Why I’m Not Worried About Your Conspiracy Theory

Here’s what’s incredible about fixed and eternal morality: A bad man tried to own or control goodness by doing something good. He cannot. Instead, goodness tames and controls him. He tries to tarnish it, it purified him. He tries to pervert it, it straightens him.

This is one reason why efforts to rationalize the Torah or its commandments are misled. Rationality, with its qualities of order and systematization, has little room for purposeless commands or self-defined wisdom; indeed, under the rules of rationality, these are almost self-contradictions.  This is why another way of saying that the Torah is rational is to say that the Torah is a means to some practical end. And if the Torah and its commandments have not achieved that end, then this implies something is lacking in the Torah itself.[i]

For example: Some wish to say that the purpose of charity is ultimately to refine one’s character. When the unforgivably wealthy boor gives a lot of charity, where does this leave us? We can obviously argue that they are still more refined than they would be otherwise, or that the personal effects of their beneficence remain hidden, building to a critical mass. We can argue, very easily, that they undoubtedly are better for giving charity. But the commandment itself is nevertheless defined and qualified. To even fully define tzedakah, we must take unsavory men into account. “That moron gives charity, and what did it accomplish?” is a question with which we are compelled to reckon.

Perhaps we object that this is the wrong understanding of charity, and that this form of kindness primarily benefits the receiver, not the giver. Of course, this alternate but equally rational explanation comes with its own qualifiers and corrupting definitions. We start measuring charity by its perceived benefits; it is good only inasmuch as it “makes a difference”; we must now explain the benefit to cancer research or the perennially homeless or the terminally ill.[ii] Once again, we can muster arguments to defend the long-term benefits of even “fruitless” cancer research or the sociological benefits of not distinguishing between the “responsible” and “irresponsible” poor. The very fact that we must muster arguments is the problem.

These explanations are manipulable by the evil and the powerful. People start huge charities, multinational organizations with vast ambitions like helping the global environment or fixing African poverty. They argue through public relations organs and the media that good people give to their cause, and certainly don’t oppose it. They, as an organization, matter. We need them, they say. They are good, and we are good by association if we help them. We are compelled by our goal-based value of charity to agree; to disagree, we must delve into their reasoning and find fault with it. Once we commit to charity generally, logic works as a trap, and only further logic is the key, and it is our individual efforts against vast (shadowy!) marketing departments.

But if we set aside (as difficult as it now is for us) pragmatism for a moment and consider charity as an end unto itself, we immediately see that it’s the multinational getting played when they manipulate us into giving them money and power. This or that Foundation thinks it is achieving power through controlling the generous, when, in fact, it is generosity achieving power by controlling a multinational.

The Nietzschean businessman or politician who worships power always thinks they are bending the weak men who follow rules to their will. In reality, businessmen and politicians are just men in G-d’s world, and the world, even the logic of the world, is created for charity. Since this is purpose, and G-d is not dead, there is a more fundamental level of reality than power. Power, itself, is like a parasite, living off of the reality of G-d’s commands.

What do I mean? Tzedakah, charity, is good. The act of giving one’s wealth away is desired by G-d. It elevates the world not through what it accomplishes but by its very being. It is not an improvement to the plot of the world’s story; it is the presence of the Author in the story. The world’s purpose, its very design, its nature is fulfilled by the giving of charity. The coin exists to be donated. The businessman may even exist for a single act of philanthropy.

We object: But the magnate thinks he exists to win at games and quench the flames of bodily lust! He intentionally abuses the notion of charity for his own benefit! He tricks us, once we admit we think giving charity is a good thing, to give it to him!

The response: If tzedakah did not exist in the eyes of G-d and the world and its rules were the highest reality, then the magnate would be in a position to truly control the situation, and whatever events took place, whenever he committed the funds to foul ends, they could call our charity into question.

As things actually stand, however, a human being cannot manipulate tzedakah at essence. It has no goal[iii], so its goal cannot be subverted.[iv] As an act, it is sanctified and holy. The coin is good only inasmuch as it is used for a mitzvah, but the mitzvah is good. The businessman is trying to steal donated money, but he causes his unwitting marks to express the unity of G-d and the world through giving of their sweat-and-blood in the form of currency to another, to a stranger, and the charity is good. Not only that, but the businessman himself is good inasmuch as he is a vessel for the charity. Rather than the charity only being beneficial if it achieves a certain goal, the businessman is only beneficial if he achieves charity.

Of course, charity is even better if the funds we donate with the best of intentions actually do help feed the poor in Africa, and we have every right (and possibly obligation) to try to ensure that it does. The point, however, is that the businessman only has power here under his own paradigm. He has only made good people into fools from one point of view. From the truest and most eternal perspective, however, his marks have made a fool of him, and used his greed and will for power to a holy end.

