Hong Conquered

It is one thing to consider oneself humble before G-d; it is quite another to take the ferry into Victoria Harbor at night and feel the glowing sentinels loom all around.

Hong Kong is perhaps most famous for its endless electric nights, but to my mind, discovering it is like discovering the dawn. The Rebbe says we feel hope in the morning because it is a time transparent to the constant renewal of creation, the fact that the past has no particular bearing on the present lest G-d make it so. This is a humbling thought, and a joyous one, and it filled me as one evening right before the sunset I found the Peak.

“The Peak”, normally considered, is an observation deck reachable by tram that gives you a staggering view of Hong Kong. It is however not the actual peak of the mountain, which I found unacceptable. And so, with the sun dangerously close to the horizon, I hiked further. After an hour of getting lost (it is impossible not to get lost in Hong Kong. It is as if MC Escher painted Manhattan on a slinky and gave it a Chinese name. It runs on a grid system if the grid exists in non-Euclidean space. It is often impossible to cross the street on HK Island without retracing your steps, and going out the wrong subway station exit sometimes leaves you, blinking and confused, approximately in Belgium), with only fifteen minutes of red sky left, I found myself coughing and gasping on a tiny, sandy grass field with three Western tourists and four Chinese schoolchildren and the entire world beneath my feet.

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I pulled on a sweater against the biting wind and stared like an idiot.

This is what I saw:

Hong Kong is not the work of man. Hong Kong is a handful of pebbles tossed in the river. I could count them, from the peak. It is a resistance, friction against the flow of nature, a locus in space-time where the mindstuff and ambitions of strutting man met the islands G-d had kept for them and the ripple of their clashing threw a city up upon the shore. The city struggles with those green islands, holds the beaches, rages in place, while the hills above roll into the Pacific sunset, implacable.

All this I saw, and I thought — I did not create it.

An odd thought, all things considered. I did not create New York, or Jerusalem, or even my own home. It seems a late time for me to come to this earth-shattering realization.

But there is knowing, and there is knowing. There is that which we easily conquer and assimilate, and there is that which we cannot grasp, which one flashing vision shows to elude us entirely. These are peak moments, when we stand on that narrow plank between us and eternity and stare it in the eye and feel ourselves vanquished.20160302_212628

Just for a moment, I wondered:

If I did not make it, where did it come from? How can this heavy, gleaming tangle swim into view as if it has been here a hundred years? How, in fact, can there be anything at all on this side of the globe? How is it not here because I’m thinking it here, but here because it is? I never could have made shopping malls that are actually pedestrian streets, or the shocking green Hippodrome like a slice of lime in the speckled rum of the city, or the preposterously narrow ting tings that carve through the city like packed, wandering hallways. Never could I have made them, and even now I barely know them.

If Hong Kong has really been here all this time, known to G-d and men, and I have only met it today, then who am I? What is one man before this brooding beast?

So I descended the peak and picked my way back home and packed myself into a warm corner where the wind could not reach me, and, all wrapped up in that which I did not make, embraced sweet oblivion.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

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.

Ditching Yahweh

Even straight-laced Jews like me can fall into strange cults if they’re not careful.

Indeed, thanks to the Internet especially, we are in immediate contact with all sorts of strange folk even in our own homes. We pay money for the privilege. We are weird.

Anyway. Let me describe for you, in brief, a particular sort of cultist you may have run into.

Unsought, unsolicited, they nevertheless eventually turn up. Like a nasty mold blooming in a dark corner of a synagogue never touched by sunlight; like rot setting into the fatty extremities of the body Judaic unwarmed by even the capillary flow of lifeblood; like a single bot trolling the lonely bowels of a long-forgotten religious subreddit — someone always starts talking about “Yahweh.”

What “Yahweh” is not: The name of the Jewish G-d according to just about anyone who worships him.

What “Yahweh” is: A sort of social signal, like perfectly round glasses or a man’s chest hair framed by a pastel collar; a portent of what’s to come, a clear indicator of the type of person we’re dealing with.

And make no mistake, in conversations about Judaism the one who says “Yahweh” always loses. This isn’t because of the religious injunction against pronouncing G-d’s name, since Yahweh is not G-d’s name. In fact, the true pronunciation of G-d’s name is lost to us. No, you lose when you use “Yahweh” because “Yahweh” users are either (A) antagonistic or misled academics or (B) really odd provincial bumpkins who manage to keep talking about Judaism for years without learning anything.

The Type-A Yahwist is a professor who has studied the history of Judaism from an academic perspective and has come to think that “Yahweh” is the original pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton. They also tend to think that “Yahweh” was a member of the Canaanite pantheon who eventually assumed the role of the G-d of Israel, which is fine, but when you say “Yahweh” at the beginning you’re giving it all away from the get-go.

The Type-B Yahwist is a commenter on chabad.org who loves Jews but just can’t bring themselves to learn Hebrew, or ask a Jew what G-d’s name is (or, more importantly, isn’t). They heard “Yahweh” from a Type-A (or some mysterious Christian source unknown to me) and only mean to sound hip and in-the-know by calling G-d that name.

This typology of Yahwists reminds me of an important lesson from Chassidus. Imagine a thundering, luminous river of Truth sustaining the world. The river, since it is Truth and Light, leaves no room for darkness and falsehood. Everything that touches the water becomes bright and transparent, real and alive. Such is the power of the Truth. That which tastes not of the water, is, in turn, not. And so: There can be no falsehood, for to exist is simply to be a vessel for the Truth.

With two exceptions. (A) At the river’s head, where the waters rage with unrivaled force and have not yet truly become a river but are rather pure, formless, Light, there is a moment when anything might partake of it and survive, for it is life itself in all its possibilities and does not yet discriminate. (B) At the very end of the river’s flow, where one last finger of water extends as a calm pool to slake some minor object’s thirst for being, there is so little light, and so little truth, that clinging to the back of that object a lie might perchance exist, a parasite off the truth, real and undestroyed by contradiction.

