torah. On a mystical level, “Ma’amad Har Sinai” as the revelation is called in Hebrew, was the optimum mystical union. A more sober approach may present the historical event as part of the ongoing actions of God’s hand in human history. Regardless of one‘s spiritual orientation, connection to God may not allow us to dodge bullets, but on the most profound level, this Divine link enables us to build a religious world.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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