Messianic Skepticism

One impression that emerges from reading the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s letters on matters of faith is that deep skepticism and profound belief are not opposites, but rather belong together in a healthy soul. You can see this in the way the Rebbe describes the historical giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, taking a Kuzari-like tack of questioning which other historical events we ought to believe in if not the giving of the Torah. You can see it in his revealing response about fossils. And so, too, in one of his famous lessons “proving” the existence of G-d, when the Rebbe calls for consistency in our skepticism — if you don’t believe in G-d, you must, to be consistent, also deny many things you do believe.

Since skepticism is both useful and in consonance with his deep belief in the Torah, the nature of the Rebbe’s proofs and demonstrations is not really to move the recipient of the letter from skepticism to belief. Rather, the Rebbe moves us from doubt to certainty, to a point where we are still skeptical but it doesn’t matter. In fact, the Rebbe reveals our skepticism to be merely the other half of our soul’s desire to know the truth, no less a tool for finding G-d than our capacity to commit and believe.

It is a transformative and uplifting view of skepticism, which finds the light in the darkness, allowing the darkness to remain in its place and yet somehow shine. This is one sense in which the Rebbe’s skepticism has a quality of the messianic age when flesh shall behold G-d.

In truth, the connection runs even deeper, for it is not just faith in general, but faith in Moshiach itself, that inspires this holy skepticism. All who are not yet skeptics have not yet fully considered what Moshiach means.

After all, even the Tzaddikim, the perfectly righteous, shall repent when Moshiach comes. Those familiar with the inner Torah recognize that the Tzaddik is the very embodiment of perfection, eternity, and consistency. If there is one thing in this entire world on which, from a G-dly perspective, we can rely, it is the Tzaddik. Yet, in the coming age, even the Tzaddikim will change and become something unimaginably greater than what they are now. What applies to the Tzaddik applies infinitely more to anything that now conceals even an iota of G-d’s light, from a Beinoni down to frogs and rocks and mollusks. So: Everything will change when Moshiach comes.

But because the change is a change of repentance, of Teshuva, and the highest form of repentance at that, it is not a change that will occur only from the Moshiach’s arrival and onward. On the contrary, like all such Teshuva, it will be a change that propagates backward in time as well. Or, to put it more simply, when Moshiach comes we will see how the way everything existed before Moshiach was a totally necessary part of bringing about its existence under Moshiach. Sins will be seen as the road to a deeper relationship with G-d. Skepticism will be seen as the road to deep faith. Pre-Messianic rocks will be seen as a preface to Infinite Revelation. In other words: Not only do we not know, now, what a rock will be when Moshiach comes, we also, because we believe in Moshiach, don’t know what the rock is at this moment. Moshiach will recontextualize each and every being in our current reality into its own story; everything will one day be about Moshiach.

Therefore, if, today, we don’t see how each thing is about Moshiach, how a frog or a sarcastic remark is about (in the deepest sense of the word) the perfect and infinite revelation of G-d within the world, we have never met these things; we know only the most superficial aspects of their being.

On the contrary, a simple curiosity to know things as they are right now, to explore the world around us in light of the knowledge that some moment soon everything will be deeply retroactively transformed, would express as an obsession with the Messianic age. If we were fully cognizant of the imminent permanent transformation of reality, our curiosity about things would mainly concern the spark of Moshiach we could find within them.

In this sense is the Rebbe the ultimate skeptical scientist.

Ethical Reason — A Crash Course

In connection with Michtav M’Eliyahu (“Strive for TRUTH!” vol. I, THE ROOTS OF MUSSAR).

 

Reason maintains coherence through being a self-contained process, or, in other words, pursuing the truth for its own sake because it is true.

Any external reason to care about the conclusion of your thoughts is called a bribe.

A bribe influences the conclusion of a line of thought away from the truth.

An animal cares about its thoughts because they help it preserve its body.

Man is thus least an animal — least bribed by his temporal/spatial body — when he thinks but is totally indifferent to the conclusion of his thoughts, i.e. when he thinks abstractly.

