A Teaching of the Rebbe Rashab

In commemoration of the birthday of the Rebbe Rashab, 20 Cheshvan, 5778.

Why would G-d create the universe? It doesn’t make sense.

A philosopher knows it doesn’t make sense. G-d is, of course, the perfect, necessary being. He needs nothing; He is utterly complete in a fashion quite beyond human reckoning. Even the words “complete” or “perfect” fail to describe him, for our words work metaphorically, and to say He is perfect is to say He shares a quality of all other things that are perfect, of a category or form or nature of perfection. But G-d does not exist in a category; He is His own form; He has no nature but is the ground of all natures. To say He is perfect is only to say he lacks all known imperfection. This is the highest thing we can say about G-d. But how, then, does G-d come to create a universe? When we act, we act because we are lacking something. When we want something, it’s because we want something — we are found wanting; we lack. But He does not lack. Therefore, He does not want. If He does not want, He does not want the universe. And yet the universe is here. Isn’t it?

A kabbalist also knows it doesn’t make sense for G-d to create the universe. In the beginning, we are taught, there was G-d and his infinite light, the full expression of His being. The light filled the entire place of the void; all that was, is, will be, can be, and cannot be was filled with His light, was filled with the fullness of His self-revelation. He decided to create the universe, and so He moved His light to the side, leaving over a vacuum and an empty space, into which he poured a single ray of the original light. This is the primordial Kav, the ray or vector, by which He creates all worlds spiritual and physical. After an infinite number of infinite descents, the Kav eventually creates the worlds of emanation, creation, formation, and action, and finally the very physical realm in which you are reading these words. The universe is the terminus of a single beam of His expression within a space devoid of the knowledge of G-d. And one day, in the messianic age, when the purpose of the world’s creation is fulfilled, that void and empty space will once again be full of His infinite light. First, his light filled it. Then, there is the creation, and his light is removed. Finally, his light is returned. So, the light was here, and one day it will be here again. The universe is just a moment in between. What could be the point of that?

One source says, He created the universe in order to be known. He wanted something else, something other, to taste of His truth. But when only He and His light existed, there was no other. In fact, there was no room for other, as a concept. All of reality was subjective. Everything was I. There was no room for thou. There was no room for reality. Everything was “in His head.” So G-d contracted his “I” and left a void and an empty space, so that objective reality may arise, and then He created other beings, who could meet him in that objective reality, and they could know each other. A Creator looking down at reality. A creation looking up at reality. A shared place. And He would no longer be alone.

But this itself does not make sense. For in our physical universe, we do not know Him. His presence is so concealed here that we have no inkling of what He is, and many have even forgotten that He is. The objective meeting ground is almost entirely beyond our grasp. “The Creator,” reminds the philosopher, “is completely beyond the limits of human intellect, to the extent that none of our words describe Him.” We know Him only through negations, only by saying what He is not, and even then, this is not an experience, not knowing — it is running on fumes, a grasp of His reputation. We do not know Him the way we know our mother, the way we know ourselves. It is only the soul as it stands above, or the abstract intelligence of the angels, that begin to understand the Creator. If He wished to be known, He should only have created the higher realms, the hidden realms, where G-d is as obvious as the rising sun and as directly experienced as ice cream. If He desired to be known, why would he create the low pit of physical reality?

Another source says He created the universe in order to actualize His potential. Before He created objective reality, He was only able to do it, and once He did, He actually did it. Everyone knows that doing it is better than the ability to do it; the perfection of potential is in its actualization. To this, both the philosopher and kabbalist speak up. The philosopher objects that we’ve misunderstood, since obviously the perfect being is pure actuality; He does not have unfulfilled potentials, since that would entail multiplicity which cannot be true of G-d. The kabbalist objects that we’ve misunderstood, since what part of His infinite light being the full expression of His being did you not understand? Everything that can be and cannot be is expressed in that One Infinite Light, the Ein Sof.

We might object that the universe does not exist as a physical entity within the unity of that expression. That is, even though everything is somehow contained within His infinite expression, it does not exist there as it does when He actually creates it by removing the light etc. But this is no real objection. Everything that happens from the removal of the light down to the actual physical universe is only a lower, more distant, “dimmer” expression of those same realities. In simpler terms, the creation of all worlds from His light is a subtractive process. The world is created by taking things away, not by adding them. And so if He already has his light, actually creating a physical universe adds nothing to it. It is not a further expression of Him. On the contrary, it is the slightest, most limited, most infinitesimal part of what He already possesses in Himself, before the creation. This is the general rule: There is no potential above that lacks actuality. He already possesses everything that can (or even cannot) exist. So why go through the diminishing process of actually creating a universe?

Indeed, the creation of the universe does not make sense.

He creates it simply because He desires it. If he wanted it because of its qualities, that would imply He was lacking those qualities, and He is not. He does not want, or lack, anything. He chooses to create the universe not for its qualities, but for its deficiencies. He “desires a dwelling place in the lower realms;” He does not desire it because it accomplishes some end (this being impossible, since he has no ends that are not accomplished), but for its own sake, for no reason, from a place beyond reason.

But if He himself is the perfect being, utterly actual, and lacking nothing, then how does He choose to create the universe for its own sake? He does not choose to create a being, for he is lacking potentiality, and if such a being were possible it already exists, one with His light. He does not create a new potential for a being, since if that potential were new, it would not have been expressed in His infinite light, which is impossible, since His infinite light is the full expression of His being. Whence, then, the Universe?

Rather, He chooses to create the world from the place of His own “being beyond being,” where He does not exist at all in any sense of the word existence, where we say He exists only because we cannot say He does not exist. This is what we call G-d’s own self, and it cannot be said to exist, or not exist. It is beyond all reckoning. There, in Himself, he bears potentials that are not actualized, for He Himself transcends the binary distinction of existence and non-existence, potential and actual, perfect and imperfect. Within Him, there is imperfection, though the word “is” refers to something utterly unknowable. Within Him, imperfection is a limitation and violation of His Truth only as much as perfection is. And it is from this place that He chooses to create the Universe. And therefore, it is only the physical universe, in violation of all laws that seem to bind Him, that fulfills not some external or arbitrary calculus that He creates, but satisfies Him Himself.

