My Question For The Modern American Jew

These are hard times we live in. The West fights the East, and no one knows who will triumph.

On the one hand, the West. The West brings freedom to the world. The West is the civilization of philosophy and science, of democracy and tolerance. They fight because the world is benighted, enslaved, and backward. They are confident that if the world but knew the way of the West, it would benefit thousands of lives. They fight not to spread their territory but to spread their culture. This is why, when a sports stadium opens in distant lands, it warms the Western heart. Not because sports are important, but because if there’s time for sport there is little time for oppression and backwardness.

Then, there is the East. The East tires of hearing it is backward. The East is a place of unity — some would say, totalitarianism. They have one god, and  there is no room for others. And where the West would see moral weakness, they see fortitude. In the East, they know what they believe; they are who they are. There is nothing to debate. They fight for their G-d, for His kingdom on earth. They want to tear down the stadiums and build worship houses. Where there is an altar to G-d, they are certain, there is civilization.

In the West, there is no doubt that the West will prevail. This is not just because the West believes it is correct, but because they have a far superior army and better technology of war, and are not afraid of a small band of sand-encrusted hoodlums. The only reason they have not crushed the East like an insect is because they prefer to spread democracy and prevent unnecessary deaths.

In the East, for those who fight, there is no doubt the East will win. They may have the smaller army, but they have conviction, and they know they have G-d on their side. And after all, if the Creator fights with you, then of what relevance is technology or the size of your host? Just as the West can be trusted to look at the facts of the situation, the East can be trusted to look for some Truth beyond the situation.

To the West, there is no greater evil than intolerance. “You can serve your G-d in the West,” they insist. “But others can serve theirs.” It is not G-d that they take issue with, but rather theocracy, totalitarian religion, the idea that the deity is an absolute that cannot be crossed, argued with, mocked, disobeyed. In the West, the rights of man are absolute, and if G-d says to violate those rights, it is G-d who must lose.

To the East, tolerance is an affront to the truth. “We allow life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” they say. “But the way G-d, creator of the world, intended.” They have no problem with secular pursuits. But they will not deify this world; they will not let men act as G-d and declare what is ultimately right. The master must be served, and if that means the worship of other gods need be outlawed, so be it.

The Western battle cry is, “Liberty and justice for all.”

The Eastern battle cry is, “In the name of G-d.”

Both East and West claim to deplore violence. Both of them will use it to further their ideals. But due to their ideals, they see violence differently.

When the West slaughters pigs on an Eastern altar, when it exercises freedom of speech and mocks the Eastern G-d, they call it peaceful. To the East, it deserves violence in kind.

When the East responds to words with violence, they believe they are legitimately defending their honor. To the West, this is the baldest savagery.

This is the conflict. There may be some third option, some middle path, but it is hard to see. East and West are East and West because there is no easy compromise.

And so, the question:

If the East miraculously wins the war, and returns home tired and bloodied, will they find hiding in the wreckage a small cruze of untainted oil? Will its light burn for eight days? Will they remember, every year, to celebrate?

Will their children and grandchildren honor their legacy forever? Will they find their voice?

If they won’t, the light unto the nations will dim, lost to the Western cacophony. Their people will be an interesting footnote in history, and their grandchildren will remember the name “Maccabi” as a Hellenistic sports tournament.

But if they find their voice, if they own who they are, they will fulfill their destiny.

If they listen to the message of the Chanukah candles, darkness will be banished from the earth.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

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.

A Leaf In The Wind: Three Meditations

“Everything is by Divine Providence. If a leaf is turned over by a breeze, it is only because this has been specifically ordained by G‑d to serve a particular function within the purpose of creation.” – The Holy Baal Shem Tov

It is Thursday, the morning after the Day before, and life blooms. It is a time of sweet autumn breezes and the ingathering of our hard-won crop. The next couple of weeks are all about things the grow in G-d’s green earth, from the lulav to the schach. It seems right, then, to revisit one of the Baal Shem Tov’s (himself a walker of the forest and lover of nature from a young age) most famous teachings, and to examine the ripples it casts in our minds and hearts.

-1-

Consider the leaf.

There are many like it, millions like it, but that it not important. There are animals that move, people who speak. But they don’t matter. All that matters right now is this slender, veined membrane, so green you can almost taste it, its dorsal side foreshortened as it rotates slightly on its stem.

This leaf has moved many times since it blossomed at Spring, and it will move many times more before it withers and falls in the coming weeks. But none of that matters now.

All that matters is this one leaf, and this one twist against the shocking blue sky.

G-d made this happen for a reason.

But why?

If there are so many leaves and so many motions, if the same wind has blown over tyrants and tycoons, graves and glory, what role plays this humble leaf in G-d’s vast, endless plan?

Perhaps we can explain it like we explain the butterfly.

That famous delicate creature, whose wings with one gentle flap bring storms to far-flung places. The weather remains beyond our understanding because it is this sensitive, because our leaf being exactly where it is can effect global change.

If it is so for our one leaf, imagine how it is for every leaf, in every wind. A vast machination, an unfathomable calculus of change perceived only by He who grows the trees.

We do not know how powerful is our lead turning in the breeze; we know not what ships are brought to port and which levies are kept whole by its gentle arching in the flow.

Though its broader effects may be hidden from us

we at least understand

that this leaf

means

something.

 

-2-

Consider the storm.

Yesterday there was sun and tomorrow the trucks will poke around, picking up the pieces, but for now, the rain batters at the slats. In the yard, a hundred unmoored leaves turn frenzied circles.

This great force, power and noise, is possible because weeks ago in a far-away country a leaf went to instead of fro. But that is not important. What is important is the storm.

G-d has made this happen for a reason.

But why?

