Off the Hippie Derech

If you told eighteen-year-old me, rearing to escape his rather hippie-ish private Jewish high school, that many years from now, you’ll realize you’re more of a hippie than any of your peers, I’d have pulled out an earphone and told you you were nuts. But here we are.

The hippies, not the real ones (because who cares), but the vision, the love and peace and all that, pulled me from a morass at fourteen. My life could have gone differently at a dreary school, very real and austere and on-the-rails. Then I switched over and found joy in the freedom of the spirit where anything went, and you were more or less left alone within some loose expectations. The hippie school was less religious than I was and had no vessel for those budding inclinations, but it didn’t matter, because they let a thousand freak flags fly, and that’s beautiful, and seeing it’s beautiful is what makes a hippie, you dig? So they smoked, and I dreamed of Jerusalem, and it all worked out, more or less.

Now the school has an alumni association lambasting the administration for its lack of empathy and sharing a list of demands and uprooting systemic blah blah blah, it doesn’t matter, here’s what matters—finite ideals tended to by animals must all give way to animal tendencies. Animals tend to pull down and away toward death. I may dream of those sunny days with sandals and drums and my little inner petri dish that everyone was too stoned to smash, but the stoners do not seem to dream of them.

They have grown up and become shaved monks, puritanical and terrible-holy, and those who cannot conform will burn. In this sense, we have switched places. I was seen as (and I encouraged this view) a quasi-religious freak, but I gradually grew to appreciate the gentle lightness of being a hippie, the chill, the mellow. It cradled me and raised me and allowed me to become what I was becoming at my own pace. It was patient beyond the point of reason. It thought something beautiful might be emerging if it would just be allowed to emerge and not crushed when it was most brittle. My friends, on the other hand, for reasons understood (being the children of immigrants changed my life more than I realized at the time) and mysterious, were confident hippies doing the cradling, open to the world, open to every new thing as they were to me. But this disposition and environment do not naturally persist; they require maintenance, and even during my time at that school, they shifted and changed. Just as something in human nature tends to self-destruction and self-sabotage, just as those pursuing happiness with the most gusto are the least likely to find it, so, too, are the explicit maintainers of peace and love and lightness and mellowness the least likely to maintain it.

The years since I graduated have not been good to the maintenance crew; they were open, and open, and open until some very talented sociopathic manipulators and people-eating ideas took advantage. Now they say things like ‘police are evil’, which is ironic because if they had psychospiritual or emotional police around their own ideals, they never would have come to say it in this way. They have been looted; their ability to create for me that paradise has been picked over. They are spiritually depleted by the rawest and basest politics and the sickening totalizing tendency of the ideas that have come to dwell in them, who say any mellowness that gives quarter to the enemy is evil and any lightness which allows even the conscientious objectors to exist in our midst is wrong. Our school, that place of accordions and trailers with frozen pipes, is now seen to be detracting from ‘what’s really going on’ by posting updates on student life rather than on solidarity. The alumni (and, I assume, current students still awake) chase moralistically-satisfying ephemera, and the board, in search of the fountain of relative-youth, shall follow.

I, for my part, yearn for the good old days, for a feeling that I now doubt is any mere ideology made manifest but which cannot possibly survive as light and mellow under so much activism. I feel like I have become the most unlikely guardian of this tradition imaginable, a ridiculous reversal of the ex-orthodox writers getting Netflix deals who still, as Bialik did, as Shazar did, defend the homeness of the faith they’ve renounced to those who can’t hope to understand. I am a hippie by education who went off-the-Derech to become an overly-cerebral orthodox Rabbi who now rants about hippie-ness to all who will listen. We must save the hippies from themselves. We must act as beacons pulsing in the dark to call them back to what they were. The light and the mellow were no mere throwaway consequences of other things you were into; they were precious, priceless, and worth defending. Return, my sons, return!

Love and peace are not sustainable in the form of mere affectations. You bore them in your breast and built them into your structures because you were kissed on the forehead by G-d, but that mark has long since worn off in the winds of the world, your innocence lost. The secret is that you did not create it; you cannot create it. You received it and appreciated it. It emanated authentically and spontaneously from a combination of factors so fine they may only be counted by He who knows the sand and knows the stars.

Those, like me, who yearn for innocence, for love, for peace—not in some exalted divine or cosmic sense, even, but in the simplest sense, in the sense that a fourteen-year-old boy was protected in the light and the mellow—are wise to turn from overt attempts to create to covert attempts to foster it. We strengthen and deepen our souls on the individual level, free from any worldly master that wishes to control us, free from the insecurities and guilt others use to ensnare us. We will not be turned outward and downward to foster the superficial and the unreal, to be “for” movements or candidates or cathartic destruction. We will not be tricked into believing that the extension of the ego into a million egos by the collective is a form of sublimation or selflessness. We will not declare our goal to be love and peace and thereby open it up to understanding and subversion when what we mean is a soul experience that is valuable even if it cannot be named and scrawled on a poster. We will not lose our balance and be yanked right and left because our balance is what matters to us, a focus on what is inner and upward, what is real, something that the soul knew, once, for a passing sun-flecked hour. We will not sour into pathological self-seriousness and heaviness.

We will remember that Tikkun Olam grew up not among the activists but the dreamers. They knew that the mere manipulation of the technical state of affairs is not enough, that if the hand and heart and head were not attached to something solid and immovable inside us, they would inevitably come to fail. On the shores of the sea of reeds, before it split and our ancestors went through on dry land (an event I have honest-to-goodness heard described by a Jew as a racism-tinged cutting of our African ties), they saw the Egyptian army approach and began arguing. Some wished to throw themselves into the sea, some wished to wage war, some wished to return peacefully to slavery, and some wished to pray to G-d for salvation. They were all, to a one, wrong.

Their intentions ranged from worthy to unworthy, but they were all functions of heaviness and panic, a desperate need to affirmatively form their answers, to make their passage. The slaves from Egypt had not yet fully worked out the implications of having a G-d, of being able to let go because the bedrock truth of all things is Goodness and Freedom. If they had, they would have been unafraid enough simply to listen, not to have to think but simply to walk at the water in loving surrender.

The concealing sea was then pulled back, and the dry land revealed, a path forward where none, even under the collective, previously existed.

I Saw G-d on Facebook

We do not, in Judaism, agree with the philosophers that greatness is greatness no matter who or what possesses it. Korach erred to think he could bear Moshe’s greatness as easily as Moshe and Aharon’s holiness as easily as any Kohen. In this, he was a heretic, ultimately denying creation ex nihilo, that Moses could be a radically different creation than Korach. So I do not mean to say that a Facebook comment can be genuinely great per se like (l’havdil) a work of Torah.

But if it is no longer a “Facebook comment per se,” if Korach ceases to be Korach by becoming Moshe’s man, then true greatness is possible, the greatness of the inifite. All finite things hold an emptiness at the center called bittul, a negative space that may contain the infinite. Through bittul, the non-great may become great. When we talk about a great FB comment, we’re talking about one that’s becoming nothing inside and out.


