Building in massive redundancy to ensure that we stay connected to what’s important in life.
Staying connected seems to be one of the guiding principles of the modern technological world. Much of life happens ‘on line’ to enable us to communicate with our business, friends and family, stay on top of the news and be in touch with global events. Unless you belong to an increasingly small club of hermits that like the quiet life or can’t afford to be on the grid, chances are you have been sucked into the ever expanding system which binds us together, giving rise to the social density of contemporary society.
Taken abstractly, the sewing of the social fabric may been seen as a transition from discreet points—individuals locked into a locale due to the limits of travel and communication—to the opening of lines of exchange. These lines criss-cross more and more territory until an emergent network, or web, links virtually everyone to everyone else.
In Kabbalah and Chassidic philosophy, reflections upon any given phenomenon in life are correlated to basic conceptual models. One of the most basic of these models is called nekudah (point), kav (line), shetach (area) or alternatively nekudah (point), sefirah (a linear spectrum), partzuf (a fully developed and interrelated constellation). While applicable in an endless number of contexts, for our purposes, we may highlight this threefold progression as the trend towards a system of communications in a fully networked world. Each end user is like an individual point. Connecting two people together establishes a direct line of communication. Connecting a group of people together, such that everyone is connected to everyone else, creates an interrelated constellation or an area network.
The Jewish mystics also teach that the first two stages are somewhat unstable. To be a point unto oneself—disconnected from the rest—is likened to a world of chaos or olam hatohu, as it is called in Hebrew. Social instability stems from an inability to relate one to the other—from a sense of disconnect. Opening lines of communication is the first step towards stabilization. The problem here is that single lines of communication tend to be polarized into us-them exchanges that are always at risk of breaking down due to excessive tensions. Consequently this state is considered to be a form of ‘stable’ chaos in Kabbalah. The world of rectification, or olam hatikun, by contrast represents a deep sense of interconnectivity. By linking each point along multiple lines of communication, we create multiple backup channels that can maintain the functionality of the network as a whole even if certain junctures are severed.
Stability is a function of redundancy. The key to keeping a system functioning is having layer upon layer of back up so that if one level of connectivity fails we can immediately switch over to another channel. In his visionary text, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, Eric Drexler captures the essence of the problem:
Redundancy works best when the redundant components are truly independent. If we don’t trust the design process, then we must use components designed independently; if a bomb, bullet, or cosmic ray may damage several neighboring parts, then we must spread redundant parts more widely. Engineers who want to supply reliable transportation between two islands shouldn’t just add more cables to a bridge. They should build two well-separated bridges using different designs, then add a tunnel, a ferry, and a pair of inland airports. (178)
Drexler goes on to drive home that the idea that true strength of redundancy, beyond making the redundant components really independent, is to use design diversity. The best suited way to accomplish this is “with different designs, all working in parallel.” (179)
One of the most intriguing features of Judaism is the impressive array of commandments. While the idea of the Ten Commandments is most commonly associated with the giving of the Torah, traditional Jewish observance acknowledges a grand total of 613 commandments. The question for most people is: why so many? Isn’t one enough? Why can’t we just believe in God or perhaps be good to others or something like that?
In the book of Psalms we find the commandments referred to as “the commandments of God [Havayah].” (19:9). The word used in this verse for God is the Tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable four letter name for the Divine. The Kabbalistic reading of this name involves the permutation of its letters to spell the word Havayah which means “Being” or ”Reality.” Moreover, cloaked behind the English translation of the world “commandment,” is another equally integral meaning: mitzvah (commandment) or the plural mitzvot (commandments) which stems from the etymology of tzavta v’chibur signifying the capacity to ‘bind and connect.’ Thus the expression of the psalmist may be reread as the “connections” of, or to, ultimate Reality/Being. To be in touch with reality or to be grounded in reality, to connect to the whole of existence, is framed as a redundant network of connections—613 in all.
With a logic similar to that outlined by Drexler, the sages of the Talmud assert that individual commandments can be assessed as the equivalent to the full set. One connection may be considered as if it were a manifestation of the sum total of all of the connections. For example, in the Jerusalem Talmud, the keeping of the Sabbath is considered as if one kept all of the commandments. In other words, the Sabbath may be seen as a lens for understanding the underlying significance of all of the other connections. The light of one of the 613 channels of communication colors the meaning of the other 612. This idea is further underscored by a mathematical analogy in that 613 is the equivalent of the word orot [אורות] meaning “lights.” This is done by translating the Hebrew letters into numbers according to a common interpretive method known as gematria. All lights reflect on each other.
Also, once one is already bound to or connecting with ultimate Reality through the observance of the Sabbath, then the other connections are (seemingly) redundant. This thinking holds for when a commandment is transgressed—which is another way of saying that a connection has been temporarily severed. If one connection fails however, the fact that there are so many backups and that those back ups are so different in external design, keeps the relationship alive. Drexler himself acknowledges this as a feature of systems engineering: “redundancy can bring an exponential explosion of safety.” (179) Consequently, the optimized system is to have all of the connections up and working at all times. Beyond being a safeguard or push for efficiency, having the whole network online maximizes its potential while minimizing the risk of outage.
Besides all relationships being equated with the Sabbath (which itself may be abstractly understood as the state of rest within a system—a state of equilibrium), there are numerous parallel statements made regarding other commandments. The Jerusalem Talmud also generalizes the nature of gemilut chassadim or ‘acts of kindness’ as embodying all of the commandments. Every commandment establishes a relationship bond that serves as an act of kindness. It is from here that the common association of mitzvot with good deeds comes about.
Likewise in the Babylonian Talmud, the giving of tzedaka or charity (although it literally means justice) sums up all of the commandments. They are all expressions of charity. Another example is milah or circumcision which contains within it the whole of the commandments. The inner dimensions of this observance have to do with the sensitizing of self within one’s creative connection to others. This is why we find circumcision applied to the tongue or the heart as they too relate to tactful speech and emotional sensitivity.
While there are many other examples we could cite, the main point is to emphasize how each connection serves as a representative for all the others. Each contact point acts as a conduit to the web of channels as a whole. Some kabbalistic texts even point out that there is a representation of the four letters of the name Havayah in every mitzvah. In other words, the full signature of Reality or the entirety of one’s Being can be seen as bound up in a single performative, a single connection. The four letters of the Tetragrammaton function as modes of Being which are linked together in the establishment of the connection or relationship embodied in the commandment.
By establishing a multiplicity of commandments that range from festivals and prayer to commerce and the construction of a civil society, the Torah strategically avoids the pitfalls of a single support structure for maintaining the spiritual bridge. In drawing from this a lesson for allsorts of connections in life, we can strive to emulate the same network effect. This way, if one connection is down or in need of repair, another can always be used to reroute to ensure continuity of service. Relationships—personal and professional, material or spiritual—can tolerate failures and overcome flaws if the basis of the relationship is multidimensional. So whether you are a structural engineer or a psychologist, mapping and tapping an overlapping tangle or constellation of connections may prove to be the most reliable solution for repairing and maintaining the world.