If one leaf can cause a tempest, then a tempest can cause a thousand tempests, which can alter human lives and sometimes end them, and in the withholding of streamlined traffic turbulence and the erection of gravestones tacking in the breeze, yet more storms will grow, and yet other hurricanes will dwindle to nothing.

If a leaf is part of something larger and the storm is one of many and wheels within wheels stretch upward to infinity, then purpose is turned back in on itself and meaning is lost, and we are unsure

what G-d sees
in the leaf
or the storm.
Perhaps we’re thinking of it all wrong.
Perhaps it is not membership in a system that creates meaning.
Perhaps purpose is what arises from a mind, from systematic understanding.
The leaf turning on the breeze isn’t meaningful, and neither is the storm.
Meaning is when a mind perceives how things
interlock.
A Mind above perceives synergy and creates a twisting leaf; It perceives a leaf and creates synergy.
A mind below follows the motions of the mind above and catches a flash of meaning.
It is not that the leaf is meaningful.
It is the leaf’s ensnarement in G-d’s way of thinking that lends is meaning.

-3-

Consider what it is to consider.
The mind takes bodies, dead letters, and weaves them together
to bring them to life.
First ideas play against each other, then from their strife emerges a single vision, a spark of truth.
Maybe that spark is what we normally call meaning.
But meaning has its limits.
Meaning is a double-edged blade.
As long as the mind perceives,
a chasm persists:
There is the leaf, and then there is its meaning.
Purpose does not inhere in its turning; purpose is an imposition, brought to bear on the leafstuff by a mind,
and the leaf
itself
is nothing.
But perhaps
perhaps there is one more party involved.
There is our frail, beautiful, turning leaf. There is His mind, which brings it meaning.
And there is a third thing, which unites them as one.
Because before the spark of mental truth, before even the dialectical play of concept against concept, there is the
initial flash
the question that draws forth the answer,
the meaningless void called
the soul –
meaningless because inexplicable,
meaningless because it just is; that’s all it does.
And though it wills and wants, savors and chooses,
it is like a higher animal;
it is not a mind because it’s beyond a mind,
and all of its actions are just the directing of its “is.”
(for to choose, or want, or will, is to “is” outward,
and to savor is just to be, in sweet satisfaction.)
And if it were to be that G-d’s soul
chooses to mean, and brings forth a mind,
it just as easily chooses to leaf, and brings about our green ribbon,
and meaning “is,”
and the leaf “is,”
and it is the same “is,”
and the turning of the wind and his mind are united,
entangled,
referencing each others’ definition,
two windows open to one truth,
and meaning itself is just another thing,
and maybe that is what the Baal Shem Tov meant,
that the leaf just is,
and that is the purpose of creation,
all tied up in a fluttering moment,
and then it’s gone,
and a storm rumbles in the distance.

-4-

Consider Sukkos.
Consider the joy there is in just being,
the joy in unity, the most transparent window,
the joy of meaninglessness, of water over wine.
May these insufficient words have been to you as the turning over of the leaf,
and may our joy know no end.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Ten Ways To Stay Sane This Rosh Hashana

The high holidays are a stressful time for everyone. They demand a lot of thought and preparation, mental and physical. For some, the holidays mean spending time with family, which is annoying. For others, they involve not spending time with family, which is worse. A lot of people have tons of cooking and cleaning to do, a whole bunch of other people do a lot of learning, praying, and soul searching, and some suckers even do both.

It would be quite understandable, even expected, if this all generates a wee bit of tension, a little bit of aggravation, a tiny smidgen of anger. And this tiny smidgen, this smidgen’l of stress, might G-d-forbid totally ruin the perfect saint-like serenity of your yearly communion with the almighty. Then your Rosh Hashana will be like the plate of apple slices on the first night when everyone is still excited about honey. It will be a sticky, soggy, mess.

Thankfully, the way of Judaism, the tradition of our ancestors, like a rock in turbulent waters, can guide us through this special yet trying time of year. If we follow these ten straightforward steps (alternatively: realize these ten simple truths), we can easily transform our New Year from a time of tension to one of transcendence and clarity.

1. Remember That G-d Loves You Unconditionally, You Beautiful Soul

No one can deny, given the history of the Jewish people, that our G-d loves us unconditionally. Even in situations where we were sinners, G-d has brought us close and kept us from harm. This is even deeper according to the Chassidic understanding, which explains that G-d loves us so much that even in His infinitude, beyond all confines of logic, where all is equally nothing before His great light, He still chooses to love the Jewish people.

So when you’re standing there on Rosh Hashana and you’re wondering whether your relationship with the Almighty is severed, whether you can even approach Him from the depths of your strayings, you must know — you will be G-d’s chosen child forever, and no matter what you do, He will never cast you out. He needs you too much.

2. There Are No Free Passes, You Moron

It is certainly true that it is distasteful to approach Rosh Hashana as someone whose good relationship with G-d is assured. This is like someone who violates a good friendship, by, say, telling everyone about your My Little Pony bedsheets, and then comes over to drink juice boxes as if nothing has changed. You would be shocked at their lack of shame, dignity, honesty, loyalty, integrity, kindness, mercy, and things worth talking about other than your bed sheets.

So, too, is your relationship with G-d dependent on your actions! Don’t think you can just flounce in for shofar blowing, impatient to return to your daily debauchery, and pick your fingernails while everything is forgiven “because G-d needs you too much to throw you out.” This is self-centered, egotistical, and ridiculous. You are wilfully toying with the Creator. This will not end well for you. How about trying to actually change your relationship with your soul, and mending your broken life? Everything is not okay.