The Type-A Yahwist knows Judaism as he knows much else: as part of a synergistic whole, whose grounding principle is the Yahwist’s own understanding. Within his intellect, essential truths are trimmed if necessary. He knows Judaism so much that his knowing becomes primary and the object of his knowledge secondary. The Type-B Yahwist knows too little, and it is not his own intellect that he would lose if he knew the truth, but his own ignorance. Rather than consuming the Truth whole, he fears to be consumed by it, and is content to remain on the edge of the Truth, never bothering to disabuse himself of his mistaken notions. Type-A is arrogant, for from where he stands the Truth is secondary to him. Type-B is afraid and so knows nothing.

The solution for Type-A is to show him that even if the Truth of everything is allowed to speak in its own voice, there can still be unity. The solution for Type-B is to show him that subservience to the Truth is better than freedom without it.

What all Yahwists have in common, in summary, is what every lie has in common, and that is, a conception in contradiction to reality. This is a sorry state of affairs. But it is also good news for those who seek the truth. Since a lie is in contradiction to reality, the reality of the lie is itself unstable. In other words, a lie is only true as long as someone keeps speaking it. Judaism has a G-d named Yahweh only as long as people outside of it say it does.

And sometimes…

Sometimes I worry that I practice Yahweh Judaism.

That’s right. That’s my cult. I live a relatively secluded Jewish life in a small Jewish community. I don’t learn from teachers as often as I’d like. In fact, I learn from teachers even less than I did in Yeshiva, and in Yeshiva it wasn’t much at all.

On the one hand, I’m worried that my Judaism, not exposed to the criticism of true teachers and those in the fold, may have developed corners or edges that are not in accordance with the truth of tradition. I am worried that my Judaism has, over time, become more about me than about Judaism.

On the other hand, I’m worried that I’m not really involved enough in Judaism at all. That, in my far-off, provincial service, I do not fall in the category of a practicing Jew. Perhaps this is the real reason why I have chosen, for the moment, to exist on the Jewish edge: because I am afraid of losing my independence in an intensely Jewish context.

I begin to wonder…was it ever real? Did it ever exist? Was I chasing the truth, or a moment’s fantasy? Did I worship G-d, or my own Yahweh?

This past week, I found the answer.

And the answer is: Go to New York. Go to the community. Go to the Rebbe.

Because if a lie is unstable and exists only as long as a liar maintains it, then the truth is solid as a rock. The truth exists without anyone’s help. The truth, like a river, is refreshing, because it doesn’t need our help.

This week, I went to New York, and I let go. I stopped telling myself stories about what Judaism is, what it means to have a G-d, what it means to be connected.

This week, I let Judaism exist. I let myself be surrounded by it, submerged in it. I let my hands brush across the surface of the wall, and I found it solid, ancient, indestructable. I felt the tension leave me as I realized that G-d and Judaism never go anywhere, that they are constant as everything else moves. Even though I’m not in Yeshiva, the Yeshiva exists; it is there; the students are the same as always. The synagogues with their crown jewel Torahs stand resplendent like a signal fire.

This week, I reminded myself that Judaism is not a cult of Yahweh, that it exists because it exists, like the moon, like a blizzard.

This week, I went back to the place where I last forded the water, and found the river still there, peaceful, eternal, real.

I have done worse in its absence than it has in mine, which makes me humble and happy. Humble to have had the privilege of bathing in the waters; happy to know that they were no ephemeral mirage, but ancient as the earth.

I know what I must do now. I know I must kneel on her banks, and dip my canteen beneath the surface, and carefully carry it back across the lonely miles. I know that the way is hot and dangerous, a large and terrible desert full of snakes and scorpions.

But if ever I lose my way, I can take a sip, and hear what the water says:

It’s real. It’s real. It’s real.

This, despite our ignorance. We who choose the true path do not ourselves know how to pronounce that great and terrible name. But one day, when we make it across the sands and dig our own wells in our own corners of the wilderness and make for the water a home, we will learn that secret word.

And it will not be “Yahweh.”

 

The picture and its caption are honest-to-goodness from a book from the 19th century.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

My Short ‘Shrooms Story

Once upon a time, when I was younger and less wise, I spent a shabbos at a campus Chabad house in Manhattan. The rabbi seemed like a pretty cool guy, definitely on the wacky end of the spectrum, which is good I suppose.  Anyway, I’m doing what any good Chabad bocher would do at the shabbos meal Friday night, shmoozing with tons of college kids, being charming, and representing Judaism.

This one guy ends up across from me sometime near the soup course and he’s super intense, super curious about Judaism. Over the course of the meal, I basically tell him my whole life story, plus a whole Purim maamar about randomness, rationality, G-d’s love of the Jewish people, etc. He seems very interested, which is unusual and has ME very interested. He says the maamar is beautiful, which I think is beautiful.

It’s one of those conversations where the whole room is a murmuring blur, through the courses, through bentsching. It’s me and him, a back and forth. We retire to the sitting room, where for the first time he tells me that he was once in Yeshiva.

“But the Yeshiva really disappointed me.” Interesting.
“Yeah, all the Rabbis there preached humility but were really egotistical.” INTERESTING.
“I just wanted a focus on G-d, but all they were interested in was Talmud.” AHHHHHHHHHH!

“You know,” I told him, the voice of suave confidence, “you should really try a Chabad yeshiva some time. Chassidus is all about G-d.” At this point we have been speaking for about two hours, and I feel like I’m in one of those stories that only happens to other people where you wrap tefillin on the guy and now he lives in Jerusalem with a long white beard and twelve beautiful children.

Then he says, “I don’t really believe in Judaism.”

We speak for another hour. I do the apologetics thing which I would never do nowadays. He keeps shaking his head. It’s not like he has counterarguments. I can tell his mind is simply made up. But why? Was his yeshiva experience really that bad?

At long last, when I am tired and spent and my initial enthusiasm for this guy is waning, he looks around conspiratorially and says, “Have you ever heard of psychadelic mushrooms?”