Thought is therefore less bribed and more likely to be true the fewer bodily needs we feel and satisfy.

However, once we think with total detachment, we no longer feel ethically compelled to act by the conclusions of our thoughts, for we are detached from them.

In a state of pure, detached reason, the only ethic is the internal coherence of the truth. Without a state of pure, detached reason, the only ethic is the bribery of the body.

Or:
In the state of total intellectual detachment, there is no ethics.
But only in a state of total intellectual detachment can there be ethics.

The solution to this contradiction is faith, which through identity provides an ultimate reason to care about the conclusion of our thoughts.

“This is wrong,” they tell Aristotle, and he may always reply that he is not, at the moment, Aristotle, because he is not thinking abstractly, and no abstract thought can ever, on its own, compel him to act differently.

“This is wrong,” they tell a Jew, and he can never not be a Jew, for he is compelled not by his own understanding but the G-d who creates him and makes him what he is from the inside.

Therefore, “If someone tells you there is wisdom among the nations, believe them. If they tell you there is Torah among the nations, don’t believe them.

So: One can only really think if one is a mensch, a human being in the fullest sense. But reason and judgement are themselves limited and cannot form the basis of our ethics.

It’s not that we must be menschen in order to think (though this is also true), but that the entire purpose of thought is simply to internalize and unite with our (axiomatic, faith-based) menschlichkeit, which is part of who we are, as the chosen people of G-d, one with His holy Torah.

 

Why “Light”?

As many a layman knows, the term Kaballah uses for the divine expression is usually ohr, or light. What the layman may not know is why it’s called light. As we shall see, with the simple notion of light, Kaballah unties a certain persistent problem born of philosophy, or, more accurately, uses the tools of philosophy to free itself of philosophy. The Kaballistic concept of light lays the groundwork both for understanding G-d to truly be beyond our understanding, as well as for having an intimate relationship with that same G-d.

First things first: G-d is not a lamp. The light is a metaphor.

The question is, why this metaphor? Why did the great Rabbis speak of some sort of divine expression and call it light? Of what benefit, in the understanding of G-d, is this notion?

To understand this, as to understand anything, we turn, first, to Maimonides, who codifies the following as Jewish Law and basic Jewish theology, in the second chapter of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah:

[source]

In short, Maimonides here refers to a principle that will also be familiar to thinkers of other Abrahamic faiths, the notion that G-d simply is His own knowledge. Unlike a human being who has a mind, G-d IS His mind; there is no separate faculty of intellect in the Divine Being.

This idea is compelled by logic. His knowledge could be one of three things:

  1. A creation separate from Him. In this case, He doesn’t know anything (since his Knowledge is outside of him the way a tree or frog is outside of Him). How does he know His own knowledge? The only answers would be that He doesn’t, or He knows it with some higher knowledge, in which case we must ask what the nature of that higher knowledge is…
  2. A faculty additional to His being and essence, like human knowledge is to us. This leads, as Maimonides describes, to many gods—He and His knowledge exist in relation, a relation that must itself either constitute a higher being or be explained by a higher being. In either case, G-d here is not G-d, and we must continue searching for the First Simple Being. To call His knowledge a faculty thus does not solve the underlying problems of His knowledge being a separate creation that we saw in (1).
  3. His very being and essence, and part of His perfection. In this case, we must admit our own ignorance, for there is nothing in our universe that knows simply by being. On the other hand, why should the limitations of our knowledge, i.e. that we need a separate faculty in order to know, apply to Him? Is He not the ultimate perfection, possessing all the qualities of the creation, without any of its limitations? To paraphrase the Psalmist, if He forms the human mind, does He Himself not know, even though He has no mind like ours?

This third option is summarized above by Maimonides as “He is the Knower, He is the Subject of Knowledge, and He is the Knowledge itself,” even though it is “beyond the abilities of our mouths to relate or our ears to hear.” It is a conception of G-d as a being of perfect and infinite knowledge, even though we cannot even properly understand, in our minds, what a perfect and infinite knowledge is. In fact, we can only say what the perfect knowledge is not.