This is what is accomplished by the moment of the universe, the moment  between His infinite light filling the void before creation and the messianic age. It is not the same light. The first light was the full expression of His being, but since it was an expression, it was not Him Himself. And through the universe, the blink of an eye between eternities, He Himself is expressed, in a new and greater light.

Based on the first discourse of the famous “Samech Vov,” Yom Tov Shel Rosh HaShana 5666.

Teshuva: Shame or Guilt?

A teacher of mine who came to Lubavitch late in life tells a story. A friend of his came for the first time to spend Rosh Hashana in 770, the Rebbe’s synagogue, and was surprised by the scene. Hundreds of Jews prayed, relatively quietly, caught up in their own thoughts. He was more used to the wailing, beseeching, dramatic services of his youth, in which the congregation would beseech G-d to forgive their transgressions on the Day of Judgement. An older chassid caught the newcomer staring and asked him, “Is everything alright?”

“Everything is fine. I’m just used to more crying,” admitted the newcomer.

“In Lubavitch,” replied the chassid, “we don’t cry and we don’t sin.”

In other words, the chassid implied that while others may in fact sin and then feel guilty about it on Rosh Hashana, the approach in Lubavitch is to not sin and therefore not feel guilty about it. What are we to make of this? What happens, then, to sinners in Lubavitch?

We could explain the Chabad approach to Teshuva (i.e. repentance or return to G-d) in terms of crying and sinning, or guilt and transgression, in light of a distinction drawn by Ruth Benedict and other anthropologists between the shame society and the guilt society.

In short, the shame society imposes its moral will through social pressure. Right and wrong are enforced as public matters. The guilt society, on the other hand, imposes moral will through the agency of the individuals themselves; when someone does something wrong, they are compelled back to right action by their own regret. Guilt culture relies on a personal conscience, whereas shame culture relies on honor and “face.” In a shame culture, the transgressor has no place in society, as taken to its extreme by the Japanese practice of ritual suicide. In the guilt culture, the transgressor is not defined by their transgression; a disgrace can be forgiven by society and eventually find redemption and pride in living a moral life.

The guilt society, it has been argued, is more morally developed than the shame society, and historically proceeded from it in Ancient Greece, for example. Generally speaking, the West, through the influence of Christianity (whose ideas on the matter are probably related to the Jewish conception of the soul), has largely become a guilt culture. Some have noted, however, that the pendulum in America has recently swung toward a more shame-based system. One of the themes of the current cultural and political insanity in the US is the nascent tribalism, which in turn engenders illiberalism (since the freedom to be a “bad person,” that is, of the other tribe, is not legitimate), which finds coherence in a shame dynamic.

It should come as no surprise that if one seeks to castigate outsiders while solidifying group identity, shame is easier than guilt. A conscience is something everyone has from their birth; it seems, conceptually at least, to exist to some extent beyond the society at all. Honor, however (and, for us moderns, celebrity and acceptance) is regulated by perception and need not be grounded in any personal sense of morality; do what you want at home, but don’t you dare come into the public sphere and speak words of hatred and the like.

Some protestors (and lawmakers!) have even taken, as if they were the folk of King’s Landing, to shouting “Shame!” at those they dislike. You cannot shout “Guilt!” at those you dislike. “Guilt!” is a request; it is the public asking someone to align themselves with their own conscience, to regret their own actions. You cannot force someone to feel regret. Shame, on the other hand, is externally imposed, and thus a tempting motivation for those who seek power over others.

This is not to say that guilt is a perfect system either. While guilt does acknowledge the role of the individual in their own ethical behavior rather than merely imposing the will of the collective, guilt is also vulnerable to the manipulation of the individual. Just as power-seekers can manipulate a shame society, so, too, can the criminal and transgressor find rationalizations and self-defense in the guilt society. Where the shaming method can compel actual morality by public standards, the guilt method maintains that the individual is in some sense always the final arbiter of their own moral state (with societal punishment acting as an amoral safeguard).

For example, in the shame society, the man who steals to feed his family has violated the community’s trust and betrayed the trust of his family, who expect a provider. He is dishonored, and must pay the price if he is caught; he himself totally agrees he must pay the price. In the guilt society, the man retains a personal sense of moral rectitude, of being forced into the situation, and though the society may punish him, they have no power to make him view himself as evil.

In short, the shame society defines evil in such a way that its presence can be ascertained without the evil individual’s consent, but in this sacrifices the actual rehabilitation of that individual. The guilt society, on the other hand, defines evil in a deeply personal way that allows for repentance and change, but in so doing forfeits morality and a shared, objective, public experience.

The fact that societies progress from shame to guilt reflects not just changes over time but qualitative differences as well. That is, shame relies on lower functions within the human being than guilt. Whereas every action is a function of a human agent, no human being is defined solely by their actions, possessing, as all functioning human beings do, thoughts, speech, and an inner emotional and intellectual life. Shame culture defines human beings by their actions and thereby eliminates all higher human functions from the discussion of morality. Guilt culture takes a more holistic approach, acknowledging that people exist beyond their actions and, in their deeper functions, abstract away from the world entirely. However, guilt culture also shifts the assessment and enforcement of morality from the objective and easily assessed realm of action to the murky chambers of the human heart.