So it turns out that the one guy I ever met that I thought I might be able to turn on to chassidus once realized on a mushroom trip that G-d does not exist but that Moses and Jesus were both tuned in to the eternal brotherhood of mankind, and that’s why he would never be religious.

Beaten by mushrooms.

I collapse sadly into my bed.

Epilogue

The next morning, the Rebbetzin, who is quite wonderful, a very nice person, comes up to me and says, “Wow! What did you say to him? He has never stayed here longer than half an hour before. You must have really had a good impact on him.”

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When A Non-Jew Asked What I Believe

A friend who is not Jewish recently asked me, “What are your metaphysical beliefs?” This was the best answer I could give him:

What do I believe?

Well, I’m an ordained rabbi, so that should tell you something. By most outside evaluations, I am what would be called “orthodox jewish,” or even the semi-derogatory “ultra-orthodox.” But I believe these terms are shallow, and the question “what do I believe” remains an interesting one with no simple answer.

It is both harder and easier for me to answer this question than it has been in the past. It’s harder, because distinctive beliefs that are easily delineated seem more beyond my grasp the more I learn about Judaism and particularly the mystical Chassidic teachings that are my passion. It’s easier because the answer, “I believe whatever I’m supposed to” seems more legitimate to me every day.

I once would have said simply that I believe what Maimonides lays out in his thirteen principles of faith. Now I tell myself what I tell 90% of people who say things about Judaism. “It’s not so simple…”

I believe there is a G-d. Who is G-d? By definition, impossible to answer. I once would have said He is the creator of the universe. But He is not just that; maybe not even primarily that. He is transcendent yet imminent, everything yet nothing, beyond yet within. He is at the vertex of every paradox and in both sides of every argument. He is the fulcrum; He is gravity; He is the weights.

I believe in Torah, that G-d revealed and reveals His will and wisdom to mortal man. What does the Torah say? Everything, in some context or other. There are few statements that could authoritatively be said to be in contradiction to Torah, and the threads of its net seem to sweep up every corner, every trailing edge of human existence. The Torah is like a wedge driven through history, a system of rules whose emergent properties are little-understood even after thousands of geniuses’ lifetime study, a mind virus whose propagation has altered the world in ways immeasurable and will continue to do so.

I believe in Judaism. What is Judaism? Judaism is a way that is ultimately not rationally explainable. It is a religion, but it is also decidedly not a religion. At times it seems to be all about following rules and living a moral life. At other times it seems to run black like nihilism in dark veins, to embrace wild chaotic beauty. It is the custom of a small tribe that has survived against all odds, a family that has never sought out new members yet has utterly transformed the world just by existing, and being a family.

These few ephemeral, ill-defined things are the only things I believe in without qualification. Everything else is a discussion, an exploration of shades. I believe in human evil and human good, in systematic imperatives and personal authenticity, in meaning and meaninglessness, in great sages and in simple peasants, in heaven and in death, in happiness and in angst, in the soul and in the body…

The one thing I can say is that I trust in my family, in our traditions, in the age-old story of my people and all we have learned in our travails. My ultimate faith is in the process, in the idea that our tribe is not here for nothing but for a purpose. But I am willing to follow this way and this system wherever it leads, and it has led to wild jungles of antinomianism, chaos, and other areas not considered the normal stomping grounds of religion. It has led to the essence of things, and to particulars, and everywhere in between…

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

My Rebbe Is An Activist, But I’m Not

Even respectable chassidim agree that talk is cheap. I’ve heard them speak about it for hours at farbrengens.

However, every respectable chassid also knows that the three garments of the soul, in descending order of truth/reality, are thought, speech, and action. So really, action is cheap.

Maybe that’s why Jews love action.

Oh, I’m not saying Jews are stingy with words, especially if they’re complaining. But the type of speech Jews like nowadays isn’t speech at all. College graduates gussy up action to seem like words. Newspaper ads, protest slogans, “think”pieces.  Not for these is humanity distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom by the term “medaber,” the ones that speak.

After all, animals communicate. Bees dance, dolphins whistle, dogs urinate (some human protesters have taken this approach as well). Everything in the assuredly vast range between gnats and investment bankers shares the same type of speech, the type that leads to the manipulation of food or mates (I heard praying mantises get a two-for-one special). What is the fundamental difference between sniffing under another dog’s tail and demolishing that snotty know-it-all with a facebook comment? Both are important practical skills in their respective species; both are fundamental to social interaction; one of them might even make you friends.

Real speech of the “medaber” type is about abstractions. Eleanor Roosevelt once said the endlessly tweetable quote, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” This only proves that she considered the average mind sub-human (in violation of Democratic values!). The quote should say, “Human minds discuss ideas; animal minds discuss events and people.” This means that math major was in some sense expressing more humanity with their non-ironic goggle glasses than you were by picketing Monty Python for sexism, which should make you nervous.

Jewish speech is really just more Jewish action. And no one does Jewish action better than Lubavitch, which some compare to McDonalds franchises and some compare to cockroaches, and no one knows which is more insulting. This weekend you can tune into the incredible Kinnus HaShluchim, the annual conference of Chabad emissaries all over the world, a room full of chassidim who have done it, who have set up shop for life in the far-flung reaches of the globe just to wrap tefillin on or light candles with or feed kosher food to another Jew who needs it. Watch them speak about actions and act on speeches (“Spontaneous dancing!”).

They are heroic, they are self-sacrificing, they were a big part of making me who I am today, and I salute them. They are doing G-d’s work.

They are also doing the Rebbe’s work. The Rebbe who said “action is the main thing” in every talk. The Rebbe, who transformed a small chassidic court into etc. etc. The Rebbe, who always demanded more and for whom no words were sufficient.

For him, action certainly was not cheap.

“Wake up!” says the reader, if they’re even half-Chabad. “This world is important, it’s all happening here. We have to do the mitzvos, we have to bring moshiach and light up this darkness!” And that’s true. There is no use arguing what the Rebbe made so clear. The world is dark, and it does need moshiach.

