CHAPTER 5: NEVER SEEK TO TELL THY LOVEEdit
POSTED ON JANUARY 31, 2016 BY SCOTT ALEXANDER
I remember the first time I met Ana Thurmond.
I’d just been kicked out of Stanford. My mother was a wreck. I had to get away from her. I took the first minimum wage job I could find, a clerk position at Cash For Gold. It wasn’t so bad. There was a sort of kabbalah to it, freely interchanging symbols with material reality. I could respect that. I sat behind a register and studied Talmud and Zohar most of the day, and sometimes an elderly woman would come in to trade her jewelery for rather less than it was worth, and I would facilitate the transaction.
Every so often I would get to a particularly interesting Talmudic tractate and stay past closing time. Sometimes I’d be there late into the night. It was a more congenial environment than my mother’s apartment. Nobody noticed and nobody cared. That was why I was still there at eleven or so one night when I heard a sort of commotion outside.
I opened the door and caused a stunningly beautiful girl to fall off a stepladder. “Euphemism!” she said. I swear to God she said “Euphemism.”
“Are you okay?” I asked. She was. She was holding two big yellow letters. I looked up at our sign. It was missing two big yellow letters.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked. I am bad at sounding threatening, but she was like 5’4, maybe 5’5, and also lying on the ground looking very ashamed, and so putting menace into my voice was easier than usual.
“Kabbalah,” she said.
I looked up at the sign again. It read CASH OR GOD
“It’s a kabbalistic protest,” she said faintly. “Against a society that thinks…”
“You’re not a kabbalist. If you were a kabbalist, you’d have more respect! You can’t just go removing letters from signs like that! Matthew 5:18: ‘Verily I say unto you, not a single letter, nor even a stroke of a letter, shall be removed until all is fulfilled.'”
“Oh, you want to go there?” She caught her breath and stood back up. “Matthew 16:4: ‘This evil and adulterous generation wants a sign, but no sign shall be given to it.’”
I blinked. Maybe she was a kabbalist.
“But,” I said, “By removing the letter L, you make “God” out of “gold”. But the warning against idolatry in Exodus 20:23 says ‘You shall not make a god out of gold.'”
“But,” said the girl, “Exodus 25 says that you shall take gold and turn it unto the Lord.”
Now I was annoyed.
“You have taken an L and an F,” I said. “But if you map the Latin alphabet to Hebrew gematria, L and F sum to twenty-six. The Tetragrammaton also has a gematria value of twenty six. So taking an L and an F is mystically equivalent to taking the Name of God. But the Third Commandment is ‘You shall not take the Name of God in vain.'”
“But the sound of L and F together,” she said, “is ‘aleph’, and aleph is silent and represents nothingness. So I have taken nothing.”
I heard the whine of a siren.
“Tell it to the cops,” I said.
She ran. She didn’t even take the ladder. She just turned and ran away.
It wasn’t like I had even called the police. Just a coincidence, if you believe in such things. For some reason a cop with a siren was out there at eleven PM, doing cop things, and she heard it and ran away.
And I got to spend pretty much every waking moment over the next six months wondering who she was.
I checked all of the universities with programs in kabbalah and I got nothing. No leads. As embarassing as it was to ask “Hey, does a pretty girl with blonde hair in a sort of bun who is really good at certain kinds of weird wordplay go here?,” I sucked it up and asked at Stanford, Berkeley, even Santa Clara, and I got nothing. I moved on to the yeshivas, even though most of them didn’t even admit women. Nothing.
It was a cold autumn night and I’d just finished asking at what was absolutely positively the last yeshiva I was going to bother checking out – just as I thought I had the past several weekends. One thing had led to another, and we had gotten into an argument about the creation of the universe, and finally we agreed to take it to the bar, where I proceeded to repay their friendliness by sitting in a corner and not talking to anybody. I was only half paying attention when a girl walked up to one of the rabbinical students, told him he was pretty, and asked him to kiss her.
It wasn’t my girl. My girl was short and had blond hair in a sort of bun and spoke way too fast. This was a tall girl with dark hair that looked like it had rejected a mohawk as too conformist and set forth with only an ox and a Conestoga wagon into new and exciting realms of weird hairstyles.
The rabbinical student – a cherubic-faced young man with absolutely perfect curly hair whose name I think was David – apologized and said that he was a rabbinical student and not big on kissing weird girls at bars whose hairstyles seemed to be inspired by the crests on species of extinct reptiles. Or words to that effect.
“Wow,” said the girl. “A real rabbinical student. Tell you what. If I know something about the Bible that you don’t know, will you kiss me?”
My ears perked up.
You don’t understand how heavily these people train. It’s Torah eight hours a day since they’re old enough to sit up straight. They’ve got the thing memorized by now and then some. “If you know something about the Bible I don’t know, you can do whatever you want with me,” David said laughing.
“Hmmmm,” said weird-hair-girl, and she made a show of thinking about it. “I’ve got one. How long did Joseph spend in the belly of the whale?”
“Three days and three nights,” he said practically instantly, before I could warn him.
“Oh, so sorry,” said weird-hair-girl.
David looked at her. “I can quote you chapter and verse. Jonah 1:17.”
“…would be a lovely answer, if I’d asked that. I asked you how long Joseph was in the belly of the whale.”
The rabbi trap had been sprung. His face turned red.
“Uh,” he said, “there’s nothing in the Bible saying for sure that Joseph didn’t spend time in a whale too.”
“Nope,” said weird-hair-girl. “I’m no rabbi, but I am pretty sure that zero, zilch, nobody in the Bible spent time in a whale except Jonah.”
“And the wives of the men slain in Sennacherib’s invasion of Jerusalem,” I interjected before I could stop myself.
Two sets of eyes suddenly pivoted my direction.
“The wives of the men slain in Sennacherib’s invasion of Jerusalem,” said David, “did not spend time in a whale.”
“Oh, they absolutely did,” I said, because at this point I was in too deep to back out. “They were very vocal about it.”
Weird-hair-girl raised one eyebrow.
“It’s all in Byron,” I said, then quoted: “And the widows of Ashur were loud in their whale.”
Blink, blink went the girl’s eyes, then suddenly: “I hate you and I hope you die.” Then: “Wait, no, death would be too good for you. You need to meet my cousin.” Then: “Drink”. And she dragged me over to her table and shoved a beer at me.
So, when the thread of my memory resumes, late the next morning, I found myself lying in a strange bed, mostly naked. I silently resolved not to go binge drinking with rabbinical students again.
Standing over me, as if scrutinizing a horse for purchase, was Weird Hair Girl. And next to her, with precisely the same expression, was my short blonde girl with the pale blue eyes, the girl with the ladder.
“He told a terrible whale joke!” protested weird-hair-girl, “and first I wanted him to die, but then I realized that would be too good for him, and I told him he had to meet you instead.”
“What was the joke?” asked my blonde girl.
“It was…” Weird Hair Girl thought for a second. “Do you know how many beers I had last night? And you want me to remember things?Specific things?”