Here’s what it looks like: I met a severe Yeshiva student on one of my wanderings. He was of European slimness, shorter and younger than average in the study hall, and brilliant. He pursued Judaism with the dangerous fanaticism of a broken-hearted youth.

The ‘danger,’ such as it is, lies in the multi-layered nature of the pit, the hole inside that Judaism will fill, because Judaism must, because if it doesn’t, what am I? Many souls contain a Machpelah, a cave within a cave, a cave above a cave. Only Judaism fills the most bottomless hole, the cavity closer to us than our very being. We can plug smaller, more superficial spiritual needs with worldly pleasures, therapy, art, friends and family, secular knowledge, political activism, or a gratifying job. Sometimes the upper chamber may even be filled by time, the spiritual agonies of adolescence calloused over by the 20s.

The trick of the hole-filling Baal Teshuva, the returnee to Judaism looking to satisfy a need, is to realize that beneath the sinkholes opening along our contingent path through circumstance lies a broader existential tale tied to our very being. We possess emptiness born not of the path chosen for us but of we who walk it, that deep inner vacuum to which Judaism speaks, the infinite desolation that only G-d can make whole. Torah and Mitzvos will contextualize the other problems, the ones of nature and nurture, and may repair them at the level of what they are. They will transform us from biological beings dealing with problems into G-dly souls wrestling with them. But all direct changes to the form of our questions do not require Judaism. Self-discipline and a regimented life come from the army; self-help books and gurus can transform your attitude; medication and diet help depression and anxiety; friends and family give us love.

One of Chassidus’s penetrating insights is that to live a G-dly life is different from conquering the form of your troubles. To heal the animal soul—the path of Mussar/Ethical teachings—may be a prerequisite to the work of the G-dly soul, but it is not that work. The Baal Shem Tov revealed that a commandment performed for a reward demotes the commandment to below the reward. So, too, if the point of the commandment is self-improvement, it elevates the animal traits above the mitzvah. A Korach cannot become a Moses from the outside, by slowly improving his Korach-itude, because Moses is not merely a more ethical Korach. Korach becomes Moshe by first becoming nothing, by finding the infinite emptiness within and introducing it into his life. He does this no matter which contingent foibles and character flaws lie in his way.

It should not surprise us that many a young Baal Teshuva, thinking it’s Chassidus they seek, join a yeshiva and start studying the Tanya. They soon discover the Tanya addresses only a single problem, the union of the souls with the divine. They then remain in a frustrating stalemate until something else shows up to solve their problem. Occasionally it is Mussar that saves the day. More often, it’s one of the other hole fillers, and, their itch scratched and their issue resolved, they stop seeking G-d. My acquaintance, the young zealot, seems to have done just that. He now often posts pictures of himself, bare-headed and often bare-chested, luxuriating in an exotic locale, to Facebook.


There was another student in that same yeshiva where I met the first. Where the first was young, this second was older than the yeshiva average. Where the former was fanatical, the latter was disinterested. The first was hungry, seeking satisfaction from every page of the Talmud, every letter of each Chassidic discourse. The latter seemed to hate everyone and everything about our little school, often missing classes, arriving at strange hours with odd friends to study the talks of the Previous Rebbe of Lubavitch in Russian-accented Hebrew. The only things the two students had in common were their distinctive approaches to yeshiva life apart from the established order, tormented spirits, and a penchant for cigarettes.

The Russian (let’s call him) was, without doubt, the most abrasive person I met in perhaps my entire yeshiva career. He had no air of glory about him whatsoever, no sense that, by participating in Judaism, he was doing something noble or extraordinary. He spoke with all the tact of a Moscoloid street rat and had physically assaulted a non-zero number of his fellow students. He had studied philology in university back in the Motherland and spat out the names of philosophers like curses. He liked the Kuzari and alcohol. I think he is an orphan, but he found no loving family amongst us; if he has a void in that sense, it’s hard to imagine we were filling it with our constant exasperation at his moods. He was no Moses (lacking the piety) and no Korach (lacking the delusions of grandeur and the pictured path to fulfillment). He was more a Dasan or Aviram, kicking over blocks for fun, and you wanted to ask him, “Why are you here?” However, in retrospect, it is clear he possessed the knack of every successful fulfillment-seeking Baal Teshuva. He could be here because he was here. Dogged, senseless, persistence without reason or clear reward is the trick of the Baal Teshuva, and you can’t teach it. It appears in other areas of life aglimmer with the sheen of the infinite. The advice for writers, I have learned, is to write. The ingredient of cake, when G-d makes it, is cake. That which is created from nothing has no explanation. Moses can be Moses only because he is, and this mystery the Russian embodies.


Today, checking my Facebook feed, I see two truly great words, words that ring with the full hollowness of a Chassidic story. You must recognize those involved, read the words in an irritated Russian accent written to an old non-friend, a youth from yeshiva. The Russian was never there when the youth slaved over the holy books, was not around when he sculpted a shining new face for himself in the night, was not awake when he closed the book, picked up his jacket, and quit. But beneath the latest in a string of frivolous photos of a new life, the Russian has commented,

with the mournful triumph of the eternally satisfied,

with the confident disregard of those who cannot break free from the bundle of life even if they wished,

with the greatness of those who are empty and thus are Moses,

with the longing of an inner cave so long-buried the explorers have stopped looking for it,

with the laconic, mystified bemusement of those who have suffered worse yet never managed to leave:

“תחזור כבר”;

“Come back already.”

Morte e Satisfação Ao Lado do Tejo

Beneath the needled boughs on the banks of the Tagus. Why ever move again? The air is cool and breezy off the mighty estuary. Gulls croak all around. Behind is the bustle of Lisbon, the distant breath of automotive traffic, the clashing of a pot in a restaurant no-doubt desperate for off-season custom. Today is a good day; it isn’t raining.

Why ever move again? The Ponte Vasco de Gama, longest bridge in Europe, unfurls to my left like a misplaced spasm of Louisiana, a momentary whiff of Pontchartrain and beignets and bayou. The cable car to the oceanarium drifts silently overhead. It is impossible to wonder with anything more than the curiosity of the content whether today they have any takers. Calm waters and limpid skies give way at the horizons to clouds, not the droning omnipresent gray of Sunday but white cotton East toward the rest of Europe, and upriver, future rain-bearers. One of the restaurants has hung chimes which soften the squeaking and clanging of walkers along the promenade, their presence just constant enough to remind me I am not outside of civilization but on the edge of a pocket of peace folded against its loving bosom.

The bridge crosses the river so I don’t have to. Why ever move again?