3. Rosh Hashana Is A Time Of Joy, Holy Brothers And Sisters

We know with utter veracity that anything worth doing, is worth doing with joy. It accomplishes nothing to approach the Days of Awe with a heavy heart and a mournful demeanor. We are going to meet the King; it’s time to celebrate! Think, as you put on your Yom Tov best, how you are preparing for an audience in the most opulent and powerful of kingly courts, where you will be welcomed back with open arms. “We’ve missed you since last year,” the attending angels will say. “Do come in and sample the special Rosh Hashana prayers, the lemon meringues of spirituality!”

“Don’t mind if I do,” you’ll say, as you close your eyes and look heavenward with the utmost spiritual bliss and fervor and thank G-d for having created you Jewish so that you might bask in His greatness this Rosh Hashana.

4. Rosh Hashana Is Actually Pretty Serious, You Damn Hippie

It is the unquestionable fact that if you spend the whole Rosh Hashana focused on your own ecstasy, you will have missed the entire point of the holiday. Joy and passion is nice and all, but isn’t your joy and passion for things other than your G-dly responsibility what got you mixed up in all the wrong things this year? Maybe, if you want a year with more lasting blessings than some heavenly desserts, if you want to actually bring the world more into alignment with G-d’s vision, you’ll stop publically writhing with pleasure and instead set your back to the enormous work that Rosh Hashana demands.

“Perhaps I will create you again this year,” G-d says, as you sweat bullets and try to remember why the All-Powerful-Deprived-Of-Privations-Master-Creator thought to make you in the first place.

Stop with the self-centered joy, and get to work.

5. You Don’t Have To Stick To The Hebrew Machzor, My Dear Fellow Traveller

The Torah of unassailable truth tells us that G-d wants the heart. The holiest days of the year were never meant to be spent reading words you don’t understand at a breakneck pace. What does this accomplish? How are you to fix or change anything when you are forced to parrot words that mean nothing to you?

Don’t feel afraid to read the English translations of the prayers, or even to take some time to address the almighty in your own words. This is the only path to truly appreciating what the holiday is all about.

6. Your Personal Prayers Are Stupid, You Egotistical Hack

It is irrefutable that Rosh Hashana is far too important to leave up to your own feelings, understanding, and even (Lord help us) words. Sure, the rest of the year you need to feel, you need to connect to the essential nature of the day and the holiness of what’s taking place all around you. You have to bring it down to your level and yadda yadda yadda. But on the first day of the year, when your fate is decided, you don’t want to rely on what you think is right. You want to rely on the absolute, the words Jews have used for generations, the words that speak not for your conscious understanding but for the yearnings of your soul known not even to you.

Get out of yourself. Say the traditional words, and be happy about it.

7. Enjoy The Songs Of Our People, My Tiny Dancer

It is obvious to anyone that the songs and niggunim of Rosh Hashana are designed to move even a heart made of stone. These are the songs that we know even though we’re not sure where we learned them, the ones that seem to be hardwired into our circuitry, because we’re Jewish. They act as a key to the depths of feeling, even for those of us whose service of G-d is cold all year long. If you have trouble connecting to the teachings or the spoken prayers of Rosh Hashana, try enjoying the liturgical music and the songs sung together, which lift us from the mundane and set us on a spiritual footing.

8. This Isn’t Lollapalooza With Rams’ Horns, You Walking Desecration

It is beyond doubt that if personal prayer is bad, then personal songs are worse. Where one is an outpouring of how you feel, the other is usually an outpouring of how someone else feels, someone who did not have the power of prophecy and based his song off of an advertising jingle he heard in his village one midsummer’s morning after a night of drunken carousing. This is not the way you want to go. You think you’re connecting to G-d, but you may just be connecting to Ellie Goulding, or whatever. This is not a day about you enjoying yourself — that’s every other day of the year. This is a day where you explain to G-d why even though you spend most of your time enjoying yourself, he should spend his time allowing you to do so in good health. Stop singing and show some respect.

9. Remember – The Judge Is Also Our Father, Bro

The one utterly incontrovertible truth about our relationship with G-d is that He is our father. To paraphrase and shorten a famous Chassidic tale, we don’t need to worry about our court date, because the Judge is also our father, and he’ll give us a good judgement. There is absolutely no reason to stress about the coming year; G-d will give us a year of peace, prosperity, health, wealth, and jellybeans, because he loves us. After all, no amount of bad behavior will ever make us not Jewish, or make G-d take Rosh Hashana away. These things are permanent, always existed, always will, and there is nothing we can do about it, thankfully. The whole “Days of Awe” thing is, in a certain sense, just a dance with G-d, a stepping through the motions.

10. Remember – Our Father Is Also The Judge; ask Robert Downey Jr.

The evident reality of Rosh Hashana, called the Day of Judgement, is that we’re held to an objective standard. The person who is your father cannot always be expected to relate to you in a personal manner; what kind of cruel justice is nepotism, and what honor is there in succeeding because of connections? It is a sad relationship that needs all objectivity to be put aside for a personal love. So if you’re feeling a little complacent, remember — the Torah is true, its standards are real, and the whole Rosh Hashana thing is not just a charade.

 

And that wraps up my advice for a stress-free, straightforward Rosh Hashana executed according to the Jewish way. If none of the above advice works, just try the opposite. You’ll figure it out. 😉

Wishing you and yours a sweet New Year! May the holy days be ever in your favor.

 

Image depicting a total lack of stress, from Flickr.

 

 

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.

How Transgenderism Points To G-d

Let me take just a minute and talk to my fellow religious Jews about transgenderism.

As any user of the (dangerously addictive) site TV Tropes knows, there is a certain type of plan hatched by fictional villains called the Xanatos Gambit. This is a maneuver by which the bad guy so outthinks the good guys that even when the good guys have won, they have lost.

