Nature, Wisdom, Prophecy, Torah, and G-d

They asked wisdom: “How may a sinning soul achieve atonement?”
Wisdom said, “The sinning soul shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4)

 

They asked prophecy.
Prophecy said, “Misfortune pursues sinners.” (Proverbs 13:21)

 

They asked Torah.
Torah said, “Let him bring a guilt offering, and he will be atoned for.”

 

They asked G-d.
G-d said, “Let him repent, and he will be atoned for.”

 

This is the meaning of the verse (Psalms 25:8), “Good and upright is the Lord, for He shows sinners the way.”

—Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Makkot 7a
(version of the Vavei HeAmudim,
son to the holy SheLaH)

 

The Talmud describes four answers to the problem of sin, each more lenient than the one which precedes it. Whereas wisdom says the only way to be cleansed of the blemish of transgression is through death, prophecy, from a higher perch, sees that suffering can achieve the same. Torah provides atonement through a sacrifice, whereas G-d Himself says it’s possible without death, suffering, or even a sacrifice if one merely performs the spiritual act of Teshuvah, repentance or return to one’s creator.

There is actually an implicit fifth member, the least sympathetic of the lot, the one who has no advice for the sinner. One might call this unsympathetic friend “worldliness” or “nature.” Nature may be defined (in extreme summary) as that G-dly expression which conforms to the need of the result, rather than the Creator. For example, when G-d speaks light into being (Genesis 1:3), it is in the mode of nature, and therefore the divine act creates an independent entity, a light which has properties and exists by taking up space at certain times, etc.

Now, the problem nature has with sin is that the deepest property of every created being, its first nature, is the role it plays in the Divine Will. Before light’s color and its illuminating properties and its speed is its purpose, the role it plays in G-d’s design for the universe generally, whether that purpose is to have a dwelling place in the lowest realms (as explained in Tanya Chapter 36) or any other.* The role of the divine commandments is to reveal this G-dly truth in the object of the commandment, leather for Tefillin, wool for Tzitzis. Sin conversely denies this inner truth and reinforces only the superficial reality of the creation, creating a rift between the inner directed purpose of a being and its apparent independence, between the result of the Divine act and the Divine act itself.

Since sin is an affront to nature’s very soul, nature’s connection to its source in the Almighty, nature by definition cannot absolve us of sin. Just as an amputated arm cannot sew itself back onto the torso, a nature rendered independent and metaphysically inert cannot undo the destruction wrought by transgression. Sin truly creates nature, in the sense that amputation creates the arm, so this now-independent nature cannot uncreate sin. “Dear universe,” writes the thief, “I am sorry for stealing the money. Please forgive me.”  The universe cannot respond, because the theft has killed some of her children.

So we must turn at least to wisdom. Wisdom is able to see nature in context, which is itself proof that wisdom is greater than nature and comes from beyond nature. If wisdom is the very power to see inner truths, then it is the opposite of sin, which severs the inner truth from its effects. Indeed, Reish Lakish says (Sotah 3a) that “a man commits a transgression only if a spirit of folly enters him,” or in other words, that wisdom and sin cannot dwell in the same place. Where nature in our grisly example is the amputated arm, wisdom is that which connects arms with bodies. However, where the arm does not survive sin, this connective power merely goes into hiding. It, itself, will always have a solution for severed arms; this is its entire being. So wisdom tells us, “The sinning soul shall die.”

Why death? Why not death! The fulfillment of G-d’s will draws the Divine into the world, the infinite into the finite, the living soul into an arm. Sin is death, for death is nothing but the separation of soul and body. Wisdom, sin’s opposite, provides the technical solution. If one has brought death to the world, that dirt washes off only one way. When death finds you, and your soul and body are separated, your debt will be paid. The punishment fits the crime.

But wisdom is the lowest of four, and therefore the least kind. Kindness, in terms of forgiving sin, is proportional to the height of perspective. To the arm that gets cut off, the cutting off is vitally important. Arm-severing is the arch-rival to the power that holds arms to bodies. But prophecy is not nature, nor even the inner truth of nature. Prophecy stands fully above nature and nature’s truth. Prophecy is to creation as the body itself is to the arm that is severed.

The body feels pain at the removal of extremities, yet the body continues to survive. To have sinned is to have harmed nature, but not the Divine act which produces nature. The divine act is only harmed inasmuch as it cannot be fully expressed in the lowest place. This is not death to the divine act, which retains its connection to G-d and remains divine. How, then, is the sinning soul cleansed? Death is not necessary, for sin does not bring death. Rather, misfortunes pursue sinners—transgression is cleansed by pain and suffering, and this is enough to pay the debt.

Torah is something different entirely.

Torah is G-d’s wisdom.

As a form of wisdom, one might assume it is similar to the wisdom of the first answer, the inner truth of each creation that offers death as the only atonement for sin. But Torah is not the truth of creation but rather Truth itself. It is not the purpose of nature, but rather the purpose of all purposes, and it cannot be derived from nature.

There is no way to know what Torah will tell the sinner, except by Torah telling us. Or in other words, we do not know what a sin truly is to Torah merely by looking at the spiritual effects of the sin, for all the sin’s perceivable effects reach only up to the Divine act of creation. The Torah is not a creation at all, but rather the source of creation, the knowledge that precedes that G-dly act.

We know how the arm feels about its amputation, how the force connecting the arm to the body feels, and how the body feels. But do we know the mind’s reaction?

The mind propely understood** is not fixed in any causal chain or natural reaction to anything in the person below itself. The mind may choose how to react to any stimulus. If my arm is cut off in a freak accident, I will mourn the loss of the limb. But if the arm is cut off to save my very life, perhaps I will view it with some relief. If I am offered seventy billion dollars to cut off my arm and I will be able to afford the best prosthetics, perhaps I even make this choice willingly and see it as an improvement to my condition. The arm when it is cut off is unaware of this calculus; the pro-attached-arm force has never heard of it; it does not stop the body’s physical pain of losing a limb. The only way to find out what the mind thinks is to ask it.

The Torah says, “Let him bring a guilt offering.” In the eyes of the Torah, the divine mind, inscrutable from below, this is the proper balance; pain and death are unnecessary, and only the Torah could tell us so. We first regret our actions and resolve never to transgress again, which turns intentional sins into unintentional ones before G-d. We then bring a specific animal sacrifice to the temple in Jerusalem, and this atones for our unintentional actions.