Action is still stupid, though. Light for lighting up darkness is also dark. When someone wants Moshiach because it will fix the world, then they don’t want Moshiach. When they’re shvitzing with lepers in Bangladesh (can you put tefillin on the wrong arm if it’s the only one left?) in order to see their dead loved ones again, it’s not redemption they want. When they, lord help us, deal with Israelis in order to bring peace to land, they are missing the point. And that’s the problem with action, in a nutshell: wrestle with a muddy man and get dirty, wrestle with the world and you become redefined in its terms.

Action will never capture moshiach for moshiach’s sake. Action will never be a yearning to know a G-d who is beyond this world. Action is ever declarative of the world’s existence.

Inaction is much better. Like the story Rabbi Manis Friedman tells about the reactions of the “Orthodox” Jews to the enlightenment. Reformers would come and say, “Such and such a custom is archaic, not real Judaism, beyond twisted, and worst of all unhygienic, care to comment?” Group one replies, “You may be right, we’ll look into it.” Group two replies, “You’re definitely wrong. We will do twice as many unhygienic customs, just to spite you.” Both of these groups, though opposites, are equally reactive to what the world says, and they act. Group three, and this was the general Lubavitch approach says, “We will keep on doing what we always have done, uninfluenced.”

The only real escape, if you don’t want to play the world’s game, is inaction.

I am forced to conclude that when the Rebbe says take to the streets, or storm the defenses, or turn over the world, he’s not talking about the same type of thing as Occupy Wallstreet or The Tea Party. It is not a “rah rah we can change the world” type of thing. Which is fortunate, since those types of things are often crawling with bacteria and self-righteousness.

Really, what the Rebbe is demanding is inactive action, or action not caused by or meant to effect the world. Only that can break the cycle of darkness and introduce a truly new light. Of course, connecting to something transcendent is a lot easier in speech and thought than it is in action. The Rebbe is actually demanding the hardest thing. Color me surprised.

The Rebbe is thus hardly an activist. People hear the Rebbe say, “Take to the streets and dance!” and get excited because this they can do, because transcendence and authenticity are so hard but moving their legs is easy. But it’s not meant to be easy. It’s like the people who hear they have to trust G-d so they never do anything to earn money. An amusing comparison, since the people that make the first error normally hate the supposed laziness of those who make the second. But these two people are one and the same. They both choose the sections of the directive that make things easier.

Turns out, we need both sides (shocker). You need balance. But not a balance where you sometimes learn and sometimes act. A balance where your learning and action interact to produce something new. An action that neither respects the world nor attempts to change it, but changes it through transcending it.

There must be some way to make action more than action, to change the world but remain unaffected by it.

So you can stay in Acopolco, explaining mikve to the coyote’s wife, and I’ll remain in this dark room typing these words. Sure, you’ll learn every morning, and I’ll shake the lulav with a Jew. You’ll tell yourself your actions, which are easier for you, are motivated by what you learn in the books. I’ll tell myself that the thinking that I enjoy is all going to be brought down into action.

Meanwhile, the exile spins on, and neither of us really wants moshiach. Neither of us wants everything to change. Both of us are inured to the dark, and our efforts will keep perpetuating it.

For me, the first step into the light will be the one away from my inner world and into public affairs. But others have the exact opposite problem. We should both get to work. Time’s a-wastin’, and the action is the main thing.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

The Video Game Rabbi?

I’m considering it.

Elul is coming, you see, and the high holiday spirit is in the air. But all I can care about is video games.

Obviously, this is unusual for a Rabbi. I ought to be preparing practically and spiritually for that time of year when Jew and G-d renew their connection. And now, when our feet aren’t meant to touch the ground, my head is in a world that doesn’t exist. After years in Yeshiva and having received my ordination, I am still as involved in this youthful hobby as I have ever been.

At one point in my journey I would have just dumped the games and thrown myself into holy pursuits for a month. But that approach if now beyond me. I suffer no delusions of having firm self-control or willpower, nor of having been fundamentally changed by a few years of Torah study in a holy environment.

On the other hand, before I began my journey to Yeshiva, I would have just whiled the month away playing games without a second thought. This is now unthinkable. Elul! Tishrei! The greatest months of the year, temporal gifts unwasteable, fountains of blessing, heart of the Jewish always.

So, as seems to be my lot more and more, I am stuck between worldly and G-dly passions. Let’s face it: this is the Jewish lot in general.

I won’t try to explain here why video games are an excellent pursuit for humanistic reasons as many have argued in the past (As Shigeru Miyamoto famously said, “Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock-n-roll!”). I don’t know whether video games are good for you as a human being, but I know they are good for you as a soul.

In fact, the two biggest mistakes people make in approaching the high holiday seasons are averted in appreciating this unique form of entertainment.

The first mistake is when you take the whole Day of Judgement and Day of Atonement thing too seriously. More accurately, they take their role in these things too seriously. One gets it in their head that the holidays won’t happen unless one makes them happen and that the whole thing is centered around them and (worse) their behavior. Some people spend a lot of time carefully considering their past wrongdoing. Some people even spend ten days crying about their sins, and whatnot.

These are all good things, surely. They are even necessary. One must never think that they are real, however. They are as real as anything we do, which is to say, not real at all. Jewish action or inaction are part of a system, rules to be upheld or violated; the Torah’s commands are a framework that, based on our participation, lead us to a certain end goal. They are, in a word, a game.

The thing about a game is that it is, by definition, situational. The statement “everything is a game” is nonsensical; if everything were a game, then who are the players (who must exist outside the game), to what end did they begin playing, and when will they stop? A game is, in essence, a subset of reality, a smaller world with its own rules that one enters and leaves at will. The simple rules of the game allow for simple victory conditions, which are (usually) the reason one plays.

