Shira Dicker: Hi I am Shira Dicker, and I am sitting here with David Birnbaum with whom I began an interesting journey I would say a couple of months ago. I am a writer. I am a blogger; I write fiction. I am a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. I am also a publicist, and I work on projects at the nexus of culture and religion, and to say that I am intrigued by David Birnbaum and his philosophy is really an understatement. I am intrigued, I am challenged, I want to get to understand it a little bit more, and before we even begin I just want to point out in case you didn’t notice, I came with a volume that really intrigues me the most, and I have been -- every page has been a surprise. There is philosophy and poetry and there is something that feels to me almost like diary writing, like the scribblings of the soul. So what I would like to do is begin by asking David to give an introduction to his philosophy to the Quest for Potential and I will also just start by saying one of the reasons I am here is because even before I began to unpack and get to understand David’s philosophy, something zapped me with the power of revelation and truth, and I believe that there are things that we know on a visceral and immediate intuitive level before we even understand on an intellectual level.
David Birnbaum: Correct.
Shira Dicker: So having that as an introduction I would like David for you to begin to explain the overarching philosophy behind this series.
David Birnbaum: So that’s a big question and I answer it sort of in three different volumes, Summa 1, Summa 2 and Summa 3. Summa 1 is religious man, Summa 2 is spiritual man, and Summa 3 secular man. However, when I was a youngster, I grew up in a modern orthodox home, modern orthodox Jewish home, and went to Modern Orthodox Jewish Day School, and neither in my home and my parents are high level people, or in [inaudible 2:32] which is a top day school, and in that school neither in the Hebrew department nor in the science labs were they able to answer any of the key questions. Nobody could answer any of the key questions where did the origin -- where did universe come from, what drives the universe, where is it heading, and in particular in the Hebrew department if there is a God then why is there gross evil, if there is a God what are the origins of God. So I was born in 1950. The Big Bang Theory emerged in the ‘30s and ‘40s. So where did the Big Bang come from? What originated the Big Bang? I happen to be an astronomy buff, my little hobby, and I have an ongoing real time feel for the developments in the field. And around 6th grade we had an extraordinary teacher Mrs. Stein [ph] and she dropped two coins which intrigued my little brain. Mrs. Stein was one of those great teachers which we all want to have once in our lifetime and anybody who graduated [inaudible 3:58] would tell you to this day, 40-50 years later, of her extraordinary impact on us.
And she taught two things over the course of the year. One was whoever could deal with somebody’s questions would shake the world, and she also told some of us to think big. So we sort of took her up on it and I just thought I would like to do this. But I intuited a few things that it was probably one concept glanced all these issues, one or the other, and number two, it was probably hiding in plain sight. Why did I say that? Because any concept powerful enough to have ignited the cosmic order to breathe life into life was probably still around, around us, we just weren‘t quite seeing it, and my job was sort of to absorb as many stimuli as I could and see if my mind could connect the dots. So let's say this journey began circa when I was age 10 and roughly when I was age 32 I know exactly in January 1982 I had the little Eureka moment and I realized one concept, infinite potential, might glance all these issues simultaneously. And I subsequently over the decades wrote these three volumes. Is that a fair answer?
Shira Dicker: That’s a fair answer. So let me take a step book. This is all very interesting. So I will reveal the following. So we are 10 years apart. I don’t know exactly when your birthday is but I was born in 1960. I am going to guess your upbringing was modern orthodox, something like that, mine was conservative, at the nexus though of orthodox practice but conservative theologies and very interestingly issues having to do, the metaphysical issues were raised and were discussed. So the first thing I want to ask you, and I may know the answer but I want to hear you speak a little bit more about this, is why do you think -- because I have heard this from other people, I am married to somebody from this kind of background -- why do you think there may have been an unwillingness or discomfort to raise issues of the metaphysical within contemporary orthodox?
David Birnbaum: Then or now?
Shira Dicker: Then, then.
David Birnbaum: Well in general, people don’t like to raise issues where they don’t have an answer. I think people knew they had no answer; there was no answer on the table. So I know I was afraid to frankly ask my father or my mother the question because I knew they had no answer, and I would really harass the youth directors in my synagogue. I would pick them up one after the other because I didn’t have to hold my punches [ph]. And I would gently broach it with the rabbinics and teachers, but I was more proactive with youth directors where I would be no holds barred without breaking their hearts.
Shira Dicker: So then I want to know number one what their reactions were, but also do you think -- because I remember a point in time before mystical matters, Kabbalah was not yet on the radar screen, it was really not where it is now. So the question is do you think it -- I want to know what your youth director said, what their reaction was and then I want you to maybe speak about the change in [inaudible 07:19] what was just not currently available I think to people.
