METAPHYSICS OF DAVID BIRNBAUM
PHILOSOPHY OF DAVID BIRNBAUM
A “Subtle Dynamic”
When I was ~11 years old, (in the early 1960s), I was a sixth grade student at (scholastically demanding Modern Orthodox) Yeshiva Dov Revel in Forest Hills,
(in Queens, NY of tennis championship fame). About
a third of my fellow students were children of Holocaust survivors, or of 1930s emigrés from Europe. The evils
of the Holocaust were raw – and it was not at all clear that the theology could handle it.
The philosophical situation was not much better for more general philosophical or general inter-related scientific questions, like: How did this universe come to be? If God existed, where did this all-powerful God come from? If God did not exist, what drove the universe? Why was there anything at all?
Thus, we were in sixth grade in a top Jewish Day School, and the fundamental and core philosophical, theological, and scientific questions remained thoroughly unanswered – at home, at shul (synagogue), and at school.
I intuitively felt that out there, there was one elegant yet subtle dynamic – a potentially relatively simple idea – which everyone was just missing – which, if uncovered, would, indeed, “crack-the-cosmic-code,” and perhaps the bulk of these issues simultaneously. I felt that it was at the very edge of human awareness. Waiting to be discerned. However, it was clear that discerning it might take years…
At the same time, I was frankly not all-that-sure that Orthodox Judaism or Judaism or monotheism would survive the “code breaking.” My gut-feeling was that it would be a close-call.
I determined to learn what I could learn about the world – and observe what I could observe – and, as an aside to my life, try to uncover that elusive ‘code-cracking’ dynamic. I embarked on an informal odyssey seeking this philosophical and theological “Holy Grail”: the “highest common denominator”.
In January 1982, ~two decades later – on the beach in the Barbados of all places, “matters crystallized.” The elusive “simultaneous solution.” The precise moment is ingrained in my psyche, of course, freeze-framed.
The dynamic which I discerned may have been “subtle,” but it was certainly not without power. I was now more than quite fully “psyched-up.”
First, I had to get back to NY, to a library, a big library. This was pre-GOOGLE, and then we really needed big libraries for potentially “original concepts.”
I did two reality-checks, the first with my Yeshiva University High School comrade, intellectual consigliere, and close friend-to-this-day Steven Gross (of NY and Jerusalem) 30 days into the project. He was a GO.
The second reality-check was at the ~6 month mark, with my Great Neck neighbor (who I had never actually met prior) and soon-to-be quite world-renowned, Lawrence Schiffman, Professor of Jewish History at NYU, and budding Dead Sea Scrolls expert’s expert. He too was a GO – and admonished me to maintain total secrecy until the book was actually out. He would, in due course, unilaterally volunteer to personally Copy Edit the manuscript start-to-finish – TWICE – Draft #1 (in 1985) and Draft #2 (in 1986) – to maintain its total confidentiality, and prep-it for submission to the putative publisher in due course. Schiffman valiantly moved to vigilantly protect and advance the project and insure the manuscript’s power and viability. Once-in-a-while in life, one encounters a truly extraordinary individual, dedicated to his craft and to the pursuit of knowledge and truth. The Dead Sea Scrolls – and the Discovery Channel – would have to wait just a touch more….
A solitary five years of work after that epiphanous ‘moment’ on the beach in the Barbados, the manuscript for God and Evil was completed in time for the birth of my first child, Rafaella, January 1986. The editors at KTAV Publishing, who accepted the book for publication later in 1986, cautioned me that if one comma was out-of-place on my erstwhile revolutionary thesis, I would be crucified – by the Jews. And they did not want to be party to a crucifixion. I frankly thought they were a little overwrought, but in any event, the book was micro-edited over the course of 1987, and then published and released in November 1988.
At first there were “sounds of silence.” But then matters began to roll. The work would go through Five Printings between 1988 and 2000.
The primary editor, scholar-extraordinaire Yaacov Elman of Yeshiva University did a fastidious job with his plodding hyper-perfectionism. Word by word of the text, then the 600+ footnotes, footnote by footnote. No word of the text or related has been changed in any of the printings, including the printing incorporated now into the 2-book Summa Metaphysica series.
Before the Jewish journals got around to reviewing the book, in their own good time, to our astonishment the major Jesuit publications around the world, in-short-order – reviewed it – in-depth and enthusiastically. Theological Studies Journal (then at Georgetown University) led the charge – juxtaposing the concepts of the work against those of Aquinas very specifically. Sounded good to me…
Simultaneously, Brandeis University started assigning the work as a Required Text – Masters Degree graduate Term Papers and all – in Advanced Religious Philosophy. In the early 1990s, Hebrew University (Jerusalem), Yeshiva University, Jewish Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary (Christian) and, later, Emory, started assigning the work in Philosophy and/or Jewish Thought. Other universities in the USA and around-the-world would follow.
It sounds like a simple enough journey. But it was a very, very solitary and hi-risk endeavor.
I believe the hypothesis is on-the-mark. Its core inherent power gave me the motivation to embark on the project.