There’s No Such Thing As A Simple Idolator

Fourth member of a Sukkot series on the teachings of the Holy Baal Shem Tov. Members the 1st, the 2nd, and the 3rd.

“The wholesome simplicity of the simple Jew touches on the utterly simple essence of G‑d. ”
The Holy Baal Shem Tov

It’s tricky to be simple. The opposite of chassidic simplicity is often characterized in the discourses as tachbulos, i.e. schemes, machinations, attempts to engineer, from the raw materials of life, positive outcomes for oneself. A schemer denies the absolute dominion of the Creator over the Creation. He denies individual divine providence, a major theme of the Baal Shem Tov’s Judaism. He denies miracles, too. His world is ruled by…whom, exactly?

The Rebbe writes that worldly hanachos, that is, the grounding axiomatic assumptions provided to the mind by the world, are the first step on the road to deep spiritual rot. One who plans to get ahead by scheming has made an error that surely impacts his heart.

I am reminded of a different teaching attributed to the Baal Shem Tov: He refused to ride with a non-Jewish wagon driver who would not cross themselves as they passed their place of worship, for fear they would steal from him, or worse.

This teaching makes many of us uncomfortable today, and for a number of reasons. One of them is our difficulty relating to the Baal Shem Tov’s distinction. Today, thank G-d, we do not generally assume that, barring some sort of religious test, any person walking down the street is a thief. Perhaps this is a testament to our greater ethical standing today, the way even the “irreligious” members of our society tend to be raised with religious virtue. Perhaps it’s the opposite: religion today is so weak that it has no influence and we thus have no useful distinguishing metric and must merely hope the citizens around us will be compelled by law and custom. Paradoxically, thrown back on our own resources, we fear mutual destruction.

Whatever the reason, we need a new notion of the village pagan, the baseline Jew-hating idolator uncivilized by the mores of Abrahamic religion whom we might find rolling in the mud of Poland three hundred years ago. We need to understand why we would fear him, why a bit of G-d* would make him less scary, and why any of this matters in a Sukkah in the suburbs of Atlanta in 5780.

A wagon driver steals from you as a scheme, a means to get ahead, whether physically (he needs to eat) or emotionally (he needs to pay back some perceived slight) or spiritually (he needs to enforce his own sense of his existence by wilful action, thereby holding emptiness and futility at bay). He does not trust G-d to fulfill these needs.** He takes matters into his own hands, and not merely to make a vessel for G-d’s blessing, as he would by working an honest job to provide for his family, etc. No, he believes that some kind of success will result purely from his own action.

He is not so different from the generation of Enosh described by the Rambam in the Laws of Idol Worship, who came to pray to sun and moon because he saw these luminaries providing the crops with succor. The wagon-driving thief is like the sons of Egypt, who worshiped the Nile, not because they did not understand it or feared it but because their lives seemed consistently to depend on it.

Tachbulos/schemes are similar to idolatry in the sense that both ascribe efficacy to the finite and manipulable. They both find force in knowable forms. When Pharaoh says he does not know the G-d of the Four-Letter Name, and the wagon driver fails to acknowledge his ostensible place of worship**, they open themselves up to alternatives. Pharaoh says “The Nile is mine and I have made it for myself.” The wagon driver says, “I earn by the power of my own hand.”

That’s what makes these men dangerous. It’s not that a believer in G-d can’t be a murderous king or a robber. It’s that others possess no inner countermeasure they can place against these impulses, nothing as real as the need for their own satisfaction. Ultimately, their reality is ordered to their own ends; everything in the world may be used to further their purposes, and it’s unclear why, if one is physically able, one should not take advantage. Sure, other people are real, and all human beings feel hurting others is wrong. But the reality of the other is ever-grounded in myself; they are as real, ultimately, as they may be some portion or corollary of myself; my mother, my neighbor, my comrade.

In other words, the hidden axiom underlying the revealed “gods” of idolatry is that all realities may be expressed as a function of my own. The concealed G-d of Abraham, by contrast, is Himself the basis of all realities; the axiom is named and placed infinitely beyond our reach.

The way to touch that ground of all things, as the Baal Shem Tov teaches us, is therefore not through striving and scheming, but through simplicity and sincerity, the lack of striving, transparency to the G-dly truth at the heart of all things. If the wagon driver acknowledges G-d, then he acknowledges something real inside him to place against the animal cries of his own being, to contradict the inner pharaoh.

We would be deeply mistaken to assume that idolatrous tachbulos no longer exist. Perhaps among the general population in a kind and religious country, the Baal Shem Tov would be less concerned. Then again, when order is crumbling and the wild eyes of a younger Europe are showing through the cracks, perhaps not. Either way, we’d be wise to watch for signs of danger.

When you meet, today, an idea that has a person, rather than vice versa, this emits the scent. Ideas please us because they fit with our reality rather than deny it, the same way the affirming and kind Nile pleased Pharaoh, and may be manipulated accordingly. Would you ride in a cab with a driver who is a known member of an extremist group, whatever its political persuasion? Would you be secure knowing that they believe in an image of what is good and right, and anything that will serve that image is itself good? Would you sit comfortably knowing that they acknowledge nothing real that encroaches upon their visions?

The holy Baal Shem Tov came to redeem Judaism from the images that attached themselves to its true inner simplicity. He taught that G-d is not an idea, that sincerity is worth more than study, that He cannot be known. He taught that the Mitzvah itself, the commandment, is of inherent infinite worth, that it is not a means to an end but an end unto itself, as is the Jew. He hoped to rescue us from the striving of self-perfection and -preservation, to reach into these webs of logic and draw forth a soul, a single point, perfect and whole no matter how deep it was buried.