It is possible to step on the Vacso de Gama bridge and walk to Vladivostok without your feet leaving pavement. But Vladivostok is only an idea in Lisbon, an implausible theory. If I was the bridge, a simple unprepossessing miles-long concrete structure, I could have Russia implicitly. I would in some sense run there at every moment, be there by being in Lisbon, my body my grandfather’s whom I have never met.

But I am not even the bench I am sitting on, nor this pen, nor even the fingers manipulating it. I’m certainly not the distant dirty-snowed port, salmon and cod by the millions failing to warm its air. If I want to cross the river, I have to move. I at the very least have to move my thoughts. But why ever move again?

“Your body will need something eventually,” a voice within threatens. Perhaps. But perhaps I reject the notion. Adam didn’t need in Eden; courageous Korach didn’t need in the wilderness. They were perfect just as they were. Perhaps I will waste away here on the bank of the river, because it is an insult to beauty and G-d’s creation to need anything, a rejection of the lapping waters and the moment in which they lap and all else that fills it. Motion is betrayal. Maybe I will die here with honor, the empty bench remaining as a testament to my discovery of G-d right where I sat.

As the sages or King Solomon might connote, and as I’ve been trying to say for a few paragraphs: existence is suffering. And as father Avraham teaches us, my still death beside the Tagus would itself be a motion, a furthering of my existence, a departure from the non-being I smell within the infinitesimal fraction of here and now.

It is no simple thing to cease to be accessible at your own metaphysical address, to rig your front door so that when they batter it down they meet nothing but G-dliness. An accessible existence is a notoriously difficult thing to dispose of. When Descartes said cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, it was with a note of triumph, having ascertained that there was at least one thing he could not doubt, namely the existence of the one who was doubting, i.e., himself. He should have mourned. The prisoner cannot free himself. Actions grounded in our own knowing are grounded in us and so no matter their apparent valence shall always reinforce our existence.

Martyrdom is no escape. A monk sets himself on fire in protest. His form is lost in the flames; his soul passes from the material realm. His existence is no longer accessible, not as itself…right?

Do we not find the monk’s existence immortalized through his actions? Is he not found, there in the heart of his protest, for all eternity? He has become part of something larger than himself; he has traded a small mortal form for the form of the idea. His existence is now eternally accessible, more easily found. It is a martyrdom of self-extension.

The call sign of this self-perpetuating martyrdom is its logic. The human condition: our “independent” selves are functions of other selves. I’m bigger than little brother but smaller than father, smarter than a fifth grader but dumber than Einstein, a giver to students but a receiver from teachers. The tie that binds, the triangulating system binding us to other nodes in the web of being, is logic.

When the monk sets himself on fire, he does not sweep his locus on the web clean; on the contrary, he ascends to the state of pure logic, his node full of web. “The tenets of my religion define me,” he said before he was burned. “There is nothing here but the tenets of my religion,” he says now.

The node is not empty; it is so full as to merge into its surroundings. A living monk may sever the connections, shift his position, leave Buddhism for atheism or Sikhism. A martyr of self-extension has locked his logic into place. He has moved beyond being a single thing among all finite concatenated things, and become a principle of concatenation, an idea, infinitely more present, undying.

In other words, death and life are not continuing and ceasing to be in this world. Being is to be in the web of logic. Death can reinforce and intensify this being. It is not, itself, an escape.

Avraham is the first to break free of the web, to wrench himself free, to non-be. Our father rebels against all his holy logic by binding Isaac upon the altar. In his mad devotion to G-d he sets aside his beliefs and religion and the extension of his line. When logic tells him “G-d promise a nation through Isaac,” that his son and he are tied by the web, Avraham ties his son and thereby cuts the connection. When logic tells him G-d does not desire human sacrifice, he turns away. When it insists that martyrdom is only for a cause, Avraham is willing to not be a martyr, then. There is no ground for the sacrifice of Yitzchak in what Avraham is. On that mountain he exerts none of his own logic.

Is this not the very inscrutability of G-d made manifest? When Maimonides writes that we cannot even affirmatively say that G-d exists, what he means is that G-d is not a being of the web. He exists only because He is himself, relative to no other thing, and so the verb “to be” means something incommensurately greater in his case. Avraham is only able to be nothing before G-d by dint of the G-dly nothingness within. He is not nothing by external relationship to the Creator (a further web) but by faith, the inner path, a capacity built into his very being.

If he is not defined by any web, what remains is not more of Avraham, but none of him, which is also, absurdly, Avraham— the deepest truth of Avraham, his G-dly truth. He found it not through stillness and death. He found it by riding to the mountain on G-d’s command.

Why ever move? Because it is the only way to stay still. Why abandon this moment here, where the birds of prey swing low on the winds of the continent to hunt the glassy blue waters? It is the only way to keep it.

November. Dusk. Lisbon.
All the demons here
are my own.

A million moorish tiles weeping.
Strangers on the Praça offer hashish and cocaine in stage whispers.
Dark cobbles, dark thoughts.
The square was urbane, European, and soothing
before I learned
from the Bubbe in the purple bonnet
urging me to plunge my youth
into the city
before the single synagogue
is returned by demographics and economics
to the post-Inquisition peace
with the pogrom.
Here they burned the Jews.

All the demons here
are my own.

The Jews of Lisbon saw the waters of the Rio Tejo from the Praça do Comércio before they were burned at the stake. They were no mere martyrs. They were descendants of Abraham, torn from the web, instantiating the inner G-dly void closer to them than any logic or definition.

There was, in the preceding silence, a perfection against which there is no rebelling, a stillness that could not be moved. There were no bodies that hungered, no directions to reach in, no seconds to measure. Why ever move?

Then, a sigh, and there was light.

11 Lessons for Existential Tourists

The Chassidic masters recognize there is something both profound and wrong with uprootedness, travel, the state of being on the road. Their approach is too complex for a full survey here, but we need for contrast look no further than the (desirable) recognition of the Maggid of Mezritch that he is but a traveler in this world and the (undesirable) doubled and redoubled darkness of the exile to which the Baal Shem Tov referred.

What seems clear is that Home is where we belong, but we may need to travel far afield before we are able to reach it, a “long short way”, through the deep night, the muddy road, with a faulty wagon and good cheer and a chassidic melody and perhaps just a drop of mashke.

This week I have been a tourist in the simplest physical terms, in cities of flesh and blood. Folded into the experience, resonant within its bones, are lessons I recognize from the long ride ’round to the entrance of the shining city of G-d.

1 – You only need to know a little to help others.

The Rebbe says, “If you know Alef, teach Alef.” A single letter, a simple principle. The beggar receives enough charity to give charity of his own and is in a way less the beggar with only two coins. I have never in my life been to the town of Sintra before this morning, but I already know more about it than I think. A Korean couple asks me how to get where they are going and I am wrenched from my private musings and find, to my surprise, I have the wherewithal to help. This never would have happened, had I remained home.

2We can choose what is best to see, and remain ignorant of the rest.