“Hm,” said my blonde. She looked straight at me, with the pale blue eyes. I don’t think she recognized me. “What was the joke?”
I protested. “I don’t even know where I am! I don’t even know your names! In my head I’ve been calling her ‘Weird Hair Girl’ and you -” I cut myself off before I said something like ‘the girl I am going to marry.’ “How am I supposed to remember a whale joke?”
The girl I was going to marry ran her fingers through her pale blonde hair in frustration and deep thought. “Since you came up with it last night,” she said, “you must be able to come up with it again. You were with rabbinical students, therefore you were talking about the Bible. Biblical whale jokes. What comes to mind?”
“Um,” I said. “Obviously the Biblical king Ahab is an suspect, given his namesake. So…aha!…Ahab was visiting Jerusalem, and he kept trying to shoot Moby Dick from there, and but it’s so far inland he couldn’t reach the sea with his harpoon, so he ordered the construction of a great rampart to give him a height advantage…”
She stared at me, a calculating stare.
“…and to this very day, it is known as the Whaling Wall,” I finished, and both of us started giggling.
“Wait,” said Weird Hair Girl. “Why did I think introducing the two of you would be a good idea? This is the worst thing that ever happened.”
“And then Ahab died and went to Hell,” she added, “where there was much whaling and gnashing of teeth.”
“But,” I said, “it was all in accordance with the whale of God.”
“Wait,” said the blonde. “I’ve got one. Why was the sea so noisy after the destruction of Sennacherib’s army?”
I thought for a second. Then I thought for another second. “I got nothing,” I said.
“Because,” said the blonde girl, “the widows of Ashur were loud in their whale.”
“WAIT NO THAT WAS IT! THAT WAS MY WHALE JOKE! I SWEAR TO GOD, THAT WAS MY WHALE JOKE!”
“This was the biggest mistake of my life and I hope I die,” said Weird Hair Girl.
I remember my first morning there, the morning it all came together. The girls finally dragged me out of bed and insisted on making me breakfast. Weird Hair Girl was named Erica. Girl Whom I Will Someday Marry was named Ana. Together they led me downstairs into an expansive dining room.
“Welcome to Ithaca!” Ana told me as I said down and plunked my head on the table, still a little hung over.
“You need food,” Erica stated, and disappeared into the kitchen to fetch me some. Ana went with her. They were whispering to one another. Giggles may have been involved.
It was a big house, a little old but well-maintained. From one wall hung a sort of banner with a big Hebrew letter yud on it. Tenth letter of the alphabet, representing the tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet”, with the obvious implications for capitalism and wealth accumulation. The big yud was a Stevensite symbol. These were Stevensites. It fit.
But I could do better than that. I turned my attention to the bookshelf on the far wall, tried to see what I could glean. They had the usual sci-fi/fantasy classics: Tolkien, Asimov, Salby. Then some meatier fare: Zayinty the economist, Chetlock the prognosticator, Tetkowsky the futurist, Yudka the novelist, good old Kaf ben Clifford. I recognized a few I’d seen before by their covers alone. Nachman Bernstein’s Divinity. Nachman Eretz’s Alphanomics. Menelaus Moleman’s Letter to the Open-Minded Atheist. Gebron and Eleazar’s Kabbalah: A Modern Approach. Ben Aharon’s Gematria Since Adam. Rachel Sephardi’s Arriving At Aleph. Rav Kurtzweil’s The Age Of Mechanized Spirituality. And…really? The collected works of Eliezer ben Moshe?!
I stared at the shelf greedily. I didn’t have half of these. I hoped they weren’t too serious about the not coveting.
It was only after finishing my scan of the books that I turned to the other possible source of information in the room.
“Hi,” I said to the guy sitting at the end of the table. He was tall and looked like he worked out. “I’m Aaron Smith-Teller. Nice to meet you.”
“Brian Young,” he said, barely looking up from his paper. “Welcome to Ithaca.”
“So I’ve heard. This is some kind of group house?”
“You could say that,” said Brian.
“Brian’s the strong, silent type,” said Ana, returning from the kitchen with coffee. She poured me a mug. “It’s why he and Erica get along so well. He never says anything, she never shuts up. Yes, we’re a group house. Erica prefers the phrase ‘commune’, but Erica prefers lots of things.”
“I’m standing right here, making your food!” Erica shouted from the kitchen.
“So are you guys some kind of Stevensite group, or…” I started to ask. Ana put a finger to her mouth, and whispered “Shhhhhhhhh. She’ll hear you.”
Erica came in bearing four plates of toast. “I’m glad you asked!” she said in an inappropriately chirpy voice, and picked Stevens’ The Temple And The Marketplace off the shelf. “Have you read this?”
The early years after the discovery of the first Names had been a heady time, as would-be-wizards had learned the few known incantations and built exciting new technologies on top of them. The Luminous Name had been worked into various prayers and magic squares and configurations to produce lights of dizzying shapes and colors. Clever inventors in self-funded workshops had incorporated the Kinetic Name into all sorts of little gadgets and doodads. The best kabbalists had developed vast superstructures of prayers and made them available for free on the earliest computer networks to anyone who wanted to experiment.
That ended with the founding of the great theonomic corporations. They gradually took over the applied kabbalah scene in the 80s; their grip tightened in the early 90s after the President and the Comet King worked together to create UNSONG. Suddenly every new Name had a copyright attached to it, and the hundreds of lines of prayers and invocations people used to control the Names and bend them to your will were proprietary material. The old workshops became less and less relevant; the old self-employed kabbalist geniuses were either picked up to serve as drones at the theonomics or turned into increasingly irrelevant bitter old men.
It was in this atmosphere that Reverend Raymond E. Stevens of the Unitarian Church had written The Temple And The Marketplace. The book was two hundred fifty pages of sometimes excessively dense screeds, but it essentially argued that a whole host of Biblical commandments – most notably “thou shalt not covet” and “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” – were best interpreted as describing the divine Names discovered after the sky cracked, prophetic injunctions intended to make sense only millennia after they were written. Taken together, these commandments formed a schematic for an ideal economy (the titular “Temple”) in which the wealth-creating powers of the kabbalah were shared by everyone. The modern world was ignoring God’s plan in favor of unrestricted capitalism (the titular “Marketplace”) and inviting terrible retribution upon themselves. Stevens saw himself as a modern-day Jeremiah, warning the Israelites to repent before they suffered the full force of God’s vengeance.
Despite being by all accounts something of a crackpot (his explanation of the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple as occult references to economic parameters reminds me of Newton’s, only less lucid) he was in the right place at the right time. Stevenism spread among bitter old kabbalists, teenage Marxist punks, spiritual-but-not-religious hippies, and anyone who found themselves unexpectedly locked out of the new economy. It went from oddly specific theory to Generic Badge Of The Counterculture, and the same sort of people who spent the Sixties talking about “vibrations” without really knowing what they meant spent the Nineties talking about the secret meanings of weird Levitical commandments.
