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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dovid Campbell

A Divine Playfulness - Embracing the Torah’s Infinite Game

Updated: May 9, 2023

As a child, I was always in my head, inventing characters and quests in enchanted worlds. I would run around the backyard, swinging a stick and jumping off rocks. I have a very distinct memory from that time, promising myself I would never stop playing these games, even when I was old and had to wear a suit and drive a car. It was absolutely clear to me that this playfulness – this exploration of my own inner world – was the most precious thing I possessed. But then I grew up a bit, bought a suit and a car, and realized how silly I had been.

When we explore those qualities that the Torah values most, playfulness does not seem to rank high on the list, if at all. Joyfulness, yes. Curiosity also has a place. But playfulness – so near to silliness and frivolity – seems to be a problematic quality. It took me a long time to recognize that playfulness has little to do with silliness, and if we explore this quality with a wider lens, we find that playfulness might be central to all that is beautiful and unique about our Torah.

Dr. James Carse, an expert in game theory, draws a distinction between two types of playfulness in his book, Finite and Infinite Games. Finite play occurs when the rules of the game are fixed and victory is clearly defined. The goal of a finite game is to win, and once won, the game comes to an end. Players of finite games seek to anticipate their opponent’s moves, eliminate surprises, and bring the play to a satisfactory end. Chess and football are finite games.

By contrast, infinite games have flexible rules. There are no winners and losers because the goal of an infinite game is not to win but to continue the game. An infinite player seeks to facilitate the moves of other players, promote creativity, and perpetuate the play. Art is an infinite game.

Viewing Torah observance through the lens of an infinite game can help illuminate some of the most important concepts in Judaism. For example, it offers us a clearer understanding of the paradox of repentance (teshuva). Chazal tell us that teshuva reframes our past deeds, transforming even our willful sins into merits (Yoma 86b). This is hard to understand in the context of a finite game, where one can compensate for a bad move by making better moves later, but the bad move remains bad, like a brief stumble in a race. This does not seem to be how the Torah views our failings, however.

The Torah’s view is a rejection of life as a race and an embrace of life as a dance. In a dance, a stumble is only catastrophic if it brings an end to the movement. But it can just as easily be blended into the dance itself, a seamless transition from one move to the next. The choice to keep moving, to keep dancing, makes the stumble beautiful. This is the height of playfulness.

The same is true for our understanding of reward and punishment. It seems strange that concepts as central as the World to Come and the Resurrection of the Dead are only taught through subtle allusions in the Torah. Shouldn’t a belief system clearly spell out its goals and ideals? But this is a finite way of playing, emphasizing the destination over the journey. As Chazal say, “Torah scholars have no rest – not in this world and not in the next.” (Berachos 64a). The Maharsha explains that although the World to Come is certainly a place of tranquility, that tranquility is itself a continuous activity of the mind. The ultimate reward of Olam Haba is a continuation of the journey that we began in this life. We get to remain "in play." Playfulness is a joyous expression of creative ability and, in that sense, our eternal reward is only limited by the creativity we have acquired while in this world.

It may seem strange to think of our time here as a means for gaining creativity. We tend to think of mitzvos simply as things to be done; requirements to be fulfilled. But it could be that everything special and eternal about the mitzvos lies in the experiences, perspectives, and explorations that they lead us to. In other words, mitzvos offer us the skillset for creative playfulness, in this world and the next. Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Paquda, in his monumental Chovos HaLevavos, writes that while the physical performance of a mitzva benefits us in this world, it is only the chovos halevavos, the “duties of the heart” associated with that mitzva, that benefit us in the World to Come (Shaar HaBitachon, chapter 4). As his book demonstrates, these duties of the heart are literally endless. They include everything from the deepest truths of philosophy and nature to profound feelings of repentance and love. A mitzva is therefore an opportunity, not a guarantee. It guides us to an inner world, but we have to choose to explore and absorb the lessons of that world. We have to choose to play.

I never expected that a system of religious law would help me regain my childhood playfulness. It required a new perspective that I owe to one of Judaism’s most unique and ancient thinkers. Cited as “a great sage” by the Sefer Yuchsin, and considered the author of our “oldest recorded midrash” by Rabbi Shmuel Belkin, Philo of Alexandria writes the following:

The countenance of wisdom is not scowling and severe, contracted by deep thought and depression of spirit, but on the contrary cheerful and tranquil, full of joy and gladness, feelings which often prompt a man to be sportive and jocular in a perfectly refined way. Such sportiveness is in harmony with a dignified self-respect, a harmony like that of a lyre tuned to give forth a single melody by a blending of answering notes. (On Planting 167; translation by F. H. Colson & G. H. Whitaker)

While I had come to see playfulness as a type of silliness, Philo described a playfulness that was “refined” and “in harmony with a dignified self-respect” – a playfulness for people with suits and cars! It was playfulness in the sense of a true infinite game, where every move of the dance or note of the melody is an invitation to go further and experience more.

So, I’ve found a way to keep my childhood promise, and I hope my younger self will forgive me for how long it took. Most importantly, I hope he will understand that although I’ve traded my stick in the backyard for a sefer in the beis midrash, I’m exploring an inner world that’s deeper and more beautiful than I ever could have imagined.


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