Everything You Know About Chassidus Is Wrong

Everything You Know About Chassidus Is Wrong

I begin with a confession.

Some say they’re involved with Judaism because of its eternal truth, or because it is the tradition that runs in their veins, or because it is the best way to make sense of the world and their place in it.

I am involved with Judaism because of the pleasure I get out of it. More specifically, I am involved with Judaism because of the pleasure I get out of studying Maamarim, the Chassidic Discourses of the Chabad school of thought.

A Maamar is a big deal because everything you know about Chassidus is wrong.

Chassidus is not those Buddhist-sounding memes I repeat to myself mantra-like when looking for inspiration. Chassidus, as an intellectual endeavor, is nothing like learning philosophy or science. Chassidus is not a nice source for your next Shabbos table Dvar Torah. For the love of G-d, Chassidus is not a social and cultural movement founded by Rabbi Israel Baal She-zzz…

These are pale imitations of what Chassidus really is, and are pathetically unsatisfying compared to learning a Maamar. These are the “No-Fear Shakespeare” or the “Sparknotes” of the mystical Jewish endeavor. These are the perspectives on Chassidus that claim to give you the real thing while preventing you from understanding why the thing is great in the first place. They are the reason why a million high school graduates say they know Shakespeare and don’t like it while neither of these statements is true. Don’t do that to yourself.

Rather, if we’re to appreciate it, we must consume Chassidus mindfully, slowly, and personally, in the original.

When we do that, Chassidus becomes the greatest pleasure in the human experience.

In fact, if I were out to coarsen the Maamar (pronounced “my-mer”) and downplay the pleasure of learning one, I would describe the experience as savoring fresh ice cream with hot fudge. For me, it is the end-goal of the entire Jewish endeavor. Getting up in the morning for Minyan is eating broccoli. Learning Talmud is like the drive to the ice cream place. Intellectual/Philosophical analysis of Judaism is like when you’re expecting ice cream for Shabbos dessert and the owner of the house produces their super-healthy fruit salad. Hanging out with people interested in Minyan and Talmud and Philosophy is like handing over your sweet, green money to some stranger that works at the ice cream stand.

Learning the Maamar is, to some extent, like eating the ice cream. But if a scoop of ice cream is one experience in a lifetime, the Maamar is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In fact, life is merely the thing we do when we are not learning The Maamar. It is the process of searching for something that is as perfect as The Maamar, and when it is not found, making it so.

If you think I’m exaggerating, you’ve never learned a Maamar. However, you may have learned a so-called “Chassidic Discourse,” which sounds as appealing as eating the box the ice cream came in.

It is the “Chassidic Discourse” that convinces people they can suffice with little snippets of inspiration from the Chabad.org Facebook page rather than actually learning the text. After all, if the entire point is to vaguely “inspire me to do good stuff,” and the inspiration comes wrapped up in all sorts of time-wasting boring informational “Discourse,” why even bother with it? I’ll just have someone let me know what the takeaway was.

But really, The Maamar is not a discourse. The Maamar is a conversation. The moment we stop viewing a Maamar as a conversation is the moment we stop enjoying Chassidus.

Summaries and imitations miss all the little moments that make a maamar special. They miss out on the entire back-and-forth, the audience participation, the way the words on the page interweave with your thought process to create a mystic cogitational sugar rush.

If all you know of Chassidus is one-liners or short synagogue speeches, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

So let me explain what it’s like:

 

“V’Kibel. The Jews received in the times of Haman what they began at the giving of the Torah.”

Chills. The beginning is always full of excitement. The beginning is always a quote. A quote of something old and strong, words that have held the earth on their shoulders for thousands of years, or perhaps longer.

“The question: But at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people were the apex of creation, free and holy, ready for their face-to-face with G-d. In Persia, every man, woman, and child was sentenced to death and living in the shadow of exile and the Creator was hidden from them. Yet somehow Sinai was only the beginning of a process that was only completed during Haman’s decree?”

Forget the next nine pages. This question is the perfect turn of phrase, better than Shakespeare. This question is a question that could burn on our lips from the moment we wake until we fall into fitful rest. This question is our question before we realize it is our question. This question will turn up when we fully decipher our genetic coding. Every time we encounter the intersection of pain and purpose, this question is growing through the cracks in the pavement. Every time we wonder whether up is down or darkness is light, this question helps us right our ship, reminds us that there is an order to the universe. At the same time, it tells us our place in that order is a sad place. This question is a dare The Maamar makes to itself, wriggling its eyebrows, eyeing its audience. “Watch,” it says. “Watch how I answer the aching question that is your life.”

