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A television series titled, Picket Fences ran on CBS from 1992 -1996. I am dating myself for
sure, but it’s worth it. David E. Kelly, producer and writer of Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, The Practice and others also created this one.
Mr. Kelly writes wonderful dialogue with intelligent banter and entertaining plots. Picket Fences was his first show. In my opinion, the name itself coupled with the point of the various plots of the shows, learns it the title of his most brilliant look into the human psyche.
Picket Fences takes place in the small town of Rome, Wisconsin. Jimmy Brock, the main character is the sheriff of the town. His wife, Jill, is the town doctor. They have three children, a perfect house with a spotless lawn and, you guessed it, a white picket fence. As a matter of fact, most houses in the town have white picket fences and on the outside, their lives look perfect.
However, a lot happens in this town. As the plot centers around the sheriff and the doctor, most stories revolve around puzzling illnesses or crimes. Some more memorable episodes involve cows mysteriously giving birth to humans, a mass of murdered bodies found in freezers, and spontaneous human combustion. Mr. Kelly went to great lengths to prove that picket fences do not make a perfect community.
The white picket fence has become the symbol of the American dream. And yet our new vinyl siding, beautifully
maintained flower beds and white picket fences only give us a false sense of purity. Those expensive opaque blinds simply conceal our true emotions, our real-life blemishes – anger, disappointment, greed, gluttony.
A quick google search on picket fences comes up with “outdoor shower hiding behind a white picket fence.” People today believe that we can hide anything behind a white picket fence. And in the same way, we hide behind our outer appearances. Manicures, pedicures, make-up, expensive yet uncomfortable shoes, stiff yet
“flattering” clothing – we hide our flaws behind this structural equipment. And we spend way too much time working on them instead of working on the issues inside.
No matter how thick the siding, how white the fence, or how beautiful the flower beds; if the inside of the house has turmoil, it will seep outside. The family cannot maintain health on the outside, if, on the inside, there is pain. It is the same with our bodies. No matter how perfect the hair or make-up; no matter how muscular or
athletic, if the mind and the soul are in chaos, the body will cease to function appropriately.
I am not advocating ignoring your siding, lawn, fence, or bodily needs. On the contrary, I believe that sometimes cleaning up the outside can prompt a deeper cleanse. However, only tending to our outward needs is only doing half the job. In the book of Samuel, chapter 16 verse 7, God speaks to the prophet Samuel saying,
“For God sees not as humans see: humans look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.” We are not God, but we are commanded to be Holy. Parents teach their children to “not judge a book by its cover.” Judaism teaches the same in its own way – “Al tistakeil b’kankan, eileh b’mah she-yesh bo – Don’t look at the
bottle, rather, look at what is inside.” Teachers instruct students to treat everyone fairly, not by what they wear or how tall they are. Clergy preach about equal rights for all regardless of race, ethnicity, or other outward signs. And yet, we all fall victim in some way or another to disbelieving what we ourselves teach. The more we fall apart inside, the more we attempt to gain control over the outside. The vicious cycle is soul-deadening.
We must strive to see ourselves as God sees us – from the inside out. Once we shine that light inside of us to an illustrious gleam, it will radiate such light and warmth, it will overshadow any broken boards of our picket fences, any dull pieces of old siding, any physical blemish we fear. God knows, our souls are pure, our faults are real and true, for we are only human. But to become divine, we must look inside, not out – for that is where the holiness lies.
We find ourselves living in a time rife with scientific conflict. It seems that there are camps that believe in global warming or do not. There are those who believe in vaccinations, and those who find them to be ineffective, or even dangerous. As we approach our most austere, contemplative time of the year, I would like to examine two great thinkers who challenged conventions and innovated how we view the natural spiritual world.
My first serious foray into philosophy was sophomore year in college. I remember reading Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. In his third meditation, Descartes proved the existence of God. His ontological argument essentially stated that he knew himself to be imperfect, finite, and ephemeral. And yet, he could conceive of a perfect, eternal, immortal being which could create something else, like humans, and implant in them an awareness and consciousness. This seemed like a particularly dissonant idea when compared to The Description of the Human Body. In it, Descartes describes the body as a machine. Food was absorbed into the blood and fed the heart, which was the furnace of our body. Most of his writing was grounded in Rationalism and Foundationalism. I remember learning that his ontological argument for the existence of God was written to appease the church because so much of his writing was considered heretical. Surely, if Descartes had written his Meditations in 20th century America, he would not have had to appease the church. But because of the time and location in which he lived, his writing reflected something about himself and his environment. Descartes used his own belief system, his own style of arguing to justify the existence of God. And whether he really believed it or not, only he will know, but it certainly evolved into a popular argument for the existence of God.