Consider the plot of the entire first three episodes of Star Wars (if it’s not too painful). Darth Sidious creates a breakaway from the old republic that starts a huge war. This eventually causes the republic to, out of fear, 1) distrust the Jedi order, 2) trust a massive clone army left to them by a mysterious benefactor, 3) cede emergency powers to Chancellor Palpatine in the galactic senate. So when the day eventually comes that the head of that breakaway power is cut off (literally) and their forces sent running, the good guys have become the bad guys, from within, without anyone noticing, and by winning their own war they have lost it.

What if I told you that you are part of a Xanatos Gambit right now, namely, human history?

***

How could we know? Looking for the cataclysmic end result of the Xanatos gambit before it comes to pass doesn’t help. What if you tell the average patrician of the republic that the chancellor is really an evil dictator in disguise, that his defense force is really an imperialist power bent on domination, and that trust in your own side will lead you to great evil? Not to fulfill Godwin’s Law, but you would, in all likelihood not be taken seriously in your ramblings since no one else can see what you can see until it’s too late.

Similarly, I could tell you that the whole world will soon come to recognize the falseness of materialism and the truth of a reality beyond the empirical and quantifiable universe. I could tell you that G-d is like Xanatos, and he will win in the end. Telling you this would make me seem like a conspiracy theorist, a dreamer out of touch with the reality that G-d is dead and has been for over a century. If I insist that this is the direction in which we must move because that is the end of history according to the prophets, it falls flat. What are prophets compared to our own eyes?

***

No, the key to seeing the Xanatos Gambit is not to go around claiming the truth of its end goal. The key is to find the process as it takes place, the villain’s tells. If I could show you how a massive standing clone army is dangerous for the republic, especially if its source is untested, you may begin to doubt; if I told you how much worse it would be if the chancellor received emergency powers, you may begin to wonder. Once there are enough tells, enough examples of things which on the surface seem to be for our good but at a deeper level will be our downfall, our sense of the trap we are in becomes much more solid.

Even if we know from prophecies that history arcs toward a recognition and knowledge of G-d, it is hard to see how we are getting there. Our frustration is compounded by the niggling words of those great rabbis who insist we must be nearing the end of history, that time when the world will know G-d. How does the math work out that history is ending but we seem further from G-d, collectively, than we ever have? It would seem that to the average mind, the natural appearance of the world is winning out against any conception of a higher power.

But there is mischief afoot.

***

The first time I became aware of it is in the strange case of the big bang. You see, the whole cosmological concept of the big bang makes most religious people nervous, since they think of it as science’s G-dless understanding of the world’s origins which took place, like, billions of years ago for whatever baroque reasons Stephen Hawking told it to, and all of this doesn’t sound like the first verse of the Torah/Bible at all. This is, forgive me, a narrow, ignorant, and downright stupid understanding. Not because the Torah’s account is false and the big bang theory comprehensive. Not even because two things which are both true cannot be in contradiction.

It is a stupid understanding of the situation because the big bang theory is a huge win for the religious understanding of the world, even though very few people see it that way. You see, for the longest time, empiricists were quite comfortable in the belief that the universe has always existed. The idea that the whole thing had a beginning at all was a decidedly religious belief, one known only through prophecy; some might be surprised to learn that Maimonides fervently denies that one can logically, from observation of the world, prove that it did not always exist. Only the Torah can tell us that, he says. And so — when scientists began to study the background radiation of the universe, and came to the conclusion that the whole thing had a beginning, this was probably the single greatest concession to the religious understanding of the world since the enlightenment. And we have a bunch of religious people sitting around feeling somehow that the big bang is an anti-religious idea.

You see, the big bang is one small facet of a huge Xanatos Gambit. As G-d seems to be out of reach from the front windows, He is in fact sneaking in the back door. It is a firmly established fact in the minds of most that the universe had a beginning. That idea is not going away. And as long as the beginning doesn’t go away, there will always be intellectual access to the idea of a beginner, a creator. In a subtle way, G-d is firmly planted in science more than He ever has been before.

Okay, you might be thinking, but it’s not exactly the case that everyone that believes in the big bang believes in G-d. All of this seems rather far-fetched. Are you sure it’s a Xanatos gambit and not just a strange coincidence in an otherwise pretty G-dless culture? Furthermore, if this is actually G-d revealing himself, why would He do it in such a strange, backward way? Why not sign his name on distant stars along with the message “I created the universe, love, The Almighty”?

These questions bothered me for some time, and they even made me doubt my understanding of the big bang. That’s when I recently saw a second tell, a second glitch, a second example of the gambit: the ascendancy of transgenderism.

***

More even than the big bang, transgenderism as an idea is antithetical to the religious mind and traditional morality. A disease, some call it. A rebellion against the truth, others say. The religious people say, “How can you fight against biology and call yourself a man when you are chromosomally a woman, or vice versa?” It is interesting any time a science is called upon to defend a religious view, and this statement scratched at my mind for some time. There’s something here, I thought. Something strange. And then it hit me.

Transgenderism is an argument for the existence of the non-material person, dare I say, of the soul. Think about it: A transgendered person is arguing for the ascendancy of how they feel over what they look like and what their DNA says. They are saying, a woman is a person with the soul of a woman, and if the biology says otherwise, the biology can take a hike. “That’s not an argument for a soul,” you may be thinking. “It’s just an argument between their brain and the rest of their bodies.” But that’s simply not true. There is absolutely no reason why the random bits of biological matter that make up the brain ought to have more to say about your gender than, pardon me, the matter that makes up the genitals. If a human is a purely material being, why defer to some matter over other matter? Some random noise arising from the grey matter in the head has no priority over the chromosomes in every cell, and on the contrary — that matter is dangerous for the creature’s fitness and survival, and ought to be ignored from the much clearer and demonstrable traits of the sex organs.