If one were to explain the shame and guilt cultures as relationships with the Creator, in which G-d was the enforcer of morality rather than society, one might say that shame reflects G-dly immanence whereas guilt reflects G-dly transcendence. After all, if G-d is to judge me purely on my actions and their effects, this relegates the Creator to a relatively pragmatic position. Divine law would not seek to rule over the inner world of the individual, but merely to regulate their external action, and a G-d concerned primarily with external action is one caught up and invested in the goings-on of the world. If G-d, however, not only judges action but also intention, if He is not bound by the details of what has been done and to Whom but can find room to forgo the rules to choose the individual, if, to put it simply, He can forgive, then He truly exists beyond the limitations of the world. Only He who is timeless and limitless may let go of past violation and from His inscrutable essence forge a relationship anew. A transcendent G-d has the ability not to care, and it’s the ability not to care that makes room for the individual, their conscience, and their self-motivated change in the guilt culture.

Judaism contains both aspects. On the one hand, there are certain transgressions whose punishments are merely consequences, where no amount of forgiveness can “undo” the inherently negative action that has been taken. On the other hand, generally speaking, nothing stands in the way of repentance, and especially in the time of year that’s auspicious for Teshuva, Elul and the Days of Awe, we can forge our relationship with G-d anew, for that is His desire. He truly transcends even His own commands, and from that place of infinite mercy, he calls to the soul within each of us to return to its natural holiness. The only thing standing between me and forgiveness is myself, and that is guilt culture.

What, however, are we to make of the problems with the guilt culture we mentioned above in terms of its religious application? Teshuva “solves” the problem of G-d’s commandments, but introduces new issues. The commandments taken alone say that the relationship with G-d is based purely on objective action with no room for “resetting the game board” or going “back to square one,” and therefore Teshuva is also part of Judaism, reflecting a relationship to the Commander Himself beyond the commandments. However, the act of Teshuva, of returning to G-d, can be seen as a subjective dodge of objective morality; the rules exist only to be transcended; we know a Guy. One is not permitted to sin with the intention of later doing Teshuva (we are taught the Teshuva will not avail him) but how are we to look at the commandments from within a Guilt Culture, which places the individual and his relationships at the unmoving center of the wheel around which all else revolves?

Perhaps just as the Commandments alone, as a pure shame relationship with the creator, are not all of Judaism, so, too, adding Teshuva, to introduce the subjective latitude of guilt, is also not sufficient. Perhaps for a complete picture, there is some third way, a synthesis of the strong points of both.

It is just such a synthesis that Chassidus seeks. The shame approach recognizes that the rules, the will of G-d, is ultimately binding, and looks at Him as a being imminent in His commands. The guilt approach recognizes that there’s more to us than rule-following and more to G-d than his mere desires for this world. The shame/guilt synthesis in the Chassidic Teshuva seeks to find the place in man and in G-d where the rules and in the individual, the objective and subjective, the shared and the private, are one. 

The truth is that man is more than his actions, but he’s also more than merely a relationship with a transcendent Creator. The way of guilt implies that man is a partner in the relationship with G-d and that he exists apart from G-d’s commandments. But if we were to subvert this and say that man does not exist apart from the law of G-d, then have we not merely reverted back to the way of shame?

The answer lies in the Chassidic twist, the existential reversal so common the mystical way of thinking. Our assumption is that the human being exists independently, is made to bow to external rules in the shame culture, and then transcends those rules in the guilt culture. This is the perspective of the human being, who sees himself first and foremost as an independent existence. But in truth, and from G-d’s perspective, it is not man who comes first and then suffers shame under the externally imposed rules. On the contrary, the rules come first; they are not only the reason for creation but in fact the very essence of the human existence; man is formed in the shape of G-d’s mitzvos, rather than the mitzvos applied to man. We are, at our very essence, united with G-d’s will, and created to follow it. Even the guilt-being, the one that transcends law to touch the Lawmaker, is created in the image of G-d’s will, and for the purpose of fulfilling it. Man, as such, does not truly exist apart from the will of G-d; our independence, which leads to the sense that morality is imposed upon us rather than our very essence, is merely the first illusion. Transcending that imposition does not break the illusion but merely seeks limited relief from it. Only the higher Teshuva, which seeks to negate man before not merely G-d’s laws but G-d Himself, reverses the illusion, allowing a human being to see themselves for what they are — a being created in the image of G-d’s mitzvos.

Shame, which says a man must be moral or risk being cut off from the community or G-d, does not acknowledge the possibility of repentance and only imposes morality externally. Guilt, which says a man must be moral because of his personal conscience and responsibility, acknowledges repentance but loses sight of the sacred nature of that rules-based morality. The Chassidic shame/guilt synthesis says man must be moral because morality is closer to man than anything else is, including his sense of personal transcendence. Therefore he is neither bound by the external imposition of G-d or society nor cut off from repentance, which is the process of returning to his true moral self.

And therefore when it comes to Teshuva “we don’t cry and we don’t sin.” “We don’t cry,” that is, we are not caught up in our own personal sense of Teshuva, in the guilt culture, in the assessment of our own transgressions and our ability to transcend them and reconnect to G-d. Rather, “we don’t sin;” we are trying to find that place within us where we remember what we are, the shoresh of Tikkun, the space beyond understanding where we are made in the image of G-d’s mitzvos, where sin is not only shamed, not only a reason for feeling guilty, but simply inimical to our very being.

In escaping even our own guilt, we leave behind the higher human functions and turn, instead, toward the Creator, who, with great trust, gave us a soul and then hid Himself away. He hoped that we would not be distracted by the muttering of others nor even our own spiritual pursuits. He hoped that we would not suffice with merely the Law, nor even with the Law Giver, but that we would keep striving for that True and clear place where we and He are one.

There Is Only One Side

It is hard to figure out where the truth lies in political controversies, at least if the truth is one’s goal. As Jews, we look to the Torah for guidance, but the Torah is famously complex and multi-faceted, allowing for many perspectives and opinions to partially participate in the truth.