Sit in the Sukkah, shake the Lulav, give Tzedakah, and do it not to accomplish anything, but simply because it is the will of G-d. This is simplicity: The place within us from which shines into our every act the faith that we were not created, except to serve Him.


*If he’s Jewish, he may know the unique mishegas of praying as you dig your tunnel for success in your theft, or attending shul on Yom Kippur even if you “don’t believe in G-d”. This is why we find many Chassidic tales, especially those of the Shpoleh Zeide, redeeming Jewish thieves and exploring the great worth of their hidden simple faith.

**Putting aside for the moment the question of whether Christianity itself constitutes idolatry. For an exploration of this tension hidden in the story of the Baal Shem Tov, see “On Churches, Wagon Drivers, and Contradictions“.

Does the Torah Say The World Is An Illusion?

Of Witchcraft, Cucumbers, and Reason

Every year, around my birthday, I think about whether the world is an illusion. A classic rookie mistake in the study of Chassidus and Kabbalah (egged on by the mysterious rejoinders of those who teach rookie Chassidus and Kabbalah) is the immediate and total negation of the universe’s existence—everything is G-dliness, G-dliness is everything, and if nothing seems to have received this news, that’s just the illusion, baby.

Chassidus is not a conspiracy theory, however, and there is no Shadowy One merely manipulating your perceptions, for, if your perceptions aren’t real, why should He bother with them? and if they are, then they could hardly be called “deceived.”

Deeper: Chassidus (the Chabad version, anyway) is all about G-dliness penetrating every level of the soul on its own terms, and the key to the human soul and self, what Aristotle called the rational animal, is through its mind.

Now, the mind can and does accept that some things it perceives are merely illusory. However, there is a point—we know, because we’ve crossed it—beyond which calling everything an illusion leads one to reject the mind wholesale. If we live in a mere dream theater, if we are a brain in a vat or within the Matrix, our reports of the outside world falsified, then our minds become disconnected from our environment and to think the mind embraces the truth and becomes one with it (as described, e.g., in Chapter 5 of Tanya) is untenable. Any truth could be manufactured, any unity mere self-indulgence. My mind would ultimately not be a dwelling place for G-d in metaphysical actuality, but a dwelling-place for imaginings that pass the threshold of truth-perception, so I call them true.

In other words, for Chassidus to work, our minds must be able to actually be vessels for an outside reality, must actually cross the gap and connect. There must be a difference between imagining and knowing, “And Adam knew Eve.”

Like all knowledge, our knowledge of G-d is not self-sufficient but is founded on faith and propagates through a faith-medium. Faith, like knowledge, crosses the gap and connects, but, critically, it does not connect in a piecemeal, finite fashion subject to analysis. In truth, all knowledge is really a combination of faith and knowledge, with neither one reducible to the other.

There is no rational answer to total skepticism (“How do you know the direct apperception of the Divine at Mount Sinai wasn’t a demon’s trick?”). There must first be faith, a non-negotiable, inexplicable connection between self and other not subject to analysis. Rationality begins when the supra-rational has taken root, and then every step of rational reason (“Since G-d spoke at Mount Sinai, we have an obligation not to wear wool and linen”) is caused not merely by its rational antecedent but by that initial and pervading faith. Once faith is in place, the void held at bay, our understanding must proceed on its own terms,* rather than contradicting its own efficacy by calling itself an illusion.

In short, knowledge cannot be allowed to reduce to faith or illusion. If knowledge reduces to faith, e.g. by saying every step of the reasoning process is an a priori direct soul connection rather than the work of systematized logic, then there really is no such thing as knowledge apart from the faith which founds it. Similarly, if knowledge reduces to illusion, then our knowledge comes to reject the faith that is its own necessary precondition, and neither total skepticism nor “living with contradictions” could be called knowledge, for in neither case is the mind a vessel for what’s beyond it. With only faith, one may have G-d, but one does not have G-d on one’s own finite terms, does not have G-d authentically as a rational animal. Without faith, one has nothing but oneself.

But how do we get from faith to knowledge? How do we know that the G-d we have accepted from Mount Sinai does not want us to reject the workings of reason? Perhaps the first tenet of faith is, “trust nothing is real except what I tell you”?

Indeed: G-d has told us that just as He is real, there is at least some reality to the universe. This is why G-d created such a thing as a rational mind. He has made knowledge, and a world of composite, non-infinite things for knowledge to know, and sanctify, in that order.

Where does G-d tell us this?

One old standby is that it’s in the first verse of the Torah. In the beginning G-d created, after all. G-d Himself tells us that he did something, and His Torah never departs from the straightforward meaning. On the other hand, perhaps “creation” (ex nihilo, Nachmanides would urge us to append) merely means “the generation of that which is illusory.”

So, the Rebbe Rashab memorably uses** this instead:

The Mishna (Sanhedrin 7:11) states that a sorcerer is liable for the death penalty under Jewish law, but only for an act of sorcery. If he merely creates the appearance of sorcery, he is exempt. R’Akiva tenders an example: If two known sorcerers are gathering cucumbers, but the first actually gathers them with witchcraft, whereas the second merely creates the illusion of having gathered them with witchcraft, the first is liable and the second is not.

If, asks the Rebbe, the world is merely an illusion, how could the first sorcerer be liable? They, too, have done nothing but manipulate perception!