The only reason to listen to Bruce Jenner when he says he wants to be Caitlyn Jenner is if you believe that he, that is, the subjective individual speaking to you from within the meat and bones you see with your eyes, ought to be able to decide what he is for himself. There is a person in there beyond the body’s matter; there is a soul.

How strange, I think, as I read the various posts about this issue on the Internet, that no one sees it this way. All the people who are supposed to advocate for the soul’s presence are too busy being shocked that our society has reached these lowly depths, etc. etc.

***

Hold on a minute, though. I don’t actually mean to suggest that a belief in the validity of transgenderism equates with a belief in the soul, do I? It’s like the big bang all over again. A lot of cosmologists don’t believe in G-d; a lot of transgender people don’t believe in the soul. It seems hard to say that this is an example of religious beliefs sneaking into the popular consciousness; on the contrary, it seems more an example of the inability even of enlightened secular thinking to shake off all of its religious trappings. If we are really reaching some divinely ordained end of times in which He will be revealed, why not just, you know, reveal Himself? Why would these ideas be sneaking into the collective consciousness?

For the same reason any villain needs to run a Xanatos Gambit. To assure victory, and to express one’s complete dominance. You see, G-d did reveal himself. The villain made a straightforward attack. There was a time, now enshrouded in the mists of history, when G-d was known. The problem was, the world didn’t really get it. Victory was incomplete, technical. G-d was such a powerful idea that the world became religious, but G-d did not want religiosity per se; He wanted to be known everywhere, and there were always people, societies, and ideas who were turned off by religiosity and the religious way of life. And so, a stalemate, with most of the world becoming religious but total victory out of reach.

The only option was to circumvent the dichotomy, to slowly work the dialectic back-and-forth between the religious and non-religious until the lines became blurred and the two sides could intertwine, and that unity itself would be the knowledge of G-d, that religion and antireligion could work on and sharpen each other until the dichotomy breaks and they each give way to their higher grounding.

***

There is so much more to say. We could talk about how the dialectic of the Xanatos Gambit, in which both sides are really in accordance with G-d’s plan and even when religion “loses” G-d wins, effects both religious and non-religious ideas. The traditional moral understanding of “gender roles” gave way to feminism and feminism in a very real sense is giving way to transgenderism, and all three of these steps are part of a process pointing toward to true G-dly identity of the individual.

There will come a time when even the desires and feelings of the individual become secondary to their G-dly purpose. The groundwork for that time has already been laid. And the next time we, as the religious people, hear a new idea that makes us cringe, that goes against everything we know to be true, we should take a second look at it.

We should take a second look, and await the springing of the trap.

 

Image from Flickr.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

All The Good Guys Are Sinners

There are those who think if we stop believing in G-d, He will simply cease to exist. The opposite is true. If we stop believing in G-d, we cease to exist.

No, atheists will not vanish in a puff of smoke because of their beliefs (though they may sometimes make us wish they did). Rather, if the general beliefs of society lose touch with G-d, the society loses its humanity.

It seems not a day goes by without a new article, study, or opinion piece about human frailty. The Internet loves to tell me why I’m Wrong About Everything. This is not mysterious, as I click on things that tell me I’m wrong and this is good business. It goes further though. According to science, I’m not just wrong; I’m unable to be right. My mind cannot think, my eyes cannot see, and indeed, it seems my every limb is flawed and ineffective. I used to think the Psalmist was lamenting the emptiness of the idolaters’ deities. But without G-d, and creation in G-d’s image, man finds his own brain made of clay and his eyes of wood; “Like them shall be those who make them, all who trust in them.”

It is a bitter irony that in an age so conscious of ecology, of subtle balances whose slight upsetting could wreak great havoc, we tease at our inner spiritual ecology with abandon. Then we’re amazed when we wake up one morning to find ourselves moored to the bed, conquered by depression and self-hatred.

For almost two thousand years, man looked at himself through a religious monotheistic lens and thought, mostly, “Oh, man. I’m a bit of a sinner, aren’t I?” And then they’d clean themselves up, or drink themselves into a stupor, or, yes, lie in bed, depressed. So some very intelligent, analytical people thought, “I don’t much fancy myself a sinner. I think I’m a pretty good guy, and that is how I shall view myself.” Of course, being a pretty good guy is contingent on being a sinner, but the proof took a few million deaths to really draw out. Post-Hitler, -Stalin, -Pol Pot, -Mao, etc., one may state confidently: All the good guys are sinners, or were sinners, or will one day be sinners.

Good guys choose “sinner” or at least “penitent.” Bad guys choose “good guy,” and that’s what they believe they are all the way through to the bullet in the bunker, because this first and most important choice isn’t about us but about the truth. As Chesterton used to say, when a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes in anything.

True, even without G-d, the concept of a sin prevailed. In fact, even in religious contexts, sin can exist without G-d, often with disastrous consequences. The totally non-religious sin is only an extension of this “religious” error. A sin against a creator is personal, is a distance between two beings, a rift in a relationship. A sin as part of a system of divine rules (that dead reality I spoke about in my last Hevria piece) is a contradiction to the system and therefore unmakes a person’s conception of themselves as holy or good, as they are in violation of the only reality they see as holy; a sin may not destroy G-d, but in a real sense it destroys the Torah. And nowadays, an intolerant, racist, sexist, (and most importantly) uncool, unsexy person is likewise unmade, divorced from the system that might otherwise sanctify them as a “good person.”