The word “partially” is important, there. If any political or worldly philosophy was to completely agree with the Torah, it simply would be Torah, and of course, few political movements advocate bringing about a perfect world through not wearing wool and linen together or, for that matter, loving the King of Kings. All philosophies conceived by man, political or otherwise, are as imperfect and limited as man himself, whereas Torah simply is the infinite and perfect divine intellect.

While the knowledge that all politics is human and imperfect may not directly help us choose whether to vote Democrat or Republican (and, as the Rebbe Rayatz points out, the good in each side has its source in Torah), it does help us understand a new and popular idea called “There Is Only One Side.”

“There is only one side,” we are told with a straight face, “in the fight against injustice/fascists/leftists/Nazis/Trump/SJWs/etc.” This violates not only centuries of Jewish taste (“Every stick has two ends” is a Yiddish saying for a reason) and millennia of Jewish scholarship (“Oh,” cries Shammai, “there’s only one side! What a fool I’ve been!”), but also one of the deep, sacred truths of Judaism. “There’s only one side” is a reserved parking space, and it’s not reserved for us.

Why is a Nazi evil?

Let me ask a different question. Why is Amalek evil? Perhaps the Torah gives some reasons. But do those reasons apply to their women and children? The whole nation was our enemy and deserved to be wiped out. Is this based on some rational calculus? What rationale is there for killing children?

No, that’s not how it works. They had to be destroyed because G-d their creator commanded it. Amalek is “evil” because the Torah says so; in fact, that’s all that’s meant in this case by the word “evil;” no other definition of the term could sentence the entire tribe to death.

This makes me uncomfortable. Does this make you uncomfortable? Does it challenge your sense of Justice?

Good. Because declaring an entire tribe evil at essence as an unquestionable absolute is a grave moral undertaking even when the command comes from G-d Himself.

So why is a Nazi evil? Why is [insert group] evil?

Some seem to think a Nazi is evil because they practice Nazism, and Nazism is evil because Nazis practice it. They gesture toward historical atrocities without naming them and allow those stories to simplify and foreshorten and shrink into a single point. They become angry that they should even have to answer the question. No explanations are needed. Nazis are just evil because they are, like Amalek. There is, we are assured, only one side – with the evil, or against it.

But of course, there is no divine authority that says anyone who throws a Nazis salute is simply pure evil. Divine authority says more that murder of innocents is evil, that theft is evil, that ruling without courts or law is evil, that chaos and barbarism is wrong. We are to love our fellow as ourselves and know that we will one day have to explain our actions before our Creator. We are to pursue truth, justice, and peace. We are to be magnanimous toward defeated enemies, we are to be humble before G-d, we are to view man as created in the image of G-d. All of this, and much more makes the Nazis evil.

But if there are reasons the Nazis are evil, we now have three problems.

The first is that the emotional weight of the story of their evil seems much more important and powerful to us than any pathetic words about right and wrong. This indicates that we have contemplated the story of the Nazis and their victims, but not the story of G-d, righteousness, and reason, which, if told correctly, should lend emotional ballast to good and evil.

The second problem is that if Nazis are evil for a reason, people can be proportionately or relatively evil in comparison for participating in the same crimes and horrors. This necessarily entails that rather than being purely wicked through-and-through as a group, individual Nazis are really only evil inasmuch as they are responsible for the reasons Nazis are evil. (Of course, being part of the group is itself participation in the Nazi evil to some extent; morality is complicated.)

The third problem is that the path to the Manichaean contrast of good vs. evil is now much more difficult. If Nazis aren’t evil by definition but only evil by performing, participating in, and representing evil, then anti-Nazism is not good by definition but only good by performing, participating in, and representing countervailing goods. “Good Guys vs. Bad Guys” is an appropriate and perhaps necessary narrative assessment to make, but of course cannot be the foundation of determining who the good guys and bad guys actually are, or, even more maturely, to what extent they are actually good or bad.

These aren’t really problems for me. I’m a Jew, and so, for me, there is only one side – the Torah. It is the only thing in this world that is infinitely true without context or qualification. I think this makes sense; the Torah does come from G-d, after all.

But to apply the same logic to your own political position – what’s your excuse?

G-d Followed Me On Twitter

It was the end of a long summer Shabbos, the Atlanta sun finally giving in after 9 pm. I started my computer booting and prayed the evening service; I turned on my phone and prepared for the Havdalah, the dividing ritual. We thank G-d over flames and spices for separating the holy from the mundane…

I logged in and opened Chrome; the tabs of the previous week reasserted themselves like dry bones rising. Tweetdeck’s columns unfolded, first on the left my TL, second, my notifications, and there among the likes and the retweets, I saw the Creator had followed me.

His username was not “G-d” (that would be the first sign it was some fourteen-year-old) but rather a male name of vaguely Asian provenance. The profile picture was of a male, in his twenties, of vaguely Asian provenance. I knew in my head that G-d was not a man in his twenties of vaguely Asian provenance, G-d forbid. G-d is of course without a body or the form of a body, He probably does not use Twitter, and if He did, He would not follow me.

In my gut, however, I felt the world open. I was young again, in the way the morning is young, how at the sunrise everything is possible and the constant renewal of the world pierces the pitted facade of nature like the breaking dawn, and the soul tastes, just for a second, the infinite potential of what might be.

I felt something I haven’t for many years, a slight excitement deep inside at a meeting, the only feeling that can fight the implacable entropy of death and parting.

Who is this new person, and what gifts do they bear?

What is this new development, unexpected and wonderful?

What is this delightful shock, this pleasant upending, the joy of expecting the exceptional?

It is like being a child again, expecting each day to bring something not just new but something good. It is like having faith, knowing not just in your head but in the root of your stomach that your life has a plan, that it is progressing from a fine thing to a better thing, and that all you have to do is enjoy it. It is the feeling that somebody up there likes you.