This argument clearly has an advantage over the first verse of the Torah, establishing that what, to Torah, counts as an illusion is distinct from the reality of our physical world. We cannot merely call creation an illusion, for cucumbers actually moving is different from cucumbers only appearing to move.

Of course, it is still possible to draw arbitrary distinctions, to the effect of “gathering cucumbers” is part of a more regular, consistent, accepted illusion called (for brevity) “reality,” whereas “appearing to gather cucumbers” is an illusion within the illusion, a break from our usual perception, and this is the source of the different judgments for these sorcerers.

There are problems with this evaluation of the Mishna, however. The Torah need not have framed the matter as actual vs. illusion (lit. “performing an action” vs. “fooling the eyes”). If the law wanted merely to issue a practical ruling it could say: “if you discover the cucumbers to be ungathered after the sorcerer’s apparent gathering, the sorcerer is not liable.” Since the Mishna instead tells us to assess whether it was mere illusion, it seems to adopt a definite metaphysical position that the first sorcerer’s action was not an illusion.

Secondly, the “illusion within an illusion” interpretations reads into the Mishna a probably-untenable epistemology. The simple way to read the law is that the court assesses the difference between illusion and reality. The proposed way of reading it is that the court assesses the difference between what they’re used to and what they aren’t.

To see how this would affect the rest of Torah law, consider that the idea of illusion is brought up specifically in the case of sorcery. Isn’t it true that any Torah transgression that turns out not to have occurred isn’t considered a transgression? If we thought we saw Shimon murder Reuven, but Reuven turns up alive and well, we certainly no longer try Shimon for murder. Why should sorcery be any different?

What makes magic, magic, is the lack of obvious cause and effect under the rules of nature. I understand the causality involved in Shimon squeezing the trigger, which sends a bullet flying down a barrel pointed at Reuven. This rational chain of events exists in many other places, not merely in this one instance, and will, all else being equal, produce the same result every time. It is this consistent working of cause and effect, all over the world, that indicates my mind is actually understanding the various aspects, the gun and the air, etc. For this to be an illusion, some other intervening factor must come into play, and that will be the cause of Reuven remaining alive. Perhaps I was seeing the whole incident in a mirror and Shimon was, in fact, facing the other way, etc.

Compare this to sorcerers gathering cucumbers. I don’t necessarily see or understand the mechanism or chain of causes that bring the cucumbers to be gathered, or, for that matter, bring me to perceive them being gathered. Without that consistency of regular experience, it is hard to even know what I am perceiving. It is not sufficient to produce an intervening cause that allowed the cucumbers to remain ungathered…for I do not know what causes them to be gathered in the first place! The only way to distinguish the gatherer from David Copperfield is by the result, by whether the cucumbers have actually moved.

We might think that even if we find the cucumbers, after the fact, to be gathered, this itself may merely be a step in some broader illusion, an issue that never arises with murder because we understand the causal process at work. We know that if Shimon shoots at Reuven’s chest, he’s on the hook for what happens, regardless of whether Shimon was trying to shoot the bottle behind Reuven, or what have you. How do we even know what the wizard was aiming at, however? Perhaps cucumbers appearing to be gathered, then appearing to be back in their field, is only the first step of the ritual!

Therefore, the Mishna comes to tell us not to go too far, that we can evaluate sorcery on its results. It needs to tell us this about sorcery when it doesn’t need to tell it to us elsewhere; we might think there is no way to evaluate whether sorcery has taken place, while we have no such assumptions about murder.

But if the Mishna says that “gathered cucumbers” and “non-gathered cucumbers” are different only relative to our perception rather than in straightforward fact, then what differentiates sorcery from the rest of Torah law? We ought to find a question on every facet of jurisdiction, a question pertaining to the efficacy of our senses and the truth of our assumptions. For just as there is no essential difference between the sorcery and the illusion (cucumbers themselves being an illusion, just a more common, well-behaved one) so is there no essential difference between Reuven being alive and Reuven appearing to be alive, and no resort to causal processes of murder can close the gap. Guns are an illusion, the air is an illusion, and we might conclude Reuven showing up in the courtroom is just the first step of Shimon’s elaborate murder plot! The “well-behaved” nature of guns describes merely our usual perception of their behavior, rather than anything intrinsic to them we could use to convict, just as “cucumbers don’t move by themselves” is no help with the wizard. Torah law would have to explicitly tell us that the illusion of murder is not tantamount to murder itself and perpetrators of murder-illusion are not guilty.

If our case is an “illusion within an illusion,” then every case of law in the Torah is like sorcery and ought to be treated as such. The unique distinguishing nature of sorcery, i.e. that its causal process is mysterious, would hold true of every aspect of our reality. Since there is no indication in the Torah that this is a concern in all aspects of law, but merely when it comes to sorcery, we must read the Mishna in the straightforward fashion: cucumbers are real; the illusion is not.

The Rebbe Rashab takes a third, stronger tack against the “illusion within an illusion” or “perceived reality vs. perceived illusion” interpretation, in which he applies the Mishna to itself: If the cucumbers are an illusion, then the death penalty we give to the sorcerer will also be an illusion. But in such a case, there is no actual reward and punishment in the Torah system. But then one of the fundamental principles of Judaism is false, and that is impossible. So the Mishna must be read as truly distinguishing between reality and illusion and not merely using those terms to describe different perceptions of an illusion. And therefore the official source, in the Jewish faith, for the reality of the universe as we perceive it is the 11th Mishna in the 7th chapter of Sanhedrin.