It turns out that philosophy matters, and that a relationship with G-d for its own sake is the deepest form of power in its simple and automatic negation of worldly power. By revealing that the rules of G-dly morality are not logical constructs aiming at, say, a certain vision of society, but rather that any given society is merely a means to the appreciation and implementation of the rules, we turn the forces of chaos against themselves. Where before, they found power in walking over the ants who were so weak as to follow a code, they are revealed, in the second perspective, to be mere minute reflections of the infinite, worshipping an undeserving deity for his own sake. Where once they could argue the rules must be abandoned because they are inauthentic, the rules are now seen to run deeper and far truer than any man or society.

In short – if G-d is not dead, and we refuse to settle for a pragmatic view of G-d’s commandments, then control of the world is firmly in G-d’s hands, not because of His authority (alone), but because this is the truth built into the very fabric of our reality itself. Neither NASA, nor Bush on 9/11, nor Koch, nor Soros can bind the good to their own will and possess it. They either participate in good, and so are shaped by it, or they oppose it and abandon it and good remains untainted by their influence.[v]

It is really those who feel they must struggle to discover the purpose of Torah who must shadow box at multinationals or the lizard people who truly run things. For the Jew who sees physical reality as the means and Torah as the ultimate end-within-itself, the nations may plot and scheme and donate as much money to bank accounts in the Caymans as they like. The world still moves ever-closer to goodness and perfection in union with the Guardian of Israel, who neither slumbers nor sleeps.


[i] Moshiach, incidentally, does not count, since Moshiach is nothing other than the Torah itself, realized. It is defined recursively; the (true) reward for the mitzvah is the mitzvah.

[ii] Indeed, this is exactly why many criticized Mother Teresa; she would wipe the mouths of the suffering of Calcutta, but did not set up clinics for palliative care; is her charity really charity?

[iii] That there are levels of Tzedakah, that it is best given to the poor, etc. are valid aspects of the commandment, but they do not constitute set goals for it. They are Torah-derived (rather than goal-derived) aspects of the commandment that constitute the relationship of the commandment to worldly reason while in no way defining the commandment within that system. Those mitzvot that generally find expression within worldly reason are called Mishpatim, whereas those that express only their essential nature – that they have no rational end – are called Chukim. It would seem there is no commandment in the Torah that even appears entirely justified by worldly reason in its details, nor, conversely, is there one that has no rational explanation whatsoever. Perhaps it is their role of uniting G-dliness with the physical world that dictates they all lie upon this spectrum.

[iv] Perhaps the best attempts to subvert holiness in history were not attacks on its goals but rather irrational resistance to its essence, devotion to stopping the act of holiness at all costs, no matter its outcome. This is the infamous evil of Amalek, and perhaps Midyan as well.

[v] The view of Torah Law as an end unto itself also saves us from the Groucho Paradox, paraphrased as I would never want to do a mitzvah that I could do. In other words, not only do the commandments transcend cynical manipulation by bad actors, they also are not besmirched by the well-intentioned participation of sinners. We cannot ask, “If I am so evil and can fulfill this commandment, how great can it be?” because the greatness of the commandments is self-defined. It is only we who are elevated by performing a commandment, never the commandment lowered by performing it.

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 society. 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 healthy 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.

Why Did No One Defend Yeshiva?

I recently wrote a post on Hevria that caused a bit of a stir. The point of the piece was to, in a more-clever-than-wise way, point out that both yeshiva and college fall short in terms of providing a true education to their students, and for very similar reasons.

As soon as the essay went online, I started getting responses. A lot of them were positive. A lot of them weren’t.

Now, it’s rarely fun and almost never productive to argue with people on the Internet. The notion that anyone is going to change their mind about anything from an Internet argument is laughable (even the people who say they’re open-minded are not going to change their minds on any substantial issue from a comments section debate). Nevertheless, I feel these rather stupid impulses that I imagine others might find familiar…a certain need to have the last word; a need to prove myself, even to strangers; a need to defend what I’ve said, as if my reputation or something else important is on the line.

So I began to engage with the critical comments. And when I did, I began to realize that the point of my article had been grossly misunderstood. Most of the “negative” comments were people who felt I was saying people shouldn’t attend college, an idea that obviously aroused some emotion in some of my readers.

But then, as the flow of comments dwindled over the next few days, the plot thickened. Though many did not like my criticisms of college, and told me so, not a single person seemed upset about or defended yeshiva from my criticism.

Which leads me to the question: Why?

As far as I see it, there are a few possibilities:

  1. My readership does not include people who could defend the yeshiva, but does contain those who could defend college.
  2. People who would defend yeshiva do not for some reason feel the need or desire to comment (or private message me).
  3. My comments on yeshiva were not interpreted as an attack or criticism at all, whereas my comments on college were.
  4. I struck a nerve with those who would defend College, whereas my Yeshiva comments were so off-the-mark so as to elicit no response. That is, my criticism of Yeshiva was inaccurate, but my words against college were too accurate.
  5. Yeshiva is actually indefensible (that is, everyone thinks the yeshivas really are terrible), whereas college is better than I make it out to be. That is, my criticisms of Yeshiva were accurate, but those of college were inaccurate.

Let’s go through one by one.