But modern sins are only the happier and more logical of our choices if we stop believing in G-d, for at least the followers of the modern morality have some kind of compass outside of themselves. There are those, however, who don’t want to be sinners at all, who wish to think of their actions as totally inviolate. They forfeit the classical conceptions of humanity and free choice and declare all actions to be essentially the same, whether they belong to the most respected members of society or those we would confine to the insane asylum. Our actions arise from brain chemicals, biology, and our childhoods. There is no sense of victory to the human endeavor, the glory of natures overcome. We all merely play our predetermined roles and then fade away, having propagated the species in our wake (or, increasingly, not). There really are no humans, in the old sense of the world. There are only animals, and some of them are particularly smart and can make smart phones and the like, which is “very cool.”

There’s a famous story about a chassid who delivers the backhanded compliment, “I merely think about myself all day; you think about G-d all day.” He explains: I’m worried about how I can possibly exist, whereas you’re concerned for G-d’s existence while your own is a certainty.

I always assumed this story had to do with chassidus, chassidic theology, which constantly challenges the world’s independent existence, as everything that exists is merely an expression of the Creator. But the story can be understood at a simpler level as well. The man who is concerned whether G-d exists ends up neglecting “his own vineyard,” and it is his own existence which slowly slips away. It is only the man for whom transcendence is reality and who constantly questions himself whose continued humanity is ensured.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Judaism Is Crazy And That’s A Good Thing

“Jumbo Shrimp.” “Honest Politician.” “Middle Initial.”

“Rational Judaism.”

It’s not that we shouldn’t engage our minds in Judaism. It’s not that we shouldn’t struggle to make sense of the tradition of our fathers and thereby (and only thereby) make it our own. But to pretend this is anything more than the subjective struggle of Jews, to say that our understanding and our rationalizations and the arguments we throw out in Internet debates are the entirety, or even the main part, of Judaism — this is sacrilege of the highest order.

The strange desire to make Judaism make sense is, I admit, partially Judaism’s fault: it seems such a sensible religion, with many laws and texts and codes and numbered principles, etc. But while these are part of Judaism, they do not get to the core of what Judaism is or ought to be. They are, in fact, tangential, a facade, almost in the category of a necessary evil, and the motivations of those who seek to force Judaism to make sense are suspect.

But that’s not the place to begin. The place to begin is with a fundamental mistake you may remember from your high school English class.

***

Everyone who took English in high school was forced to read Shakespeare (I hope). Most people didn’t come away with a positive impression. The Bard is more than just boring, they’d tell you. The Bard is enciphered. He speaks in a strange English from a distant time and we just don’t see the point in working hard to understand what he says.[i] What (and I honestly couldn’t answer this question) is the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What happens in the story? Why should I keep turning the pages? How are iambic pentameter and blank verse relevant to my life or anyone’s life?

I know these questions because I had them myself. I could tell there was more to the matter than met the eye (he is after all pretty much the most famous and lauded writer in my language, and it’s been like four hundred years) but this only compounded my frustration.

I didn’t “get it” until, perhaps in desperation, they took us to see a play. I think it was The Tempest. It blew me away. Even though there was so much I didn’t understand, it was beautiful. There was a certain grace, a cadence, a subtle rhythmic power to the words. I sensed, in a word, the poetry.

Why did it work on the stage when it did not work in the classroom?

Because Shakespeare wrote plays. He never intended for his words to be endlessly picked apart and for their first reading to take weeks or months. By the time we got to the good stuff in the classroom, the stuff that Dumas described as “Adam’s first sight of Eden,” the play already lay cut open on the surgeon’s table, dead in dissection.

Crazy that Shakespeare could be appreciated in play form without academic study, right? As simple as it sounds, we often forget it. We have a strange tendency to use the wrong parts of our minds and souls on the wrong material. We get mathematical with Shakespeare; we get scientific with philosophy; we get rational about Judaism.

***

Many Jews take a little time each year to, er, swing chickens. Most of us find this pretty weird.

If it’s too weird, if it’s beyond your threshold, if you just can’t do it — I think most of us could appreciate that, too. Don’t do it.

But imagine for a moment there were people who wished to change the tradition, to abolish it from Judaism, to uproot it retroactively by somehow proving that it’s inauthentic or some strange imposition on true Judaism by outside parties or circumstances. Let’s call them the rebels.

These people would eventually become very frustrated, because the hard-hearted traditionalists would ignore their outcry and their protest and for the most part not argue with them. The standard position would be: ignore the haters. Who are the real chickens here? the rebels would wonder, feeling superior in their ability to at least put the idea in the open, to debate it, to confront it.

They don’t realize that the reason the flesh-and-blood human beings who love to argue (seriously) don’t feel like arguing with them is because no one believes their contentions are rooted in purely rational arguments and a desire to find the truth. The traditionalist feels intuitively that the motivation of the average rebel is simply “this is weird.” And the traditionalists have already decided that they don’t care.

The rebel, reassured and seeing and opening, would point out that this is the purest sort of logical fallacy, that the traditionalists aren’t meeting the challenge to their ideas honestly, that they are willfully ignoring logical alternatives and, so blinded, will discern neither the best course of action nor the truth.

“We don’t decide the course of our own actions early in the morning the day before Yom Kippur,” answer the traditionalists, “and ain’t that the truth.”

There is literally nothing the rebel can say to this, except that they refuse to partake in something that does not make sense to them. It is sad, they think, that some people will forfeit their G-d-given intellects. Just sad.

But sad is not the word. The only word to describe the actions of those immovable traditionalists that will not even sit at the debating table and their forays over the edge of rationality is “essential.”

***

It is a well-known phenomenon to those who work with Baalei Teshuva, Jews who come to Judaism later in life, that they lack a certain klugkeit. Klugkeit, n. (Yiddish) – cleverness; smarts.

