On Cynical Chassidim

An argumentative tactic that has become a religion in our time is the reduction-to-lowest-quality. You may have heard it used to compare human beings to animals and find no difference, or Israel to Nazi Germany. The trick is not merely to focus on common denominators, which is the basis of probably all rational thought. It is to decontextualize the common denominators, to approach them as if they only lend context rather than absorb it and transform.

Take the example of man as nothing but an animal. Trivially, this is a self-refuting statement. No other animal has ever thought this about their own species; merely by considering ourselves abstractly and expressing this single consideration we pull away from all our neighbors. The reductionist knows this, and it doesn’t matter, because he decontextualizes common denominators. A chimp defecates and human beings defecate; a chimp fights over a mate and so does a man; these common denominators are meant to be determinate.* It is never that the human being’s waste disposal is different because he is able to think about it abstractly. It’s never, “Modern plumbing and meaningful ritual have elevated and transformed this common denominator so profoundly that it’s actually incomparable.” It’s always, “Modern plumbing and meaningful ritual must themselves be an iteration of something chimps do, because look, we defecate!” The common denominator is taken (on faith) to inform the difference and render it irrelevant, rather than vice versa.

This absurd devotion to the lowest in things is different from what we might call mere dispositional cynicism, that wariness attaching itself to mugging victims. These latter pessimists can easily repent, as their fear is conditional and grounded in rational reason. Reductionism, on the other hand, is a deep a priori commitment less easily repaired. The dispositional cynic is afraid of being hurt, so protects himself with distrust. The reductionist is afraid of not understanding so protects himself with willing ignorance. A regular cynic meets you without relying on you. The reductionist refuses to meet you. He fears not things being evil or detrimental, but simply things being things.

In fact, dispositional cynicism could be called a form of realism, for it is merely a certain way of reacting to negativity. A cynic, in fact, would usually argue that the non-cynic has a tendency to be reductionist toward the highest quality, leaving out parts of reality as much as his lowness-obsessed counterpart.

This explains how you can sometimes meet cynical Chassidim. Chassidus is meant to focus on and reveal the G-dliness within each person and experience, and so, in theory, the more one aligns with Chassidus the less cynical one becomes. This may be true, but not necessarily. There are some forms of dispositional cynicism that may be healthy on the Chassidic view. A Baal Teshuva, a penitent who was burned by his past mistakes may sometimes benefit from distrust and wariness toward his own inclination to evil. It does no good to overestimate our own achievement, either, to view our shortcomings as acceptable in light of mitigating factors. Nor are we to be anybody’s fool—Chassidim are meant to be clever. Perhaps, then, there is room for a Chassidic cynic by disposition. But where Chassidus is utterly transformational is in the area of the lowest-common-denominator reductionist.

Every year around this time we have an opportunity to contemplate the Chassidic rejection of reductionism because the daily Tanya has reached the fourth section, the lengthy and formidable Iggeres HaKodesh, consisting of the Alter Rebbe’s letters. These challenge the reductionist every day because so many of them are fundraising e-mails.

At least, that’s what a cynical reductionist might call them. It is vital to note that it doesn’t matter to reductionists how holy and great the Alter Rebbe is; that’s what makes them reductionists. No matter how much G-dly insight, Kabbalah, or deep moral teaching permeates every word of the Tanya Kadisha and it saintly author, the letters are in the context of soliciting money and the author wears a shirt, and that determines. You can dress it up real nice, they argue, but ultimately the Rebbe is climbing up the greasy pole, as Disraeli called it, as much as any telemarketer or politician. For a good cause, perhaps, but the action is the action.

It is the inner fire of Chassidus that burns at this conception with its every word. The Iggeres HaKodesh is, if nothing else, the utter redemption of fundraising e-mails. It teaches us, among many other things, that all greasy poles are created ex nihilo as an expression of an infinite and radically independent G-d, that worldly realities are mere vessels for a divine will, that these vessels are inert and unable to contextualize, that no human being or force of nature can shift one inch the decrees of the True Judge. It is the power of charity not merely to balance our lowest nature but to reverse it, because everything at its root is divine, not by additional context but by its essential being. “Lower” and “higher” are themselves mere means to a G-dly end, and without G-d, nothing can be a whole picture. No common denominator is so low as to escape its own nullification before G-d. What is a pragmatic concern then? How could fundraising ever outrun the G-dly root of its own being?

The Alter Rebbe fears no lowliness, not even enough to need to deny its lowliness. Pragmatic concerns are just as G-dly as the theology of Shaar haYichud v’ha’Emunah; perhaps more so. Everything, exactly as it is, shines the light of G-d. Do not despair.


*Evolution as presented is not merely that man’s origin as a species lie in animals, but that these common denominators are deeper and truer in him than what makes him a man, not unlike how hydrogen and oxygen are presented as deeper and truer to water than water’s own properties. These reductions ought always to be questioned.