“You guys are Unitarians?” I asked.
Stevens had been a Unitarian minister, and his work had spread like wildfire across the Unitarian community. After President Cheney cracked down on the church itself in the early part of the new millennium, what was left of Unitarianism was almost entirely Stevensite, little religious communities built along the lines ordained by the Reverend’s books, singing the forbidden Names of God during services. It was part prayer, part act of civil disobedience, and part military training: people who really knew the Names tended to be bad people to mess with.
“We’re the Unitarian hub,” said Erica. “For all of North San Jose. And I run the Bay Area Unitarian magazine. The Stevensite Standard. Listen!”
She stood on a chair, and started giving what from then on I would always recognize as The Spiel. The Spiel was one of the few constants of life at Ithaca. Roommates would come and go, intellectual fads would burst onto the scene in glorious bloom before vanishing in a puff of general embarassment, but The Spiel remained. Erica could do it convincingly while sober but spectacularly when drunk. She had converted entire bars full of people to her particular brand of radical theological anarchism on several occasions. Over years of practice she had perfected it down to a two minute, seven second elevator pitch which she had so far recited in manners including: blind drunk, on one foot, driving a motorcycle, and while having sex with two men at the same time. The month I met her, she had been working on learning juggling, so she picked up three balls and began to orate:
“God is born free, but everywhere is in chains! The Names, our birthright as children of Adam, the patrimony which should have ensured us an age of plenty like none other in human history, have been stolen from us by corporations and whored out to buy yachts for billionaires.
“The Fertile Name brings forth grain from the earth, speeding the growth of crops by nearly half. Children in Ethiopia starve to death, and Ethiopian farmers cannot use the Fertile Name to grow the corn that would save them. Why not? Because Amalek holds the patent and demands $800 up front from any farmer who wants to take advantage of it.
“The Purifying Name instantly kills eighteen species of harmful bacteria, including two that are resistant to all but the most toxic antibiotics. But two-thirds of American hospitals have no one licensed to use the Purifying Name. Why not? Because they can’t afford the licensing fees demanded by Gogmagog.
“In the old days, we told ourselves that poverty was a fact of life. That there wasn’t enough food or medicine or clothing or housing to go around. Then it was true. Now it is false. To feed the hungry or heal the sick no longer requires scarce resources. It requires only a word. A word that the entire international system of governance – corporations, politicians, UNSONG – has united to prevent the needy from ever obtaining.
“86% of known Names are held by seven big cor – damn!”
Erica had dropped her balls. She picked them back up, then continued.
“86% of known Names are held by seven big theonomic corporations. Microprosopus. Gogmagog. Amalek. Countenance. Tetragrammaton. ELeshon. And Serpens, the biggest, with $174 billion in assets. Its CEO has a net worth of $9 billion, five beach houses scattered across the Untied States, and her own private 12-seater jet.
“When Marx heard of such injustices, he demanded we seize the means of production. But today the means of production aren’t factories to be seized by mobs with pitchforks. They’re Names, to be taken in spiritual struggle and spread around the world until the system is seen for the sham it really is and crumbles of its own accord. Thus William Blake:
I will not cease from mental fight
Nor let my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land
And the theonomic corporations will stop at nothing to thwart us,” Erica warned. “The klipot are…”
“I know what they are,” I interrupted. “I was expelled from Stanford for publishing a method for breaking klipot.”
Erica dropped her balls, then fell off her chair. “Name!” she shouted. “I knew you seemed familiar! I organized a protest for you!”
Two years ago I’d been exactly where I wanted to be, a Stanford undergrad studying the applied kabbalah on a nice scholarship. I’d just finished a class on klipot and was playing around a bit – in the theoretical kabbalah, klipot are these sort of demonic scleroses that encrust the divine light and make it inaccessible, but in the applied kabbalah the word is used to describe cryptographic transformations of the Names of God that allow them to be used without revealing them to listeners. Imagine you’ve discovered a Name that lets you cure cancer, and you want to cure a customer’s cancer but don’t want them to learn the Name themselves so they can steal your business. Instead of speaking the Name aloud, you apply a cipher to it – if you want, change all the As to Es and all the Bs to Zs, so that ABBA becomes EZZE – and speak the cipher while holding the original fixed in your mind. The Name has the desired effect, and your ungrateful customer is left with nothing but the meaningless word “EZZE”, which absent the plaintext version is of no use to anybody.
Problem is, all the Names follow certain numerological rules. The Maharaj Rankings are the most famous, but there are over a dozen. So by working backwards from a klipah it’s usually possible to narrow down the plaintext Name to a very small collection of possibilities, which you can then check by hand – or by mouth, as the case may be. You end up with a race between rightsholders of Names trying to develop better and better klipot, and everyone else trying to discover better and better ways of breaking them. Well, I joined Team Everyone Else in college and came up with a pretty nifty new algorithm for breaking NEHEMOTH, one of the big klipot used by the Gogmagog corporation, with about one percent as much hassle as anyone else had come up with. My advisor told me not to publish and I ignored him. Turned out giant evil corporations don’t like having their multi-billion dollar properties rendered useless. Nothing I’d done was illegal per se, but they put pressure on Stanford to expel me, expel me they did, and a few months later their Applied Kabbalah department had a new professorship endowed with Gogmagog money and I was broke and living with my mother. Not that I’m bitter.
“Yeah,” I said half-heartedly. “Thanks.”
“You!” said Erica. “You need to join us! You’re like, a real-life freedom fighter! A martyr! Like the Israelites at Masada! You fought the law!”
“And the law won,” I said. “Did Ana tell you where she found me? An old Cash for Gold shop on Briar Street.”
Erica was barely listening. “You’re a hero in the battle against tyranny. And a kabbalist. We need kabbalists. Right now Ana is leading the choir, but she’s an amateur. You’re a professional. You need to join us. Brian is moving out in a few weeks. There will be a room opening up.”
I rolled my eyes at the “hero” part, then the “battle against tyranny part”, and a third time at me being a professional anything, until it looked like I had some kind of weird eye movement disorder. I stopped when I heard “room opening up.”
“How much is rent?” I asked.
“Oho,” said Erica, “suddenly, interest.”
A brief flurry of awkward glances between Ana and Erica and occasionally Brian, who refused to return any of them and continued reading the paper. Finally Erica spoke.
“Five hundred dollars a month,” she said.
I stared her in the eyes. “What’s the catch?” This was the Bay Area. A rat-infested hovel went into the four digits.
“Um,” said Ana. Erica finished her sentence. “Ana’s family is very wealthy and has kindly albeit unknowingly offered to subsidize the rest of us.”
“Unknowingly?” I asked.
“I’m a grad student at Stanford,” said Ana, “and I tell them I need the money for room and board.”
“How much?” I asked.
“Um. A few thousand.”
“And they believe you?”
“Well, it is the Bay Area.”