Why, in the Torah’s approach, must we first transform our sins into unintentional actions before we can atone for them through a sacrifice? Because no matter which conceptual framing the mind lends to the loss of the arm, there are still facts about the amputation that are unavoidable, that cannot be reframed. Even to the divine mind, which in its Truth is an expression of G-d Himself, things still have their essential natures. The Torah is able to see how losing the arm is not so bad a thing that it’s equivalent to death or suffering, but no amount of broadmindedness can view the arm as more a part of the body than it was before. Similarly, the Torah, in the context of repentance and sacrifice, can see the transgression as a misadventure that is balanced and “justified.” But the Torah, ultimately limited to being wisdom, cannot see the transgression as a positive.

G-d can.

G-d says, Repent and be atoned.

Don’t contextualize and then balance the transgression.

Rather, de-transgress the transgression. Transform the intentional sins into merits (as described in Tanya Chapter 7). Beyond even the mind there is a soul incorruptible possessing infinite power. Its power stems from being totally beyond nature—not nature itself, nor the act that creates it, nor the source of that act in the divine wisdom, but a simple indivisible self that stands in relation to nothing, that is defined by nothing. A self before whom all constructs, even that of “having an arm” and “not having an arm” are interchangeable.

G-d, because He is G-d, because he stands beyond all realities, even the reality of His own wisdom, is able to not just balance or forgive the transgression. He is able to reverse the valence of the debt. He is able to transform an act of violence, of death, of pain against Him into an act for which He will willingly dispense reward.

All that is required is repentance***, and to repent is just to acknowledge G-d beyond all realities. This itself is the act that repairs the soul, and that cleans it. The highest atonement, the painless atonement, is not a balancing or a transacting but a shift of our being itself. The sinner realizes that the sinner’s own soul comes from a G-d who is truly beyond his petty concerns, beyond any folly or lust or evil that caused him to sin, beyond even the distinction between sin and non-sin. Authentically realizing this to be his true nature, it becomes so. G-d forgives him not by letting his sins slide, but by an in-dwelling presence that literally transforms the sinner into a servant of G-d and the sins into merits, by standing the sinner himself in that position of needing nothing, being defined by nothing, but simply being, which is being one with G-d.

As the verse says, G-d is good—so good, He does not reckon with the reality of the sin at all, but truly transcends it, and so can offer atonement to all. And G-d is upright—His goodness is not confined to Him alone, but can hold true at every level, can be given to the sinner and be real to the sinner.

This, even the Torah cannot understand.****

 

Based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s “v’Chol Adam,” Shabbos Haazinu, Shabbos Teshuva, 5723/1962

*Sometimes this divine purpose is in line with the teleological end of the creation in the ancient sense, its greatest perfection, but often is not—many things are created to be destroyed, whether literally or through a process of nullification, in which we reveal the inner ayin, the subsuming of the creation in the divine reality such that it has no independent existence whatsoever. An earthly ox is more perfect the more it instantiates the divine ox, but the divine ox is itself utterly nullified to the G-dly emanation. It is therefore good for an ox to be healthy, and it is even better for an ox to move up a teleological level by correctly serving human purposes in the fields or as food, and it is categorically better to use the Ox’s skin for making Tefillin, in which (in Tefillin’s highest form) the Ox serves no earthly purpose, neither for the betterment of the Ox nor for the betterment of man.

**Rather than how it’s commonly understood today.

***The truest expression of the uniquely G-dly atonement is on Yom Kippur. The rest of the year, we can attain it, but only through atonement. On Yom Kippur, the day itself atones; we do not have to do anything, and why should we, if our very souls are beyond the distinction between sin and non-sin? The only reason we also repent on Yom Kippur is so that the mind, the body, the attachment of the arm to the body, and the arm are also aware, at their own levels, that the arm has regrown.

****The fact that this advice of G-d is actually recorded as part of Torah, in the Jerusalem Talmud, is because the Torah, in its source, is absolutely one with G-d Himself, just as the mind in its source is one with the soul itself. The Torah’s advice of bringing the sacrifice is the Torah describing its own perspective (Torah is in the center line of sefirot, which connects all levels highest to lowest); G-d’s advice of repenting and transforming sins into merits is the Torah’s description of its source’s perspective (Torah in its source, beyond even being the center line).

Faith vs. Trust

Faith is to stand in relation with the creator, and know my sins require punishment. Trust is to stand beyond relation with the creator, and therefore have an unreckoned future of goodness.

Foolishness is not to know Him, wisdom is to relate to Him through intermediaries, and faith is to relate to Him directly through your self. Trust is the self deciding there is no self.

The fool thinks a video on the Internet cannot separate Him from G-d. The wise know it can. The faithful know they can repent. The trusting know they cannot be separate from Him again. They are repentance.

Faith is to accept an infinite G-d beyond my understanding runs the world. Trust is to so deeply associate with G-d as to know that what’s best from my perspective is what will happen.

Faith is the fire unstoppable; vinegar will burn, ice will burn. Trust is never arriving at the need for the fire unstoppable.

Faith is to pray for the miracle. Trust is to perform the miracle.

Faith is to know that sometimes, for my own good, G-d must cover His face. Trust is to know that this cannot happen.

Faith is to never lose sight of the light. Trust is to know one is as totally helpless at the dawn as at midnight.

Faith is to know that everything in the past was ultimately for the good. Trust is to know that everything in the future will be for the immediate good.

 

Faith is to believe with perfect faith that the redeemer will come, and to await it every day. Faith is that Moshiach is certain as sunrise. Faith is that, regarding your certainty at least, Moshiach has come.

But trust is to know with perfect trust that this morning the chickens will lay their eggs and the traffic will clear on I-75, whether Moshiach comes or not. Trust is that everything simply reveals the good of G-d. So why do we need Moshiach?

If a single individual knew that Moshiach, rather than the chickens or the traffic, was their own personal greatest good, and that individual trusted in G-d, Moshiach would already be here.

 

Faith is to know the Rebbe.

Trust is to be the Rebbe.

The Digestible Torah

We know that Torah is compared to food, but have we ever stopped to consider the simplest of culinary considerations pertaining thereto, namely, what pairs with it? Don’t start naming wines; wine is also Torah, and this isn’t one of those weird gastropubs where everything is made from the same ingredient.

The fact is, Torah is a difficult food to pair since it comes in so many variations. Some teachers serve Torah juicy, some serve it dry. Some Torah is sweet, some bitter. The Torah is prepared on some days to suit the tastes of children and on others the preferences of old men. Which food goes with gematria spice as well as with pshat crackers? What does kitchen science avail us when complex Talmud proteins need to be broken down and letters of the Aleph Bet need to cohere?

