Why do we celebrate Columbus Day?

The effects on the Native American population have been beyond devastating.

What’s there to celebrate?

Columbus was, in fact, not even the first European to travel to the “New World,” as attested to by the remains of Viking settlements in Greenland. Erik the Red (Eiríkr hinn rauð) preceded him.

Yet, we celebrate “Columbus Day,” rather than “Erik the Red Day.”

Why?

Because Columbus, the negative effects of his voyage notwithstanding, changed the way the wider population viewed and understood the world.

As such, he is a “Humanist hero.”

Such heroes as these are not always associated with strictly humane acts. “Splitting the atom,” for example, led to nuclear bombs. That it led to the “peaceful” uses of nuclear energy is undercut by the dangers involved, as demonstrated by the meltdown at Chernobyl and similar events.

He’s regarded as a “Humanist hero” because he changed human perception. In Thomas Kuhn’s phrase, he changed the “paradigm.” He proved beyond a doubt that the world was round, not flat. Thus, as typical of European/Western values since the Renaissance, he’s considered as having contributed something irreplaceable to the fundamental way in which the world is viewed.

Humanism — especially in its expression as “Science” — can often extol knowledge over wisdom, compassion or other moral values.

We can appreciate what Humanism and Science offer, without losing sight of their limitations.

The motto of Yeshiva University is “Torah u-Mada” — “Torah and Science.” It upholds what Torah offers, without denying what Science offers us, too. The belief is that both Torah and Science equally contribute to human knowledge and endeavor.

Hasidut, based on Kabbalah, similarly offers us the chance to radically change our fundamental view of the world and how it works.

But it does so without giving Torah and Science equal status.

Instead of viewing “matter” — the material of which the world is made — as something separate from God, Hasidut urges us to see Godliness Itself as the essential material of the world. “Alles iz Gott” — “All is God.”

“Matter is not something apart from divinity, but only the visible aspect of divinity…” [1]

We’re not asked to consider this as simply “theoretical” any more than Columbus’ voyage asked Europeans to consider the roundness of the world as only “theoretical.”

Columbus’ proof changed people’s plans and expectations. It changed the possibilities they saw for themselves. It changed the way they viewed God. It certainly changed their belief in the reliability of sense-perception (i.e. sight).

Hasidut challenges us to do the same. We can begin this process by taking the idea of God’s inseparable association with what we perceive as “matter.” as an unalterable fact — which the rebbes tell us it is.

This consideration is “Hitbonenut” — contemplation. It will change us to the extent of the thoroughness with which we apply it.

The change it can bring in our perception is at least as radical — moreso, really — than the change from thinking of the world as “flat” to thinking of it as “round.”

It adds far more than a “3rd” or even a “4th” dimension!

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[1] Lichtenstein, Rabbi Morris; Jewish Science and Health; p. 17