We may ask: If the Mishna’s efficacy in demonstrating the reality of cucumbers (and thus the rest of the universe) depends on the reality of the Torah’s capital punishments, why do we not simply say “the universe is real because reward and punishment is real, and many rewards and punishments are carried out in the physical universe”? Why resort to the complicated matter of the sorcerers at all, if it rests on reward and punishment in the first place?

Because, again, the “reality” in question is not the reality of G-d or G-d’s actions, but the reality of the world on its own terms. If we doubt the truth of G-d or G-d’s Torah, no Mishna (and possibly no anything) can argue for the truth of the universe. Remember: All knowledge is based on faith. The question is rather, given that G-d is real on faith and revelation, to what extent is the universe real?

Since this is the question, it does no good to base the reality of the universe, as a whole, on the reality of the Torah’s rewards and punishments in that universe. The cucumbers may be a mere illusion, but the court’s punishment, prescribed in divine revelation, may, for all we know, be far more real, riding as it does on the reality of G-d in a special way. Who says that when G-d creates a cucumber it’s real, but when he orders a holy court to punish, it’s only as real as that cucumber? Perhaps such punishments rise above their apparent similarity to our other worldly experience in some way we cannot, from within that world, perceive. Perhaps the court’s punishment is real not because it shares a reality with cucumbers but because it shares a Torah with G-d. The cucumbers are only real inasmuch as they play a role in reward and punishment, inasmuch as they aren’t worldly but G-dly.

Rather, we must base the reality of the universe not on something G-dly, but rather on something unholy or mundane, on sorcery and cucumbers: Cucumbers moving is a transgression that really happened, whereas cucumbers only appearing to have moved is an illusion and no transgression has occurred. It is only when we question whether our assessment of mundane reality is merely a perceived non-illusion that we turn by necessity to reward and punishment. In short, just because reward and punishment are real does not mean the world is real on its own terms. But if the world is entirely illusory, then reward and punishment could not be real. Thus, the cucumbers cannot be entirely illusory.***

Just as in other areas, knowledge does not reduce to faith; it is not enough to know a principle of the Torah (reward and punishment); cucumbers must be met on their own terms. But faith, a supra-rational basis in G-dliness, underlies all knowledge.


*This is possible because, even though rationality is influenced by faith, the inner life and source of all rationality is faith itself. When we are bribed by worldly pleasure or our own irrational will, it effectively bends our rationality, whereas when we are pre-committed in faith, it allows our rationality to be born and forms the core of the rational process. Thus we see a true difference between the “irrational” and the “supra-rational.”

**In the discourse “Ha’umnam“, 5643

***After this initial salvo, the Rebbe Rashab spends the rest of the discourse explaining that, although the world is not an illusion, the truth of its reality is questionable, and incomparable to the truth of G-d, etc.

G-d Is In The Pixels

We live in a world of lies. But what is the nature of those lies? Plato says they’re like a cave, sheltered from the light of truth, in which the average man watches shadows on the wall and imagines the show to be all of reality. The shadows are the world of symbols in which we languish without philosophy, the internally- and externally-constructed stories mediating between us and reality. To escape this theater we must transcend the mere reports of the senses to perceive deeper natures of things. We must (usually with the help of an already-enlightened teacher) turn around to see the actual objects casting the shadows. Ultimately, these objects will themselves draw us toward truths beyond any physical beings, and we leave the cave to bask in the initially-painful but ultimately-gratifying light of the sun, what Plato calls The Good.

But Plato had a certain advantage. He lived a long time ago, before the hollowing out of metaphysics and the philosophical alienation of man from the world. A primary aspect of that alienation is the modern tendency to nominalism. The metaphor of the cave cannot describe nominalism, because nominalism is the belief that there are no objects to be directly apprehended under the light of the sun, that to think of things is only ever to perform a self-contained operation in one’s mind, and never to actually grasp a truth outside oneself, because there are no truths outside oneself to grasp. Anything you think you know beyond the shadow theater on the cave wall is, generally speaking, all in your head. Nominalism is when you cannot say the waterfall is beautiful, but only that the way you perceive it is beautiful, and others may perceive it beautiful. Nominalism is when we say that our categorization of things is totally mind-dependent and exceptions to the rule are arbitrary, that “dogs have four legs” is an act of will, since some have three and some have five. Nominalism is when everyone can agree on the facts of the murder but whether it is evil is a matter of opinion. It’s popular nowadays.

A better metaphor for nominalism sits before your very eyes: the computer screen.

A screen is a mirage as surely as shadows on a wall, but they differ in a vital respect. Shadows on a wall, projections, are cast by real objects, and so lead back to real objects. Even in a modern movie theater (until they’re all digitized), the projection can lead us back to the film, a physical object containing the image of that which is projected, which in turn will lead us back to those who made the film and the images they used to create it, etc.

Film, like shadow puppets, is an analog medium; that is, its message is embodied in its very physical form. Another analog medium is a vinyl record, whose actual grooves record sound in miniature. From vinyl and film, we abstract sight and sound in the reverse process by which they were recorded; all we are doing is following a miniature map back around the original territory.* The artificial image and sound captured in plastic always corresponds to something; something was placed before the camera or the microphone and cast this light or moved that needle. It is essentialist, the opposite of nominalist; our sense of the waterfall’s beauty ultimately must be caused by something in the waterfall; it is possible to locate the real object casting the shadow on the cave wall and realize the shadow to be merely a shadow.