The Holy Baal Shem Tov says, “Where a person’s mind is, that’s where he is.” I am sure there are Portuguese politics and Portuguese complaints and sneering cynics who see the whole affair coming apart at the seams. These are things I am in America. But my surroundings have changed, and I wear my ignorance of even the language like a cloak. Is the architecture of Lisbon less magical because I’ve never seen “Iberian Peninsula’s Got Talent”? The question answers itself. Direct your heart to the good and true and beautiful, and the rest can simply fall away.

3 – There is obvious beauty where the crowds go, and less obvious beauty where they don’t.

Do not separate from the congregation, but woe is to the wicked, and woe is to their neighbor. If thousands are walking down a certain fork in the road, chances are, there is something worth seeing down there. But why rush? Take the wrong fork, and find something equally new to you, perhaps smaller and more modest, but no less special. G-d brings us to exactly where we’re meant to be, and sometimes that may well mean breaking from the group. Do not be afraid! He is the light to all feet, even those on the unbeaten path.

4 – The locals go around every day not realizing how beautiful it is, and we are all locals somewhere.

There are people (I’ve watched them) who put their heads down and walk to work right past the Rossio Station, one of the more beautiful buildings this yokel from suburban America has ever seen. We must not judge them. We surely do the exact same thing where we live. A guest for a while sees for a mile. When my friend David moved to Atlanta, he was shocked by the beauty of the forests. We must sometimes forget our homes in the past before our plane flights in order to remember them.

5 – G-d creates and sustains and dwells in infinite lives of which we’re not even aware.

How many are Your works! We can know this sitting on I-75, but a small curled thing deep within us feels egotistically that everyone on I-75 is somewhat like us, that somehow in proximity to our home they are caught in the web of our being. On the train into the Portuguese countryside, you see maids and police, apartments in a foreign style brocading a hillside, shacks in verdant valleys, and the same thought hammers again and again: “What is it like to live there?” Again and again, we have no answers. Yet G-d is as close to the residents as He is to us, closer than our very selves, and attends to their foreign path just as he attends to ours. What mysteries He knows beyond the small walls we build to feel large…

6 – If you build something really good it can bring joy to others for generations.

Not only dramatic crenelations or fine tile-work make for gifts to the future. A life of good deeds, each one eternal, raises a structure that no time may dull.

7 – The priceless, majestic things are less comfortable than our life today.

The king of Portugal’s vacation bedroom was less comfortable than our bedrooms at home, most of us. The bed is made of who-knows-what, the room is drafty, it’s cramped and not very large, and no matter how much gold and silver you inlay in the headboard, it does not grow more accommodating. The trick to being a king does not seem to be an easy life in particular, and if it was, there might not be much to marvel at in the old palace. We are privileged in our generation to face little external oppression, to thrive in comfort. We may set out from this place to discomfort ourselves with the burdens of beauty and purpose.

8 – A lot of people like Jews, and if you look like a Jew you will have the pleasure of meeting some of them.

Fear displaying your Jewish identity because of antisemites and you will not reap the rewards of Jewish pride. The Uber driver from the airport asked me about the Jewish history of Lisbon, and in exchange for tidbits on Sephardic Jewry, gave me a free brief history of Portugal. The doorman of a hotel where I am not staying flagged me down, asked me if I was Jewish, and told me I must visit the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery; he tells this to non-Jews as well; they are an essential part of the city. The light at my feet shone extra bright in these moments, like a swell of nachas.

9 – Getting lost is okay if you value the journey.

Just as most sin results from a disbelief in the ease and efficacy of repentance, the angst of getting lost with the useless Pena Palace map results from a need to be somewhere in particular right now. Trust a little that you can get back to the right place from where you are, that you are on the right path though not the one on the map, and life is blown into the nostrils of your errors. They carry you to places you never could have reached had G-d made you differently, that is, perfect.

10 – Effort is easier with knowledge of a worthy prize.

Sometimes we don’t have the energy, and often it’s because it doesn’t seem to be worth it. I am not speaking about distant afterlife rewards. I am talking about the indwelling reward at the heart of the experience itself. We do not climb the impossibly steep hill next to the funicular or the insanely tall steps of the Moorish Castle because of some distant present from a passive observer. We do it because they are redolent with their own reward; is not every single step another notch in the angle of the view? Can you not stop to catch your breath and look over your shoulder and see new lights of the city you have created as if from nothing with the simple lifting of your feet?

11 – More travel leads to more roads, and so the proper destination may be right here… 

Arriving is a mindset, not a place on the map. There is no destination we cannot dilute into a step on the path with our own doubts. But this is a good thing; just like the impossibility of knowing the entire Torah, it points to the potential infinitude of our own experience, the way G-d has placed no limits on our own growth. To be a happy tourist, then, whether in the National Palace or this life, is to hold two opposites in mind and appreciate both: we have reached somewhere worth reaching, and we have so much further to go. This is not a contradiction. The road lends meaning to our home, just as travel abroad lends meaning to our own country, teaches us how to look at it again, and find within it powers and potentials hidden by our tendency to see it as a sleeping place.

I Won’t Know What Pittsburgh Means

Sometimes, when I’m bored, I imagine something truly preposterous—a man of space and time.

Such a man would not see the world the way we do. I like to think he’d divide things neatly into cubic meters, or perhaps (with a nod to the issue of establishing an absolute frame of reference for such a grid) take a square meter at ground level and extend it down to the center of the earth and outward indefinitely to capture a slice of the universe. His whole reality would have a fixed population of around 510 trillion such square-meter-based slices, and they would be the objects of all his explanations.

Take this slice, here. The way we’d describe it, it bursts forth from the surface of the earth, capturing within its square meter steel girders, pockets of air, human beings and many of their artifacts (thousands of pieces of plastic), millions of insects, billions of bacteria, miles of ever-thinner atmosphere, empty space, then maybe a chunk of the moon, and so on. This square meter happens to slice through a Manhattan office building, but it has cousins that extend through the ocean and the planets, nightstands and nebulae.

Of course, we are not men of space and time. We see only what we have been taught to see in a world long-trained in souls and essences. The actual man of space and time, with this wool pulled from his eyes, sees one being in this extended square meter, gargantuan and beautiful, possessing infinite potential. This single being (call it a squeter) is an admixture of mineral, vegetable, animal, and human parts remaining at rest or passing in and out of it in mysterious motion. A thirty-meter horizontal steel girder, to the man of space and time, is really an illusion produced by the similarities we see in thirty neighboring squeters, like a “human chain” is just a bunch of individuals holding hands in our benighted understanding. What we call “millions of insects” are just small shifting portions of the squeter, none of them independent of its being. And if you ask: but the insects will move from one squeter to another? you have still missed the point.

You see, the man in space and time is free from your compulsive need to cut the universe into neat little pieces, a human being here, a bug there. Humans and bugs (or parts of humans and parts of bugs) are illusions imposed by the way we’re taught to think. A human torso occupies one squeter, while the arm attached to it occupies its neighbor. Why in the world should we say the arm has more connection with the person than with the asphalt or the beetle with which the arm shares its squeter? The arm belongs to the space, not to the man!