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).

Three Types of Baal Teshuva

I have extensive experience at both normative and late-starter Yeshivos (religious schools for Jewish men). While I find, socially, that I simply get along better with other Baalei Teshuva (Jews raised as non-religious who become religious later in life) due to shared interests and experiences, and I completely understand the tendency of Baalei Teshuva to stick together and form their own sub-communities, I have felt my share of alienation from this group as well. It is not due to any discrimination in particular or the like, but rather because our Jewish lives focus around different goals.

Based on my experiences, I would posit that the vast majority of Baalei Teshuva fall into one of two types, or, more accurately, are pursuing one of two paths toward a greater closeness with G-d. Very occasionally I meet another Jew who has come religious for the same reason I have, and we loosely form a strange, third group. None of these groups has a deeper or more correct claim to Judaism; they are three paths to the same end, and I personally have probably been part of each one at some brief point. It is only through extended social and mental sorting that I’ve come to realize I am part of group three.

The first group is what I call the religious one. Anyone who has been in Yeshiva knows this type. They are the ones who get up earliest and go to sleep latest, or at least respect the ones who do. They came to Judaism to find order and justice, not just in the personal but in the cosmic sense. They are moved by the idea that there is good and evil, that there is a reckoning in this universe and that good is rewarded and evil is punished, at the end of the day. Often their lives before they became religion involved crime or at least some sort of wild abandon, and when they throw themselves into religious practice they throw themselves into the deep end, keeping a lot of things at once and putting enormous pressure on themselves. They usually either end up being the most insanely successful Baalei Teshuva in technical terms or they burn out. The tools of their life’s craft are built out of brute, solid facts — the clear truths of unreachable G-d and their own mission. Their superpower is investiture, the ability to succeed within any bounds.

The second group is spiritual. These are the Baalei Teshuva that are not seeking curtailed, rules-based lives but rather a fling with the divine in the style of Hafiz or (l’havdil) Rebbe Nachman. They pursue G-d in nature and colorful things rather than the black and white. They smoke up before praying and have amazing protracted experiences with the creator (or so it is sincerely claimed). They often turn to some sort of art as a vessel for their passion for Judaism. They tend to focus more on the interpersonal or mystical teachings, though of course the vast majority keep Jewish law to its utmost etc. These were the ones in Yeshiva who were always reading Rav Kook or listening to Carlebach recordings and who felt drawn to Nachlaot and the Gush. They make their lives rainbow tributes to Hashem or they end up wearing robes and yelling at people in the shuk like madmen. Their tools are all communicative/relational; they make torque of the space between man and man, man and G-d. Their superpower is transcendence, finding space to operate the truth beyond any set limitations.

The third group is what I call existential, and it is by far the smallest. These are people who don’t demonstrate a clear reason for becoming religious. They are not religious and have a lot of trouble following rules both of Yeshiva and of Shulchan Aruch; they sometimes have trouble doing anything consistently at all, and often resent the law. On the other hand, they are not spiritual either; they don’t have great personal experiences during prayer or at the Kotel or anywhere else and come to envy and even resent those who do. Both these types of resentment spring from an inner desire for authenticity, and this is what makes them tick. They are seeking a life of elegance in the technical sense, in which a painful, meaningless existence is granted purpose and direction. They are drawn forward, kicking and screaming, through their studies and service by the need to see behind the veil, to get at the resolutions of the cruel paradox of existence. They seek to not exist. Rather than finding purpose in their limits like a religious Jew or transcending their limits by dint of their soul like the spiritual Jew, they seek to cut their bonds with the sharpened edge of their own righteous angst, the remains of something innocent and pure that seems to have died long ago. Their pursuit of authenticity either takes them far away from not just religion but society, or it attains what they were looking for all along. Their tools are forged from dead things. Their superpower is the perseverance of life; what is dead may never die.

Thank You, Orthodox Jews

Dear frum-from-birth Orthodox Jews (even the ones I know),

I’m just writing to say thank you.

I am a Baal Teshuva. I did not grow up within the traditional Jewish world. I was brought into it by people like you. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

Now, I know you’re waiting for the sucker punch, for when I say “but” and then explain how your communities and lives would only be enriched if you would just listen to me more, or watch this movie, or purge so-and-so from our ranks, or repair such-and-such an institution. You’re waiting for the part where I tell my brave, dark truth about all the skeletons I’ve discovered in your closet.

But that’s not going to happen.

For one, I haven’t really discovered many skeletons. I read some things that other people have found (allegedly — I am not them, I was not there, and I do not know, and I feel no obligation to say I do) and they make me sad. But the situation is not all-or-nothing, and who knows what’s true about anything you hear, and there is no obligation to care, etc. etc.