The computer screen, however, and digital sound (such as we hear on Spotify or, quaintly, CDs) are a much better metaphor for our beleaguered relationship with reality today, because they are purely constructions. The letters you see on the screen before you do not exist in themselves. They are the arrangement of thousands of atomized and independent pixels, organized by an external intelligence (yours truly, working with the makers of your phone and its software) into an image to fool your eyes. The more pixels there are, the easier your eyes are to fool, but, ironically, the more shattered and atomized the underlying reality of whatever you are seeing. The period at the end of the previous sentence is not one thing, but the cooperation of hundreds of things that, upon scrolling this page, will instantaneously be doing something else, giving the illusion of motion where none exists.

Digital mediums, an engineer would explain to you, can never, in theory, be as good as analog ones. When an old-fashioned film camera or a tape recorder capture sight and sound, they capture the entire scene before them, without gaps; a mountaintop vista hits the film just as it hits your eye; a violin vibrates a membrane in the mic just as it does in your eardrum; these are what sounds and light are. When my DSLR and my USB microphone capture the same scenes, however, they do something profoundly different. They break down what they receive into a staggering amount of small pieces, a veritable sea of binary. “I will tell you ‘on’ or ‘off’ forty-four thousand one hundred times, and that will be the sound of this cello for one second.” This is the only language a computer processor understands. But in real life, the sounds of the cello or the image of the alps doesn’t come in thousands of discrete pieces; reality is curved, shaded, continuous. The digital image or sound always has information missing by definition. It is imperfect. And we don’t care.

Digital approximations of analog realities.

We have grown to love and appreciate the possibilities of digital, where no image need ever correspond to an external reality. Just as there is something endlessly fair in saying “the waterfall strikes my mind as beautiful, but may strike other minds differently,” there is something freeing in declaring the images before our eyes to be constructed of pixels and the sounds in our ears to be discrete slices of volume and pitch, a certain distance we gain from the strictures of the things we experience. Unlike a projection, there is no real object that was placed before a camera or a mic to construct this experience; on the contrary, the only real thing is the screen of pixels on which they were projected, a hylic, protean object which can take the form of anything we imagine — and so why assume there is anything more than imagination?

Some may object that human senses are, no matter what digital media we consume, inherently analog — our eyes and ears cannot see or hear in discrete ones and zeroes; these digital representations only work because they can, in their high resolution, imitate analog realities. So shouldn’t we always recognize the digital for mere approximations? This, however, is not the direction many have taken. Indeed, against nominalist philosophy one may (and many have) raised the objection that the human mind simply cannot understand the world in any way other than with essences, and that to deny our direct apprehension of the nature of things is tantamount to a denial of the human mind per se. These objections, historically, have been met with a skepticism that seems deeply entrenched in the nominalist view: Who says these impressions are not, in themselves, constructed? If enough pixels can imitate a view of the Alps, who says enough pixels cannot imitate an impression that there are no pixels?

And thus, we reach the death of Plato’s cave.

For in the cave, when we are led kicking and screaming into the light to discover what is more eternal and real than what our senses tell us, we are able to look back at the shadows and see them as pale imitations of the truth. But from the screen, when we are led away into the light (perhaps after a night of binge-watching Netflix), the greater reality of actual objects is not as readily apparent. It’s not that I confuse, say, Stranger Things for real life. It’s that, if I begin to think of my field of view as an field of independent pixels working in tandem, there is nothing inherently more real about one image than the other. Stranger Things is not a shadow cast by some intricately-constructed Hollywood reality; it is another mere arrangement of things, a different configuration placed before my senses, the causal hierarchy lost, for there is no such thing as truly to see when seeing is defined as millions of sensory switches being either on or off.

We children of the screen live in an entire reality made of symbols, and there is nothing for them to symbolize but more symbols, and if this forms an infinite regress, perhaps that is a symbol as well. Indeed, one suspects at times, in the dark of night, that it is this very belief which empowers the modern intellectual with their depressed and placid yet utterly immovable detachment.

All is not lost, however. For we children of the screen possess a path to the sun (and beyond) that Plato himself couldn’t dream of, a path open only to the deepest cave dwellers, blind to all but the glow of their digital dream theater. Plato, after all, could only reach the Highest Truth by Plato being right. We can reach the Highest Truth even when Plato is wrong.

Since the world of Truth is closed to us, since we deny, by training, the underlying essences of things, we are cut off from our Creator as the Ultimate Unity, the life and soul of each thing, the light casting every shadow. But we children of the screen can know, better than any generation before us, our Creator as the Creator, the One who brings forth the universe from nothing. We have been taught to deny that there are any objects casting the shadows, that it’s shadows all the way down, and in a sense, this is truer than the Platonists who came before us, seeking the shadows’ source.

We are the first generation to find in our screens real images that are cast by no object, somethings that come forth from nothing, the paradoxical denial of the earliest philosophical axiom that testifies to the Nothing beyond all forms, what Maimonides calls the “Existence without an Existing Existence,” the nothing behind our somethings creating the illusory appearance of a non-discrete, continuous reality. He places before our eyes a world full of natures separate from Him, a world that those leaving the cave think is continuous, analog, curved. But the children of the screen suspect that in truth the world is discrete, digital, created independently, ex nihilo, in every detail, that nature itself does not have the final say, that every nature is rooted in an inexplicable individual act, a subjective choice not unlike our own perception of a waterfall.

What we have lost from the ancients, we have gained from the moderns. G-d is in the pixels.


*Even if our music and movies are heavily edited, it is the editing, in analog, that we directly grasp; contrast to the digital image, in which every edit must pass through a distancing layer of falsehood before it reaches out eyes.