“But wherever the person goes, the arm goes! And it’s made of the same stuff as the person! And they’re physically attached! And the arm serves a purpose to the man!”

Well, of course you think of the arm and the person moving together, since you are unenlightened. You probably think the drawing in a flipbook or the pixels on your screen “move together,” too, until you realize they’re just tiny specks of color moving independently producing the illusion of a unified object. Of course you judge by what things are made of, rather than the space they occupy. You probably think that if a fly is attached to fly paper that flies are made of paper, or that since a cup’s purpose is to hold liquid, the liquid is part of the cup. There are all matters of interpretation, the man in space and time would assure you. What right do you have to impose your prejudices upon his way of seeing things?

The man in space and time divides up the world in a way that appears arbitrary and absurd to us, but it is not to simple to explain why it is arbitrary and absurd. The “facts” alone help us nothing. It’s a question of interpretation.

And the question of interpretation is far from theoretical. This week has me thinking about little else. How do things actually divide up? How are we to slice up the world we see, and what justifies our chosen criteria?

The blood of Jews has barely dried in Pittsburgh. Already, the men of space and time have offered their best theories on how to slice the pie.

Perhaps the way to view Pittsburgh is as a continuation of American mass murder, and other details are incidental; statistically, a violent madman was going to come for the Jews eventually, whatever the motivation. Or perhaps we should look at it as an expression of growing right-wing extremism, different from mass murders five or ten years ago and centered primarily around anti-immigrant, rather than anti-Jewish, sentiment. Perhaps the attack is an extension of Jew-hatred and mounting anti-Semitism in the US. Maybe it is an expression of the social malaise that has drug overdoses and suicide on the rise. It could be about racism or about guns, about President Trump or about Bibi Netanyahu, about Israel or about the growing influence of the far left.

All of these divisions, these approaches to slicing up the facts, I have seen this week. Some appear more reasonable, some more absurd. But this distinction is itself due to idiosyncrasies, to the way my mind works differently than others’, to the divergence in our experience.

Ultimately, then, I cannot blame those of us who wish to step back from pattern recognition and from story-crafting. I do not regret or renounce my disinclination to make of Pittsburgh a “thing.” If there are those Jews among us who step back from the analysis, let the story be G-d’s, and focus on fulfilling their duty, on repentance and good deeds—perhaps this is the beginning of wisdom.


Originally posted on Hevria.

Two Places I Can Live

Every argument, every compromise, every concession to pragmatism, every demarcation and limit and definition driven into the ground seeking solid bedrock for anchoring the chains, they make me sick.

There are only two places I can actually live, sub-rational nihilism and faith.

Subrational nihilism, the power of it — this is the good stuff. Let go of all rules and restrictions, let the will unfurl. We don’t necessarily wish ill upon anyone (though who knows later?). We just don’t wish to live in their cages. We tell them whatever we wish.

Like a sinus opening to fresh air is the moment we steal away into ourselves and realize that no one else is present, that we are essentially free, and though we may be alone and life threatens to pulverize us, this is the good pain, the pain we own and author.

Until they kill us, we are kings. All pirates knew this, all brigands, all warlords, every robber baron. It’s the middle finger, sarcasm’s grease, the delicious drop of truth in the pockmarked hollow heart of cynicism. We know deep down it’s cruel, but better to be cruel and live.

And yet, even though the desire for this freedom rages like fire and presses like the sea, the structures of normal life hold. First out of sheer fear of the unknown. And second because somewhere deep there is a shard of light that once, maybe, sang in resonance.

There is a hope, somehow, carried through our caverns on some hot primordial breath stirring in gentle eddies the dust of the world, a hope that we can say what we are and not destroy ourselves in the saying, that we are free in definition, unbound in unbreakable chains.

There is a belief, a fool’s imagining, that somewhere beyond the self-annihilating fringe of the void, the universe has a curved wall folding into itself like a Klein bottle to terminate, one-sided, in my own chest, that we stand beyond all this yet see its worth.

There is a faith that we are faceted reflections of one sun, that our ability to break order and rules and patterns is itself the order of the entire world.

There is a faith that there is someone worth forgiving, and and it just might be us.

You taste it once for a second, and things are different forever.

How The Holocaust Became A Political Plaything

By some miracle, the world seemed to decide, after the holocaust, that anti-Semitism was not the Jews’ issue to be dealt with by them alone, as everyone had previously agreed, but the world’s issue to be dealt with by everyone.

This acknowledgment by the nations of the world did not immediately bring the Messiah, as we are learning this week.

On the contrary, this week we have witnessed the awful treatment of immigrant children by the United States authorities, and the fumbling, contradictory, and sometimes downright cruel statements on the matter from the Trump administration. The outcry was powerful and relatively widespread, and as of today the President seems to have reneged on the policy of family separation.

On a related but different note — and this is an important point, for I fully maintain the right to be annoyed by something else this week, no matter how utterly omnipresent some others feel their hobby-horse must be — there were a lot of people, especially online, who brought the holocaust into it.

Of course, the parallels between the dire situation of the immigrant children and Hitler’s concentration camps are very thin indeed. It goes without saying that pointing this out does not diminish the desperate need for solutions on the border at all. It is not even worth replying to the claim that one needs to be “more upset” with the “caged babies” than with the holocaust comparison.

The only part of the now-classic holocaust overreach that still interests me is: Why must the suffering of those sacred Jews be compared with whatever evil flows from your Twitter feed this evening? The people who do this are not anti-semitic. On the contrary, many of them are seeking only to raise up the cause of the immigrant children. Some of the people speaking out against it are holocaust survivors themselves. They mean no harm by their comparison, even though it essentially uses the holocaust, makes from it a tool, desacralizes it.

My question is more, how did we get here? How did one of the most uniquely evil occurrences in the history of civilization become the analogy for so many lesser evils?

My theory is that it’s explained by a historical process that has taken place since the war. As is often the case with Jewish history, it both reflects and illuminated other events taking place around us.

The profaning of the holocaust happens in three steps. To make everyone angry (it would happen anyway upon hearing the details), let’s call them liberalism, leftism, and reaction.

In the aftermath of the war, and following the miraculous “everybody’s problem”-ing of Jew hatred, there arose a new world order seeking to maintain global peace as much as possible, and raise the standard of human rights the world over. This liberal order (so-called for the way it values rights) did not view the holocaust only in its particulars, but sought to apply the lessons learned from Hitler on a broad scale.

In more cynical words, what was primarily a Jewish calamity and a Jewish story (and, for that matter, a story of the Romani, the disabled, the homosexual, etc.) was immediately abstracted into a universal cause. What was a fundamentally unique sacred (that is, incomparable) tragedy became everyone’s property.