It is not logical, this feeling. It does not remember experience or wisdom, the way people and life disappoint with disheartening consistency. It does not remember the reason you don’t feel it anymore. It is overwhelming precisely because it is a negation of experience, of the causal link between the past and the future. It is in this feeling that Hume came closest to being right. There is no induction; the past does not dictate the future; our soul can step outside the flow of time and see from above that there are no rules that can’t be broken.

The rules of time are an illusion, made to be broken, and if life has disappointed us it has no bearing on what it will do tomorrow.

The stranger who follows you on Twitter may come bearing friendship or strange gifts so great they are beyond imagining.

Then the moment is over. He follows 4,110 and is followed by 5,386, and when I join their ranks I get an automated DM. He wants me to follow his Instagram.

Blessed are you, G-d, who separates between the holy and the mundane.

For now.

On Legalizing Weeds

Here’s why fathers are important: They fret over weeds.

It is certainly the case, though it is not totally clear why (let’s face it, physical ability probably plays a role), that in the average middle class suburban American home blessed enough to have two parents, the mother’s role is usually in some way more confined to the home itself, whereas maintenance of the yard/pool/deck/etc. is more the purview of the husband.

So it was in my home, growing up, and the statistic was in no way mitigated by my mother’s propensity for gardening. It was somehow clear in subtle ways that her role was to plant and nurture beautiful life in riotous color but not to push the damn lawn mower around. Thus I, growing up, came to push it (being second in size to my father and chief honored recipient of his powers of delegation), and eventually, none of us really wanting to push it, we hired a yard service.

Yet still, after years of dissociation from the actual labor of dealing with our oddly shaped front yard, it is not unusual to hear my father, as we stride out toward the synagogue or take the dog for a loop around the cul-de-sac, assessing the extent of our weeds.

Very slowly, as I, over the past couple of years, have become ever-so-slightly less dense, I have come to secretly wonder whether this is the single most important thing my father can do for us.

This is not to downplay, of course, all his other roles. A provider is most basic and in most ways most essential, a protector, the law enforcer, etc. But I can’t help feeling that these are roles too appreciable by the lost philosophers of our Internet age. Fatherhood’s advocates tend to emphasize responsibility, particularly fiscal responsibility, in their efforts to get an entire generation adrift in nihilism to set aside their baser hedonism. They argue that family life is perhaps the only means of civilizational survival; they bring all the power of Darwin and evolutionary psychology and stories about cave men and fighting wild animals to bear on the problem of lost masculinity.

All of this is ultimately the fatherhood of the animal, and when it comes to convincing men, I take the old, counterintuitive approach. We do not first need to become animals to be human; stories of a father killing the bear that threatens his young brood speak to a place in the human heart little above the self-destructive pleasure-seeking boheme.

Fatherhood, in the human sense, does not exist to ensure any sort of physical outcome. The physical protection and survival of the family are themselves only animal means to a human end. And the human end is intellectual, purposive, and ultimately spiritual.

At the intersection of intellect, purpose, and transcendence, one finds the Kabbalistic concept of Chachma, the highest distinct faculty of the human soul, its ability to subjugate itself to, and thereby unify with, an external reality. It is the foundation of all wisdom, and it is the part of the intellect that lets a person open a window beyond the limits of their own existence and devote themselves to a higher truth.

And Chachma is often referred to, in the Kabbalistic texts, as father.

My father tells us that the weeds do not belong. He tells us that a human being is civilized, that chaos and all growing wild is fun, but order and civilization are right. He does not explain himself and does not need to. By dint of being the father, he is our collective familial Chachma. He sets the tone for higher truth; he tells the family that what they are is wonderful and more than he deserves, but what they can be, if they find purpose, is something much higher.

Don’t be an animal; don’t fight with your siblings; keep your promises; pay your debts; delete the weeds; take pride in your lawn.

There are things worth doing, a whole world of truth beyond what we are or even desire, and it is ultimately Good.

For this, I thank my father, and all fathers everywhere.

Why Beethoven Is Better Than Bieber

“Better? How can you say better?”

This is a very common question nowadays, what with the collapse of all discourse into postmodern nihilistic emptiness. As with all such questions, it can only be answered by a return to old ideas, ideas older than the current back-and-forth between enlightenment and post-enlightenment thinking.

Once, in those benighted days, people thought a work of art or a course of action could be “better” than the alternatives, subjective preference be damned.

How were they able to do this?

There are several layers of groundwork that must be in place to truly argue for it, and expounding on them would take much more effort (and time) than I can currently give. Suffice it to say, one would probably begin with the question of whether a human being can actually apprehend the truth of anything, then move on to what that truth it, work one’s way through the steps of the ancient philosophies, perhaps discover G-d along the way, and (more important for our purposes) even discover man.

It is this last part of the groundwork that forms the foundation for the ladder of better and worse. Simply stated: A human being is an animal that can do something no other animal can do. Just as an animal is a plant but more, so too is a human an animal but more. A human being is an animal that can think.

When we say “think” here, we mean in the old sense of the word. Not that one can process data, or accomplish organized tasks, or even organize socially. Rather, to think is to grasp the form of the object of thought, to understand what it is, in distinction to other things.

If I think about dogs, I will come to realize they are not cats, and that they are not tables, and that they are not the Pythagorean theorem. But I will also come to realize dogs probably are more feline than they are Pythagorean. In this sense, to think is to grasp what different things are, and how they fit together. Therefore, a human being is an animal that can grasp what different things are, and how they fit together.

However, not all things are created equal in their form. This is evidenced by the difference between man and other animals. Our dog, for example, can definitely react to a cat differently than he reacts to a table. However, a dog cannot react to the Pythagorean theorem at all.