The Jewish Case For Not Being Born

Two souls meet, one ascending after a long life in this world, and the other descending to be born. “What’s it like down there?” asks the descending soul.

“Well,” says the ascending soul, “have you heard of Tzitzit? Down there, Tzitzit only cost a few kopecks.”

“Only a few kopecks!” exclaims the descending soul. “Why, Tzitzit are the marvel of heaven, the praise of infinite angels!” The soul throws itself downward, hurtling toward life.

“Wait until you hear what you have to do to earn those few kopecks, though,” cries the ascending soul…

-A Chassidic Tale

The New Yorker has given a platform to the ideas of David Benatar, an anti-natalist philosopher arguing that it is better never to be born than to live and that the human race should go gently into that good night without having children first. An Indian man has already taken this philosophy so seriously as to sue his parents for the damage of creating him, an extortion tactic reminiscent of the rock star in one of Douglas Adams’s novels who spends a year dead for tax reasons.

Jews are inclined to laugh at this philosophy and the resultant antics. It is hard, in fact, to imagine a less Jewish philosophy that did not involve overt idolatry. We are the faith that brought the world the Imago Dei and the exhortation to “choose life.” G-d is the G-d of life in Judaism, and He commands humankind, before all else, to perpetuate their own presence on earth. Like all Torah laws, this commandment is binding upon the Jew whether they subscribe to trendy philosophies of despair or not.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot, however, does give a mysterious nod to not wanting to be born: “Against your will you live,” Rabbi Elazar HaKappar teaches. And then there is this passage from the Talmud:

[Source]

In this debate between Hillel and Shammai, Shammai wins; everyone agrees in the end that “it would be preferable had man not been created.” Somehow, the great sages seem to have possessed an anti-natalism of their own within the very faith that so values life. How may this be reconciled?

What is so great about life anyway? After all (and contrary to popular myth), Judaism has a rich conception of the before- and afterlife, involving among other things the cleansing of the soul, basking in the revelation of G-d, and eventual reincarnation in the Messianic Age. Our life on earth is, in some sense, merely an interlude between other forms of our soul’s existence. As we have learned before, the physical universe actualizes no potential nor has any inherent value in the eyes of its Creator. The physical universe exists only because G-d wills it needlessly, as it were.

What, then, is accomplished by being born? One old answer expressed in different ways in different places is that we are born for our own benefit, that is, to actualize some potential within our own souls. Being born allows one to be better and more perfect than is otherwise possible, and to achieve greater states of spiritual existence than are otherwise possible. True, the soul may start at a great spiritual level, but life in this world improves upon than level and brings us new perfection. Thus, being born is a gift. Call this answer the old answer.

There is also a new answer, the one that makes room for the anti-natalist position. Of course, anti-natalists don’t argue against being born because they think the alternative is the soul’s perfection before G-d, but because they think it is simply better not to be than to be at all. If we are consigned to existence regardless, whether within a body or abstracted away from one, then being born may perhaps be an opportunity to improve that existence. This is what the old answer said.

But if being born is the very act by which we exist, then how can it be said to improve upon what we were before birth? Before we were born (or conceived, or what have you) we simply did not exist, and after we die we shall not again. Rather, all of life’s benefits must be judged on life’s own terms, not by what life accomplishes for a soul that persists after death, but rather what life accomplishes per se. This is the new answer: being born accomplishes being alive. Astutely, David Benatar assesses being alive, sees a lot of suffering, and seeks a return to non-existence.

The Talmud agrees with neither the old answer nor the new one. As in so many areas, the new answer is right to judge things (in this case, life) on their own terms, but the more superficial ancient reasoning (that life is justified by the perfection of our broader existence) is correct in its conclusion — to choose life!

The houses of Hillel and Shammai argue all over the thousands of pages of the Talmud, and most of their debates share a common denominator[i]: The disciples of Hillel follow the actual, whereas the disciples of Shammai follow the potential. The classic example is in the laws of Chanukah. Hillel says we light one candle on the first night (and this is the law we follow) whereas Shammai says to light eight candles on the first night. The former wants always to act on what has already come to pass, whereas the latter wishes to act on what remains to be done.

So, too, in their argument over whether it is good for man to have been created. Both houses agree that man’s creation, like the rest of the physical universe, brings no perfection to G-d. Their disagreement is whether the soul is G-d-like in this regard, whether the human being benefits from being created.[ii]

The House of Shammai says it is not good for man to have been created, for there is nothing gained for the soul in this world that the soul does not already possess in potential. Their position is more closely aligned with the new answer (unsurprisingly, as Shammai’s way of thinking is described as messianically progressive) — that a human life on its own terms adds no absolute value to the soul. True, the disciples of Shammai do not believe this because they deny the afterlife[iii], but they nevertheless agree that life is not meaningful for purposes of self-perfection. Because we judge things according to their potential, and the soul already in its potential has attained all that being born might accomplish, there is no reason to actually be born. In other words: The atheist’s denial of the spirit and the Rabbis’ utter exaltation of the spirit both lend no meaning to being born.

Hillel, on the other hand, argue it is better for man to be created, that the soul benefits from being embodied, that actualization has inherent value over potential, and we should look at life as an opportunity to raise ourselves higher in ever-greater perfection. This roughly parallels the old answer, which says that embodied creation serves our broader existence beyond the body.