  1. It is simply not true that my readership includes no people who could defend Yeshiva. I know that this essay was discussed at Shabbos tables in religious neighborhoods; I have friends who love yeshiva specifically and religious institutions in general who merely told me they enjoyed the piece. I also had several comments from individuals who went both to yeshiva and to college who had no problem criticizing college of both. None of these defend yeshiva, even though they could have.
  2. Even if for some reason there is pressure to not defend yeshiva on Hevria (and I don’t think there is), I received no private messages defending places of jewish learning. This, despite dozens (at least) of generally outspoken, unafraid yeshiva graduates who know me personally and would definitely not be afraid to share the opinion on the matter. I find it hard to believe that if there was a perceived attack on yeshiva, no one would say anything. Even if they all followed the general rule that argument achieves nothing (and they don’t), they might have tried to paint a more complete picture of yeshiva in their comments, just as many did with college. So perhaps it was not seen as an attack…
  3. — but that makes no sense either. I used literally the exact same words to criticize college and yeshiva, almost like a copy-and-paste job. Granted, previous events among the readers may have made them predisposed to defend college. That is, it’s not that they didn’t see yeshiva as under the gun, but rather that they were particularly sensitive about college because college students are ostracized, spoken badly of, etc. in the religious community. This explanation makes sense to me. However, I think it’s incomplete. After all, where are all these people who look down on college when it is compared directly to their own educational institutions? If there really is this much religious oppression, or cognitive dissonance over college, etc., I would think that comparing yeshiva to that secular institution would elicit some sort of outcry. But no such reaction was forthcoming. Again, I received not a single defense of Yeshiva from an entire religious community.
  4. Everyone who at all bothered to comment on the “yeshiva” half of my post had the same thing to say: That my criticism was spot-on.  Thus, even if my criticism of college was accurate, it seems to have been at least as accurate when it comes to yeshiva, and it was widely acknowledged at such.
  5. Of these five possibilities, I find this the most compelling — but again, this simply isn’t enough. True, the yeshiva system is widely acknowledged to have flaws, whereas flaws with college as a whole are much less widely accepted. But I had commenters who acknowledged the flaws of college, yet still pointed out that the benefits outweigh the costs. For yeshiva, there was no such defense. No one had anything to say about how wonderful it was that there was a place where one could be steeped in Judaism and its traditions 24/7, or focus worry-free on the word of G-d, or even merely exist separate from the world and yet somehow above it. These benefits are obvious to me. (After all, I was never saying people shouldn’t go to yeshiva.) Yet no one felt the need to mention them, to force me to qualify my criticisms…

And so, back to the original question. Why did no one defend yeshiva?

I’m not sure. But here’s a whimsical theory.

No one defended yeshiva because there is now a clear understanding in the religious world that any organization, institution, or individual merely participates in  or reflect what is Good or True, but is never itself completely good or true. In the secular world, however, there is now no concept of participation in an abstract perfection; there is only the thing itself, flawed until perfected.

In other words, since there is no particular vision of what college is, at essence, all of its failings are major detractions; after all, the next criticism might demolish the whole thing altogether. We must explain, against every criticism, why it is still a worthwhile institution. Meanwhile, since the Yeshiva at heart has an essential identity fully integrated into the Jewish framework, focusing around Torah study and all its implications, no number of incidental failures can undermine its worth.

People don’t feel the need to defend yeshiva because yeshiva is Torah study and Torah study is not going anywhere. Sure, there is plenty of room for improvement, and this is widely (if not universally) acknowledged. But a criticism of the institution is not an existential threat to it; we can work to fix the yeshiva, but the yeshiva will always exist, as long as Jews do Jewish things. The Jewish society has a need for intensive Torah study, and that need will always draw the yeshiva into existence like a wick drawing oil to the flame. So when I say that yeshiva sure is expensive, a hundred readers smiled and nodded and went back to their business, because though the cost may irk them, it is merely a practical issue that prevents us from fulfilling our need for yeshiva more pleasantly and efficiently.

College, on the other hand, is not perceived in terms of the need it fulfills per se. Especially in its current form, it is very hard for anyone to say what exactly college is for. And if you can’t point at the need or purpose that is its sustaining core, any attack could be an existential threat. When I say college debt is ridiculous, there is some chance I might be encouraging people to avoid college or even, G-d forbid, to demolish it. This is possible because not many people really think of college in terms of what it’s for, why it’s necessary, or ultimately (as follows directly from those ways of thinking) what it is. And so, it must be defended.

All of which is kind of meta, since my underlying reason for criticizing both yeshiva and college is that neither of them teach us enough to think this way, to see the underlying structure of the world around us and engage it in a way that fulfills the potential of the human intellect and allows us to be noble, dignified, elevated beings.

There is no doubt that in terms of purpose and essence, the religious perspective has serious advantages in these intellectually muddled times. The very idea that there is a G-d teaches us to think in those terms. But I do not think that there is no secular way to think in them. On the contrary, with advances in science we now live in a world much more open to thinking in terms of design, purpose, meaning, form, and essence.

That, whimsically, is my explanation.