The old saying goes: To be religious is to be a priest (read with negative connotations), to be happy is to be a clown (same), and to be klug is to be a heretic (play along). To be all three together is to be a Jew.

In other words, cleverness is the magic preservative that lets religiousness and happiness coexist (no easy feat, many will testify). It is what allows a human being of flesh and blood with a flawed personality and a beating heart full of love and fear live under the rule of an inanimate system of laws without going insane. It is the skeleton key that transforms cages into parlors, prisons into homes. And it is problematic.

The problem with klugkeit is that it’s by definition ephemeral. It’s not written down anywhere, and cannot be written down anywhere. Being klug is antithetical to being orderly and intellectual. A Jew could sit down with holy texts for eighty years and personally build up Judaism from the Chumash and from first principles, and never run into klugkeit. It is what’s written between the lines; it is what’s written on the blank page at the front of all the books. Klugkeit is the mortar that takes millions of  inky letters and turns them into a window illuminated by G-dliness.

Klugkeit is anathema to the Shulchan Aruch Jew, the purist whose Judaism begins and ends with the Code of Jewish Law. The Rav back in the shtetl (and nowadays) finds a heter, a dispensation, a “way around” the law, because he’s klug[ii]. The beautiful rainbow of Jewish customs that bend and warp Jewish laws are functions of klugkeit. A lesser form of klugkeit is what makes religious Jews freak out if their children watch movies and not freak out if their children speak gossip or slander, even though some movies may not strictly be an issue at all in Jewish law and slander is as bad as the three cardinal sins combined. If you ask the parents about this inherent contradiction, they’ll have a very hard time explaining it.

It gets worse. Though it makes some heads explode, the Gra broke Shulchan Aruch. The Alter Rebbe, first Rebbe of Chabad, broke his own Shulchan Aruch, the version he wrote. Chassidim break Shulchan Aruch when they daven late; Litvishers break Shulchan Aruch when they don’t do the full repetition of Shemoneh Esrei. Now understand, these changes are justified; there is room for them, there are explanations for them. These explanations are very good explanations. I certainly wouldn’t want to argue with the Vilna Gaon or the Alter Rebbe, and neither would you. Nevertheless, one needs klugkeit for this to work, for the brain to tolerate the tension between The Rules and the reality of the Jewish religion. Why, one wonders, would the Alter Rebbe not sleep in his Sukkah, but write in his Code that one must sleep in the Sukkah? There are ways of understanding it. But the fact that there is a real Yiddishkeit that wasn’t put in the Code is telling.

Judaism is ultimately a religion of people, not of books, and can often make as much sense as people do. Judaism is more than a book, and, more importantly, it’s more than what can be in a book.

***

Why can’t Judaism be systemized and written down?

Because systemization is death. Literally.

At first, there was no logic and no system. There was only the Truth, the Holy One, Life of Life, Blessed be He. A system could not exist. By definition a system is impersonal, rules created to deal with discrepancies because dealing with things in an ad hoc fashion costs too much time or resources. This is not a problem for the Deity, who is quite capable of dealing with everything personally. A system would mean separation from the Creator, inherent death. It is the death contained in every untruth, in every smothering system that knows no living being, in every sad story you have ever read, in every cubicle.

The downside of the non-systematic personal mode is that there is no way to escape its intimacy, no privacy, no true individuality. An invasiveness that prevented all finitude was the norm, before.

After, G-d created the systems. First, he made logic itself, then the system we call the laws of nature. Both of these were based off of a uniquely divine system called the Torah, which was later brought into the world in the form of 613 general directives which in turn contained zillions of sub-rules.

The goal of Torah was not to teach people how to behave in a G-dly fashion; this was achieved long before Sinai, and practically to perfection. In fact, if the point were merely to have something G-dly, perhaps the Torah would come unwritten and uncodified, without rules, for the system with its numbered laws seem to be artifacts of G-d’s concealment, of his personal aloofness from creation.

Rather, the goal of Torah was/is to smuggle G-dliness into the system, and teach the system how to be G-dly at every level, on its own terms. The idea was to take the infinite, free, personal G-d and show Him to be the defining truth of this limited, bound, rules-driven, systemized, dead rock we call home. And like all smugglers, the Torah must be a master of disguise, a disguise that doesn’t break the system.

But can the person ever be reduced to the mask they wear?

What do we stand to lose, if we forget there is anything under the mask at all?

And so we must be discerning. We must look for the little signs that show there is more to the Torah and to Judaism than its codified disguise.

We have to be just a little clever.

***

So, a Jew makes an error, forgets his klugkeit, and mistakes Judaism for something that makes sense. What’s the prognosis?

At first glance, the patient appears healthy. A rational Judaism is, in fact, a very close approximation of the real thing, not just a caricature but a lifelike sculpture that is hard to distinguish from the living, breathing original for some time.

The reality, however, is that the life has been strained out of the religion of his forefathers, and only clay remains. The demand for rationality is a subtle and pernicious selfishness. It brings one to petulantly hack at tradition; that which makes sense stays, that which does not, falls. This is done, of course, in the name of objectivity; he is trying to fix what he’s received, to preserve it in perfection for posterity. But instead of improving it, he unknowingly forms it in his own image, to his own needs.

This itself is not so bad at first. He will argue (correctly) that this is the Judaism that works for him and that speaks to him, which is infinitely better than the irrational things foisted on him by the irrational Jews of the past without rhyme or reason[iii]. All of this is well and good; it is the picture of a Jew struggling with his Judaism. Lovely.