If everything in our universe derives from Him, He must possess it in some way, and in fact, in the most perfect and highest way. So He knows everything by knowing Himself, that is, simply by being. He and His knowledge are the same thing.

Therefore, when we say He knows, what we are really saying is that He is perfectly lacking in ignorance, misunderstanding, etc., not that He actually possesses a separate faculty of knowledge as we do. This approach of defining G-d by what he isn’t is known as apophatic, or negative, theology.

This very same method of knowing G-d by ascribing to Him all perfection and negating from him all privations, limitations, or lacks—this negative theology—is taken one step further by Kaballah, and applied to his emanation or light as well.

How would G-d express Himself?

To answer this question, we first look at how things express themselves within our knowable universe. There are generally two ways. This is important because the second is often missed (and understandably so, for as we shall see, it is rare-to-nonexistent in human self-expression).

The first way is what we recognize from nearly all human expression. When I speak or teach or dance or type or even wear certain clothes —call this influence or wilful expression. I am not naturally writing this essay. I was not born typing words like these. I choose to do this.

If it was natural (like, say, my heartbeat, or how many bones I have in my right hand) I wouldn’t choose it wilfully, and since I am choosing to express myself in this way specifically (rather than using different words or writing an essay about cute cats) it is clearly not a natural expression. And since it’s not natural, it denotes a change in my own state. An hour ago, I was not writing—not thinking of how to arrange these words, or how to move my fingers to put them into this machine. Now, I am doing these things. I am personally involved in doing this.

Contrast this with the second form of self-expression. Call it light.

Consider the sun. The sun does not choose to emanate its light, but does so naturally. It does not shine for another to understand, or recognize, or accept. It shines regardless. If everything but the sun were to disappear in an instant, it would continue to shine exactly as before. The sun is not invested, emotionally or causally, in what happens to its light. The sun shines naturally, without any change to its own state, constantly, and without choice.

Now, let us apply the principle of negative theology, in which we define His perfection by what He isn’t, by the limitations he does not possess. G-d has the qualities of both of these means of expression, but the limitations of neither. This means He expresses Himself both wilfully (like influence) and naturally (like light).

In other words, if He were to express Himself, He could do it by choice, but without the self-investment and -change that choice would imply if a human being made it in this world. He could do it naturally, like the sun, but without the limitation of the sun’s nature; He is not compelled to shine.

This combination of qualities, of the wilful and the natural, is beyond human understanding. In our realm of understanding, things are either automatic or done wilfully, either natural or a choice. It is only the Creator, who is beyond all limitations, who can have both together.

With this capacity of Divine expression to be both natural and wilful in mind, let us return to our three-way choice when it comes to the Divine Knowledge.

When we revisit Maimonides’s three-way choice, we find that something has changed. True, His knowledge still would not make sense as an entirely separate creation, the first choice. True, it still makes sense as the third choice, as identical with His being and essence.

But what about the second choice? What about knowledge as a faculty secondary to His essence? Before, we rejected this option, because we assumed knowledge would be related to Him like our knowledge is related to us, as an influence, as an act or expression that changes us and in which we’re invested. It was only with the third choice, when we saw His knowledge as identical with His essence, that we applied the principle of negative theology, and admitted His mind is perfect in ways we cannot comprehend.

But what if we apply negative theology to the second choice as well? What if we view His faculty of knowledge not as an influence, but, because He is not limited to expressing Himself in this way, as a willed light?

If He had a faculty of knowledge separate from His essence that was an expressed light, we would not have the problem of many gods, for light, as a natural expression, is totally united with, secondary to, and expressive of, its source. The sun’s light cannot be mistaken for a second sun. It’s purely a function of the sun’s being. In other words, natural light cannot even really be said to exist in the sense that its source exists. If the entire universe was filled with the sun, we would recognize that in truth, light is nothing but the sun’s shining — its natural way of being. Therefore, if His knowledge is a faculty (option (2)), that is, an emanation, it is not a separate being in the same sense as a frog or a tree. Option (2) is truly advantageous to option (1) when we consider a faculty to be natural like a light rather than willed like an influence.