Perhaps Torah is like the manna from heaven, acquiring every taste the eater desires. This shall make Torah pairings very simple, to wit: everything pairs with anything! But experimentation in the metaphysical kitchen has shown this approach to be a disaster. Rabbis pair Torah with quantum physics and the meal has a soporific effect, like smarmy sermons drizzled with just a dabbling of unprepared intellectualism. Other Jews serve Torah with politics, and it smells like aggressive narcissism imbued with biting aftertaste of regret. These are not flavors unique to Torah; we can get them for free on Facebook every day.

It’s not that the Torah doesn’t go with these things. The Torah doesn’t seem to make much difference to them. It’s strange; you bite into, say, the Torah’s teachings about animal cruelty, and are greeted with a rush of tastes, a wash of tangy lime rushing through the registers to the keening burn of peppermint, filling every corner of your gut. But take those teachings and grind them over an activist website, and all you taste is activism, worldly, sincere, simple, like a hearty bowl of cornflakes. The Torah is an anti-spice. It only seems to have a taste on its own.

So maybe the Torah shouldn’t be paired with anything else at all? But the Torah itself says the Torah is a condiment! It calls for other foods as peanut butter calls to jelly. The Torah is meant to render the evil inclination edible, somehow, like salting a stone or peppering cyanide.

I think it’s the anti-spice the job calls for. The evil inclination, after all, tastes like the fruit of a certain tree that mixed good and evil; it is a taste of freedom that sours to nihilism on the human tongue. Our goal is to centrifuge the mix, separate good from evil, to see the evil inclination for what it is. We are in need of a spice that turns the mirror on things, makes them taste ever more like themselves…

“But quantum mechanics really is related to Torah. I don’t just want to see my political goals for what they are now. I want to show they’re part of Torah!”

Oh. For that, you’ll need bittul, the same mixing method that helped King David and Hillel House make the thoughts of their earthly brains a part of the eternal word of G-d.  Otherwise, the oil will float, your opinions will sink, and the absolute best-case scenario is we remember you on holidays with a named food like “hamantashen” or “maror”. Study with humility, mix only a sixtieth of what you think into things you learn from sages, and, whatever you do, don’t forget the blessing beforehand.

The Cruel, the Less Cruel, and the Kind

They say the opposite of cruelty is kindness, and that the opposite of hate is love, but it is rare to find a man of unalloyed cruelty and hatred. A man of pure hatred is like a man without legs, a tragedy, but an exception that proves the rule.

Most of us are cruel and hateful only in the service of kindness and love. We hate strangers because we love our people; we hate ideas because we love our minds as they are. “Those who love G-d hate evil,” the Psalmist says, extending this emotional dichotomy up to the rarefied reaches of the soul and the better angels of our nature.

No, in a healthy human being, love and hate are often concurrent, two sides of the same coin. The question is how to regulate these tendencies, balance them, and remain a genuinely good person despite our healthy, deeply human capacity for cruelty. Since love can generate hatred, it is not the means by which to balance our emotions. Rather, this role must fall to the mind. It is in this sense of an actual outside power not in dialectic with hatred, and able to control it, that the opposite of hate is not love, but truth.

Look at what in the world is truly cruel: those areas untouched by reason. This why we call some of the worst murders senseless. A man decides his country or religion or tribe is under attack. Out of protective love, he has their back and sallies forth to destroy their (perceived) enemies.

There are several ways to prevent this tragedy, and each failure to prevent it is a failure of reason. First, the mind of this killer has been set adrift from the internal moral law that says murder is wrong. his love, and this his hatred, broke through that barrier, placed there by G-d and education. Second, his mind failed to use its powers of abstraction to impart sympathy to the killer. Love of one’s own tribe is natural to the heart. Love of others through analogy requires moral education; the idea that they are also mothers, children, lovers of country, etc. must be taught to the heart. Third, the last line of defense of the forces of reason failed, namely, externalized reason, also known as justice. Without justice, the emotion of love terminates in dissolution, discord, and difference. To that extent, the emotion itself is self-destructive, a consuming flame without stabilizing wick or fuel that quickly gutters out in chaos.

Less cruel is reason, which ties the self-consuming love to earth and allows it to exist in stasis. The emotion of love is the individual inhabiting their inherent relationships with self and other. When a child loves her parent, she is literally enacting her relationship, actualizing a connection fixed in time; you are my parent by what has already happened, by my birth, and by loving you, I allow that set state of affairs to affect the present. If someone hurts my parents, I am caught in the web of their action; hurting those I love swiftly establishes another relationship that arouses hate in my heart.

The mind circumvents this causal chain, as if by magic. Like the difference between a man and an ox is the difference between love under reason to love untouched by the mind. An ox looks at food and thinks food. It looks at a tree and thinks about a tree. Its mind is merely an expansion of its senses. Reason, though, is seeing food and thinking thankfulness, seeing a tree and perceiving growth. The very power of abstraction places us a handbreadth higher than inevitability. Someone may attack me, but in their attack I may see only their desperation, and in my own rage I see an emotion to be weighed. There is suddenly room for right and wrong; I may separate good from evil on principle since every particular occurrence also falls in some general category. Revenge can be wrong, even if I saw with my own eyes the crime for which my enemy is indebted. This is the very soul of the law.

It is not even a particular principle that is so vital to justice, but rather having principles itself. Approaches on when to reward and when to punish may vary in details, but the law’s abstract nature always keeps more balance than lawlessness. Reason puts love and hate in a context; that is the most important thing. They gain an aspect of what-we-do, where before they sounded like what-we-are. Thereby, we are preserved from cruel chaos.

Why, then, is reason only less cruel?

Reason is a dictator.

Reason says the right thing is right only relative to other things. Nothing is right just because it is right, except, rather unreasonably, reason itself. G-d Himself, by reason, is reason’s recognition that something it can’t explain must be the ultimate context for what’s right; the first ground, an ur-context, is the uncreated Creator. Reason’s highest principle is that even the Almighty Contextless is defined in the context of context.

Reason, but its very chaos-ending powers, by its abstraction and contextualization—in other words, but its very ability to allow opposites to coexist peacefully—keeps us ever apart. Reason tells us a thing is never just itself, but rather exists in a context. Reason tells us that principles are higher than our love, that ideas must be more important than people in order to save people from themselves. It lets us love with a small love, a love influenced by reason that is a pale shadow. We love never the things themselves purely, but also what they mean.