(All of this is true for chess, poker, and football. What makes video games so special is their immersive nature, their ability to recreate the experience of the subject in an entirely new reality; “you” don’t “go somewhere” when you play chess, but you do when you play Call of Duty, Minecraft, or Civilization.)

The nice thing about realizing that systems of rules directing us to certain goals are games is that it existentially “frees up” our higher reality. In other words, yes, we’re sinners. We’re terrible people. We didn’t do a tiny part of what we were meant to do. In fact, we don’t even do a tiny part of the feeling bad for all the other stuff we miss. We can feel bad about not feeling bad, and then feel bad about that, and then feel bad about that, all the way to Sukkot, where we get drunk just to forget our inadequacy. Or: We can realize that there is a reality beyond the game we play with our actions, that these holidays were before we came into being and will be once we have melted away, and that they will be happening this year just fine without our help or participation. We are perfect and infinitely desirable to the infinite G-d, and always will be, no matter what we do.

Once we see our high holiday scorecard and indeed the entire Jewish scorecard as a game, then we are free to participate in them without needing them; our existence or the existence of the game itself does not need our actions; it is our choice where, when, and how to participate, and even if, G-d forbid, we do not, we are still us, and He is still Him, and the world does not end.

It’s all just a game; if you’re too busy thinking it depends on you, you don’t have time to enjoy it.

The second mistake everyone makes in approaching the holidays and Judaism is a lot less common. It is the phenomenon, known to all players of multiplayer video games, of people who choose to play the game and then don’t take it seriously.

You see, once you realize that the system of rules laid out in the Torah is a game, you may think that participation becomes arbitrary and the whole thing loses any of its power. If I am not defined by my actions, if I do not need them, then what is to keep me on the straight and narrow?

If you can honestly think deeply about that question and still have it, you are probably the type of person, despised in my circles, who abandons a game of Dota at the beginning (it is hard to explain how infuriating this is without explaining the entire game, but suffice it to say, it’s evil.)

Why, you must keep on the straight and narrow because once you have agreed to play the game, you have agreed to play by its rules. The game does not define you and there is always room to go outside it, to reset, to start over, to simply exist. The chess pieces can always be put back in the starting position; this does not mean you should quit every game after a bad opening or that you should let your opponent win.

When you do play, you need to be in it to win, and that will keep you following the rules.

Though learning about Rosh Hashanah is not my entire existence, and the holiday will get on quite well without me, and, dare I say, I might get along quite well without participating in it, I choose to be involved because I understand what great things I gain for my participation. I am not defined by it, but once I choose it, I also choose to do it on its own terms.

There is a narrow path that leads away from self-centeredness, with a chasm on either side. To the left is the danger of becoming so absorbed in the thing outside of me that it and I are one and the same, and I am no longer for it any more than I am for myself. To the right one is at risk of writing off the outside as irrelevant and non-binding. The path in the middle is the path of the involving game. This is how both video games and Judaism prevent self-absorption.

So, the Video Game Rabbi? Is it possible? Is the world ready? I’m not sure. But I think so. After all, the world’s not ready for Rosh Hashanah either, but it happens every year. If we can find a positive, soulful way to partake in something so beyond us, a little digital entertainment shouldn’t prove too difficult.

Let the games begin.

 

Image from Flickr.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

A Bochur In Suburbia

G-d, what I wouldn’t do for a nice communist revolution.

The first sign I wasn’t in Israel anymore was when the entrance into the airport had no mezuzah. The bare doorpost sat naked with no anatomical features begging a kiss, a lover demurring – your passion is endearing, but not tonight, my sweet. Then we took the highway north and for over a week now I’ve been installed in the north Atlanta suburbs among the magnolias and the nice houses and the crushing despair.

Suburbia is death. There is no fire so intense it cannot be smothered by middle-class people trying to inch their way forward to better Botox or whatever the hell is going on here. They eat food that is poison, maintain social niceties while remaining either indifferent or secretly hostile to their neighbors, and anesthetize themselves with a couple of hours of television on weeknights and shopping at the polished temple of consumerism, the shopping mall, on weekends. Sprinkle with golf, season with a bit of synagogue, and let sit until someone keels over from heart disease and their plaque (this is in horrible taste as plaque in the arteries is often the cause of death) goes up on a memorial wall or, if they were rich, a building. The people here have no artistic aspirations and put all their energy into their children who are raised to be just like their parents, but richer.

It is comfortable; it is meaningless; it is where I grew up. I have lived a spoiled existence, and let me assure you: no matter what food is put on the table, no matter how much medicine we have access to or how much “education” we get, meaning is elusive, and the thirst for it stamped out.

I had a conversation last week at shul with a group of boys heading toward the second half of high school. One of them mentioned “shanah bet” (lit. “year two”), the term some people give to those few wild and wacky souls who extend their gap year between high school and college into a second year in Israel. I said I hated the term, and I do. I hate it (I told them, it all spilling out too quickly to not sound a bit manic) because it implies that the second year is “the second year” which means that the first year was only “the first year,” a construct limited in time, a set hour to stuff in a bit of Jewish culture and learning before one is free to go on with “real” life, unaffected and unchanged, because that’s how one decided one would approach the experience from the get-go. In other words, even the holiest country in the world and the transformative power of ancient religion and baroque spirituality cannot do anything against the bourgeois desire to be normal and earn money. They suffocate everything they touch with their fake lives devoted to nothingness. And it bothers me. (The teens just grunted or something, and changed the subject. Whatever. I already devoted myself to at least try.)

Coming from a place where at least there is a certain spiritual rhythm to life, where no one can claim to be a pure materialist, where lives are more worth living because more examined, it is very easy to hate suburban America. This is why the Rebbe loved the hippies, even while most religious leaders were appalled – at long last, some were willing to breach the walls of normative middle-class America and search for something. And once they started searching, many remarkable people discovered meaning through their Judaism. Sure, a lot of other weird stuff came with the cultural revolution – but anything is better than white picket fences, two car garages, and steak for dinner. Anything is better than the material road that heads nowhere.