This was inevitable, because universalism itself was the order of the day. Hitler was terribly pro-German, you see, and his chauvinism was seen as a primary cause in everything that followed. Without his inspiring belief in a country that was down and out and his populist support from patriotic Germans (and German-speaking non-Germans), his ascension to power would have been much more difficult. And of course, an endless focus on self-definition and national pride makes the “internationalist” (read: disloyal) outgroup a tempting target for scapegoating and more…

So, with the support of much of world Jewry (especially American Jews), “Never Again” came to be the slogan. It grew beyond never again in Germany, or never again in a G-d-denying techno-state, or never again for the Jews. It needed to grow beyond these things, because it was the foundational myth of a movement seeking to create a true “humankind,” a borderless global brotherhood of man, in which no genocide was possible and no one’s identity could become so powerful that the holocaust could happen again. Nationalism, populism, and a whole list of other things were deemed antithetical to this world-building, and if one objected, one could simply point to the holocaust and say, “Never Again.”

This was the beginning of how the holocaust became profane, a cheap political tool. It was a sin committed by those who truly wished to prevent another genocide.

The holocaust was a universal phenomenon, but that did not mean it could ever be used against the Jews G-d-forbid. It just meant that their story was now inclusive. What could go wrong?

Jewish fortunes turned up after the war, both in the United States and the fledgling state of Israel, whose population began to swell with refugees from the Arab world. Jews became wealthier, more successful, more accepted into the fabric of life. The long arc set in motion by the holocaust seemed to be the arc of history bending toward justice. The new status quo was defined as an anti-holocaust, and it turns out Jews thrive in anti-holocausts.

There were, however, some rumblings about Israel, rumblings that have, over the decades, grown into a roar. The very people who were the banner of broad globally applicable international human rights had settled into their own land, which they identified with their own people. They did not get along with their neighbors. They had certain populist and national views on things not shared by the nations of the world who allowed them to exist. They seemed awfully un-“Never Again” in their treatment of the Palestinians. Oh, surely they didn’t gas them by the million or what have you, but it wasn’t in the spirit of the thing.

You see, once liberalism universalized the holocaust, leftism (so-called for its side of the room) took the next logical step and took the universal principles without favoring any particular group. Fair is fair, these free-thinkers (many of them Jewish, of course) reasoned. If the world without genocide is what’s really important, we cannot give special dispensations to groups who were victims of our founding calamity. We must apply principle indiscriminately.

Of course, it is very rare within a courtroom and vanishingly unlikely outside of one to see the indiscriminate application of principle, and so this “soft leftism” soon hardened into “hard leftism.” What I am calling hard leftism loves both to eat and to have cakes. You see, the next step after abstraction and universalization of the principle is to apply it, and no one thinks everyone is equally deserving of its application. If we are to create a world of true equality and freedom, where no one need ever worry about even the potential of genocide again, we must knock down thousands of years of differences in power between various groups. We must knock them down with our own assertion of power.

“Soft leftism” says that Jews are no exception to the rules of the new order because the rules are the ultimate good. “Hard leftism,” the next step, says that because the international liberal order was created in part to negate the holocaust, and Jewish fortunes indeed improved under that order, Jews are especially obligated to help those who are now at a disadvantage. “How can you sit by and do nothing,” the Jew is asked, “when you were the primary victim of the holocaust?”

What is important about the calamity perpetrated by the Nazis is not the story of what happened to the Jews per se, nor even the general lessons learned from the tragedy, but the new world free of oppression that must be created, and the old world of imbalance that must be destroyed. And it is from this perspective that even alleging the holocaust may have some uniquely Jewish or sacred quality can itself be seen as a perpetuation of the holocaust. The transformation of the definition is complete. The true holocaust is the system of oppression that must be destroyed. The false holocaust is the historical event.

Sadly, there is a third stage to the holocaust’s transformation.

The reaction (so-called for being the third step) is the logical outcome of hard leftism. Once power is asserted to demolish the world of imbalance and oppression, those who are being knocked down a few pegs will come to question the worthiness of the wrecking crew.

Where liberalism was mere universal principle and everyone theoretically had a seat at the table, leftism is more proactive and exclusionary. “Good people” under the liberal order have no inherent moral standing under the leftist order if they do not actively contribute to the demolition process. Many, indeed, benefit from or are privileged by historical imbalances that cannot be fixed by a personal adherence to principle.

The newly evil question their status, and see an assertion of power against them in service of an ideology. They decide to fight fire with fire. If they are going to be told to sit down, shut up, and let others rule, for that will bring balance to the world, they will stand up, make noise, and throw off the definitions that seek to bracket them.

Underlying this world order which seeks to bind them with rules beyond their control and definitions that do not depend on their actions, they find the holocaust and the reaction to it. The Jews, they see, are the original victim group, the original protected class from whom the order drew inspiration. And they fill with resentment. The Jews are not a people who have suffered. They are a people who make others suffer. The holocaust is now the name for a reviled system of power and control, invented in the name of the Jews.

The perspective of the reaction is, of course, similar (in some ideological respects) to the philosophy of those who perpetrated the actual holocaust.

The reaction is not the end of this process, but rather a step in a vicious cycle, as we can see from a lot of the animus surrounding the holocaust analogy this week.

Those holding by a leftist view of the holocaust are angry with Jews who object to comparing the Nazis to the Trump administration’s immigration policy. They see all the objection as a distraction from the mission of ending oppression now, a mission ironically inspired in part by the holocaust. The actual event of the holocaust is, in their eyes, a distraction from the essence of the holocaust, the world of imbalance. And to allege that the holocaust is in some way sacred and incomparable is to forfeit one’s true Judaism rather than to defend it.

The reaction, in turn, is sick of being told that everything is the holocaust, and view it as an excuse for control. Judaism is, in their eyes, merely a facet of the imposed world order. They double down on rejecting all holocaust language, and anything that language is used to castigate.

The left, in turn, doubles down even further. They insist that this rejection of the holocaust comparison is, in face, a rejection of their entire world-view, which is tantamount to the rejection of goodness itself, which is, of course, to perpetrate a small holocaust.

And so on it goes with every political issue in the age of Trump, who more than any other single figure has signalled the beginning of the end for the liberal order of individual moral responsibility. With the decay of the liberal order, the power struggle intensifies daily. Holocaust-as-any-and-all-oppression and holocaust-as-method-of-control war constantly. And those Jews who see the holocaust as simply the holocaust are lost.

How do we break this cycle?

Undo liberalism? The reaction is working hard at that already, and it’s hard to see how it’s good for the Jews. Many of them wish, ultimately, to reverse what we’ve called liberalism itself, to try to go back to some older world order, to break the bonds of internationalism, in short, to reverse time. And it is an unavoidable fact that the times under the new order have been the best times for Jews to be Jews in history.