Reason implies that if we come together without third-party mediation, we will destroy each other. If I don’t want chaos, I will meet you only on reason’s property. Yes, that’s a threat.

Can we say we’re together at all? My mind says our love is a good love. Is it so lacking in reality that my mind controls it? My mind cannot even control a brick wall. Is there no love undying? Perhaps only G-d’s, and He Himself is only real as mind, as real as the way things fit together!

The kind is something else. Call it faith. For love to survive, justice must tame it. But for justice to live, faith must direct it.

For the rules not to chafe, for abstractions not to hurt, for principle to be more than a forfeiture of self, we must rediscover a higher love. Not the love of emotions, not the actualization of a relation to an object, but a love rooted in self-definition. Emotive love says, “I love you.” Faith love does not speak, for speech is the sound of communication, and we only must communicate if we are not one. Emotive love is the search for you as me. Reason says the search for you cannot be everything, must ever be a mere action, a mere part of me. Faith says that the search for you is a search for me, when we remember we have never been apart.

Faith says that just as we are one with our own principles, we are one with our Creator and each other.

Faith says we reason not because we have to but because we can, because it is how we draw our self-contained love into canvasses of other.

Faith says chaos, in its basic motions, in people moving apart and coming together because of their fixed structures, captures a deep truth of us. Chaos is faith in the negative polarity. If we wish to fix it, we control it with reason, and then control reason. The opposite of hate is truth, but not intellectual truth. The opposite of hate is love-truth and being-truth.

By faith, reason’s context is given context. The “it depends” is told it depends. We are not defined by strictures or relationships; they are defined by us, in our very being.

And it is at this point when we reach faith, on the lip of this greatest and most profound freedom, that G-d tells us what we can do for Him.

Originally posted on Hevria.

If Antiochus Was My Rebbe

If Antiochus was my Rebbe (and such a thing is thoroughly impossible) he’d tell me how beautiful Judaism is.

Antiochus looks at his men, at his enemies, at his deities, and sees a sublime order. Each of them is part of a story, which is another way of saying they each want something that they do not have. Once the harmful and contradictory desires and false wants are recognized through self-reflection, they may be swept aside, and ordered wants true to the essence of every being will remain. This is called purpose. This is called vitality. This is called perfection.

Some view the whole story, the victory of the Maccabees and the long-burning oil, as miracles performed by the will of an omnipotent G-d. To Antiochus, all such tales are inelegant to the point of cruelty. In a world where four must be the sum of two and two, what beauty, what joy lies in such arbitrary whims?

If Antiochus was my Rebbe (a nightmare) I might ask him why G-d created the universe. He would gently, with his large hands made for twisting Jewish necks, waggle a knurled and scolding finger. “Only a madman could ask such a question expecting an answer,” he’d say. He is not an atheist. He simply wishes to teach you that G-d has a place in the story.

Antiochus rejects the weakness of transcendence. He has no patience for uncertainty, for the illusion of unlimited personal freedom. Antiochus tells his Chassidim (?!) to embrace their limitations, the obvious ends to which they have been created and set aside from beasts. Antiochus preaches restraint, clarity of thought, the conquering of emotions, and the courage to face the truth of our own limitations.

Why should every question be permitted and every answer sought? Can a bird ask whether to fly? Can a fish question the water? Man is the being who sees how things fit together, who has the unique ability to recognize the patterns of the story and find the soul of a thing. The soul of man is made to discover souls. We are built for self-discovery. And our highest selves and deepest motivations, our loftiest aspirations and our unifying dreams—these are G-d.

This is our Creator, Antiochus would teach: Our deepest truth, highest pleasure, and most basic cause. This is what we can know; it is whom the human mind is meant to find. It is infinitely greater than inhuman specters looming beyond the edge of space or the beginning of time. Such large propositions are redolent with the stink of the unknowable, and the unknowable is tantamount to torture. A man who does not know his set place in the world, who does not recognize his G-d, will face the terror of freedom even in victory. A man who knows his place as inferior and subservient can be happy even with Antiochus’s boot on his throat. So dream not of free-floating deities who may choose any course of action. G-d the Creator is merely the largest, oldest, and greatest actor playing his role in a script. And to a human being, the story is truer than anything.

And what is Judaism, says Antiochus, beyond a beautiful story, perhaps even the most beautiful?

G-d is in His place, man in his. There is a Torah which serves the role of G-d’s wisdom, explaining like an instruction manual where everything goes. Then there are the commandments, which serve to bring out the potential of every body and every soul.

“What potential do the laws of purity and impurity help us actualize, Antiochus?” we might ask.

“Fool!” he would comment. “Do not suppose a human being is simple. We have many hidden needs and subtle accomplishments. Sometimes the thing a human being needs most is a ‘meaningless’ ritual, something unquestionable or unchangeable to tie a community together, to add stabilizing ballast to a life, to distinguish us from our heathen enemies. G-d was wise not to convey the reasons for these commandments. They make the most sense as ‘senseless’ decrees.”

So, he’s obsessed with oil.

It’s not that he happens to capture the temple’s oil supply. Things that just happen are an insult to the beauty of Antiochus’s Judaism. The temple oil is the goal of all his yearnings. It is his lowest place, the location where G-d must be revealed, precisely because it most opposes His Truth. The oil is carefully guarded from an impurity no one can see, use, or understand. Antiochus rescues it from this meaninglessness, from its lonely sacredness. He brings purity and impurity into the realm of understanding and into the fold of beauty. He renders the Temple meaningful and magnificent.

At his farbrengen, Antiochus teaches: Truth is what works, and what works is beautiful, and beauty is truth. Since there are many systems and paths that work, there are many truths. As long as they are all consistent with reason, as long as the stories make sense, there is no reason not to keep them. Do not wonder why this involves statues of Zeus or Dionysus. They are archetypes, metaphors, members of a pantheon that the Hebrew G-d may join. They weave together in their interlocking domains of authority, and in their net are caught the essential rhythms of the story. They are not unique deities, but facets of the story, signposts along the way.

Let the Judaeans join the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Seleucids at the games, and let us learn from one another. What is sacred is not what separates us, but the pursuit of human perfection according to human reason that we share.

The only ugly thing in this whole plan is a Maccabee.

A Maccabee (Antiochus assures us with the confidence of a man who understands his enemy) wars against the very essence of Judaism. He has no respect for who is more powerful, who is greater, which story is more logical. A Maccabee does not consult the meaningful texts or the wise sages on whether he may pointlessly die for an illogical principle. These zealots do not seek their own perfection.