Why? Because a cat not only possesses a form but is also made of physical material. A dog cannot really think in the human sense, cannot grasp forms, what a cat is and how it fits together with dog food or squirrels. A dog reacts to a cat differently than a table but does not understand what a cat is in any abstract sense; it could not tell you what makes a cat a cat, but only that the thing in front of him right now, with the claws and brushy tail, must be chased. In other words, it grasps not so much the form of the cat as the smell or appearance of certain matter. A form is general, abstract, and qualitative; a dog grasps only what is particular, concrete, and embodied.

This is why Pythagoras spoke only for people, and not for animals. A human being can grasp more of reality than his best friend; a human can grasp what things are and how they fit together, even if they are general, abstract, and qualitative.

It follows, then, that the more one grasps form over matter, the further away from an unthinking animal one becomes: Just as a chipmunk can sit on a log, so, too, can a man as wise as a chipmunk. But to craft a mahogany chair informed by engineering and aesthetics, to impose a form on the log and reduce its matter to that which is necessary (or most beautiful) to hold up a sitting person, is a profound reflection of what makes us human. The latter is the imposition of the general, the abstract, and the qualitative upon the matter of the log. It is the imposition of form onto matter. It is what humans can do that no animal can do.

Similarly, there is a difference between a hooky melody with lyrics of young lust and the Ninth Symphony.

The difference is not, as our modern minds are trained to think, one of complexity. It’s not that Beethoven uses a full orchestra whereas Bieber uses Pro Tools, per se. Complexity and the dominance of form over matter are not synonymous. We could make the information conveyed in the Ninth Symphony more complex by breaking it up into smaller pieces. But taking an ax to a chair and reducing it to kindling makes it more complex, too, and what is achieved is only chaos. Chaos is not an expression of form but rather the deepest expression of matter, because to grasp a form is, again, to grasp not only what things are but also how they fit together.

The “how they fit together” aspect of a form derives not only from the form itself (because, after all, chaos and white noise are technically forms as well) but from a third aspect of every thing, namely, its purpose. The matter of a chair is wood; this an animal can appreciate. The form of a chair is its legs, its seat, the specific shape of the carving, etc., and that is human handiwork. But what makes the chair a chair rather than an oddly shaped arrangement of stuck-together kindling, what lends the form an advantage over the matter, is ultimately the chair’s purpose; it’s for sitting. If either the matter or the form is not conducive to sitting, then the chair ceases to be a chair, and its form ceases to be an imposition on its matter, and we are left with a jungle-like chaos inimical to humanity.

The same holds for Beethoven. What makes Beethoven a higher form of human expression than “Baby” is not raw complexity, but rather a complex form used to the specific ends of the great composer.

It is this purposive complexity, the masterful demonstration of unity and harmony in the imposition of form over matter, that is the higher form of music. The simpler, more rhythm-based forms of Mr. Bieber, especially as they are so focused on the animal realm of material sensation, simply do not manage to achieve those heights.

And so, for humans, at least, Beethoven is better than Bieber, since it is more in line with what we are, and is a clearer demonstration of what makes a person more than an animal, that is, our ability to grasp what things are, and how they fit together.

Lag Ba’Omer, From The Top

La Ba’Omer is the best. I will explain this holiday to you. But it is a long story.

In the Beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.

Why he would do this is mysterious, and the matter cannot be easily adjudicated in a humble space like this. The best way to put it is that He desired to be in a new way. As He is unto Himself, but in Another place. He wished to demonstrate, to Himself, that He was as True in a false place or that all places were false in light of His truth or something. It took Him six days, and the sixth of these was Friday, and we call it the first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashana, head of the year. (We celebrate the sixth day because that is when man was created, and despite what anyone may tell you, the universe was created for him.)

However, some opinions say that man was, or could have been, or will be created on the First of Nissan — a spring month, halfway across the year from Tishrei, a time of rebirth and sprouting rather than withering and in-gathering. That the world could have been created on either says something about the world.

In any case, these two months have since then ever competed for the main focus of Jewish life. The fall season also includes Yom Kippur,

The fall season also includes Yom Kippur, day of atonement, and Sukkot, the festival of ingathering and joy, and Simchat Torah, when the yearly Torah cycle ends and begins again, for all eternity. The fall season is one half of the dance between man and G-d. It is the part when man tallies his deeds, considers his distance from the Creator, and attempts to make amends. Our motion toward the creator takes the shape, like all things born, of a pregnancy. The relationship is established on Rosh Hashana, when we convince G-d the project of creation is worth continuing. The consummation is on Yom Kippur, when we are as angels in a moment of sublime unity with the creator. The child grows through its time in the Sukkot booth, the seed becoming differentiated and fully-formed, and its birth-culmination is on Simchat Torah.

The spring season is diametrically opposed. It is the time when G-d moves close to man, whether man is ready or not. The relationship is foreshadowed by the drunken celebration of Purim, and a month later is consummated in the commemoration of that ultimate moment of kindness, when G-d took us from Egypt on a promise, on Passover, to go receive the Law in the desert. But we were not ready. That was only the seed. The pregnancy for such a great gift, that it may survive in the world, takes 49 days. The 50th is what may scientifically be respectfully termed “The Event at Mount Sinai”. Between the lesson that there is a G-d before whom nature and empires are a plaything, and the choosing of a nation for a perilous mission, there are 7 weeks. 49 days, and most of them are for introspection and mourning.

One exception is the 33rd, tonight and tomorrow.

The 49 days are called the Omer. The 33rd day is Lag Ba’Omer.

It “happens” (if such a term is not idol worship) that the 33rd was the day of passing of Rashbi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

The Rashbi lived in the Mishnaic period and studied under the famous Rabbi Akiva. He was a master of all forms of Torah, and a contender for one of the greatest men who ever lived. Most relevant, perhaps, for our time, he was the author of the holy Zohar, the book of radiance, key to the Kabbalah. He was, in this sense, something like Moses. While Moses gave the world the Torah in its revealed sense, rules and laws telling man how to live, Rashbi gave the world a hidden Torah, containing the secrets of the creation, mystical prophecy, He spoke of a third realm, a reality between the world and the creation of which philosophy cannot dream. He spoke of metaphors, and they were true metaphors, for what happens below has a source above. He spoke of Light and Vessels, of the heavenly chariot, of secrets that belonged to the few because in the wrong hands they led to madness, idol worship, and death. Not by accident was he the student of R’Akiva, the only of the four to enter and exit the orchard in peace.