I think the key may lie in keeping liberalism, but avoiding its more radical universalizing qualities. Adherence to principle and personal moral action should remain important, so as to avoid the old tribalism, but on the other hand, they must not come at the expense of individual and irreducible stories and souls. In short, the key is to see the holocaust as a lesson for all mankind, but a lesson grounded in a particular story that happened to particular people that cannot be taken away from them or melted down into analogical applications.

This blend of irreducible identity and universal morality is itself a classic hallmark of the Jewish mission. It parallels the blend of ineffable soul and grounded body. It is the unity of qualifying and universalizing reason with the self-contained soul that precedes the era of the Moshiach, when there will be an end to darkness and evil will be swallowed up forever.

A Tip For False Farbrengers

I once heard an explanation for why students of Chassidus seem to write fewer works of original Torah thought than those who do not study it. Without Chassidus, you learn a text, find what seems to be a flaw in it, study more, and write an essay rescuing the author from his apparent error. With Chassidus, you learn a text, find what seems to be a flaw in it, study more, and realize you were a fool.

Who would publish a book showing the world all the times you were a fool?

However, possessing no recourse in other original Torah thought, bereft of any dashing tales of Rashis in distress or tortured Rambams, I present before you a Chassidic tale of my own devise:

When I was even younger and more self-assured than I am now, I become fond of farbrengen patter. I was a student of greats who knew the words for every situation. They dealt with hecklers and seekers and with boredom most of all. They knew how to stir the heart and draw in the disparate desperate souls placed in their charge by providence and tuition. They were also sincere. I didn’t know sincerity was an important ingredient. I only knew the word.

I was once discoursing in the Yeshiva courtyard upon the importance of fulfilling G-d’s will. Mitzvot, I assured an audience I can’t remember, connect us to G-d. What could be greater than that?

Then: A certain student teacher, a shliach, approached me with a smirk.

It was a group smirk on one face. It was a smirk handed out with champagne at an IPO. It was a smirk backed by confidence backed by respected peers assuring him he was right. It vanished as he said, “Why should I care about connecting with G-d?”

I learned at least three things at that moment.

  • The student teachers at Yeshiva thought I was full of crap. They were right then and would be right now.
  • A farbrenger, if he can’t be sincere, should at least ask himself about any point why anyone should care.
  • I didn’t actually know why it was important to “connect” with G-d.

It is hard to learn sincerity, though perhaps action and experience help. It is less difficult to learn why “connecting” with G-d can seem unimportant but is the most important.

Allow me, then, to offer some brief pointers for any other liars, cheaters, fakers, deceivers, or disappointments interested in making others interested in the Deity:

  • “Connection” is a good word for not saying the wrong thing but terrible at saying the right thing. It’s limp and empty.
  • G-d can seem unimportant because we are caught up in our sense of self, no matter how good for us G-d is. He may be the most high, possess all qualities in His infinite unity, &c., but we are men and women. Nothing compels us to care. The choice is ours. We need him even less than food and water, and even those we may reject.
  • G-d is important because we ourselves, the ones who choose, cannot exist without Him, and in two ways:
    • We cannot exist without Him because nothing can. The nature of all being is non-existence and all is brought forth by the Power of G-d.
    • We also need Him even more than other creations, since we are uniquely like Him. We are the only beings aside from G-d who perceive ourselves as uncreated.
  • This is what should interest us. Our deepest self, the unified subjective person reading these words, may not be what we perceive, but rather a created expression of the deepest truth of the Living G-d. We—in our depths—are souls.
  • G-d matters because He is at the very definition of what we are. If you were to claim disinterest in the matter, I’d ask who claims disinterest. And this question could only be answered…by an interested investigation.


Memorize all this, sweet deceivers, for the next time you are called upon to say something Jewish and deep, and feel not my shame.



Originally posted on Hevria.

My Thoughts When You Quit Observant Judaism

Maybe you’re right.

If you’re right, why do I stay? Joining you would be moral.

You’re not right; you can’t be. All of a sudden, a profound personal philosophy? Yesterday you were chugging the power hour.

Oh, you quote professors now.

Did you specifically learn new Torah sources to reject them? What books have you been reading? I must read them. I must not read them.


How can you do this to me? You call me blind to everything you see.

Am I supposed to just sit here while you mock what’s most important to me? I’ll wipe that self-righteous grin off your faces.

I can convince you to stay.

I can martial arguments I find convincing. I will put them forward in my most reasonable voice. My tone says, “You’re hurting me.”

At least you’re now following the authentic Judaism of the Talmudic sages to the letter, unhindered by the reforms of Moses.

If it’s all just a choice, choose to be with me.

I love you and everything, but stop pretending this changes nothing.

There are three of us now, you, me, and the Torah, and you cannot speak without sounding jealous, but I remember when the Torah was our love-letter, not my mistress.

I choose Torah over you? Who is this “you” and when was it born?

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

I can’t convince you of anything.

Faith is all I have, and I cannot give it to you. Before, you saw that as wealth. Now, you think I’m poor. I have not changed.

Retreat, retreat. To the small keep, inside.

I can roll my eyes as high as you.

We can still be friends. If we can’t still be friends, you’ll say it’s my fault.

You say you’re “just asking questions” but they all run in one direction.

Well, this hurts.

Maybe I don’t get it because I wasn’t raised religious.

You’re so powerfully authentic, to question. Thank you for joining the club. Thank you for questioning every day, for struggling, for plumbing ever-deeper into what belongs to you. Oh, you’ve left.

I liked you better as I imagined you, sitting before the feat of our shared sages, appreciating the same light, before you opened your mouth and leaped from the tapestry demanding that you, too, were to be encountered.

Repent before me.

Why am I not leaving?

Maybe I’m brainwashed.

I don’t think I’m brainwashed.

You say I’m full of wishful thinking.

I don’t think so.

Don’t you see it’s personal for me?

Why is it all so personal? I need it to be. I hate that it is.

It’s all just labels. We’re really the same, maybe? I hope it doesn’t talk about souls anywhere in Judaism.

I can see in your eyes you’re ready for the part of the movie where we realize loving each other is more important than our intransigent ideological commitments. I’m not ready. I hate those movies.

I probably sin more than you do, but for me it’s unofficial.

You probably care more about Judaism than I do.

You probably have a deeper relationship with G-d than I do. The screenwriters were always on your side.

It’s all just group identity, and you didn’t care to stay in my group. What now? Shall I impale you upon a spear?

I can’t wait for you to abandon the restrictive social codes of religious society so you can acquire better restrictive social codes you apply to all my actions. When did I ever judge you, by the way?

I have never encountered more restrictive rules in my life than in trying to navigate a conversation with you since the fall.

Perhaps I’m your heretic.

I’m sorry. I’m not at fault here. Just thoughts.

You make me feel every time I mention Judaism I’m an evangelist. I hope you’re fooled by my smile/grimace when you bring up psychology.

How can we be having a genuinely angry argument over Artificial Intelligence? The joke is obvious.