On the other hand, since His is a wilful expression of light (unlike the sun’s), He is also separate from, and not compelled or defined by, this expression. On the contrary, it is just as apart from His being and essence as a creation, in the sense that He chooses to emanate it. In this, light has the advantage not just over option (1) but also over option (3). That is, if we conceive of His knowledge as a wilful emanation, it accomplishes something that conceiving of His knowledge as identical with His essence does not.

If G-d’s knowledge is a Divine Light rather than identical with His essence, then G-d can be truly beyond understanding. Not just in the sense that He is the perfection of knowledge and knows by knowing Himself in a way totally alien to us, but in the sense that His Essence is not that which is even the source of our understanding. In other words, when we apply apophasis to our knowledge and say He is the perfection of this imperfect earthly trait, it is not even to Him we refer, but merely to His emanation. And experiencing or recognizing the sun’s rays gives us no sense of the sun at all, especially if these are only those rays the sun chooses to emanate.

What is not known is not merely the way of His knowledge. What is not known is how He would express anything, and therefore, with a little more thought, what He is beyond His knowledge. He a complete mystery undefined in any worldly terms.

Therefore, divine light is advantageous both to a created knowledge (1) and knowledge through identity (3) — a middle road. It is more united with Him than a creation, yet it does not define G-d in terms of his own knowledge.

On a practical level, the divine light forms a basis for the proper relationship with G-d: On the one hand, we never demean His essence by saying it is some infinite form of our knowledge. On the other, we can endeavor to closely know His knowledge, which is His authentic willed emanation.

The very possibility of a willed divine light frees G-d Himself from the bounds of worldly comparison and definition, and has, for generations of students of the Inner Torah, thrown open doors of possibility their minds had previously thought shut…

Based on Chapters 4-5 of the Tzemach Tzedek’s Derech Mitzvosecha, Mitzvas Haamanas Elokus.

On Doubt

I. Does It Make Sense To Write About Doubt?
If I still struggled as I have in the worst nights, I would never arrive at these sentences, nor will those truly doubting care to read them. Doubt garbs herself with midnight veils woven from her own hair beyond which our powers of certainty cannot peer. “Doubt this!” she cries to anyone who would understand her true nature. And yet, this is her downfall; her own garments eat at her. Doubt may always fairly be doubted. Therefore, let me write.

II. Doubt’s Superpower
Most of our demons melt in the light. Doubt eats the light for lunch.

III. How Doubt Reproduces Within Us, Eats Us From The Inside, And Leaves a Husk
I doubt my doubts are important.

IV. The Wonderful Phenomenon of Doubt in a Social Context
Small doubts are social creatures; doubt’s spawn flock to dorm rooms and coffee shops. Like moths, they are drawn to the light. Better: Like cannons, they are drawn to ships. The small vessels keeping us afloat on the inky depths of unknowing (and make no mistake, even the Hebrews needed dry land in order to walk and to breathe) are ruptured and sunk by the shot of other ships.

“There is no one to pray to,” they aim at your bow. “Your father doesn’t love you,” they snipe at your mast. You can try defending yourself with an argument, but the underlying message is, wouldn’t you prefer to be on a ship whose sky remains clear of iron? Shouldn’t you sail to a more defensible position?

The only response to this that ever works is to undercut their own certainty, to put a hole through their hull, to question their assumptions. You may sink them before they sink you. You may drown in the attempt.

Either way, it’s the sea that wins.

V. Can Philosophy Rescue Us From Our Doubt?
You can doubt that A=A, or that 1=1, or that Truth=Truth. You cannot, however, rationally doubt I=I, that you are yourself, for if you are not yourself, who is doubting? On the other hand, rationality is, itself, an A, not an I. Doubt everything.