Most profoundly, maybe, he revealed an inner truth to the Torah of Moses. He showed that what appeared on its surface to be a law was much more, was a step in the reparation of creation, a step toward the state G-d imagined when He created the world, the state in which He would be known in a different place as He knows Himself. Just as Moses gave us stitches for the binding of will and truth, the animal and G-d’s will, so did Rashbi let us bind the world and G-d, explained to us how the commandments refine the truth of G-d from the world, and their source in the sublime.

I’m sure it was an accident he passed away on the 33rd day of the Omer, and asked that his death be a celebration for all time. After all, the Omer is the process of bringing the simple faith-truth of G-d into a tangible reality, of systematizing the One truth. It has 49 days, because in the Kabbalah there are 50 gates of understanding, but only the first 49 are available to man. We can only prepare. But the 50th gate on the 50th day, the Event at Sinai, G-d must give.

But in Kabbalah, understanding is only the second step. Before understanding comes wisdom, as the question precedes the answer. And in the Kabbalah, there are 32 paths of wisdom. 32 steps to preparing for an even deeper truth. But the 33rd path transcends them and is the ultimate, the place where Highest Truth resounds in the lowest depth, for that’s what makes it highest. For that, G-d must provide, and as he sent Moses, he sent the Rashbi. And that is what, tonight and tomorrow, we celebrate, on the 33rd day of the Omer, between the Exodus and the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

A Framework For Torah Politics

One of the tensions Chassidus is most concerned with is between investiture and transcendence. G-d has made the world in such a way that both are necessary but are opposing forces. Investiture is necessary if one wishes to truly change something — the famous example is that the brilliant teacher cannot give the student his own knowledge as-is but must, if the student is to truly learn, convey the lesson at the student’s level of understanding. Transcendence, however, is necessary to truly change something, for to change is to become something new, not just to reshuffle what one is. A teacher who only invests himself at the level of the students’ understanding can give them nothing they don’t already have; a teacher who only transcends them can give them everything but they will understand nothing. It seems that instead some sort of synthesis is needed.

If we assume (and it seems a safe assumption) the Torah is meant to teach the world G-dly wisdom, we would need some synthesis in our understanding of it as well. Indeed, even a superficial analysis, we see that there are varying levels of investiture and transcendence — a written law and an oral law; four books of the Torah vs. Deuteronomy, the speech of Moses; Torah in the holy tongue and Torah in translation. Nevertheless, these syntheses provide no obvious approach to the relationship of Torah to worldly ethics and (less ethical, and more worldly) politics. This leads to a tendency for investiture and transcendence to separate out, like oil and water. What is required then, for Torah to “teach” politics, is a framework for their synthesis.

Without such a framework, we see the extremes in the usual attempts to apply Torah to a political context. On the investiture side, you have those who believe the Torah speaks directly to our political choices in the real world. Verses are selected (more on the true nature of this selection later) in support of a candidate or ideology. Mrs. Clinton is compared to G-d, the Zohar is said to have predicted a Trump victory. People point to this law or that Midrash to demonstrate the Torah’s support of progressivism or conservatism, limited government or entitlements, traditional sexual values or transgenderism. The obvious problem with this is that the truth of G-d is co-opted for fights that are all too human. This, in turn, incentivizes new interpretation of the Torah, trying to read it in a way that supports our pre-existing biases.

On the transcendence side, however, one sees a desire to remove Torah from any connection to worldly concerns at all. The Torah says only what it does, they wish to say, and any resemblance to secular matters is purely coincidental. This leaves a Jewish politician, say, free to support whatever position they like as long as it is not in clear violation of the law. However, this attempt to leave Torah uncorrupted also leaves it impotent, having nothing to say on matters of great importance to the average man seeking to do what is right. Further, it corrupts the Torah in every sense other than the legal one. That the book is the truth rather than a mere guide for action falls by the wayside, at least as far as truth human beings can appreciate or act on. Ultimately, it places a strict barrier between the human mind and the book and forbids its traversal — the mind is too universal and objective and would only apply the Torah to places, as a holy book, it has no business going.

So, everyone who wishes the Torah to be a holy and true book of practical moral teaching must find some kind of synthesis. Just such an approach was put forth by the Rebbe Rayatz, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch, sixth Rebbe of Chabad. The Rebbe Rayatz was the leader of Lubavitcher Chassidim in Russia under Stalin and was no stranger to political movements and their Jewish followers. His famous incarceration was the work of the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish communists later largely purged by the dictator.

On one of his journeys, the Rebbe Rayatz encountered a group of people arguing over which political system was supported by Torah, and each one brought proof that his position was favored by Torah. They asked the Rebbe his opinion. He told them that Torah, being the ultimate good and truth, contains and is the source of what is good in all the political systems.

This is not so much a straightforward synthesis as a redefinition of terms; we are not saying Torah is good so much as redefining good and truth to mean what Torah says. This is not arbitrary. If the Torah is G-d’s wisdom, it precedes the world and defines the world; it makes sense that “good” is defined by Torah rather than vice-versa. Therefore, what the Rebbe Rayatz has technically done is applied an even higher transcendence than what was previously considered. Not only is Torah too good for the world, but goodness itself is too good for the world. The entire process of seeking a “true” or “good” course of action is, in the Rebbe’s view, non-secular, since Torah itself is the G-dly Torah.