Both Hillel and Shammai, however, believe in being born, as Judaism necessitates, for neither position is ultimately beholden to what is good for a human being. Even though Shammai win and the Talmud expresses a form of “anti-natalism,” never are we directed to pursue merely what is good for us when we are born. The entire debate of Hillel and Shammai concerns only what is “preferable” for man, in man’s own terms, in terms of human self-betterment, and that is why Shammai wins.

Or: If Judaism reduces to a question of self-perfection and self-benefit, there is room to argue for nihilism, to turn to the “Utter futility! All is futile!”, for G-d’s ways are inscrutable and His Torah concludes that we will never in our lives compare to the spiritual state of our souls before we are born.

Or: The “meaning” in a meaningful Jewish life does not necessarily mean very much if that life is a self-actualizing or -fulfilling existence taken on its own terms.

The only matter on which there is no debate is that it is good to be born and to cause others to be born because G-d wills it. It is only when life is for Him that life becomes inescapably meaningful. “Now that he is created, he should examine his actions” — for it is only by acting in service to G-d, our sages knew, that being born is justified beyond the question of potential and actual.

Perhaps most powerful of all, once we see ourselves as existing merely to serve our Creator, we can even admit that the House of Shammai is right, that there is wisdom in David Benatar’s argument. To live life merely for an afterlife is to define life away, and life purely on its own terms may be full of suffering. Perhaps even the House of Hillel came to realize admitting this truth is a step on the path toward a G-d who is beyond potential and outside our contrived “meanings” and is, therefore, the only one who may justify our blood’s warmth.


[i] For all of the following on Hillel and Shammai’s debate, and much more, see Likkutei Sichos vol. XXII, second Sicha of Shmini.

[ii] By “creation” we here refer to the verb used in the above-quoted passage in the Talmud implying creation ex nihilo, existing apart from G-d as an ostensibly separate being. The human being is thus “created” when the soul is embodied, prior to which the soul exists in a state of (at least relative) nullification before G-d. This understanding of “creation” is consonant with the view that, generally speaking, man is a soul in a body. Thus, what exists beyond the body is neither “created” nor “man.”

[iii] i.e. the existence of the soul apart from the body, including the beforelife and the world to come, etc.

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 We Eat Sufganiyot On Chanukah

The Classic

Everyone knows we eat sufganiyot (Jelly Doughnuts! Пончики! Berliners! Pączki!) on Chanukah because they’re fried in oil, and the miracle of Chanukah took place with the oil.[i] They’re delicious, they annoy healthy eaters, boom – a custom.

This explanation is good, like all simple explanations. And like all simple Torah explanations, there is much swimming beneath that surface layer of puddled grease. But before that, how about this?

 

Chocolate-Filled (With a Side of Halva)

I once heard this from one of my teachers in Yeshiva, who ostensibly read it in a book of vertlach. It is hard to explain what a book of vertlach is. It’s like frum finger food, a kind of scholarly dim sum. Rather than rigorous (and therefore usually correct) examination of the sources, a good vort instead asks a perennial or unusual question, sketches one or two elegant connections, and sticks the landing, drawing it all together by the end of the page.

Instead of ornate gates of wisdom or vast pillars of reasoning, the vort is a single gem you can put in your pocket. They’re perfect for sharing at the Shabbos table or when you meet your friend in the street. Everyone should know a few. They make people smile, they’re genuine Torah study, and they often exhibit a certain nimble creativity that longer explanations can’t manage.

For example:

Why do we eat sufganiyot on Chanukah? According to Jewish law, all non-fried foods made of the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye) can be considered bread if prepared in a certain way or eaten in the right amount. Fried foods, however, can be eaten in any amount without becoming bread, since they are not baked.

Now, there are three types of blessing said after eating, depending on the food: The long Grace After Meals (Birchat Hamazon), the medium-length Me’ein Shalosh, and the short Borei Nefashot. The long Grace After Meals is generally said after full meals with bread, whereas the short Borei Nefashot is said after snacks. The middle after-blessing, Me’ein Shalosh, is said after eating food made of the five grains that are not bread.

In addition, of the three after-blessings, only Me’ein Shalosh, mentions the altar in the Temple (“Al Mizbechecha“).

Since Chanukah is, first and foremost, a celebration of the dedication of the altar (Chanukat HaMizbeach), it is fried doughnuts, which can never have the full Grace After Meals as their after-blessing, that allow us to thank Hashem for the miracle every time we eat them. L’chaim.

A vort! Savor and enjoy the Torah sprinkled like the sugar of the supernal Confectioner! Do not wonder why we do not then eat pomegranates on Chanukah, since the seven species of Israel (and wine!) also have Me’ein Shalosh for an after-blessing, and would have us thanking G-d for the altar just as much. Do not ask why we also eat latkes on Chanukah, if their after-blessing is the pedestrian Borei Nefashot that does not mention the altar at all. Neither of these are in the spirit of the holiday. It is much better to respond with the counter-vort I just thought up: that it’s the mention of the altar in Me’ein Shalosh which obviates the need for an addition to that prayer in honor of Chanukah.[ii]

Now, back to the grease.

 

Deep Fry

If the miracle of Chanukah was oil burning for eight days when it should have burned for one, why do we eat oily foods? We should just eat oil.

You might be thinking that sounds gross. The Talmud would probably agree, since it goes further: A glass of pure olive oil has no blessing at all, since it’s not considered food and is even damaging to one’s health.

That the body does not deal well with pure oil makes perfect sense in light of the story of Chanukah as illuminated by Chassidus.

