Interlude ג: Cantors and Singers

Those who speak the Names of God aloud are called cantors and singers. Like everything, these terms have both overt and kabbalistic meanings.

The overt meaning of “cantor” is “someone who chants”.

The kabbalistic meaning is “someone who works with infinity”.

This reading we derive from Georg Cantor, the German mathematician who explored the cardinality of infinite sets. He found that though the natural numbers – 1, 2, 3 and so on – were infinite, still there were fewer of them than there were “real” numbers like root 2, pi, and 0.239567990052… Indeed, not only were there two different levels of infinity, but it seemed likely that there were an infinite number of different infinities (and maybe one extra, to describe the number of infinities there were?)

The overall effect on him was much like the man in the limerick:

There once was a fellow from Trinity,
Who took the square root of infinity.
But the number of digits,
Quite gave him the fidgets;
And he dropped Math and took up Divinity.

Cantor began talking about how his discoveries were direct and personal revelations from God, who wished him to preach the gospel of infinity so that an infinite Deity could be better understood. He posited an Absolute Infinite, beyond all the forms of infinity he had discovered, with which God might be identified. Finally, he declared:

“I have never proceeded from any Genus supremum of the actual infinite. Quite the contrary, I have rigorously proved that there is absolutely no Genus supremum of the actual infinite. What surpasses all that is finite and transfinite is no Genus; it is the single, completely individual unity in which everything is included, which includes the Absolute, incomprehensible to the human understanding. This is the Actus Purissimus, which by many is called God.”

When he finally made his discoveries public, he chose a curious notation:

“It has seemed to me for many years indispensable to fix the transfinite powers or cardinal numbers by some symbol, and after much wavering to and fro I have called upon the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph. The usual alphabets seem to me too much used to be fitted for this purpose; on the other hand, I didn’t want to invent a new sign.”

A pragmatic account, utterly without reference to a two-thousand-year-old tradition of using the aleph to signify God. Nothing is ever a coincidence. The genealogies say his grandparents were Sephardic Jews, and if they weren’t kabbalists I will eat my hat.

The overt meaning of “singer” is “someone who sings”.

The kabbalistic meaning is “someone who tries to be good.”

This reading we derive from Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher who explored the depths of moral obligation. He imagined a man in a very nice coat walking by a pond. In the pond he sees a young child drowning, screaming for help. The man is quite a good swimmer and could easily save the child, but his nice coat would be ruined and would cost him $100 to replace. He decides he doesn’t want to ruin his coat and continues on his way, leaving the child to drown. Is this morally wrong?

Of course it is, said Singer, and this is important. It establishes a general moral principle that if you get the opportunity to save a child’s life for $100 you must take it. Yet we have very many opportunities to save a child’s life for $100. There are children starving in India; $100 would buy them food. There are children dying of malaria; $100 would buy them medication. There are children cowering in war zones; $100 might buy them a ticket to safety. If you buy a nice coat for $100 instead of giving it to charity, you’re making the same decision as the man in the story. Indeed, if you use your money for anything other than charity, you’re making that same decision – preferring your luxuries to a chance to avert innocent deaths.

This was not a popular message. His opponents condemned his particular brand of academic philosophy, saying that the time-tested moral truths of religion ought to be enough for anybody. They might have done well to read their Bibles a little closer. Matthew 19:21: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell everything you have and give the money to the poor, then follow me.”

Singer called the movement that grew up around him “effective altruism”, and its rallying cry was that one ought to spend every ounce of one’s energy doing whatever most relieves human suffering, most likely either feeding the poor or curing various tropical diseases. Again, something his opponents rejected as impossible, unworkable, another example of liberal fanaticism. Really? Every ounce of your energy? Again, they could have just read their Bibles. Deuteronomy 6:5: “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

Then Singer changed his tune. In the 1970s, after the sky cracked and the world changed, he announced that charity was useless, that feeding the poor was useless, that curing tropical diseases was useless. There was only one cause to which a truly rational, truly good human being could devote his or her life.

Hell must be destroyed.

The idea of billions of human beings suffering unbearable pain for all eternity so outweighed our little earthly problems that the latter didn’t even register. He began meeting with his disciples in secret, teaching them hidden Names he said had been vouchsafed to him by angels. Thamiel put a price on his life – quite a high price actually. Heedless of his own safety, Singer traveled what remained of the civilized world, making converts wherever he went, telling them to be perfect as God was perfect, and every speech ended the same way. Hell must be destroyed.

He was killed by a car bomb on his way to a talk in Salt Lake City. They never found the man responsible, if indeed it was a man. They saw Singer’s body, they showed it on all the television networks, but some say he never died, or that he rose again on the third day, or that he speaks to them in dreams, or all manner of strange things. When the Comet King besieged Hell, some say he brought Singer’s bones as a relic, others that Singer was in his retinue, disguised. But the conventional wisdom was that he truly died – which suited conventional people and their conventional morality just fine.

(“But the soul is still oracular; amid the market’s din,
List the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic cave within,—
‘They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.'”)

(“We’re not making compromise with sin. We just want to be less than maximally saintly sometimes.”)

(“Exactly what do you think compromise with sin is?”)

This, then, is the kabbalistic meaning of being a cantor and a singer, a Namer of Names.

A cantor is someone who works with infinity.

And a singer is someone who tries to be good.