However, this further form of transcendence is, in fact, more permitting of investiture than it might appear. For if the Torah is merely a document existing beyond worldly concerns it is quarantined from practical application. But if Torah is truth itself, then any true or good aspect of any non-Torah worldview, no matter how base, is Torah — the way in which the thing is openly connected to the truth. Conversely, this does not bring the Torah down to the level of manipulation for political ends, because the only true end is the Torah itself.

More simply — the Rebbe acknowledges that every politics has some truth to it, but also that anything which is not Torah itself can never be the whole truth. The Torah is both invested and transcended, the truth of every thing but fully present in nothing except itself.

This synthesis allows us to begin to approach matters of Torah and politics without having to worry about whether the Torah is sidelined or corrupted. Take, say, universal healthcare. Sources can be brought from either side of the matter. The Talmud recognizes a need to heal the sick and the cost of care on individuals and communities. But what cannot be said is that there is no Torah opinion on the matter — since the very notion that anything about a man-made healthcare system can be good or true is predicated on reflecting Torah. On the other hand, we also cannot say that any man-made system is the Torah or could shift the Truth an inch, since if we know Him, we would be Him, and no approach to worldly affairs until Moshiach’s coming can be Truth.

We can plot a course of action that does not violate the Torah. We can even devote ourselves to fulfilling it in thought, speech, and action. But to build any sort of secular system is by definition to build something outside of Torah. It is only by bringing to bear G-d’s will upon our actions (rather than by trying to bridge intellectual systemic gaps) that we can bring true peace between the truth of G-d and the truth of the world. This is what is meant by Moshiach — to find the true part of every thing, and return is to the Truth that’s only one.

Why Antisemitism Is A Historical Constant

All that varies in Jew hatred, over continents and millennia, is in the details. Every group has their own claim. The Jews killed Jesus (all of us; I was there!), the Jews did not accept Mohammed, the Jews drink the blood of small children. Jews have horns, their men menstruate part of the year. Jews are pathetic parasitic cockroaches. Jews rule the global order. They’re communists! They’re capitalists! They’re Zionists!

As a somewhat religious fellow, my question on all these persistent, bizarre, and contradictory claims is not just “Why?” but “Why, G-d?” It is clearly part of our mission to be distrusted and oppressed; we tell prospective converts that they join their fate with that of a beleaguered people. Why is this the way it must be, in a world where G-d expects the Jew to accomplish things?

Anyone familiar with the sources realizes prophecy and sagacity are two different qualities, though both prophet and sage receive word from G-d in some way. However, one of Judaism’s great sages must, in our case, be charged with uncanny prescience. Rashi, most famous of all Torah commentators, answers our question in his first words on Genesis.

That the explanation is on the words “In the beginning” indicates just how deep the roots of antisemitism might go. Rashi asks: The Torah ought not (as the book of teachings for the Jewish people) have begun with the world’s creation (which in many ways is none of our business) but with G-d’s first commandment to the Jews, recorded later in the book of Exodus. Rashi answers: The book of Genesis exists to answer the future claims of the non-Jew, who will come and say, “You are robbers; the land [of Israel] belongs to us!” The Jew can respond, “G-d created the world and gives it to whom He will; He willfully gave it to the Seven Nations and willfully took it from them and gave it to us.”

Here is an answer, on a simple level, to those who wish to take the land from the Jewish people, to those who call us thieves, oppressors, insufficiently progressive, etc. It is not, however, an explanation for all antisemitism in history. In fact, it has only sounded relevant since 1948 for the first time in almost two thousand years.

But that is not all that’s contained in Rashi’s words, which demand deeper consideration. After all, does Rashi truly mean to tell us that an entire book was added to the beginning of the Torah, God’s books, just to answer some mistaken future claims? This seems to lend their accusations of theft far more credence than they deserve

Really, the case Rashi raises is not a particular accusation of land theft but rather the eternal claim of the world against the Jew. “You come from the desert, inspired, claiming to have met the Creator and therefore transcended the bounds of this reality. It is surely a spiritual people whose entire nation is founded on the deliverance of, and covenant with, G-d. Surely any claim to a physical land is, on your part, out of place, a ‘theft’ from those who do not claim to have spoken with God.” In other words, the Jew is alien, not because of custom, appearance, or even religious practice (we have “controlled” for these and were still hated) but because their story sets them apart. To be a Jew who does nothing is, by a simple act of history, to stake a claim. And the claim of the Jew (not the claim the Jew makes, it must be reemphasized, but the claim made by history (and G-d) through the Jew) is that there exists a reality before whom the world is nothing. To put it in vulgar modern terms, antisemitism is in some sense the world rejecting a question on its stake to ultimate reality, like a body rejecting an organ transplant.

This, it should be noted, does not excuse the antisemite’s actions in the slightest; no one is compelled to be the messenger for this rejection. However, this does explain why antisemitism refuses to die, as an impulse — because the Jews refuse to die, and with the world as it is now, before any sort of radical messianic transformation, there is a fundamental resentment toward the people whose story negates the world. And since the world includes all man-made ideologies and all of man’s animal impulses, it is never very hard to find an excuse for Jew hatred.

What, according to Rashi, is the Jewish response to this resentment? “G-d is the creator the world and gives it to whom He wills.” Even though a G-dly people may seem to contradict the world, it is, on the contrary, G-d’s will that they enter it, settle a land, and repair the world from within. It is our whole aim to know, and then to teach, that though we may have different stories, we and the non-Jew are made by the same Creator and the “secular” world is as G-dly as the event at Sinai, if not more so. The “solution” to antisemitism can only be found in dissolving the seeming difference between the physical and the spiritual, the mundane and the holy.

The world is an estranged child who has forgotten her roots in G-d, and the Jews are here to guide her back. She must be taught that in her very weakness, in her acknowledgment that she is not just a mother but a child, an offspring of a higher reality, she discovers not death and limitation but true eternal life in service of the One G-d. Just like the Jews.