David Birnbaum: Well I don’t think answers were available then or now unless you would get involved, deal with an integrated the Summa philosophy. I just don’t believe they exist, and in the intro to Summa 1, this is Summa 1, the religious man was originally titled God and Evil. And I do a survey of the responses over the centuries to the problem of evil and I listed the weaknesses in them and that section is considered a pretty comprehensive section by many people. So you can’t answer if you don’t have the answer. Now, you know – I mean you want to have a follow-up question to that? You want to follow a question to that?
Shira Dicker: Well I want to know because it's my perception, it's my perception that things have changed in the intervening years, things have that for instance I just came back from LE MOOD where you have quite a lot of conversation about ultimate issues, metaphysical issues underneath an orthodox rubric.
David Birnbaum: Right, okay. So you have more conversation, thank God, and of course LE MOOD is an extraordinary group as we know. And Judaism generally is a quest for truth. You know, I mean over the centuries Jews have always sought truth. My view of the chessboard is that I have given you a solution on a silver platter why don’t you take a taste. And I am aware that in the Jewish circles people like the solution to come from a very profoundly spiritual entity [inaudible 09:27] Heschel [ph] etc. and his words are treated with reverence, etc. and of course I respect the Heschel types, but people should remember anyone who has a stature of Heschel is basically playing by the rules to have gone to that stature, but anyone who plays by the rule is not going to solve these issues. That’s the conundrum.
So I don’t play by the rules. Although I am respectful of the rules but clearly I don’t play by the rules, and therefore I am able to deal with issues frontline. First you have to able to frankly state a problem in general life, you have to accept the problem before you get to a solution. If you don’t accept it as a problem you can’t get to a solution in general whether it’s personal, military, financial. So now I am not saying that I solve all the issues of religion, I think religion is an option just to be clear. I mean I walk the walk. I attend the Modern Orthodox, I serve at synagogues, and my kids were brought up in Modern Orthodox and [inaudible 10:38]. So I walk the walk, but intellectually and in my writings, I present religion as a viable option, legitimate valid option. Historically, most people write about physics, they have one or the other view points; either religion is good great or religion is terrible. It's rare that someone says it works but it's optional, and that’s why my position which is certainly dangerous position because you don’t have a built in constituency to give you added firepower.
Shira Dicker: Okay. So I want to just go back now so let's get back to the little David with the youth directors, you’re challenging them, you’re driving them crazy, they were like this kid, what’s he doing, he has so many questions, but maybe some of them were engaging and maybe I am going to guess some of them thought wow, what a really unusual bright little kid.
David Birnbaum: Whatever, yeah.
Shira Dicker: You have nurtured this theory, you have developed it. Tell me about the first time when you began to -- I have this word codify it, right, when you began to think to organize it into -- it was kicking around in your mind, okay.
David Birnbaum: Okay. So originally I focused on theodicy which is classic question if there is a God that’s all and all merciful why is there gross evil? It’s a classic question and it's used as one of the major attacks on religion that how do you believe in God if you have this gaping problem. There is a twin problem which is called Theogony which is where did this so to speak eternal God come from? Yes we understand you say God is eternal, very nice, but where did this eternal God come from. It's sort of a twin question to it. One could easily conjecture the answer to one might be the answer to the other. But my main focus was theodicy hoping, I felt if I had a potential solution it should solve both. If it solved both then I could actually invest in the theory. And I was looking for a concept which was sort of in plain sight but not something I could turbo charge. This whole concept in plain sight which is igniting cosmos that’s unrealistic, but maybe there was a gentle concept floating around in our daily lives which if it was turbo-charged or pivoted could conceivably, if you take a step back, have mega power to it.
So finally, I was actually on the beach in Barbados with my wife at the time Sharon and I was walking along the beach by myself and it sort of hit me okay potential would potentially solve both these problems, how is that? If potential is at the core of the universe, at the core of the divine, divine might have to withdraw to allow man his own potential. Of course I explain that in the book but that’s the gist of that. And if potential is at the core of the universe one can make a case that potential is eternal. If potential is eternal and potential is at the core of divine then we have one-two step that divine is eternal because the core of divine is potential, and since potential is eternal, the divine is eternal, and since the core of divine is potential, the divine cannot interfere too much with potential because it would be a cosmic suicide. If the divine has to give us space and autonomy and privacy because potential is at core of the universe, we can play with these terms and phrases more but you have got the basic drift. I realized there’s room to maneuver to play with these concepts so I walked back to my wife and I said, “Sharon, I think I just cracked the cosmic material,” and I got the look oh.
Shira Dicker: Great.
David Birnbaum: Anyway, and then I went back to New York to check the encyclopedias to see if anyone had used the word ‘potential’ prior, and that was a big moment for me. We didn’t have Google then to check Google. I went to like five or eight big libraries and got out the big encyclopedias, went through the table of contents and indexes and nobody had use it. And so I figured I had a basis for investigation and I worked on it for about six months on outline and my big bone [ph] was I called Larry Schiffman who became very famous in Jewish history to look at the three-page outline. So it was a big moment and I said what do you think? So he said -- he read it quickly, I don’t think he even took his coat off, and he said it's original, it's powerful, it's Neo Kabbalistic, and I hope you get it published, and so about six years later, it was published and then from there. But you need these -- you do need a Larry Schiffman entering your life to make things happen and he has been onboard over the decades actually.