The torchbearers of those ’60s ideas, the ones who keep the countercultural flame alive and with whom I should identify because they don’t settle for “normal” American life are, thank G-d, plentiful and powerful. They live mostly on the coasts of our country and they are the ones who set our cultural tone, through their creative works and by the concerted efforts to be cooler, savvier, and sexier than anyone in flyover country. It is to them that I and thousands like me turn when we have had enough, when the sprinklers and joggers scratch against the insides of our skulls and we just need a bit of soul before we explode.

And they are, to me, more than a let-down.

They are a disgrace.

They are such a disgrace that they make me rethink everything I ever thought about my middle-class hometown.

Hungry and bright-eyed, I looked to the prevailing culture for some fortification, for freedom from the material to let my soul run free. And what I found instead was love.

Love is all you need – the spirit of the ’60s, summarized. The highest and most sincere ideal of our cultural leaders. Empathy and compassion define the spirit of our times – for the weak, the underdog, the immigrant, the downcast, the other. This is 2015 in all its holy rebellion, raising the cry against hatred, discrimination, and other not-nice things.

What is Love? Baby don’t hurt me, no more. At its essence, it is the appreciation of people over any system or set of rules. This is why its kabbalistic “nemesis” is the attribute of judgement, severity, and systems. If the system is hurting people, if they are not getting their due, it is love that compels us to rescue them. Love is what the soul is doing when it expresses itself creatively to reach out to another soul, human knowing human at a deep level. Love says the rules can fly when someone is in need. I appreciate this sentiment. In fact, I recently made a long argument that Judaism is all about love, and not a system as most people think.

But, on the other hand…

It is impossible to explain it better than the inimitable Neil Postman in his castigation of television and entertainment culture, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (which I highly recommend). In his introduction, Postman compares the two most famous dystopian works of the early 20th century, Orwell’s “1984” and Huxley’s “Brave New World.” He writes:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”

Huxley was a prophet. Because over two decades since the fall of the Evil Empire, with liberal democracies abolishing 1984 to the realm of scary ideas, Brave New World still sounds like something possible. In fact, it sounds like what happens every day.

Down with what I wrote in that other piece. Up with the rules. Long live the system. Give me that old-time religion, the Judaism with its strictures and minutiae, with its statements of fact that cleave between right and wrong like the shochet‘s knife, with its thousand-year-old laws that we go through fire and water not to shift an inch. Up with strictness, rejection, and the stern visages of the court judges.

Down with love.

“There is a great difference between desire and love,” you may be thinking. To compare the hedonism Postman talks about with “true” expression of the soul is unfair. It is like comparing binge eating or eating junk food with healthy eating. It is not the expression of the soul that love and desire share that is at fault. It is the way they are applied, you may think. This idea, I admit, has validity. But so does the other end of the stick. There is, in fact, something very wrong with love, the very love that most people see at the counterbalance to everything wrong with the world.

The biblical paragon of love was Korach, moved to join the public sphere by his sympathy for the underprivileged, asking, “Why do you put yourself above the nation?” Moses law-giver says, “There are rules. G-d says I’m better than you.” And Moses is the all-time greatest Jew ever, but Korach’s name is synonymous with division and in-fighting, his name disparaged forever. Korach has no rational argument. He is not saying that G-d did not appoint Moses over the people. It is basically just Korach and G-d both saying “I exist, take it or leave it,” and G-d wins. This to me is the blueprint of all love. Love is the foundation, the life source, of all division, dangerous because it seems to argue for unity.

Love is the great deceiver. Love is self-centeredness in selfless packaging. Love is an explosion of the soul outward, an aching need imposing itself on reality, man bellowing “I EXIST” into the void. Love is meaning to those who have given up on intellect, given up on becoming. Love is meaningful if somehow the lover is meaningful, for it is only an expression of the lover; yet the lover needs love to himself have meaning. This is the paradox of love, the cruel joke we play on ourselves again and again. I shall find meaning in my pleasures, meaning in what I create, meaning in knowing another human. Why are these things meaningful? Why, because they’re love. Just as if you allow a mathematician to divide by zero he can prove that Winston Churchill was a carrot, so, too, if love is the purpose of existence, everything is the purpose of existence, and thus nothing is. Today, West is holy, for my soul is pulled West, needs West, empathizes with West and finds it the finest of all directions. Tomorrow, West is to be avoided and all my concerns move East. Even if the great progression from West to East never takes place and I remain a lover of West all my life, it is not because West has any inherent value; it is not because there is any truth to the world. It is because I am G-d and where my love goes, all else follows.

This is the only spirituality the culture of the coasts seems to offer; it is all I can find. The modern G-d is to exist; those who are awake seem content to emote ’till they’re dead, to paraphrase a good song.

And yet, dealing with lovers, having mentally forayed into that world, having dipped my toe into the zeitgeist, I have gained a new appreciation for Picket Fence, Georgia.

The bland rule-followers, the non-creatives, those who toil most of their lives only because it is their lot, or only because they thought not better of it, may not be famous, but they also never asserted their existence to the universe. They are content to be nothing, to follow in the grooves of reality instead of recarving those grooves. It may be that they blindly do things that are not in the ultimate sense Good, that are against the purpose of their creation – but they at least have the humility to potentially know the true Good one day. When kindness has, in the past, become cruelty, it has been due to the limitations of kindness’ nature. When the rules have produced cruelty, it has been accidental, a technicality.

It reminds me of the famous debate about the American founding fathers. Surely you know, point out the modern lovers, that those revered for the freedom granted by their system were in fact slave-owners, racists, sexists, greedy, and violent. They do not deserve our respect, for they were not able to love as we love today, and their system was not one of freedom but of oppression. To which I reply: You are correct, they did not love, they may have done terrible things. But they have a great advantage over lovers; love is emergent in their system; the very claim you make against them is only possible because their system sustained itself long enough for you to be born and was free enough to allow your dissent. The rules plus time were the perfect vessel for the eventual conveyance of your passions. Their system and its free speech, however, does not necessarily emerge from love; with love you never know. If the wind blew in the right direction to make us impassioned about freedom, perhaps free speech would have become a law, but the loving souls of the democracy may very well have asserted their love elsewhere and in the process strangled dissent. Love is inherently fickle and selfish, whereas the rules may be the wrong rules but rule-following in itself is a humble and righteous endeavor.