The Maccabees are like children throwing a tantrum, demanding they get their way without even understanding the necessity of what they reject.

The Maccabees, by their own choice, cannot fully define what they believe. They are for G-d as an individual, unique and unknowable, sacred and undefined. They have never heard of a single refined aesthetic principle. They do not sing in tune. They demand a knobbly, uneven Judaism, full of strange, hideous protuberances.

The Maccabees are the sort of people who, even possessing every excuse to use “impure” oil, even when lighting a false iron Menorah, even when they are already consigned to fulfilling the commandments in a compromised fashion, will wait for eight days to kindle the holy flames. They do not care that they are permitted to do less. They are not reasonable men. They cannot be convinced the Menorah is still wonderfully symbolic even with Greek oil.

The Maccabees, in their backward, exclusionary ways, in their condescension toward the stories that unite us all, and in their insistence that the ritual only means something if it means nothing, force Antiochus’s hand. The might of his armies cannot be turned aside; the conclusion is foreshadowed in the first moment of Matisyahu’s rashness.

I must, Antiochus tells his followers, eradicate them from the face of the earth.

It may not be pleasant.

But it is beautiful.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Why Is the Universe So Big?

The argument is well-known: It is difficult to believe in the cosmic significance of human life in a universe as vast as ours. If the universe is created by G-d with human beings in mind, why is there so much of it? How, in light of the billions of galaxies, can we tell ourselves human action matters in the big picture? This question deserves an answer, but first we must question the question, religiously, scientifically, and philosophically, to find out what we’re really asking.

Neil deGrasse Tyson asks this question in the name of science, I assume as part of the quest to banish the ignorance of the masses. And when scientists ask the question, they do it as if it’s new, as if the vastness of the universe were a modern proposition.

In truth, ancient sources such as the Talmud (based on Job 25:3) refer to infinite angels, denizens of spiritual realms beyond reckoning, in comparison to which the entire human race is like a drop in the ocean. Now, these endless ranks of spiritual beings are said to often care about and in many ways to exist for the purposes of humanity. Therefore, the difference between the universe as conceived by modern astronomy and the spiritual realms described by the Talmud is not in quantity but rather in quality. Infinite angels created by a G-d who cares about individual human beings is one thing. A vast multiverse totally indifferent to our presence is quite another.

(Besides the Talmud’s sheer statement of fact, there are moral lesson to be learned from endless realms of G-d’s dominion. As the religious sources imply, man’s smallness is a trait religion has tried to impart, not avoid. What makes a human being important in the eyes of G-d is not their size, beauty, or perfection, but their lowliness and potential for failure. Free choice, the ability to rebel against His will, is unique to humanity. We are special because we have the capacity not to serve. And if the sinner is the lowest of all possible creatures, why shouldn’t there be more gnats than sinners, and more galaxies than our own?

So the real thrust of the question here, to a religious Jew, anyway, is not why should the universe be so big, but why should G-d care about man? Or, to put it slightly differently, why would G-d need vast galaxies to demonstrate man’s insignifcance when gnats and angels would do?)

We shall return to the universe’s indifference in a moment, but first we must question not just how innovative the question is but the apparent scientific grounds of the question itself. Although a huge universe does not represent an innovation to the religious mind, are we even so sure the physical universe is so huge? Contemporary science is notoriously bound up with observers and frames of reference. In 1983, Mostafa A. Abdelkader formulated a totally unfalsifiable mathematical model of  the universe in which we all live on the inside of a hollow earth and Pluto is the size of a bacterium. It is still irritating philosophers of science. I do not think his paper accurately models reality, but it is difficult to prove that it does not. Perhaps the way the question of the universe’s size is posed, with so much self-assuredness, is really just a relic of the centuries when science considered itself something like G-d’s truth.

Even if we are (1) primarily concerned with the universe’s indifference and (2) certain that it is vast, we must then turn to the thicket of philosophical assumptions underlying the question.

Do we assume, for example, that all creations are equally important in G-d’s eyes, or might distant galaxies be byproducts of some process, with G-d’s true concern touching only our local blue-green marble? Even if we insist that G-d is truly omnipotent in the sense that He has no byproducts and everything He creates is with direct intent, how do we know that there is a reason underlying everything He does? Certainly, there may be some divine purpose behind the untold galaxies, but can we even confidently explain why G-d wishes to create a certain hydrogen atom here on earth? And if not, how can we ultimately hope to plumb the divine intention behind more complex creations? Perhaps it is only possible to understand what He Himself reveals as his reasons, and beyond that we have little hope. What man can claim on the basis of worldly inference and deduction why the Creator made light and the atmosphere such that the sky is blue?

But fine. Assuming we are asking why G-d would create a universe we assert is vast and recognize as indifferent when what He truly cares about is the moral decisions of human beings, and assuming He made it this way intentionally, and that we are meant to comprehend it—nu, why is the universe so big?

To make man humble? The men most obsessed with huge hunks of dead matter utterly beyond our reach hardly seem to have a diminished sense of superiority. And besides, we always knew about the angels. How many are your works, and even more so in transcendence and variation, more than just another rock or ice or fire.

To give man choice? True, a universe containing only the earth may make men feel the presence of G-d, since we may to obviously be the center of it and so have no choice but to serve Him.

This reason is, in a way, question begging, since whether the large and indifferent universe causes a sense of distance from G-d is what’s at issue here. A good explanation for distant galaxies may cause us to feel close to G-d. In fact, paradoxically, even the free-choice explanation of the universe’s size can have this effect, since G-d went through so much “effort” only to make us feel distant from Him, an expression of great love and devotion! Besides, even without a large and indifferent universe, there are other ways G-d conceals Himself from us, through the world’s materiality, corporeality, etc.

No, the only way the vast indifferent universe makes sense is as an end unto itself. It is not here to facilitate a human need per se but rather to fulfill a G-dly need, so to speak. In other words, the huge reaches of space are not a means to a human end but are themselves a desirable end before G-d.

As we are taught, G-d desires a dwelling place in the lower worlds, to be fully present in a place that completely denies His presence. In other words, He wishes to conceal Himself in a place that has the capactiy to eventually reveal Him. He does not want this because it grants human beings free choce but, on the contrary, grants us free choce in order to facilitate this unity between the unG-dly and the divine.

In such a universe, there should be an infinite number of things that make no sense.

The ancient universe, before we learned of its true size, could reveal some aspects of G-d, but not the Creator Himself. A universe of immense magnitude full of inaninmate matter is the type of universe that conceals Him but can actually truly reveal Him.