Shira Dicker: So speaking of Neo-Kabbalistic so could you comment on the Kabbalistic-like idea of the God withdrawing oneself in Summa?
David Birnbaum: Okay. So let me preface by saying I am wary of Kabbalah in general. I am not jumping into the deep end of the Kabbalah pool and I am very wary of the centerpiece Kabbalistic book the Zohar, extremely wary of it. I would not quote from that book.
Shira Dicker: Okay.
David Birnbaum: That being said, there is a sub-stream of Kabbalah called the [inaudible 16:50] Kabbalah which has its own special feel to it. Now this of course is a very big question but I deal with the beginning -- Kabbalah has a beginning, a middle and an end to it and so does my theory. Can I expand a little bit about it?
Shira Dicker: Please, yeah.
David Birnbaum: The beginning of Kabbalah is that concept of Ein Sof, the no end, and remember my beginning concept is infinite potential. So you can see there is a sort of one-to-one correspondence. I want to make a case for one-to-one correspondence with infinite potential and Ein Sof, no end, meaning Kabbalah does not start where classic philosophy starts with the classic God of creation parting Red Sea. Kabbalah starts much earlier with the no-end concept sort of primordial divine. It's very important. It's not mainstream Jewish thought, but it's sort of legitimate thought in the Jewish Musar [ph]. And at the end point of Kabbalah, and not just [inaudible 18:12] Kabbalah is Tikkun ha-Olam, repair or protect the world depending on your -- or repair and perfect the world. And remember the endpoint of my little metaphysics is what I call extraordinaration which is the cosmic quest for spiritual, aesthetic, and across the board perfection. I want to make a case again that the two have a one-to-one correspondence. In the middle of Kabbalah you have the concept of Tzimtzum which is withdrawal of divine. In my little metaphysics, I have withdrawal of divine consciousness, again, if there is a divine. So I don’t use Kabbalah to prove my thesis, I am using it to tether my thesis from Jewish Musar and one does not have to tether metaphysics but the Jews like it, I know these people like. Is that a fair answer?
Shira Dicker: It's a fair answer. So let me bring it to the here now. I know my answer but I think that this is important. So here we are talking about why to use a title why bad things happen to good people, right, which really asks the question to God. We have daily acts of horrific evil happening in the world, okay and ultimately a philosophy of life exists in here and now and exists in what’s happening, filling the headlines. Is it -- I know my take if I see the latest horrible headline from whatever ISIS is doing or Boko Haram or you name the atrocity. I know my response and frankly it has nothing to do with God, but I am curios where evil acts perpetuated by human kind fit into your philosophical scheme.
David Birnbaum: Okay. So of course, again, this is why I started the series in the first place and it's one of these issues where you have to give it your best shot. You can't say you have total wisdom because you might have the wisdom until the evil hits you and then all of a sudden it all breaks down very quickly. But one would hope that you can even withstand that, God forbid. Okay so the question is so how does infinite potential ignite Cosmos order? Very nice you have infinite potential, how does it ignite the cosmos, right? So here we are going to tether it to a concept from the span of the history of ideas including Musar but not exactly Musar. And of course as I often do, I morph it, I morph ancient concepts a little bit. I posit that in Einstein theory to get us to atomic bomb you split the atom, right. You split the atom and you have atomic bomb, one tiny atom. And my theory is of course I read metaphysics and I wasn’t there at creation although my late mother might think I was, I was not there, is that infinite potential to split zero. Whatever zero is you split it and split the positive and negatives, male and female, and there’s no possibility just to split zero into positives that ideally infinite potential really just wanted to have positives in universe, but in order there to be creation itself there unfortunately had to be negative.
And frankly it works for me. When I witness these terrible things, it works for me although -- and for the universe itself, the cosmic world weeps along with us, weeps that there had to be the residue of serious evil. And I have a [inaudible 22:23] which I actually gave at [inaudible 22:26] directly linked to question, that’s why I am saying quickly, I have it in the book, is that originally that’s an author’s [inaudible 22:40] not that I am worthy to imagine this but authors sometimes have little liberty. I created [inaudible 22:49] that the God of Israel called [inaudible 22:51] of 100 angels to create the universe because it was going to be so evil and suffering and 99 of the angels said no, only one said yes for the creation of life, and on that basis the universe was created that the possibility of life triumphs the reality of evil because without the possibility of evil there could not have been anything. And on some level it was not just a decision back then, on some level I posit that we all made the decision, all of us somehow cumulatively, somehow retroactively that cumulatively we decided we’re going to go with it in spite of the strain of evil.
Shira Dicker: Okay there you go. That’s--