She had a point. My mind added: beautiful and witty and rich.
I remember the day I first saw Ana in her element.
She was studying at Stanford. I’d checked Stanford when I was looking for her, but I’d checked the wrong place. She wasn’t studying the kabbalah per se. She was a grad student in philosophy. Her area was theodicy. The question of how a perfectly good God can allow a universe filled with so much that is evil. Who even studies theodicy anymore? After two thousand years of hand-wringing, what’s left to say?
There must have been something, because journals kept publishing Ana’s work, and a few months before I met her she was named the Augustine Distinguished Scholar in Theodicy, apparently a big national honor that came with a heap of money. It was her passion, her great love, her reason for being. “Don’t you get it, Aaron?” she would say, animated almost to the point of mania. “We’re looking at all of this the wrong way. The Divine Names. The laws of physics. We’re asking ‘what’ when we should be asking ‘why’. Why did God create the universe the way He did? Why the Names? If we really understand God’s goodness, then we can predict everything. What will the stock market do next year? Whatever it’s best for it to do. Who will win the next Presidential election? Whichever candidate is better. If we really understood divine goodness, we would understand everything, past, present, and future.”
I gingerly pointed out that the world was terrible.
“That’s exactly the thing!” Ana said. “How do we square our knowledge that God wants as good a universe as possible with the terrible universe we ended up with? Square that circle, and literally everything else falls into place.”
Every Sunday night, Erica hosted a dinner party. Every Sunday night, one guest was tasked with giving a presentation. Something they were interested in, something to keep us entertained while we waited for the food to be ready. A few weeks ago, Erica herself had talked about running the Standard and how she was going to get distribution networks going across the California Republic and maybe even into the Salish Free State. The week before, I’d talked about a new paper out of MIT expanding upon Rubenstein’s Sieve, one of the most important methods for narrowing down namespace. Now it was Ana’s turn, and of course she was going to talk about the Book of Job.
The chairs were all full as usual. I recognized Bill Dodd. He’d been a physics grad student at Berkeley. He’d spent a few years trying to develop a Theory of Everything, decided to settle for a Theory of Something, and finally lowered his ambitions to a Theory of Anything before ending as one of the washed-up scientists who seemed to be everywhere in the Bay these days, the type instantly recognizable by their tendency to respond to things which were none of their business with “As a physicist, I think…”
I recognized Eliot “Eli” Foss. Calm, quiet Eliot – Erica had picked him up at a Unitarian meeting in Oakland, picked him up in both senses of the word – well, two of the three, she hadn’t literally lifted him. Rumor had it that he was actually religious instead of meta-ironically religious, but no one could tell for certain and the whole idea made us sort of uncomfortable.
I recognized Ally Hu, who was smiling awkwardly and talking to Eliot in her crisp, overly-enunciated English. Her family had been bigwigs in the Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire before the latest round of purges. They’d fled to California and now they owned half of southern Santa Clara Valley. Ally had only been on this side of the world six or seven years but had already fallen in with a bad crowd – namely, us.
The doorbell rang, and I answered it. I recognized Zoe Farr. She was in a tight pink t-shirt with a big yud on it. Karen Happick from the North Bay had been selling them at cost a couple of months ago; I think I had a white one at the bottom of a drawer, unworn.
“You’re late,” Erica told her. There was no malice in her voice, only confusion that someone might risk missing her cooking. She’d poured blood and sweat and tears into building our little community, but the secret ingredient had turned out to be soup. She was a really good cook, and what her magazine and occasional impassioned speeches couldn’t do, an invitation to one of her dinner parties might. It was weird, the way little things like that turned the wheels of destiny. I’ve always wondered if history is missing some story like how the Founding Fathers only declared independence because Martha Washington served amazing stew every time there was a Continental Congress.
I sat back down. The conversation had shifted. Bill was asking Ally why the house was called Ithaca; Ally was giggling and saying she was sworn to secrecy.
The chair next to me was empty. The doorbell rang again. I opened the door again.
“Hello,” said Pirindiel, ducking and fidgeting awkwardly to fit his tall winged form through the door. “I am here. I brought you an offering.” He held out a bouquet of extremely dead flowers.
I shot Erica a look, which I hoped encoded You invited a fallen angel to the dinner party? Really? She shot a look back, which I interpreted asWell, he’s part of The Cause, and he probably doesn’t get out much, and also, shut up.
“When did you get those flowers?” asked Erica, patiently.
“A month ago,” said Pirindiel. “The day you invited me. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t forget.”
“You do remember,” asked Erica, “that flowers wilt after being dead for too long?”
Pirindiel’s face fell. It was obvious that he’d forgotten. Erica shot me a don’t shoot me any looks look, so I didn’t. Fallen angels were alwaysforgetting little things like the tendency of earthly life to decay and die. Or wondering why the news today was different than the news six months ago. Or being surprised again and again when people turned out to be not very nice. It was why they were usually complete wrecks.
Ana was actually the last to arrive, even though she lived here. She looked ethereally beautiful as she descended the staircase, a bag of books in her hand. She reached the table, sat down beside me, started passing out books, one per person. “Fellow Singers, the Book of Job.”
There weren’t enough copies of the Book of Job for all of us, which was either a metaphor or bad planning on Ana’s part. Pirindiel knew it by memory, which made things a little easier, and Erica was still at the stove preparing the main course, but I still ended up sharing a copy with Ally.
“The Book of Job,” said Ana. She had the voice of a singer, lowercase-s, though as far as I knew she’d never had any vocal training. When she spoke, people listened. “Totally unique among Biblical manuscripts. It’s not set in Israel, but in Uz – maybe somewhere in Arabia. It probably predates Israel as a settled state. It’s written in a much older form of Hebrew than any other Biblical book. It gets quoted in Isaiah, which means it’s older than the prophets. It gets quoted in Psalms, which means it’s older than King David. The lexicon is totally different, so many foreign words that scholars suspect it was written in something else and translated later on, so maybe older than the Hebrew language itself. This thing is old. And there’s one other difference between Job and the rest of the Bible. Job is…it’s self-aware. It takes these questions that we all want to ask, reading the rest of the Bible – if God is good and all-powerful, how come there’s so much evil in the world? – and instead of ignoring them it runs into them head on. Like, haven’t you ever read the Bible, and had questions, and wish you could just ask them to God directly? Job is the book where someone actually does that.”
Ana’s enthusiasm wasn’t exactly infectious, but it was honest. You didn’t always become interested in what Ana was talking about, but it was hard not to become interested in Ana.
“But it’s also the greatest disappointment in the history of literature. You have this frame story where the very righteous man Job falls on hard times, and he asks his friends why this is happening to him, and his friends say that surely bad things never happen to good people, so Job must have done something wrong. Job insists that he hasn’t, and he’s right – in fact, later, God’s going to command that the friends sacrifice various animals to atone for besmirching Job’s name in this way. Job is just a really, really righteous guy who suffers an immense amount. And finally, we get to the climax, where Job demands an answer, and God appears in the whirlwind, and we think we’re finally going to get to hear the official, Biblically-approved answer to this problem at the heart of religion and human existence, and God just says…He says…well, open your books.”