VI. Why We Should Be Happy That Reason Is Powerless in the Face of Doubt
Doubt is abhorrent to nature. To frame the sun coming up tomorrow only as a probability is to ignore the sun’s nature and to reject reason, which exists to understand it. “Maybe the sun won’t rise” is technically true, and also calls into question whether there is a sun that has risen every morning for all of recorded history. If the sun’s nature is not responsible for this phenomenon, what is?

I, too, am like the sun. No matter how many times I’ve sinned, day in, day out, always the same, I might stop today. Inductive reason cannot tell me my nature; what I am (and thus, what I will do) is not determined by what I’ve done.

To repent is to doubt.

VII. Where does doubt come from?
The source of doubt is a Truth too great to be known.

VIII. Why We Should Be Sad That Reason Is Powerless in the Face of Doubt
Doubt does not feel like repentance when you have no sight of the G-dly revelation and your faith seems to have died and to believe you can rekindle something real in your creased and blackened heart is harder in your eyes than willing eleven billion dollars into your bank account in the next thirty seconds.

IX. On the Beliefs of Skeptics
“You can never be objective since you doubt only in the context of truths you’ve already assumed,” they say. They complain that doubt is only allowed, in certain schools of thought, in the context of faith. They never complain that their school of thought only accepts faith in the context of doubt. Sanitation workers should not be purists.

X. Since All Connection Depends on Faith
Doubt is to be alone.

XI. Is Doubt a Disease?
Doubt is both better and worse than an airborne virus.

It’s worse because the typical virus doesn’t demand your help to spread, doesn’t have you measuring your friends to determine who is ready for infection. It’s better because a good friend may not only remain a good friend despite infection, but their infection may be the cure for your own.

XII. Is It Rude to Ignore My Doubts?
Like the local branch of the KKK, there’s a big difference between having doubts around and entertaining them.

XIII. Doubt As a Tool
Doubt is a sharpening stone for the blade of faith. Perhaps the sword cannot cut through the stone. Hacking away at the rock will only blunt your faith. But the practiced warrior learns the art of attacking the stone with the right motion at the correct angle. The sword gets sharper.

Perhaps even sharp enough to cut stone.

XIV. Can Amalek Be Defeated?
The Rebbe teaches that Amalek grows with you. At the beginning of your journey, there is one kind of Amalek. Years later, when you have vanquished those doubts, their more refined children still rise against you. In a way, this is freeing, since you will not demand that any one answer vanquish Amalek forever.

Amalek’s ultimate downfall comes only with the answer of Moshiach, which is not really a single answer, but the totality of an unending motion of growth, the classroom of the unknowable Truth.

XV. Who Should Doubt?
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” The first line is a problem, true, but can we really say, after the 20th century especially, that it’s worse than the second?

XVI. A Lie
“If He would just reveal Himself to me, I would no longer doubt.”

XVII. Faith Is A Match for Doubt
Just as Haman is special for knowing the truth and yet rebelling against it anyway, a Jew is special for doubting the truth and devoting themselves anyway.

XVIII. Trust
There is no human social system that can survive a pervasive breach of trust. Consider the Beit Din and its laws of testimony. If witnesses cannot be believed, nothing can be believed. Doubt’s last refuge is, therefore, paranoia. Even Haman didn’t try it.

This is why when the Tzemach Tzedek told the chassid, “Believe in G-d because you believe in me, and I’ve seen Him,” it is a good answer. The day it becomes a bad answer is a very bad day.

XIX. A Summary of Everything New We’ve Learned About Doubt the Past 500 Years
Proof is useless because the soul wants certainty, which proof cannot provide.

Certainty, like doubt, will meet you where you are.

XX. The Doubt of Purim
“There is no joy like in the world like the loosening of doubts.”

Purim was not an otherworldly miracle, lighting striking Haman on the point of his triangular hat. That would not remove doubt.

Purim was having no sign of G-d, living within His utter concealment, Haman ascendant, until the moment Haman was destroyed.

Apparently, doubt, too, is His domain…

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

 

On “Knowledge is Power”

If knowledge is power, then Kaballah is idolatry.