In the beginning, the universe conceals Him, as all brute matter does. It conceals Him the way marble conceals the sculptor. “Just marble here,” the block of marble says. Matter speaks only about matter.

But matter, you may be objecting, is tamed by form, by spirit. A block of marble may not tell us about a sculptor, but a statue certainly does. The statue is given a form in which arist invests their power. The marble, through its shape, now points toward something beyond itself; the matter is given both content (in itself) and context (in the human world). Raw matter may not tell us anything about the nature of the Creator, but all matter in our universe is formed—color, shape, mass, and various other properties mean that G-d hides in the universe only unitl we plumb the depths of his palate, his molds, his storehouses. A single “dead” pebble, grasped by its form in the human mind, can and does reveal four fundemental physical forces as well as an uncreated Creator, and much else besides.

This is where we were around five hundred years ago, when we thought the physical universe was much smaller, and G-d decided something must change. He set aside his Michelangelo persona and became a modern artist.

You can interperet this change in two ways. Either His presence was too obvious and He wished to hide further, allowing the generations to descend from ancient heights. Or just maybe He thought He was too hidden, the One G-d mistaken for an artist of relatively human caliber. (No one mistakes creation ex nihilo or the divine infinite for human. The error, of course, was mistaken what we could know of forms, qualities, and souls as commensurate with Him. And  so—) Either way, the time of matter had come.

Either way, He sent us telescopes.

We were shown that the universe is vast and full of stuff, more stuff than we can begin to imagine, not angels full of purpose and obsessed with humanity but rocks and ice and emptiness, and endless unfathomable indifference. We have learned that the Creator is not pocket-sized, nor can He even fit comfortaply in a museum or between a pair of ears. He has broken free and rampaging through the city. He knows trillions of dead planets, holds them in motion, maintains them in existence, all without our perception, without our consent, without our boxes.

There is no soul or story that can lend all of this context or make it mean something. There is no way to look at it as a sculpture. The sheer unending incomprehensible particularity of its members breaks our categories and even our imaginations. We poke and prod at the universe with numbers indicating units of time and space, and the universe does not even shift in its sleep.

“Reveal me in this,” G-d says, “and it is Me you reveal. Not the structures of your own mind. Not the limitations of your understanding. In this endless empty formless thing, I will be what I will be.”

Why is the universe so big?

Nothing smaller is meaningless enough to convey its Creator.

Tell Me What These Words Mean

The 3rd member of a Sukkot series. Member the 1st. Member the 2nd.

“Every single thing one sees or hears is an instruction for his conduct in the service of G-d. This is the idea of avoda, service: to comprehend and discern in all things a way in which to serve G-d.”
-The Holy Baal Shem Tov

Oh, good, you’re reading this.

You’ve already fallen into my trap.

Elephant. Monism. Solar Eclipse. Bucharest. Vlad the Impaler. Mauve. Your grandmother.

Remember, everything you see is an instruction for your behavior in the worship of G-d.

Don’t try and push the interpretative responsibility back onto me; I can’t figure out what the words teach you. No one can.

It is not my soul who places these nouns before you. As far as you know, I, the alleged author of this short note, do not exist.

The universe and everything in it is created ex nihilo, you see. When a human being (again, purportedly) “creates,” they make something from something. They are never the sole cause of what they form: their words need air, their crafts need materials, their children need food. But G-d makes stuff from nothing.

When you see a page with words upon it, only a small aspect, hard to pick out at first glance, is attributable to the author. The rest comes from his “partners”—paper, ink, language, inspiration.

Yet if you encounter the page in G-d’s universe (and they are all G-d’s universes, this being part of what makes Him G-d), you know that everything about it, from its texture to its color to the picture of the monkey, comes from Him and Him alone. The only other partner is absolute nothingness, a party notorious for being the laziest possible contributor; ex nihilo nihil fit.

Picnic. Quasar. Robin Hood. Neural network. Leptons. Your mom. Harmonica.

You cannot attribute the appearance of these words before your eyes to some allege, purported, and extremely so-called “author.” Everything in G-d’s world is attributable, in form and matter, to Him alone.

So you read these words for a reason. They’re a lesson from G-d; he is speaking to you. No human “writer” could bring you to this moment. No one has the power to create this confluence of your mind with this essay, except the One G-d.

Oh, sure, some Lamy fountain pen might be moving across a page of high-grade lined Rhodia paper at this very moment, apparently “composing” an online work for you to read. But can this “composer” really bring these words to your consciousness? Can I truly reach out across the infinite divide, manipulate social media and your schedule, and assure you end up clicking on this link, moving your eyes across the black shapes, and comprehending them?

One is reminded of the silversmith who challenges G-d to remain unimpressed with his abilities. After creating a full silvery replica of a Hazorfim shop and presenting it to his creator, the Deity winks at him and says, “Very good, now do it with your own silver.”

In this world, no one has their own silver. So what you’re reading, here, can come only from G-d. Why would G-d send this to you? To help your serve Him, which is the very purpose of your existence.

Your whole life may have been leading you to this moment, so you can learn from this:

Tangerine. Curses. Osaka. Torsion. Redwoods. Forgiveness.

What are you meant to take from these words? Only you can really know. Perhaps you are learning, right this second, to read fewer things on the Internet. Perhaps you are discovering that no one can tell you what to learn from, Baal Shem Tov notwithstanding. Or perhaps you see significance in my semi-random nouns!

But maybe what you are learning is the very thing I’ve been trying to tell you. The BeSh”T did say that everything you see is a lesson for service. He also said, what is service? To see in everything a lesson.

Maybe the words point at nothing other than themselves. Maybe they are both the lesson and the service. Perhaps you are seeing them in order to see them, and know that in the seeing is G-d, and in the seeing is you. And why not? G-dliness is everything and everything is G-dly.

No one can decide what the lesson is when you read this, just as no one could tell me what the lesson was when I wrote it.

G-d has no partners in creation.

Except you.

Originally posted on Hevria.

Two Places I Can Live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objective Reality Is For Meeting G-d

“Facts don’t care about your feelings,” some Jews say. I do wonder, though. If facts don’t care about your feelings, why is Rosh Hashana called the “day of the beginning of your action”?