But he is in danger, a danger that has shown itself to be empirically real. As I mentioned at the beginning, it is the danger of thinking that what you have done with Judaism reflects the Truth. One runs the danger of thinking one’s own preferences or logic contain some sort of objectivity, an obligating objectivity that will convince those crazy Ashkenazim to embrace their leguminous desires for one week a year. If enough things don’t go one’s way, this stress between the person’s understanding of what Judaism ought to be and what Judaism is can culminate in dropping the whole thing entirely, for one’s devotion to any higher truth has been replaced with self-importance; one has become the very arbiter of truth who decides whether those “higher” things conform to oneself.

Worst of all is the heaviness, the burden he must bear if he demands rationality from his Judaism. There are, after all, certain responsibilities that come with this approach. Firstly, whenever anyone is arguing or challenging your way, you must participate, you need to fight or suffer feelings of doubt and inadequacy. And if there is no disagreement (what universe are you from and how do I move there?) there is still a need for polemic, to teach the world, to help them reach enlightenment as you have.

Ultimately, when Judaism will cease making sense (which will happen), when there are hiccups – Judaism will in effect cease to exist. After all, it is only the constant explaining and striving to understand that generate it in the first place, and only its intellectual elegance that sustains its worth. If you stopped thinking about it, it would cease to be. You would literally have taken on the role of the creator. Life as any sort of private citizen enjoying the boons of your beliefs is over; there is no time to enjoy the poetry of G-d’s creation. You are too busy creating heaven and earth.

***

But what about the actual rational foundations of Jewish law? At some point, all of these rules were put forth with arguments, and had to make sense to those who established them. In fact, they have to still make sense to us today. Is not Judaism predicated on Jews being able to understand its laws and mandates? If most Jews can’t keep something, or the Rabbis of the generation can’t understand something, isn’t Judaism subject to change?

The answer is yes, with a caveat – we must remain klug, as all the great Rabbis in history were. One must be sure of one’s devotion to the unwritten human tradition of one’s father before one dares change a word.

Am I in fact telling you that there are principles of and influences on all our great Rabbis that aren’t really written anywhere as if in some great conspiracy? Yes. Is this mad? I think the alternative is madder. The alternative is that the Rabbis worked only off what it says in the books yet themselves contradicted what is written therein and the entire millennia-old religion is a hypocritical joke played on the miserable Jews. It is hard to imagine even the greatest cynic backing such a proposition. Besides, the oral law is called the oral law for a reason.

***

As with most of the truly tricky issues, the problem is one of balance. The question of whether to approach Judaism as something that must make sense to me reduces to the broader question of whether to think of myself as the reason for the entire world’s creation, or to think of myself as dust and ashes. Is the world intended for my manipulation and my conquering, or am I player with a bit part?

The answer is obviously both, and you must learn when each approach is required from you by G-d. It’s another annoying trait of these tricky issues that the answer in the end is, “Do what G-d wants; it is what it is.”

Could there be more ad-hoc answer, a more personal answer, a less systematic answer?

Could anything be more frustrating to the blanket rationalist?

***

Yiddishkeit/Judaism is meshugge. There is no fully rational version of it, and there never has been. Jews use intellect for G-d’s purposes, rather than use G-d for intellect’s purposes. We are not the drivers, arbiters, or creators of truth, and that is a wonderful thing.

One might argue that this cheapens the great intellectual achievements of our glorious tradition – geniuses fighting geniuses in verdant Babylon, the sparks cast by their sabers illuminating minds unto eternity. One might argue that Judaism may not be rational, but I’ll never surrender my intellect; I will never relate to G-d like an animal; I shall cling to the human dignities of cognition and discernment.

There is one answer to these two objections, in the form of a question: What is man, and why does he walk this earth? If your answer is that the highest good is rationality and intellect and this ought he pursue, you are in good company. But this is not the ultimate truth.

The ultimate truth is expressed as a story[iv]. Once upon a time, there was a people called the Jewish people. They were and are chosen for a mission by G-d. You were born into this people. Everything you possess has been gifted to you for the purpose of that mission. To use your abilities, no matter how great, for other ends, is to waste them. And that includes your intellect.

In other words, the question is (once again) whether you are in charge of your fate or whether you are in fact the last chapter of a very old tale nearing its completion.

Now, the story doesn’t make sense. The story doesn’t have to make sense, since it’s a story. It’s ultimately just a tale of what happened to Him and what happened to us, and how we dealt with it, and how we grew, and things got better.

The story is what it is. If it is mad, so be it. If Life is mad, Judaism can be mad. After all, the former flows from the latter.

Yiddishkeit is also wonderful. It is wonderful on its own terms, as simply the greatest story ever told. And it is wonderful for us specifically, who get to step onto the stage right near the end, and bring the waiting audience and the eager Playwright the glorious conclusion they have so patiently awaited.

One thing is certain: You won’t need to understand the plot when you hear the applause.

***

Note: There is a deeper way of framing this issue whereby a lot of what I’m saying in this essay isn’t technically true. From that point of view, though Torah doesn’t need to make sense, it in fact always does. In other words, there is a level at which a conscious abandonment of one’s own rationality actually brings one to see everything in Torah, klugkeit included, as the greatest and truest rationality. Though it is alluded to above, it is ultimately beyond the scope of this essay.

For another (shorter) piece I wrote on the role of intellect in Judaism, check out “The Rebbe, The Chief Rabbi, And The Fossils.”

***

[i] And we can’t even use the normal motivation of appreciating a different culture, ethnicity, or gender; he is the dreaded white male; he is even Anglo-Saxon; he is the very evil we hope to escape.

[ii] Only in the right situation, of course. How do you know which situation is right? Because you’re klug.

[iii] Kitniyot on Pesach is a great example I’ve heard people gripe about recently.

[iv] Or, as we modern people call them probably because they terrify us on some deep level, narratives.

 

 

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.