Ana took a deep breath in, and although she was short and adorable she did her best to speak in the booming voice of God:
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: ‘Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me: Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding: who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?'”
She went on in this vein. We listened. One thing Ana hadn’t mentioned about Job is that it was spectacular poetry. We tend to think of the Bible as a bunch of boring begats, but Job dazzles beyond our wildest expectations.
“Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons? Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth? Canst thou lift up thy voice to the clouds, that abundance of waters may cover thee? Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go and say unto thee, Here we are?”
“As a physicist,” said Bill Dodd, “I feel obligated to say that we can send lightnings! All you need is something that produces a high enough voltage, like a big van der Graaff generator.”
Ana turned to Bill, with fire in her eyes. Her God impression was getting scarily on point. “Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn? Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee? Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever? WILT THOU PLAY WITH HIM AS WITH A BIRD?”
“Sheesh,” said Ally Hu, who was reading ahead in our shared copy. “God is so obsessed with this whole Leviathan thing. First He is talking about the earth and the stars and the clouds, and then He decides no, I will just drop everything and focus on Leviathan for three chapters.”
“God is canonically really obsessed with Leviathan,” I said. “In the Talmud, Rav Yehuda says that there are twelve hours in a day. God spends three of them studying Torah, three judging the world, three answering prayers, and three playing with Leviathan. That’s a quarter of God’s time, which you have to imagine is pretty valuable.”
Everyone looked at me. I shrugged. “The Talmud is kind of crazy.”
“You know,” said Bill Dodd, “what is Leviathan, anyway? Like a giant whale or something, right? So God is saying we need to be able to make whales submit to us and serve us and dance for us and stuff? Cause, I’ve been to Sea World. We have totally done that.”
“Leviathan is a giant sea dinosaur thing,” said Zoe Farr. “Like a plesiosaur. Look, it’s in the next chapter. It says he has scales and a strong neck.”
“And you don’t think if he really existed, we’d Jurassic Park the sucker?” asked Bill Dodd.
“It also says he breathes fire,” said Eli Foss.
“So,” proposed Erica, “if we can find a fire-breathing whale with scales and a neck, and we bring it to Sea World, then we win the Bible?”
“What I think my esteemed cousin meant to say,” Ana said cheerfully, dropping the God act, “is that God argues here that we’re too weak and ignorant to be worthy to know these things. But then the question becomes – exactly how smart do we have to be to deserve an answer? Now that we can, as Bill puts it, send lightning through the sky, now that we can capture whales and make them do tricks for us, does that mean we have a right to ask God for an explanation? Discuss!”
“Maybe,” said Ally Hu, “God does not say that we are not worthy. Maybe God says that we can’t understand. That we are maybe not smart enough.”
“But,” said Eli Foss, “when kids aren’t smart enough to understand something, we give them the simple explanation. Like when kids ask about lightning, we say that the clouds rub up against each other and make sparks. It’s not totally right. But it’s better than nothing.”
Erica stood up tall, doing her best impression of an overbearing mother. “Who darkeneth counsel with words without knowledge? Canst thou graduate college? Canst thou go unto the office, and bring back $40,000 a year? When the dishwasher breaketh, is it thou who repairest it?”
Everybody laughed, except Pirindiel, who muttered something like “Do parents really talk that way?”
“My doctor talks that way,” said Zoe Farr. “Whenever I question him about something, he just looks and me and says in this voice, ‘Which one of us went to medical school?'”
“The book of Job actually makes a hell of a lot of sense if you suppose God is a doctor,” Erica agreed.
“And!” Zoe Farr added, “it would explain why doctors think they’re God!”
“Seriously!” said Ana. “Who does that? Other than doctors, I mean. Job is asking this very reasonable question – how come I, a righteous man, have been made to suffer immensely? God actually knows the answer – it’s because He wanted to win a bet with Satan – but instead of telling Job that, He spends like three entire chapters rubbing in the fact that He’s omnipotent and Job isn’t. Why would you do that?”
“The part with the Satan is weird,” said Ally Hu. “If really this is God’s reason, then the reason for Job’s suffering is different from the reason for everyone else’s suffering. Right? Bad things happen to most people, but maybe it is not because of bet between God and Satan at all times?”
“Girl’s got a point,” said Bill Dodd.
“I remembered,” Ally Hu continued “when we left of the Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire. I keep asking my parents, ‘What is happening? Where do we go?’ because I was young. They say ‘We are going to a vacation’ and I say ‘But why are we going to a vacation during school time?’ Then they got very angry with me and told me I should mind my own beehive.”
“Beeswax,” Bill Dodd corrected.
“But they were trying to protect me. They knew if I hear the real answer, I would start crying, become upset, maybe run away. Maybe the real reason God allows evil is something terrible. Maybe He is trying to protect us from knowing something.”
Everyone was quiet for a second.
“In the Talmud,” said Eli Foss, “Rabbi Akiva says that apparent evil is always for a greater good. For example, he tells the story of the time when he was traveling to a town, and no one would let him stay in the inn, so he tried to camp in the woods, but his fire went out and he was alone in the cold and the darkness. But that night, a bunch of bandits raided the town and killed and enslaved everybody. If Akiva had been staying in the inn, or if he’d had a fire burning, they would have found him and killed him.”
“That’s stupid,” said Erica. “God could just make there not be bandits. Yes, sometimes some suffering is necessary to prevent even greater suffering, but then you ask why there has to be the greater suffering, and if you keep pushing it back further then eventually you get to the greatest suffering of all and the buck stops there.”
“In a different part of the Talmud,” I said, “Rabbi Akiva gives a different explanation. He says that even the Heaven-bound righteous have a few sins, and since those sins won’t be punished in Heaven, they have to be punished here on Earth. Therefore, the righteous suffer on Earth. But even the Hell-bound wicked have a few virtues. And since those virtues won’t be rewarded in Hell, they have to be rewarded here on Earth. Therefore, the wicked prosper on Earth. Then people ask why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper, and it looks like a mystery, but it actually makes total sense.”
“As a physicist,” said Bill Dodd, “I would think you could model that as a bimodal distribution of suffering. But instead intuitively there’s more of a normal distribution of suffering. And although people complain that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, there’s not a perfect correlation. I don’t even know if there’s a correlation at all. It seems more like suffering happens at random regardless of how good a person you are.”
“I was raised Catholic,” said Zoe Farr. “In church school, we always learned that evil is just the absence of good. So God didn’t create evil, He just created a finite and limited amount of good, not always as much as we’d like. So people aren’t as nice as they could be, and sometimes the weather forms storms and tornadoes, but it’s not because there’s this active force called Evil out there, it’s just because the weather is doing its own thing unrestrained by God pouring infinite amounts of Good into it.”