Secondly, I worry that revealing your skeletons does not demand my bravery (after all, they populate bestseller lists and garner lots of hits for websites). I worry that the brave thing is to say what is not said enough, which is that sometimes we Baalei Teshuva can be a bunch of ungrateful little prigs.

And so, I say without caveats: I am grateful for you. Yes, you. Every single frum-from-birth Orthodox Jew. Collectively.

You are collectively guilty of changing my life for the better, just by being you and existing. Because you’ve taken me in and taught me Torah and shown patience for me and the countless others that are now a huge part of your community. Because very, very, very rarely have I ever encountered a frum yid who said, “You don’t belong here because you weren’t born religious.”

So I’m telling you, the FFBs, the ones who may think, a little bit, deep down inside, that you’re hopelessly backward for being born and raised religious — you don’t need to change a bit.

I’m telling you this because too few of us who come to this community later in life ever say “thank you.”

We who came as outsiders to your world are much more content to take the high road and enlighten you with all we know of secularism.

We are too happy to use the very principles you taught us to bind you to our plans for your lives.

We hear from your throats that have spoken words of Torah since infancy Chassidic stories on the holiness of illiterate peasants and we are thoroughly convinced of our own greatness.

We imagine that Torah and Truth belong to no one, that they simply pool around our feet, and we needed only to bend over to partake, that we alone have invested and we alone are to blame for our newfound piety.

We, who did not know “todah” until one of you beautiful souls mercifully slaked our thirst, cannot now say “thank you”.

“Thank you” is sometimes as hard as “I’m sorry.” Both of them painfully indebt us to another. But that pain is ennobling. Gratitude raises us up from our animal nature and compels us to respond to kindness with kindness — the foundation of all human relationships.

Chassidus tells us that the root of all evil is yeshus, separate, self-sustaining existence; its opposite is expressed in the bowing of the prayers, when we say Modim anachnu lach, We thankfully acknowledge…

So: I thankfully acknowledge.

I thankfully acknowledge not just those who actively reach out to the not-yet-religious, but even those of you who never speak or do anything for us Baalei Teshuva at all. I thankfully acknowledge that it was you who kept the flame of Yiddishkeit bright enough that I could see it in my corner of the world.

I thankfully acknowledge that you let people like me into your homes and onto your streets, even though you know the danger, even though you understand it will change your way of life in unpredictable and perhaps irreversible ways.

I thankfully acknowledge that even though you might see the arrival of people like me as some sort of godsend or blessing, you did not have to see it this way, and that until Moshiach’s times, everything has downsides, even me. I thank you for believing in us.

I thankfully acknowledge that you have generally been quite patient with my lack of knowledge and even my own self-importance. I remember saying once at the Mayanot Yeshiva in front of some of you that the entire hope for the Jewish people rests on Baalei Teshuva. Thank you for not slapping me. I kind of wish you did.

I thankfully acknowledge my many teachers, both my peers and my elders, without whom I would not even know enough to be a part of this conversation. I thankfully acknowledge your long hours listening to me as I mangled my Aramaic and Hebrew and Yiddish, and treasured me even in my arrogance, and nurtured me so I at least know something of my own heritage today.

I thankfully acknowledge your patience. I still have so much to learn, and my words sometimes exceed my wisdom.

I thankfully acknowledge your willingness to even talk about my ideas, suggestions, and innovations. The fact is, “we have always done/understood it this way” is more powerful than my great insight. You do not have to explain yourself to anyone, particularly someone who just got here and who may, tomorrow, leave.

I thankfully acknowledge those of you who wish I would no longer speak as a Baal Teshuva, but rather as yet another member of the community, the same as any other. This is perhaps your greatest kindness of all, but I hesitate to accept it. Perhaps you should be more discerning.

I even thankfully acknowledge those exceptions who prove the rule: you who are more strict, who will never see me as one of your own. I understand you, and I thank you. Your voice, too, is important (you don’t need me to say this, but since some might say the opposite, I will). You want to protect your people and your way of life from those who would unmake, through destruction or drastic transformation, that which you have built. You doubt whether we are truly invested, whether we will not, with the power that belongs to all that is young and new, use the life you have given us to destroy you.

No, I do not want you to forget that I am a Baal Teshuva. I want you to weigh me with your standards, as you weighed the advantages of taking me in, and I will thankfully accept your assessment, like a parched traveler who, at the end of the wilderness, accepts a sideways glance along with his life-giving water.

Thank you for hearing my ideas and stubbornly rejecting most of them.

That’s what your parents, and their parents, and their parents did.

That’s why you were born to a frum family, a family that accepted an idea at Sinai, and rejected afterward.

It is only through that age-old rejection, after all, that I came to be here.

Thanks again,

L’chaim,

Tzvi Kilov

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.