There is a reason we were discouraged from studying the holy sefirot, the arrangements of the divine lights, the permutations of the divine speech in their infinitely intricate manifestations. Upon meeting a system, there is an all-too-human tendency to conquer it, to bend it to one’s will, to direct it toward one’s ends. If that system undergirds our very reality, all the better.

Thankfully, knowledge isn’t power, because knowledge isn’t knowledge, any more than light is light.

G-d says “Let there be light,” and there is light, but no distinction is made between the word “light” and actual light. The Torah is made of words, but is also the Torah of Truth. To distinguish between the light of “let there be light” and the light of earthly reality would introduce a distinction both absent in the text and contrary to its nature, since the nature of the text is to be the source of nature, and its words are inseparable from the meaning they convey.

In other words, light is really the word “light,” just as fish are “fish” and man is “man.” The physical manifestation, the light, is merely “light” as He dissociates it from itself. The physical may be defined by its concealment, by the way it distracts from, though does not cover over (as the material does) the truth of its own creation. The physical is, at essence, a change of subject rather than a lie; the physical gives the impression of a result where only process, the speaking of “light,” truly exists. It is thus the bias of an embodied mind to assume that the divine word “light” is about anything other than itself, that its semantic content and its form arrive independently, that light somehow precedes “light,” at least conceptually.

Kaballah, which traffics in the divine speech, is therefore rendered idolatrous in the eyes of those in the grip of this worldly bias. One hears of sefirot, of ten divine emanations, modalities, tools, building blocks, and the natural inclination of one’s mind is to make of these emanations into mind things, members of categories, words describing things. Indeed, the mind is a creature within time and space, two entities most simply defined as “those by which other things are defined in multiplicity”; no single thing within time and space is self-defined; they necessitate a lexical-semantic split. It is this very quality of the mind, the way it parses structures and sees the connections between things, that turns knowledge into power, that leverages familiarity into mastery. So when this space/time mind encounters the divine speech, it cannot help but provide a purpose for the speech, a light for the “light” to be directed toward in creation.

The mind tends to see that “light” not only produces light, but vice-versa, that the causality runs both ways, and light is the ultimate purpose of “light”, in a way that it’s not the ultimate purpose of “fish”. This is all that’s required to render Kaballah pragmatic and subject to human needs; through manipulating light I can manipulate “light”; we alter and shape the divine speech by altering its physical manifestation, and we can even create new manifestations by deeper and cleverer manipulations.  There emerges a new system, a nature behind nature, the world of divine speech, no less real or useful for being spiritual, no less bound by rules and correspondences the mind can manipulate.

Knowledge is power.

Kaballah is just another system.

Knowledge only is not power where knowledge isn’t knowledge. But this, Kaballah cannot do, even without the biases of the mind. Kaballah shows fish to be “fish.” By the same token, it shows knowledge to be “knowledge” and mind to be “mind.” Even if we were to escape time and space, we would still find divine parsing of structures, the divine word He speaks to unite words and their meanings, the G-dly expression that itself necessitates the systematic nature of words and their meanings.

Ironically, for knowledge to not be knowledge, we must seek the place where the connection between mind and “mind” falls apart, where even the divine speech is nothing other than itself, where even “mind” is empty of meaning.

This is the uniquely Jewish idea that everything before Him is as nothing.

It is the higher unity, where even knowledge is powerless before its Creator.

News of the Schism Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Judaism is a religion and a people liable to split upon serious disagreement. At least, this is the sense of Judaism you may get from Jonathan Weisman’s New York Times report on the upcoming “Great Schism” between American Jews and Israeli Jews. The term is Christian, referring to the permanent rupture between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in the 11th century, which is fitting, since in Judaism there has never truly been a Schism, nor is one just around the corner.