“No!” said Ana forcefully, abandoning her role as referee and joining in the discussion. “That’s not right. There are certainly bad people who just fulfill their natural selfishness without having any good to get in the way. The bankers, CEOs of theonomics, UNSONG agents, cops, politicians. They just do what the system tells them, follow their incentives with no concern for the consequences. But then there are other people. Your sadists. Your serial killers. People who delight in causing other people pain. Elie Wiesel said the opposite of love wasn’t hate, it was indifference. I beg to differ. Any of you ever read about what the Japanese did to the Chinese in Nanking? The Nazis, you know, mostly they just wanted some people dead and went about it in a horrifically efficient way. The Japanese, they enjoyed it. They worked hard on it. They deviated from efficiency, from self-interest, they sacrificed their own self-interest to be as perfectly cruel as possible. And Hell. Thamiel and his demons. They’re not indifferent. They’re evil. There’s a difference.”
“I mean, it looks like there’s a difference to us,” said Zoe Farr, “but maybe on a metaphysical level, that sort of depravity is just what a total, absolute absence of good looks like.”
“I remember seeing a video,” said Ana “of the President’s summit with the Devil. It was in this big hall. First the President came in, and they all played the Star-Spangled Banner. Then Thamiel came in, and the band played…played the anthem of Hell. It was horrible. I didn’t even know instruments could make noises like that. They were all out of tune and fighting with each other and going at weird intervals that tricked the ear and made me want to pull my hair out.”
“So?” asked Zoe. “Maybe the Hell music was just the total absolute absence of good in music.”
“No,” said Ana. “There’s good music. And then there’s total silence. And then there’s that. It’s not silence. It’s the opposite of music.”
“Unsong,” I suggested.
Everyone except Ana laughed.
“Yes,” she said. “Unsong.”
“Garlic angel hair!” Erica said at that moment, and brought a big pot of pasta to the table. Everyone made approving noises except Pirindiel, who asked something about where one could find these garlic angels, and who had to be taken aside and given a quick explanation. The angel took some pasta and half-heartedly put it in his cup of soup.
“The reason I bring all of this up,” said Ana in between mouthfuls, “is that here we are. We’re Unitarians and singers. We’ve got a Movement. We think we’re on the side of Good. We know what’s evil. Evil is when UNSONG and the theonomics try to control the Names of God and keep them from the people. We think we know what we have to do. We have to take up Reverend Stevens’ crusade and spread the Names to as many people as possible. On a political level this all makes sense. But on a theological level, even Reverend Stevens barely touched this. Why does God have these Names that work miracles, but not tell us what they are? Why does He suffer them to be distributed throughout a namespace that can only be searched through a combination of cryptological acumen and brute force? Why does He permit them to be hidden by klipot, by which they can be bought and sold without letting the customer grasp their true structure? Why would He create enough magic to make the world a paradise for all living things, then place it somewhere it can be kept in a locked vault to enrich the few? Why, as the Bible put it, does He hide His light under a bushel?”
“Seems clear enough to me,” said Bill Dodd. “God’s not a big guy in the sky. He’s just a force, like physical forces, but on a higher level. He doesn’t plan these things, any more than anyone plans gravity. It just happens.”
“So you’re denying the Bible?” Eli Foss said, somewhat less intimidating than intended due to a mouth full of pasta. “We’re sitting here at a table with an angel and a kabbalist, and you’re denying the Bible?”
“Look, we all know that the Bible was given by Uriel, not God. Most of it just records Uriel’s interventions in the world, which are usually well-intentioned but certainly not omniscient. Why not the Book of Job too? Job asks a hard question and gets yelled at. Sounds exactly like Uriel on a bad day. I can even imagine him going on about the Leviathan for like an hour, describing how interesting he finds each of its fins and teeth and things while Job gets more and more confused.”
A couple of people snorted.
“But Uriel,” said Eli Foss, “has always said he’s just trying to follow God’s plan, as he understands it.”
“The Pope says the same thing,” said Bill Dodd. “That doesn’t mean he’s met the guy.”
“Someone must have created the world!” protested Ally Hu. “And all the angels, and the Names, and the kabbalah!”
“I’m not saying there’s not a Creator force,” said Bill Dodd. “I’m just saying it shouldn’t be thought of as a person.”
“Thomas Aquinas,” said Zoe Farr, “tells us that God is not a person, not at all, not even close, but can sometimes be compared to one, since a person is the most intelligent entity we have to compare it to. It’s like how they used to say the brain was a telephone switchboard. It’s much more than that, but if all you have as a metaphor is a telephone switchboard, it’s better than nothing.”
“But if God can’t even figure out,” said Bill Dodd, “that if you want perfect good you should avoid having evil, well, whatever it is He is, it’s got to be kind of dumb.”
“Oh, oh,” said Pirindiel, and there was worry in his eyes. “You shouldn’t say that. That’s blasphemy.”
“Be nice, Bill,” said Ana, “there are angels here.”
“I feel like we’re forgetting something pretty important,” said Erica. “I hate to go all dualist here, but we know there’s a Hell. We know there’s a Devil. I’m not saying that God and the Devil are exactly equally powerful, but maybe it’s not quite so one-sided that God can just steamroll over Thamiel without a second thought? Maybe there’s some kind of strategic balance thing going on?”
Ana looked shocked. Pirindiel looked horrified. But it was Eli Foss who spoke first. “Erica,” he said. “God is one. That’s the whole point. You can’t just go around saying there are two separate beings with similar levels of godlike power. That’s like saying there are two gods. It’s serious, serious blasphemy.”
“Well,” said Erica, “maybe if God didn’t want people saying the Devil’s just as powerful as He is, He should stop making the world full of evil just as much as good. Maybe if He didn’t want us saying He’s too weak to save everyone who’s sick, or suffering, or in Hell, He should get off His cosmic ass and save them.”
When Ana spoke now, it was very serious. “Moreover the LORD answered Job, and said, Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? he that reproveth God, let him answer it. Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous?”
“Huh!” I exclaimed. Everyone looked at me.
“That verse from the Rubaiyat. The one Nixon used in the 70s. It goes, um…
O thou, who burns with tears for those who burn
In Hell, whose fires will find thee in thy turn
Hope not the Lord thy God to mercy teach
For who art thou to teach, or He to learn?
…that’s from Job. It’s got to be. Khayyam must have read Job.”
“Well,” said Zoe, “it’s certainly got the right amount of condescension.”
“What are we talking about?” asked Pirindiel.
“Hast thou an arm like God?” Ana recited. “Or canst thou thunder with a voice like Him?”
“Okay,” said Bill Dodd. “We get the idea.”
“Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty!”
“Is somebody saying there are two gods?” asked Pirindiel. “Because God is one.”
“Cast abroad the rage of thy wrath: and behold every one that is proud, and abase him!”
“Okay,” said Ally Hu. “That’s enough.” She grabbed the Book of Job from Ana’s hands. Ana grabbed it back. A tug of war.
“Dessert’s ready!” said Erica.