Who am I to declare that G-d cannot thrive here in the suburbs as well as anywhere else?

Declarations are love. Silence is wise.

So, give me that old-time suburbia. Give me the ’50s, which may never have achieved the sublime but also never produced the binge using of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, or the binge watching of the ’00s and ’10s. Give me the normalcy, the banality. Save me the wise pronouncements. Give me the houses made of ticky-tacky that all look just the same. Give me the stillness, the politeness. (Politeness is wonderful. Politeness is a system that lets you get along with people you don’t love, even with people you hate; at its extreme it is military discipline, which lets men kill and be killed next to each other and still eat at the same table at night.) Give me elevator music and yards mown for the neighbor’s benefit. Give me quiet unhealthy dinners together with “Jeopardy” on the ‘tube and the elliptical with Gordon Ramsay swearing at people. This is the dead-looking soil that may one day produce delicious fruit; Williamsburg is people loving fruit until fruit ceases to be fruit and becomes people.

I would not eat in Williamsburg.

 

Image from Flickr.

Originally posted on Hevria.

Not Again

A year ago:

“Again.”

 

Today:

Shavuos has passed, and the time has come, again.

The reasons are still good, and the pain is still real.

But this time, I leave them.

I was never ‘supposed’ to stay in Israel for longer than four months, but I have been here a year. Why did I stay? Perhaps it was inertia. I love being comfortable. I love familiarity. And a year is long enough to get very comfortable and very familiar.

It hasn’t been like my first two years in Jerusalem when each day I breathed in the city with open eyes and a ready mind. I don’t visit many places anymore. In a sense, I let them come to me. I have traded dusty boots for upholstery from which I watch the world go by. And so, to use a cliche, I will have to remember the little things this time, rather than a sweeping countryside or an ecstatic exultation.

And the little things leave big holes. Hole: The dimness where the blinding, relentless summer light of Jerusalem used to be. Hole: A gaping space the shape of a crouched green dumpster, reeking, a cat poised on its lip watching me with slitted eyes. Hole: The space where the street lamps used to cast their yellow light, the perfect location for a private conversation. Hole:  My little room will continue to crumble without me, its walls shedding their milky plaster, ready for a new tennant’s tending.

And the people, the faces, who wished they were closer but could not scale the walls. The annoying shouted conversations in the computer room will slowly fade; the game surrounding who gets the shower next will recede. This time, these fine people may miss me more than I’ll miss them. I can’t figure out why they love me so. Do they so easily accept masks? Or do they see deeper, see some of the truth, and accept it? It’s a mystery, but one thing I know — It saddens me to think they’ll miss me. I have been on that end. I have been left. I know how it tastes.

And so, again. Again into the endless beyond, again down the long road, again, again, again. Farewell my Yeshiva, first and most beloved, stately and youthful, shifting and constant. I leave not just you, but probably all Yeshivas behind, and it ends where it began, on this same small sidewalk on David Yellin Street in the heart of Jerusalem, where almost seven years ago I stood exhausted and dirty before a white gate, holding so much baggage, ready for my life to change. I had no idea, then. I knew nothing Jon Snow. But I was brave and optimistic, and that bravery served me well.

I have walked a thousand paths since then and seen much joy and sorrow. I was open to a new world and at some point it entered me and I entered it and we became one, inseparable, despite everything. Because of everything. In some ways, I’m still the boy that pushed open that white gate. But I’m also wiser.

I haven’t seen the light; that is for greater men. I have, however, become a collector of vessels. Humble clay pots and wooden bowls, glasses and jugs, decanters, flasks, and bottles. Little structures fill my life and heart, each one possessing some empty space. I work in the dark, twining wires, waiting, waiting for the day I can flip the switch. And it is a good life.

Two or three dozen times since I pushed open that gate, I was certain I was dead forever, gone, that elusive object of my youth’s pursuit gone forever. It. Was. Over.

And again (and again) like the memory of the smile of a Rabbi who has become your doting father or uncle or brother, hope blooms, and I am proven wrong. There is power in our Jewish blood, and there is the immutable in what they taught us in this holy place. That power is far greater than any I have ever apprehended and those eternal teachings are beyond anything I have ever known.

As far as I am concerned, the English translation of “Mayanot” is “hope.” And I am not leaving.

I wrote last year that G-d is the pack we put on our shoulders. But is He not our shoulders? What is ours is His; that which lives may never die. Yeshiva isn’t something that you attend; Yeshiva is something you are. I have my G-d, and I have the gifts he has given me, and they shall prevail and not fade away.

As the airport looms, I feel a ray of a ray of a ray of that bittersweet moment when the Creator decides it is time for the body to return to dust, and the precious soul he loves too much he snatches away. The soul of Yeshiva, its people and its books, comes with me today. Not in the way I expected for so many years; I am so much less perfect than I expected. But I am also more perfect than I ever dared dream, because I was taught what my imperfection is, where it stands, what it means, and how it looks from above. And I am no longer afraid.

And so, again. But this time with a grin and a card up my sleeve, a time-turner, a miniature mechanism that reverses death and lets me keep what I’d otherwise lose, that lets me leave home to go home.

And I am going home.

For the first time in my adult life, I return to the house I grew up in with no intention of leaving. It is time. Time to live in a home, and, eventually, to make one. To leave the bosom of the monastery and place the pieces of everything I’ve learned on the board.

Again, I approach the beyond. But this time, I am not alone, and not afraid. A Jew is never alone, and that is why he does not fear.

And so, not again.