In many other words: Once upon a time, centuries ago, few would have recognized a real facts/feelings distinction, if “facts” mean shared objective reality in the world and “feelings” refer to the private subjective experience of each conscious being. Like other forms of innocence, the unity between the person and the world (through mind) was considered close and true. When I thought well about furniture, the form of the wood and the form of my mind were the very same thing; if they weren’t, I was simply imagining, or my senses were faulty, or I was somehow otherwise malfunctioning. There was no notion of thinking ideas. I was not considered to think of the idea of furniture, but about the furniture itself. There was no idea of a table, produced in my mind and separate from the world, intervening between the facts and my soul.

More recently, men such as John Locke introduced the idea of the idea, and with it, the fact/feeling distinction. The facts may be one way, but my thinking about the facts could be different. Everyone has their own point of view, since everyone conjures their own ideas even about objective, shared reality. As modernity progresses, the mind is found to be ever-more limited by the imperfect body, to be vulnerable to deception and influence on the most basic of levels. At some point, some of us even began to suspect the mind is just a part of the body, anyway.

Nowadays, fans of truth are stuck between a rock and a soft place. The rock is the near-impossibility of returning to our ancient innocence. The challenge is to recapture our confidence in our own understanding, to reverse modern skepticism and believe once more that our minds grasp reality directly. We would need to return to a conception of the world being partially made of mind itself, to reconcile ourselves to an actually intelligible universe (our narrative role as evolved apes on a spinning rock notwithstanding). Perhaps most painful to the modern mind, we would have to undo our sunny skeptical pluralism and commit ourselves to pursuing the single, correct, capital-T Truth, to the exclusion of the many mistaken notions of those who cannot see it. We must forfeit the individual’s freedom to navigate around the truth, for the sake of finding any truth at all.

In contrast is the soft place, the attempt to maintain the fact/feeling shared/private objective/subjective distinctions without falling into relativism and ultimately the annihilation of all meaning. To do this, we must arbitrarily assign some fact/feeling amalgam the status of pure fact, and pretend it is solid ground, when in fact the entire edifice of our reason is built on quicksand.

Take, for example, those who wish to draw the line at science and empiricism, to say these are fact while all else is feeling. The problem is that there is no such statement of fact, not even “the sky is blue,” which is truly devoid of faith-based justification from the realm of “feelings.” Who is seeing the sky in this scenario, and with what tools? How do these tools bring about the subjective experience of this “fact” such that we should believe it to be true? If ultimately we do experience this fact privately, why is the “fact” that the sky is blue really different from the hypothetical “fact” that it’s purple?

Further discourse upon wavelengths or photons just add more such questions, the theory demanding even further justification in subjective experience; throwing more “facts” at the situation does not negate the interpretive frame that allows those facts to exist. All this is before we even get to the question of how we can define the sky as a thing, how we can share our observations with others, how we are so sure these facts “work” at a pragmatic level when we cannot even explain how we know the facts themselves, etc.

Given the rock of reversing five hundred years of history and the soft place of arbitrarily declaring certain feelings to be fact, most people simply don’t think (too hard) about these questions and generally live their lives as if the truth doesn’t matter.

They ignore Rosh Hashana, a day with a solution.

On the 1st of Tishrei, man is created. It is the sixth day, but it’s called the beginning of his work. The previous five days of creation certainly occur; G-d knows of them, and records them in His Torah. But when is it solidified into “action,” work, actuality, objective external reality as we (want to) know it? Only when Adam’s subjective and solitudinous soul is blown into his nostrils.

In other words, there were no facts until there were feelings.

Before creating man, there was no need for objective reality. Man, once created, is a creature full of feeling, an imperfect fact finder, commanded in G-d’s own Torah to assess even narrow legal truths under only the strictest limited conditions. The Torah’s standards for judges are exceptional. The average man on the street is not able to assess the objective truth of things even enough to provide a ruling, never mind to delve their depths.

But if G-d is a subjective being without objective action until Rosh Hashana, and human beings have been subjective since Rosh Hashana, then why is there an objective reality at all?

It can only be to bring subjectivities together.

Facts are not, contra the ancient view, an absolute standard inexorably governing existence. Facts are not, contra modernity, an illusion, nor are they feelings-based propositions chosen for arbitrary promotion. Facts are a place for subjectivities to touch, for man and G-d, and man and man, to find each other.

There is not direct joining of two private souls, which would necessitate becoming only one self. One self is what G-d had before He created the universe, after all. What He seeks from the world is an opportunity to find Himself in other selves. To do this, we must perceive ourselves as separate, and arrive at each other through some sort of external communication. Every detail of His work is tailored toward this end. He creates facts.

Every year on Rosh Hashana, we spend two days trying to awaken ourselves to this reality, that all we perceive as real is merely divine communication, the Creator seeking us out. On Rosh Hashana, we crown G-d king, which is another way of saying, “The world is not here for itself, and we are not here for it. The world is here for us and G-d to rendezvous.”

We choose, on the day when all truth was created from the one truth that we are meant to be together, to become his subjective subjects once more. This year, nothing will stop us. This year, we will find Him, fact and feeling, in Jerusalem, rebuilt.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Why History’s Greatest Philosopher Lived in Liadi

I am only a beginner student of philosophy, so when I say the Alter Rebbe is the greatest thinker to ever live, it has nothing of the authority of Yitro, who chose G-d after worshipping all idols on the face of the earth. Really, I am giving a considered opinion that may be wrong but nevertheless may have the charm of consistency. I think Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi is a great thinker, indeed, singularly great, for the same reason I think Bach was a great composer and Michelangelo a great artist and Die Hard a great action movie.

This is not to say that the Alter Rebbe is like any of the aforementioned examples, in truth. Bach composed music and Die Hard is undoubtedly a film with explosions, but the Alter Rebbe is not, primarily, a philosopher; to call him a philosopher is to do him a disservice. His philosophy, Chassidus Chabad, may be the form of Jewish mysticism most interested in discursive reason, rational understanding, and systematic thoroughness, but it is (as the Alter Rebbe and his successors emphasize repeatedly) a Chassidus first and a philosophy second. The Alter Rebbe’s modus operandi was to connect Jews with their own souls and with G-d; wisdom, understanding, and knowledge were his means to achieving this end. The Alter Rebbe would likely judge his philosophy not on its own merits but on its ability to unite Jews with G-d.

Thus, the greatest thinker is not even primarily a thinker. This makes a strange sort of sense, since part of his greatness as a philosopher is his constant awareness of the limits of philosophy. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Suffice it to say that if one wishes to put aside the holiness and true purpose of the Alter Rebbe’s leadership and focus solely on his thought as a more-or-less self-contained philosophy, one must have a standard by which to judge. Now, it is commonly asserted that there is no true standard for great art, but I have found one that works for me. Great art is complex but elegant.