“God is One and His Name is One,” insisted Pirindiel. “This is very important.”
“It’s devil’s food cake!” Erica said, bringing the plate to the table.
“No!” Pirindiel shouted at Erica and her cake, and in a flash he was on his feet, sword of fire materializing in his hands, rushing towards her.
Ally pulled the book away from Ana.
“This is not how we do theodicy in this house!” I shouted at Ally and Ana.
“HELP!” shouted Ana. “IMMIGRANTS ARE STEALING MY JOB!”
“WAIT!” said Bill Dodd. “I just got it! The house is called Ithaca because it’s where theodicy happens. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.”
“It’s just dessert!” Erica screamed at the oncoming Pirindiel.
“No!” Ana shouted. “That’s the whole point of Job! There are no just deserts!”
I reached into my pocket, pulled out my scroll wheel, and activated the Thunderclap Name. A deafening boom filled the room. Everybody went silent.
“Thanks, Aaron,” Erica said, defeated.
“Everyone sit down!” I said. “Pirindiel, sword away! No more theodicy! Time for dessert!”
I remember the day I asked Ana on a date.
It was my third week in Ithaca. I’d just finished moving my bed into my room with the help of one of the other group home residents, a tall Asian guy who didn’t like to talk very much. I was sweaty and thirsty, I’d gone into the common room to drink some Gatorade, and found Ana already there reading a book. We’d started talking, and somehow gotten onto the subject of the Shem haMephorash, the Explicit Name of God, the True Name, the Most Holy Name, which gave its wielder power over all Creation.
“The Explicit Name is ‘Harold’,” I told her.
“No,” she answered. “The Explicit Name is ‘Juan’.”
“But,” I said, “in the Lord’s Prayer, we say ‘Our Father in Heaven, Harold be thy name.'”
“But,” Ana objected, “in the Shema, we say ‘Hear O Israel – the Lord is Juan.'”
“But,” I said, “all angels are angels of the Lord, and the song says ‘Hark, the Harold angels sing.”
“But,” Ana objected, “the Aleinu ends ‘God is Juan, and His name is Juan.'”
“But,” I said, “Christians say Jesus is God. And they give his name as Jesus H. Christ. What might the H stand for? Harold! ”
“But,” Ana objected, “think about it. Who names their kids Jesus? Mexican people, that’s who! And what kind of names do Mexican people have? Names like Juan! Q period E period D period!”
She actually said Q period E period D period. I felt a wave of affection crash over me and through me, stronger than any other I had ever known. Before my frontal lobes could push through a veto, I blurted out: “Ana, would you go on a date with me?”
Ana’s face fell. “Aaron,” she said. “I’m asexual.”
“So?” I said. “I asked you for a date, not for sex.”
“If we went on a date, we would be talking and enjoying each other’s company. That’s what we’re doing now. So what’s the problem?”
“If not being on a date is exactly the same as being on a date, why do you want to go on a date? Why don’t we stay here, in the living room?”
“Hey! That’s not fair!”
“Human attraction never is.”
“Well, it should be!”
Ana rolled her eyes. “You realize you’re talking to the Augustine Distinguished Scholar in Theodicy? The girl who picketed in front of the World’s Fair back in 2012, waving a sign saying “NO IT ISN’T?” You’re preaching to the euphemism-ing choir.”
I was briefly discombobulated, then regained my combobulation. “Look,” I said, “I really like you. I want you to like me back. Dates are like a universally recognized signal of this.”
“What if I just told you outright that I liked you?”
“I want it to be official!”
“I could give you a certificate. I have an uncle who’s a notary public. We could make him sign.”
I choked back a tear. “Ana, this is serious.”
Her expression changed. “I’m serious too,” she said. “I like you. You’re funny and interesting and you know the mystical secrets of Juan. But everything around romance – the flowers, the silly looks, the candlelight dinners. I am not into these things. I’m happy to talk with you, to live with you, even to grab dinner with you if you’re hungry. But I don’t want to date.”
“If you’re going to grab dinner, why not call it a date? It’s just a word.”
She shut her book with great force. “Did you really say ‘just a word’? You call yourself a kabbalist! Words have power! Words are the only tools we have to connect the highest levels of our intellect to the mysteries of reality! Once we describe something with a word, things happen! It’s been given a life of its own! The angels are on notice, working their secret little works around it, starting reverberations that echo across the entire structure! Words are the vestment of divinity, the innermost garments of Juan!”
I just sat there and took it. I didn’t say anything, because I was on the verge of tears, and if I spoke she would have noticed, and then I would have looked dumb, and she would have lost respect for me, or something, look, it sounds stupid when I write it down, but give me a break. I sat there silently, did not disturb Juan’s innermost garments with my speech.
Ana realized something was wrong. “Uh,” she said “if it helps, I am totally okay with you writing me flowery love poetry.”
“It helps a little,” I said.
“And…hmm…tell you what. Erica’s in the kitchen making curry. If you can eat one of the habanero peppers whole, without drinking water for a whole minute, I’ll give you a kiss.”
“Really?” I asked, and leapt to my feet, because I was a moron.
And I remember the day Ana and I got married.
It was towards the end of my first month at Ithaca. I’d just been let go from my job at Cash For Gold, and I was working on my application for Countenance. Erica was making curry, and because she was a terrible person who enjoyed making me miserable, she asked if I wanted another whole habanero. I winced and clutched my throat just thinking about it, then very politely told her no, in a way that might possibly have referenced Dante and the many terrors of the damned. She laughed.
“I’ll be honest,” she said. “Nobody else has ever had the guts to eat one of those. What were you THINKING?”
“I wanted to impress Ana,” I said.
I looked towards Ana, who was sitting at the table, scanning for offense. None was found. “I have a crush on her, and it was getting awkward, so she tricked me into eating a chili pepper to disengage myself from the situation.” Then, feeling guilty about my elision, I told her the whole story.
Erica looked delighted. “You’re in love with my cousin!” she announced to no one in particular.
“She’s not interested,” I said glumly.
Erica took this information in, chewed it over for a moment. Then: “Wait! I’ve got it! You should get married.”
I rolled my eyes. “She won’t even – ”
“Wait,” said Ana. “Yes! Erica, you’re brilliant!”
“You won’t go on a date with me, but you will marry me? How does that even…”
Ana was gone, a dash up the stairs. A few seconds later, she returned with a notebook.
“Okay,” she said. “So a while ago I was thinking – Aaron, you’ll like this – you know how there have been later additions to the Bible, like the end of Mark 16 or the part in John 7-8? And kabbalists have mostly ignored those, first of all out of totally unjustified prejudice against the New Testament, and second of all because, well, if they were added in by later readers they can’t metaphorically represent the secret structure of the universe? But I thought – what if the later additions to the Bible metaphorically represent later additions to the secret structure of the universe? So I ran a couple of them through Rubenstein’s Sieve and normalized the results, divided the whole thing by “aleph-tet-nun” as the most appropriate Boston Triplet, and sure enough I got five subfactors, one of which gets the right Maharaj Rank for a potential Name. After like a week of trying I was able to free it from a relatively weak klipah…”
“You discovered a Name?” I asked. Not more than a dozen kabbalists alive had discovered Names the old fashioned way, the proper way, by genius alone.