Weisman’s primary concern is political. Israeli Jews are moving ever-rightward and toward Trump, while American Jews aren’t. Israeli Jews are ever-less apologetic about the West Bank settlements, while increasing numbers of American Jews, especially young ones, feel alienated by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

None of this indicates an upcoming permanent split in world Jewry, however. A Schism would entail a split in the Jewish identity itself. American Jews would declare Israelis to not truly be Jewish, and vice versa. But will disagreement over Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu be sufficient grounds for this separation?

The question of whether certain rulers are “good for the Jews” has rarely been a matter of consensus in the past. It would shock Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon, for example, to hear that Judaism was about to split in two, though one praised and the other was harshly critical of the Romans. Nor was their disagreement without consequences; Rabbi Yehuda became the head of the sages, while Rabbi Shimon was sought for execution. In modern times, Russian Jewry was divided over whether to support Napoleon or the Czar. Yet, in neither of these cases did Jewish identity itself rupture.

Of course, Jews not only disagree over gentile rulers but also over the actions and allegiances of other Jews. Weisman writes of ongoing Reform and Conservative struggle for legitimacy in Israel, where their movements are in the extreme minority. Although it is difficult to see how the tensions between the Orthodox establishment and these groups may be resolved, Jewish history is full of just this sort of irreconcilable difference.

The biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah uncomfortably dwelled in the land together, yet did not see themselves as two peoples. Why would they, since their forebears united even twelve tribes? In Mishnaic times, so opposed were the houses of Hillel and Shammai that marriage between them verged on impossible. The works of Maimonides, now central to normative Judaism of every persuasion, were denounced by Rabbis to the Catholic authorities in France and burned. Jews died in the early conflicts between Hassidim and the Mitnagdic students of the Vilna Gaon. Nonetheless, these disagreements failed to bifurcate world Jewry. They were usually resolved through a tragedy that reminded the participants of their shared identity.

When groups have split from Judaism—Karaites, Christians, Sabbateans—it has been over things like whether Moses is the greatest prophet, or whether the Oral Law is a legitimate part of the Torah. Today, it is on these central issues that Jews have never been more united.

At this late point in our history, a Jew in Los Angeles and a Jew in Tel Aviv share millennia of history, a rich culture grounded in the Torah, and a language. Neither questions if the Talmud is Jewish or whether Jesus is the Messiah. Whereas a hundred years ago one may have spoken worriedly about the Ottomans while the other paid off a Polish duke, today they mostly speak the same languages about the same liberal democratic problems and usually the same politicians on the same Shabbat. Though one is Sephardic and the other Ashkenazi, they each know the same teaching from the Rambam. They may have different opinions about Israeli security, but the walls of their echo chambers are thinner than the seas separating an Egyptian and a Ukrainian Jew in the 19th or the 9th century.

There will only be two Judaisms if we choose to make it so. A Great Schism is impossible unless we set aside as irrelevant all we hold in common. An American/Israeli Jewish split would be a child of our interpretation, rather than of fact. We would have to willfully declare Judaism itself—religion, history, identity, tribe—to be synonymous with politics. We would then need to make our politics synonymous with saving lives. We would finally have to subscribe to a policy of Jewish non-death, rather than one of Jewish life, for any description of Jewish life shows that what we share is more lasting and profound than what divides us.

If we don’t choose schism, we will realize that Chief Rabbi Lau did not refuse to call The Tree of Life congregation a synagogue and that Rabbi Jeffrey Myers welcomed the President to visit. Mr. Weisman has chosen to interpret the Israeli Ambassador’s presence as the sole public official to greet Trump on that visit as a sign of division between American Jews and Israeli Jews (because we disagree about Trump). In other words, Israeli Jews feel attacked by the synagogue shooter and share American Jews’ grief, to the extent that they send the Ambassador to Pittsburgh. This is somehow read as a sign that the global Jewish community is splitting in two.

In truth, American Jews and Israeli Jews argue over our shared situation because we feel we share a destiny. Few Jews feel left out of North Korean politics.

The pain of disagreeing with other Jews is itself one of our hallowed traditions. It means we are not two people but one people. Our common ground does not necessarily lie between Eilat and the Golan. It is the shared history and shared future of every Jewish soul.

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.