That is, great art is as complicated, as detailed, as differentiated in the particulars as it needs to be. If it is too complex, this indicates either pretentiousness, in which a good idea is dressed up as a fantastic idea, or shallowness, a state of all style but no meat. If the art is, on the other hand, not complex enough for its purposes, this indicates a lack of skill (the artist cannot manipulate their medium well enough) or a block of some sort (the artist cannot express their inner reality from the start). The trick to great art, in other words, is to have something to say and then to say entirely it but only it, to perfectly convey something through the complex prism of formed matter, sculpted medium, words, images, sound.

Take Bach, for example. Bach is not truly great because he is innovative (though he is) or due to, G-d forbid, external “chance circumstance” (he happened to know the King of Prussia). True innovation, worthy of the name, is good only inasmuch as the new is superior to the old on merits. Bach was perhaps both innovative and better than those who came before, and perhaps less innovative and better than those who came after. He is not (or ought not to be) respected because he came along at a certain time and fulfilled a certain role; those who so respect him have never really met him.

Bach is great and respected because the Brandenburg Concertos (for example) are wonderfully complex, but their complexity never escapes Bach’s absolute control. He has something to convey and the medium suits the message. Genius-level music theory somehow becomes simultaneously more itself through his composition while also melting away to leave only the soaring and cascading beauty of the music. Nothing is extraneous, everything is necessary, and the music seems to partially transcend time and space in that perfection.

Not to compare even the thought of the Alter Rebbe to these mundane concertos – but how else can I clearly convey the weight of a complete systematic philosophy that seems to touch on, use, and transform every major thought in human history, yet somehow manages to always yield 613 familiar commandments as its bottom line?

In the world of ideas, the Alter Rebbe is a master composer who uses every tool of his craft. The Alter Rebbe has something to say to Aristotelian causality, Nietzschean power, Platonic forms, neo-platonic emanations, Humean skepticism, Kantian ethics, Newtonian mechanics, Jungian archetypes, Wittgensteinian poetry, Cantorian infinitudes, modern radicalism, postmodern negation and meta-negation, and nearly everything in between.

Of course, since he is the holy Alter Rebbe, he never mentions almost any of this by name, nor was any of it necessarily his intention. He engages true ideas, and all truth is in Torah. The Alter Rebbe converses with and synthesizes Talmudic sources and Rashi, Midrash, the Shelah, the Maharal, the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch, the Ari Zal, the Rambam, the Ramak, the Ikkarim, the Recanati, R’Saadiah Gaon, the Ma’areches, the Haggadah, Sefer Yetzira, the Siddur, Avodas HaKodesh, scripture, and much else besides.

Furthermore, as a philosophy/mysticism hybrid[i], Chassidus Chabad not only deals with concerns of discursive reason but everything in the human experience that lies outside of reason as well. The philosophy of the Alter Rebbe touches on ritual, music, ethics, aesthetics, faith, love, fear, devotion, lust, sin, repentance, and joy. It speaks of them not only as simple goals of thought or as barriers to thought that must be circumvented, but as human realities in complex interplay with our conscious minds.

In addition, the Alter Rebbe’s way contains a thorough and consistent metaphilosophy; we learn when philosophy begins and when it ends, where it applies and where it doesn’t. This includes an extensive treatment of the psychology of thinking and the relationship within us between our faith, reason, emotion, thought, speech, and action – distinctions not the arbitrary possessions of limited man to be transcended but rather ultimately reflecting G-dly truths.

The entire structure of reason itself is thereby circumscribed and purposive in the Alter Rebbe’s philosophy, as we would expect from the integration of faith and mysticism into a rational system. What greater testament to the balance struck by Rabbi Shneur Zalman than the historical fact that Chabad Chassidus was, in its early days, rejected in equal part by the misnagdic opponents of Chassidus and by many Chassidic Rebbes. The former rejected it for being too mystical, the latter for it being too intellectual. In the rich dialectical complexity of unifying the Baal Shem Tov’s fiery faith with the intellectual Judaism that was ostensibly the subject of the Besht’s rebellion, the Alter Rebbe embraces rationality and mysticism in affirmation and negation in an organic and systematic fashion – everything in its right place.

It must be emphasized that despite the sheer scope and breadth of the Alter Rebbe’s project, none of these components are integrated into his vision inauthentically, that is, without justification in every other part of his vision. On the contrary, the Alter Rebbe’s comprehensive worldview arises as if organically with its own internal logic. This logic derives (as in any system of philosophy) from certain bedrock truths. These truths are both the cause and the organizing purpose of the entire corpus of Chassidus Chabad, and the initial seed from which the erudite synthesis springs.

For all the disparate elements of his system, each pulling in its own direction, the Alter Rebbe’s message is never lost. Every single piece of the kaleidoscopic and (at times) seemingly-contradictory worldview exists to achieve and convey a singular purpose. Never does the Alter Rebbe seem lost in philosophy for philosophy’s sake; the technicality of his astounding mind never becomes opaque; the music is never boring or heartless. The structure is balanced logically and precisely and concludes, both inevitably and automatically, in the commandments of the Torah. No idea manages to spin off into its own form of worship, or arrive at a conclusion contrary to the dictates of Torah. Every single idea is directed toward the fulfillment of an action for G-d, with its correct theoretical, spiritual, and intellectual intention.

Of all the sources from which the Alter Rebbe draws and of all the thinkers both before and after him with whom he converses, it is hard for me to conceive of one that is as broadly-embracing while being as disciplined and thorough as Rabbi Shneur Zalman. The rare confluence of breadth, intricacy, structure, and authenticity can be called elegance. And before we even arrive at his profound holiness, his music, his leadership, his selfless devotion to his fellow Jews, or even his Shulchan Aruch, the Alter Rebbe’s elegance sets him apart.

It is fitting that his philosophy should be elegant above all. This sort of unity between matter and form, soul and body, is the hallmark not only of the style of Chabad Chassidus but of its substance as well, which makes no compromises on the unity between G-d and the world.

The Alter Rebbe’s own teaching is thereby a demonstration of everything he teaches. Between the lone infinite Creator before the creation, and His coming full expression in the lowest of worlds known as Moshiach, lies all of history and the entire human experience as we know it. If there ever lived on this earth one soul who could see how it is all one, my money says it was Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.


[i] In the sense meant here, philosophy refers to what can be known through the senses and logical reasoning, whereas mysticism denotes an experiential or phenomenological experience of the divine usually achieved through circumventing the senses and logical reasoning.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.