“It was total luck!” she insisted. “And nobody else was crazy enough to look in the additions.”
“Well?” I asked, buzzing with excitement. “What does it do?”
“Unclear,” said Ana.
“It marries people,” said Erica.
“Sort of,” said Ana.
“Sacred kabbalistic marriage of minds,” said Erica.
“SCABMOM for short,” said Ana. “But I haven’t gotten it to work quite right yet.”
She described the moment of discovery. Tasting the new Name, pregnant with possibilities. The feel of the Name itself entering her brain, unlocking secret wisdom. A ritual. Certain words.
She’d grabbed Erica from the kitchen over her protests and dragged her into her bedroom, where she had arranged four candles in an approximate square. Around the perimeter of the square, she’d sprinkled colored sand in the shape of Hebrew letters; ten colors, twenty two letters per side.
“Love of God, we just had those carpets cleaned!” Erica objected. “I hope for your sake you’re able to get all of that out with the vacuum.”
“Shhhh,” said Ana. “Repeat after me, but change the names. I, Ana Thurmond,”
“…I, Erica Lowry,”
“In full knowledge of the consequences, call upon the symbols and angels of the world…”
“Wait, what are the consequences?”
“Shhh! This is just a test! Now we’ve got to start over! I, Ana Thurmond,”
“I, Erica Lowry,”
“In full knowledge of the consequences, call upon the symbols and angels of the world…”
“In…bah…full knowledge of the consequences, call upon the symbols and angels of the world…”
“The higher and the lower spheres”
“The higher and the lower spheres”
“And the Master of them all”
“And the Master of them all”
“To join us at the root, as mountains to the Earth”
“To join us at the root, as mountains to the Earth”
“And rivers to the ocean”
“And rivers to the ocean”
“And stars to the firmament”
“And stars to the firmament”
“And so we invoke the Holy Name, IYAR-NA-AVANTE-SHOK-TEHAN-MI-LEVAN-ZA-NAONE-KHETH-ULAT”
“And so we invoke the Holy Name, IYAR-NA-AVANTE…uh…SHOK-TEHAN…MI? Uh…LEVAN? SHA…no, wait…ZA…NAONE-KHETH-ULAT”
(here the candles start to darken)
“For God is One”
“For God is One”
“And His Name is One”
“And His Name is One”
“And we are One.”
“And we are One.”
“And it is done.”
“And it is done.”
Then all the letters of colored sand glowed red, then green, then white. And the candles laid round made a high-pitched sound and flared up in a burst of light. And Erica screams, and Ana seems to be gazing far away. And she briefly fits, but she gathers her wits just in time to hear her say “ANA LOOK THE LETTERS HAVE BURNED THEMSELVES INTO THE CARPET YOU ARE IN SO MUCH TROUBLE.”
“How do you feel?” Ana asked.
“ANGRY,” said Erica.
“Other than that?” Ana asked.
“NOTHING ELSE CAN GET THROUGH THE HOT FLAMES OF MY ANGER” Erica protested.
“Huh. I don’t feel any different either.”
“But,” Ana told me, “over the next couple of weeks, we would get these…intimations from each other. Like I would be on one side of the house, and I would feel like something was wrong, and I’d go find Erica, and she would have just burned herself by accident. Or I’d be feeling really sad about something, and Erica would say ‘you look sad’, even though I wasn’t showing it at all.”
“Great,” I said. “You’re like those people who say they have psychic powers on TV. Maybe one day the phone will ring and you’ll know who’s calling before you pick it up. Spooky.”
“I don’t think we did it right,” said Ana. “We weren’t the right people. I could feel the inadequacies in the ritual. And I’ve been thinking – this is Biblical stuff, so maybe the marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman.”
“Or at least two people who aren’t cousins,” Erica suggested.
“No!” said Ana. “The Bible is totally in favor of marrying cousins! Esau married his cousin! Jacob married both of his cousins!”
“But,” I said, “your Name came from some sort of later addition, and was in the New Testament to boot. Maybe it’s a product of a more sophisticated age.”
“Hmmmm,” said Ana. Then: “I’ll get the colored sand!”
“YOU DO IT OUTSIDE THIS TIME,” Erica insisted.
And so it was only about a half hour later, after numerous fits and starts due to the sand blowing away in the wind, that the two of us stood amidst the candles and spoke the holy Name IYAR-NA-AVANTE-SHOK-TEHAN-MI-LEVAN-ZA-NAONE-KHETH-ULAT.
And Ana said: “And God is One.”
And I answered: “And God is One”
“And His Name is One.”
“And His Name is One.”
“And we are One.”
“And we are One.”
“And it is done.”
“And it is done.”
We stared into each other’s eyes for a moment after that. What we were looking for, I don’t know. Looking back, I think I secretly hoped that it would fill her with love for me. What she hoped, if anything, I don’t know. But we stared at each other for a while, and finally Ana said:
“Wait. Think something at me.”
And I thought: [ Ruth and Bowhead ]
“Holy euphemism the first thing ever in history communicated telepathically and it’s one of your stupid Biblical whale puns, that wasn’t even a good one, I am so done with this.”
And I thought: [ Shamu Yisrael, HaShem elokeinu…]
“Aaaagh, stop, why did I give you the ability to communicate with me telepathically? Why? WHY? What’s that thing Erica always says? Oh, right. This was the biggest mistake of my life and I hope I die.”
Authors and their booksEdit
These are references to real authors and books:
Zayinty the economist = Raj Chetty
Chetlock the prognosticator = Philip E. Tetlock
Tetkowsky the futurist = Eliezer Yudkowsky
Yudka the novelist = Franz Kafka
good old Kaf ben Clifford = Lamed ben Clifford
Nachman Bernstein’s Divinity = Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence
Menelaus Moleman’s Letter to the Open-Minded Atheist. = Mencius Moldbug's An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives
Gebron and Eleazar’s Kabbalah: A Modern Approach = Norvig and Russel's Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (their names are reversed)
Ben Aharon’s Gematria Since Adam = Scott Aaronson's Quantum Computing since Democritus
Rachel Sephardi’s Arriving At Aleph = Leah Libresco's Arriving at Amen
Rav Kurtzweil’s The Age Of Mechanized Spirituality = Ray Kurtzweik's The Age of Intelligent Machines
Eliezer ben Moshe = ?
Salby = From The Northern Caves, a web original fiction story
These are references to real tech companies:
Microprosopus = Microsoft
Gogmagog = Google
Amalek = Amazon
Countenance = Facebook
Tetragrammaton = Yahoo
Serpens = Apple
Whaling wall: The Wailing Wall is the only remaining wall of the Second Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.