I Won’t Know What Pittsburgh Means

Sometimes, when I’m bored, I imagine something truly preposterous—a man of space and time.

Such a man would not see the world the way we do. I like to think he’d divide things neatly into cubic meters, or perhaps (with a nod to the issue of establishing an absolute frame of reference for such a grid) take a square meter at ground level and extend it down to the center of the earth and outward indefinitely to capture a slice of the universe. His whole reality would have a fixed population of around 510 trillion such square-meter-based slices, and they would be the objects of all his explanations.

Take this slice, here. The way we’d describe it, it bursts forth from the surface of the earth, capturing within its square meter steel girders, pockets of air, human beings and many of their artifacts (thousands of pieces of plastic), millions of insects, billions of bacteria, miles of ever-thinner atmosphere, empty space, then maybe a chunk of the moon, and so on. This square meter happens to slice through a Manhattan office building, but it has cousins that extend through the ocean and the planets, nightstands and nebulae.

Of course, we are not men of space and time. We see only what we have been taught to see in a world long-trained in souls and essences. The actual man of space and time, with this wool pulled from his eyes, sees one being in this extended square meter, gargantuan and beautiful, possessing infinite potential. This single being (call it a squeter) is an admixture of mineral, vegetable, animal, and human parts remaining at rest or passing in and out of it in mysterious motion. A thirty-meter horizontal steel girder, to the man of space and time, is really an illusion produced by the similarities we see in thirty neighboring squeters, like a “human chain” is just a bunch of individuals holding hands in our benighted understanding. What we call “millions of insects” are just small shifting portions of the squeter, none of them independent of its being. And if you ask: but the insects will move from one squeter to another? you have still missed the point.

You see, the man in space and time is free from your compulsive need to cut the universe into neat little pieces, a human being here, a bug there. Humans and bugs (or parts of humans and parts of bugs) are illusions imposed by the way we’re taught to think. A human torso occupies one squeter, while the arm attached to it occupies its neighbor. Why in the world should we say the arm has more connection with the person than with the asphalt or the beetle with which the arm shares its squeter? The arm belongs to the space, not to the man!

“But wherever the person goes, the arm goes! And it’s made of the same stuff as the person! And they’re physically attached! And the arm serves a purpose to the man!”

Well, of course you think of the arm and the person moving together, since you are unenlightened. You probably think the drawing in a flipbook or the pixels on your screen “move together,” too, until you realize they’re just tiny specks of color moving independently producing the illusion of a unified object. Of course you judge by what things are made of, rather than the space they occupy. You probably think that if a fly is attached to fly paper that flies are made of paper, or that since a cup’s purpose is to hold liquid, the liquid is part of the cup. There are all matters of interpretation, the man in space and time would assure you. What right do you have to impose your prejudices upon his way of seeing things?

The man in space and time divides up the world in a way that appears arbitrary and absurd to us, but it is not to simple to explain why it is arbitrary and absurd. The “facts” alone help us nothing. It’s a question of interpretation.

And the question of interpretation is far from theoretical. This week has me thinking about little else. How do things actually divide up? How are we to slice up the world we see, and what justifies our chosen criteria?

The blood of Jews has barely dried in Pittsburgh. Already, the men of space and time have offered their best theories on how to slice the pie.

Perhaps the way to view Pittsburgh is as a continuation of American mass murder, and other details are incidental; statistically, a violent madman was going to come for the Jews eventually, whatever the motivation. Or perhaps we should look at it as an expression of growing right-wing extremism, different from mass murders five or ten years ago and centered primarily around anti-immigrant, rather than anti-Jewish, sentiment. Perhaps the attack is an extension of Jew-hatred and mounting anti-Semitism in the US. Maybe it is an expression of the social malaise that has drug overdoses and suicide on the rise. It could be about racism or about guns, about President Trump or about Bibi Netanyahu, about Israel or about the growing influence of the far left.

All of these divisions, these approaches to slicing up the facts, I have seen this week. Some appear more reasonable, some more absurd. But this distinction is itself due to idiosyncrasies, to the way my mind works differently than others’, to the divergence in our experience.

Ultimately, then, I cannot blame those of us who wish to step back from pattern recognition and from story-crafting. I do not regret or renounce my disinclination to make of Pittsburgh a “thing.” If there are those Jews among us who step back from the analysis, let the story be G-d’s, and focus on fulfilling their duty, on repentance and good deeds—perhaps this is the beginning of wisdom.