G-d is the altar you build when you finally decide some place deserves Him, and stop walking.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Why We Hate Know-It-Alls

In one of the talks of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, nestled in a truly epic Baal Shem Tov story, is the following exchange:

He blurted out: “Is it possible to study G-d’s Torah with an uncovered head?!”

Moshe asked in reply: “And why should it not be possible?”

Avraham Moshe: “Because it’s insolent in the extreme.”

Moshe: “What insolence?”

Avraham Moshe: “Insolence toward heaven!”

Moshe: “But the whole point of covering one’s head is to show that one stands in awe of his Master; a person who has no Master cannot show that he stands in awe of Him. Out of respect for you, however, I’ll put on my hat.”

He rose to bring it, leaving R. Avraham Moshe thunderstruck, shuddering and bleary-eyed, open-mouthed but speechless.

By the time his host returned, he was able to say: “Words like this oblige a man to rend his garments.”

Moshe disagreed: “I’m afraid you’re wrong. The law requires that one rend his garments only if he hears the Divine Name articulated, but not if he hears someone say that he does not believe in G-d.”

And with that Moshe spelled out his outright denial of the Creator’s existence, of the Torah’s Divine origin, and of all Thirteen Principles of the Faith as enunciated by Rambam. At the same time he insisted that he dearly loved the Torah; he liked and respected its students, and found no favor to a scholar too difficult; but he had no faith in the Creator and His commandments.

Here, in all its ugliness, is the classic case of the thief in the tunnel, the religious hypocrite. His hypocrisy is mitigated by his admission of disbelief, but he more than makes up for it by being obsessed with the intricacies of religious law which he does not follow and thinks irrelevant.

This is an obsession with knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

It is the realm of the know-it-all.

What makes a know-it-all infuriating? My first thought was pure jealousy. Someone knows more than me, and I resent that. But it’s not so simple. Most of us are familiar with experts submerged deeper in their arcane areas of study than anyone ever need be. Further, the expert is not afraid of (and often quite enjoys) public idiot hangings. Think Sherlock Holmes, or Gregory House, or Lincoln Rhyme. Everyone else is hopelessly outmatched by their genius, they are extremely flawed, and we root for them to the bitter end.

No, It’s not that someone else is smarter than us that ticks us off so much. It’s not even that they’re willing to blatantly demonstrate their superior expertise. It’s that their broad and eclectic bookshelves and the endless hours ferreting out and squirreling away their Internet gleanings serve no one. When your friend begins replies to all statements with “actually” (“Actually, Marie Antoinette never said ‘let them eat cake.’” Ugh.) he is not actually engaging in conversation. You spit out a fact, he spits out a fact. Modems trading queries.

Imagine if he had just as much knowledge and the exact same self-confidence, but asked, “Didn’t Rousseau write that long before Antoinette was Queen?” What a difference this makes! (The Rambam says: “If he sees his father violate Torah law, he should not tell him: ‘Father, you transgressed Torah law.’ Instead, he should tell him: ‘Father, is not such-and-such written in the Torah?’, as if he is asking him, rather than warning him.”) He demonstrates respect not only for French History and for himself but for his friends as well. Because when you speak to him of the revolution, it’s not to merely seek the truth; that’s what books are for. It’s to talk to him, and you hope that he will talk with you.

Bottom line: It’s obnoxious when the knowledge, instead of the relationship, is the bottom line.

Which brings us back to the Rebbe’s story of Moshe and religious hypocrisy. For Moshe, the Torah and the intellectual pleasure it offers, not his relationship with G-d, was the bottom line. Which, one has to imagine, G-d finds annoying. Here He is, trying to give a great gift to His chosen people (“They are to be desired more than gold, yea more than much fine gold, and are sweeter than honey and drippings of honeycombs.”), and they get so caught up in the intricacies of what the Torah is that they forget Who wrote it. The Torah is the only means by which we can have any relationship with the Creator, for the simple reason that the finite is only relevant to the Infinite by the Infinite’s choice, and never the other way around. But in our short-sightedness we sometimes think that the Torah is about us, our knowledge and our world. And this gives rise to our tendency to deviate from G-d’s will.

Think about this logical progression:

  1. G-d tells me what he wants from me in his Torah;
  2. If I do it, it makes him happy, and if I don’t, it pains Him;
  3. Therefore, I’ll do it.

As long as the person has a solid knowledge of Torah’s divine origin, this is all a no-brainer. It’s pretty much like this, which we do all the time:

  1. My mother tells me she loves flowers;
  2. If I do what she says, it makes her happy, and if I don’t, it pains her;
  3. Therefore, I’ll buy her flowers for Mother’s Day.

You don’t have to be a genius, just someone who wants to be a good son/daughter/brother/sister/aunt/uncle/friend/etc. Who would deny their mother flowers on Mother’s Day?

The problems start when the obligations are divorced from the relationship. Instead of the above progression, most of us relate to G-d like this:

  1. G-d tells me what he wants from me in his Torah;
  2. If I do it, I’ll be fulfilling the Torah’s commandment, and if I don’t, I’ll be in violation of Torah’s commandment;
  3. Therefore, I’ll do it, as long as I care about eventual rewards and punishments for my behavior in the afterlife (or, as long as I care about what a book/rabbi/community/prospective spouse thinks about me).

It’s not much of a relationship at all. Sure, if I can convince myself I’m saving my skin by doing what you want, I’m all over it. As soon as I find a way out, see ya. No one is hurt by my not wearing a yarmulke, and therefore I just don’t care; I end up saying things like “I’m afraid you’re wrong. The law requires that one rend his garments only if he hears the Divine Name articulated, but not if he hears someone say that he does not believe in G-d.”

What a know-it-all.

Instead, we can treat G-dly revelation like the next person who tells you that same old joke. It’s not about intellectual exercises or a compelling novelty. It’s people who love each other, huddling around a scrap of light in a dark and lonely place. Even poor gifts wax rich when givers prove they’re kind. Don’t say, “I’ve heard that one before.” Just smile, and nod, and know another.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.