Rambam, like Descartes, wrote the Mishneh Torah as a reflection of his beliefs, which were a result of equal parts nature and nurture. Rambam was raised as a traditional Jew. Proving God’s existence was never an issue. To Rambam God did exist. We know this because the first line of Chapter One of Fundamentals of the Torah states, “the fundamental principle and pillar of all science is to know that there is a First Being who has
brought everything that exists into being.” This is clearly a bold claim because if one were to refute it or disagree with it, the rest of the subsequent writing is null and void. To continue reading, to follow along with perfect faith is to accept that, “This Being is the God of the universe, the Lord of the entire world.” There is no room for questioning; Rambam makes his stance very clear, whereas Descartes started from scratch using geometry and the ideas of perfection as a way to prove that God must exist. This implies that there is room to doubt the existence of God. Rambam does not give us that room.
Rambam continues with the following claim: “It is he who controls the celestial sphere with a power to which there is neither end nor limit, with a power that is never interrupted. For, the celestial sphere is always revolving, and it is impossible for it to revolve without someone causing it to revolve; it is God, blessed be he, who causes it to revolve without using a hand or physical force.” Rambam wrote this between 1170-1180 CE. It would be another 500 years before Galileo innovated the fields of Physics and Astronomy. What the reader witnesses is Rambam’s personal theology which cannot be reconciled with the actual science of the effects of gravity because the discovery has not been made yet. However Rambam does make claims which were forward-thinking. The notion of the celestial bodies moving “without using a hand or physical force” is obviously gravity,
but Rambam likely does not know that. So the reader must make a huge leap of faith or completely buy into the first few lines of Rambam if they are going to follow his philosophical treatise. Rambam provides no deductive reasoning or arguments. It is his fervent belief in the existence of God which he knows to be true that the reader must also acknowledge to be true.
Another unique aspect to the philosophy of Rambam is how he does actually cite sources. Descartes would make his own observations and arguments, or he would cite the work of other humans. Rambam did not cite other Rabbis in this work, rather he cited God. And if we buy into his opening claim, then there is no need to cite humans when the divine, inalienable word of God is being used as a source. In chapter 1:8, Rambam uses
Deuteronomy, Joshua and Isaiah to describe God. Rambam uses quotes from the Torah and The Book of Prophets to justify his scientific claims. Simply put, Rambam’s logic is God is everywhere, and if matter cannot occupy the same space, God cannot be matter. He goes on to conclude, nothing is equal to God, thus, if God were physical, there would be no other substance like God. Again, Rambam does not go through the steps as
someone like Descartes would do. In Rational philosophy one cannot prove claims so quickly and easily. But Rambam’s case is different. We know that Rambam was writing to a specific audience. It was an audience with a similar background and upbringing as himself. So it is here we see the divergence of thought and prose that Descartes and Rambam possess. Descartes was trying to innovate and challenge, Rambam was trying to disseminate and teach.
Descartes’ work focused on the body and nature. Rambam also focused on the world around him. The difference lies in their philosophy of law. Descartes was originally going to be a lawyer but changed courses. Rambam was a lawyer and judge by trade. His epistemology was grounded in Torah which, again, comes from God. Thus, the interplay between laws, science, life, ethics and the philosophy which Rambam lived and wrote were completely interconnected.
The fundamental principle and pillar of all science is to know that there is some greater power than us which governs the universe. We cannot know what this power is. Whether it is a deity, conscious and sentient, or some other metaphysical force which we have yet to discover. But, I believe that there is something which operates the universe and all of its complexities.
It is plainly stated in the Torah that this force is God. And God is bodiless. Maybe God is the dark matter which occupies the spaces in between matter. Maybe not. If God were a physical substance He would be like other physical beings. Maybe we, all living creatures, are vessels in which fragments of this God dwell. Maybe not.
The Torah speaks the language of human beings. By this, I believe the Torah speaks truth and kindness and goodness. These stories, whether true or not, are rich with moral values and anecdotes through which we are reminded how to be decent human beings. As we approach the High Holidays, my sincere hope is that every one of us has the patience and focus to pursue truth and justice socially and scientifically.