You didn’t stick around long enough to observe the strange unfolding of the blossoms from bitter and rejected seeds.

You can’t be fixed. Judaism can’t be fixed for you. Fixing them is breaking them. And you’re meant to be an end, not a means.

You can bring the horse to water but you can’t make him read a book without a million catty comments.

Agony! Can we not step into the past, wrap it around ourselves, and settle among its answers? Religion comes between us? What we imagine comes between us. The future comes between us.

Maybe I don’t get it because I never did hallucinogens.

You tie it to who you are, lay down before me, and dare me to tread on you, but you crouch behind objectivity like a shield. The day is young, but, before sunset, you’ll pick one.

I don’t want to think I’m better than you, but if you dare me…

Even the old songs wither in your mouth. Not because you intend it. Because I can’t slip my mind, in order to find you, past the ironic remove at which you’ve set yourself.

You seem not to like it when I take your choice too seriously.

Why are you still living in this neighborhood?

You don’t want me to define you even by the definitions you provide. You want to float unmoored in pure self-definition. You want to be worshipped, not evaluated.

I know the way is true. I still don’t doubt it’s true. Yet we also stand apart, and so I pause. Must it last forever?

Fine, don’t stay for the experience. Stay for the struggle with the experience. Fine, stay for the struggle with the struggle. Stay for the struggle with the struggle with the –

Am I supposed to pretend I don’t want you to be observant?

I disagree but can’t argue.

Maybe I don’t get it because I’m not handsome enough.

There is some ending to this story where you come over to my side, right?

I can step back and see how we’re united in our opposition. I can step back further and see how that’s not good enough. Stop me when I hit a wall, if you still believe in those.

G-d has made it in such a way that it matters a lot that you’re doing this together with me.

Why can’t we be together?

Why don’t I leave?

Maybe you’re right.

But I won’t.

What do you know about being religious that I don’t?

At least you can go to those deep rebel farbrengens without being sniffed out as a fascinated impostor.

I’m insulted.

What about my worship of G-d was so fake and so horrible it couldn’t inspire you to stay?

You’re going to swear a lot now to prove how real you are, aren’t you?

At least you made a choice.

Infinite questions, no acceptable answers.

Let’s play the game where we guess which book fuels today’s rebellion.

Almost anything is forgivable, except that you’re more forgiving than me.

I hope it changes nothing.

In the end, perhaps we’re all in the cradle or the grave.

You say my whole life is built upon a mistake you made in your teens.

Make me hate you, then explain how it’d all be so much more peaceful if no one believed in anything.

The one who gets angry first loses.

Are you going to be a good person now? Weird. I thought you were a good person from the day we met.

I’m sorry.

It’s a mitzvah to love you, to rebuke you, to draw you closer. If I don’t do any of these things, and let the relationship atrophy, perhaps finally, finally, we would be alike.

I hold out secret hope that I’ll stumble over the key to winning you over. You hold out the same hope. This is how we love each other now.

Maybe I care about these things more than I love you. Perhaps it was a conditional love. Perhaps it was what we had in common that kept me from your depths. Perhaps this is our long-short road.


Originally posted on Hevria.

Cancer the Ineffable

I want to argue against something, but I can’t quite manage it.

There is much to admire about the non-profit organization that shares a name with its slogan, hashtag, cross stitch kit, etc., “F!ck Cancer.” They fight for a good cause. They raise awareness, in particular, through their obvious comfort with a well-deployed obscenity. Even their logo is a work of minor genius.

I didn’t realize just how culturally pervasive Eff Cancer is until I saw Reddit the day after Jorien ‘Sheever’ van der Heijden announced her breast cancer diagnosis. For page upon page of comments, thousands of fans were able to express their reaction in only two words. It reminded me, l’havdil, of the ritual responses of Judaism, how when something terrible is announced in the Jewish community (G-d forbid) you will see, repeated dozens of times at the bottom of the page, “BDE,” Baruch Dayan HaEmet, Blessed be the true Judge.

Here is where I confess that the “l’havdil” is not written with mere obligation, but with a glimmer of hesitant passion. When it comes to cancer I am, of course, against. but when it comes to Effing Cancer…am I for?

The point, I suppose, of saying “Eff Cancer,” (beyond marketing) is that no time is more appropriate to be inappropriate than in the face of a scary, pervasive, and often deadly illness. There is no reason to respect this force of evil and terror in our lives. We mock our enemy and redouble our efforts to care for those it hurts and find new ways to fight it, together.

But I still have this little dream that one day I’ll write an honest essay about why it’s wrong to say Eff Cancer.

I don’t want to sit and moralize. I don’t want to be the person who hauls out the book and points, finger quivering as it channels the power of justice, to where it says you’re not meant to swear, how it’s indicative of moral decay, how it blemishes the faculty of speech and betrays a lack of character.

don’t want to be that person. No one likes them, and for good reason. They live in a world of abstraction. Their hearts are closed. That version of me cares more about the rules than he cares about the trials and agonies of living, breathing human beings. How dare he brandish standards of proper behavior in the face of the deepest suffering many ever know? How can he place that book and his finger under the noses of their families?

Again: I don’t want to be that guy.

I want to be the guy who actually understands morality, cares about it truly and deeply. I dream of appreciating proper behavior, not just in standard situations but particularly in extreme circumstances. I want to want to know in my bones that the rules are the salvation from suffering, that our love for human beings should extend to the love of unflappable dignity written black-and-white on the cracked surfaces of human souls, holding their continents together.  Our love should extend to what a human being can be, a gentleman, a lady, a sage.

In Yeshiva one sometimes encountered strange guys like the ones in my dream. Their whole lives testify that the dream may be within mortal reach. They have good upbringings and refined natures and even in the face of deep frustrations they never swore, probably never thought to, were probably traumatized by the kids at camp from Crown Street who knew all the words. The relief of the curse word, the rush of released profanity, would feel to them like a violation, and the voice it gave to their frustration would be a stranger’s voice.

I am not one of those people.

But perhaps there’s hope for me and those like me.

Maybe we aren’t just (to use C.S. Lewis’s mocking term) trousered apes. Perhaps we do not spend our whole lives constrained, ready to find emancipation in the tactile pleasure of stabbing exactly the right four-letter word deep into someone’s face like the world’s happiest pole vaulter. We probably know we are meant to control ourselves. We are meant to learn how to love refinement and never lick our fingers. Just as the inner animal breathes a sigh of relief as we fire off fusillades of flippantly fabulous F bombs, we know another part of us whimpers, left to fight disease and terror without the cloak of manners to give grace purchase an inch above the pain.

Maybe the story of the Creator and His rules will one day be to us, upon full understanding, just as moving, as vast, and as profoundly human as the story of cancer.

I want to one day know that not swearing, as a principle, as a way of life and a state of being and a form of worship, is closer to me than cancer can be to anyone.

Until then, I can’t argue.


Originally posted on Hevria.