The Maamar is not something you come to. The Maamar is what you have been living all along but never known how to explain.

“But at the time of the decree, they served G-d with self-sacrifice (to the point of death), not just for their faith but for the individual commandments.”

A wrinkle of the most Chassidic order. A statement like a knot. We have expected a solution and received confusion. This is the way the order of the universe is upended and the low and the humble are shown to be greater than the greatest? Whence this relativism? Is something really better just because it hurts? And if it is, for what do we strive? If I understand correctly, The Maamar is offering a gift. But I need The Maamar to tell me whether I should take it…

“They were inspired to self-sacrifice by Mordechai the Jew, the Moses of his generation.”

More chills. The Maamar is giving me that old-time religion, that ideal vision, someone to look up to, and unlike moral quandaries this is something I feel I desperately need. Spot = hit. Epic.

“Mordechai’s main work was learning Torah with the children, who are the foundation of all Israel, whose breath spent in Torah study upholds the world.”

I feel The Maamar’s passion. I feel its author crying out in these stately phrases. A Maamar speaking about children learning G-d’s words is almost a tautology. Innocence calls to purity; a thousand ulterior motions are burned away; a glance of Eden flashes through the cracks.

“As it says in the Midrash, Mordechai learned publicly with 22,000 students. Haman approached and Mordechai said to them, “Escape, so you do not suffer with me.” They said to him, “We are with you, for life and for death.” They accepted all punishment to not be separate from Torah.”

The Maamar takes the sublime pleasure of the story, of the narrative form we know from godforsaken Hollywood or from novels, and finds its gnarled root in the Truth, and in the history of our people. As Jews we tend to be too busy complaining to notice the true nature of our own story. The Maamar, with its head held high, reminds us of dark days and the luminous souls who triumphed. If we are to appreciate the G-dly words it is about to share, we must look upon them from the place where integrity rages inside us.

“And so, in one aspect, through their self-sacrifice, the Jews at the time of Haman were greater than those at Mount Sinai. But we need to understand:”

The Maamar is always saying we need to understand when it asks its questions. It’s never, “The matter makes no sense.” The Maamar, despite being truer than anything in the universe, still treads with humility sweet as honey.

“Is not the ideal of almost every Mitzvah to live by them, rather than to die by them?”

I knew there was something fishy about that self-sacrifice stuff. Judaism is not a death cult. Nu, The Maamar, let’s share some reasonable questions over a cup of tea. You may be humble, but I am not. Is that okay?

“Even the three Mitzvot which we die rather than violate are merely more important than life itself; death is not central to their fulfilment. Dying for the sanctification of G-d’s name is merely one commandment. Why should it be necessary for the completion of the Sinaitic revelation?”

The Torah is a life pact, not a death pact. This question is the counterpoint, the other end of the stick. Self-sacrifice is no longer the answer; it is the question. This interplay will be the launching board for the higher realms, where in a three-fold movement the Maamar will cut to the heart of all matters. It will answer all these questions with such answers that the questions will melt away and become nothing, or will become their true selves, which are really the same thing, and for a brief moment in the parallax everything will fall into place and we will snatch a glimpse of the Most High.

 

But I leave that for your own study. Though the Maamar continues, our shared experience of it here does not. However, my point — that the conversation with the “Chassidic Discourse” is sweeter and more satisfying than any candy — is made.

People think that The Maamar is too philosophical or deep for them, that it’s a space of intellectuals to wax eloquent on G-d.

But The Maamar does not expound upon G-d. This is like saying Van Gogh expounds upon stars and cypresses. The Maamar is not out to convince you. “This is what I see,” says Vincent with a sad smile. “Take it or don’t.”

If we knew Vincent, we’d take it.

The Maamar is not about knowing in the usual sense. The Maamar is as much or more about wonder than knowledge.

The Maamar inspires the same childlike awe as a magic trick; it, too, makes something disappear and then return.

First the Maamar declares its own nullity. The Maamar says that the Maamar is merely a vessel, that the truest pleasure we have ever known is not strictly real per se. The card has disappeared, leaving only the magician’s bare palm. Then, the magician brings back The Maamar (with all its ice cream offspring). But only on the magician’s terms.

And learning the magician’s terms is, in turn, the whole point of the Maamar.

The Maamar says magic is a form of self-expression we live daily.

If you want to feel that magic, you should learn The Maamar. Don’t be one of those people who shows up in heaven and is read the riot act over never having enjoyed fresh ice cream with hot fudge.

YOLO. Go learn.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.