The short version: Oil is wisdom, the innermost part of everything that can only be revealed by squeezing and crushing, the negation of the self and acceptance of the object of our thought into our reality in order to properly grasp it. Understanding can arise through my analysis of the matter, but wisdom (Chochma) arrives when I disappear and in my head only the thing I’m thinking about remains, perfect and whole, a vision of the other, a flash of insight.

The Seleucids and their leader Antiochus ransacked the Beit Hamikdash and profaned all of our sacred oil, just as the beauty and power of Hellenism arrived in the holy land and declared Jewish wisdom just another wisdom, another culture, something to be subsumed in the all-embracing weltanschauung of Aristotle, the Olympics[iii], and the subtle and complex idolatrous pantheon.

Indeed, whereas Purim as a holiday celebrates the Jewish survival of an actual mass-genocide plot in Persia, Chanukah celebrates the survival of Jewish wisdom – in short, of our Torah – in the face of Greek culture (and the force eventually used to try implementing it). Chanukah is a celebration of Torah qua Torah, of the gall of the Jewish people to say we know something not as a third-person universally-accessible philosophy but as a personal covenant with the Creator of heaven and earth. That is what the Maccabees fought for.

Antiochus and the Hellenists[iv] almost won. Nearly all the oil in the Temple was profaned. The Maccabees, however, had a secret weapon: their deep reserves of self-sacrifice, a part of their Jewish souls that refused to concede to even overwhelming odds, and refused to bow down even when Jewish law may have advised life-saving prudence. Their souls were not, in that instance, bound by Jewish law, the Jewish law rationalized and desacralized by the Greek influence. Their commitment to G-d could not be rationalized, and in this, the Maccabees taught something to the Torah itself. They tapped into a small jug of oil that could not be ruined, sealed by the High Priest, immune to the tampering of Antiochus. And from that one small jug, the oil within the oil, the deepest of all Jewish wisdom, came light for eight days.

That is the oil we wish to eat, to incorporate within ourselves, for these eight days.

And yet, pure oil is not food. It is not for daily consumption; to live on it is truly to exist in a miraculous state, to sustain oneself on one’s soul alone. To eat that oil, we must enclothe it in vessels; once the Maccabees were successful, the Hasmonean kings passed into history, whereas the lessons they taught the Torah live on. The one jug changed the very nature of all future worship.

So why do we eat sufganiyot on Chanukah?

We don’t.

We eat oil on Chanukah.

Doughnuts are just the vessel.

 


[i] An association going back not to the Israeli Histadrut (Time Magazine – though what a clever way to create jobs for workers!) but much earlier, to the extent it was mentioned by the Rambam’s father, Maimon (born c. 1110).

[ii] Do NOT question (you monster) why Purim also had no addition in Me’ein Shalosh.

[iii] We pay back the sacrifice of the brave Maccabean rebels against Antiochus and the Hellenists by naming our modern Jewish Olympics “Maccabiah.”

[iv] A great name for the Maccabeats’ sarcastic punk nemeses (someone, please).

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

A Maamar I Do Not Understand

The sukkah is makkif, and we bring it b’pnimius.
Ignorance, young man, is no excuse.
Run your fingers across the footnotes’ gleanings, and realize you ought to pray.
What affliction, bread of hunger —
eat it, and you are eaten away —
the vodka laps you,
and in understanding is a leather sole on your forehead.
The holiday is just a break-tide
set against the year-sea.
Sit within it,
weave its six-fold gestures.
It won’t help.
The year will flood us,
the ark will not be ready,
and salt water will get in your porridge.
Climb into the words,
wrap them around yourself,
and ignore the ravens insisting
that G-d wills your drowning.
You cannot stop the crowing.
Wave the white flag tied to the olive branch,
never write the damn book,
and retreat beneath the sheets.

 

Dream the night is full of holes,
a smashed idol.
The father of the inch of you that will not settle
makes a promise, and we are its words.
His wife slays a snake
with a laugh.
They are larger than time
and heavier than the earth,
but their eyes sparkle.
They,
–in your dream, of course;
do not settle–
dry you with scorching niggun,
explain the suffering,
and reject it all the same.

 

Choices must be made;
____  believes in you.
You wake not because you must,
but because you should;
your family misses you.

 

Trust me: One day it will all stop lying,
and show you your true worth.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Everything You Know About Chassidus Is Wrong

I begin with a confession.

Some say they’re involved with Judaism because of its eternal truth, or because it is the tradition that runs in their veins, or because it is the best way to make sense of the world and their place in it.

I am involved with Judaism because of the pleasure I get out of it. More specifically, I am involved with Judaism because of the pleasure I get out of studying Maamarim, the Chassidic Discourses of the Chabad school of thought.

A Maamar is a big deal because everything you know about Chassidus is wrong.

Chassidus is not those Buddhist-sounding memes I repeat to myself mantra-like when looking for inspiration. Chassidus, as an intellectual endeavor, is nothing like learning philosophy or science. Chassidus is not a nice source for your next Shabbos table Dvar Torah. For the love of G-d, Chassidus is not a social and cultural movement founded by Rabbi Israel Baal She-zzz…

These are pale imitations of what Chassidus really is, and are pathetically unsatisfying compared to learning a Maamar. These are the “No-Fear Shakespeare” or the “Sparknotes” of the mystical Jewish endeavor. These are the perspectives on Chassidus that claim to give you the real thing while preventing you from understanding why the thing is great in the first place. They are the reason why a million high school graduates say they know Shakespeare and don’t like it while neither of these statements is true. Don’t do that to yourself.

Rather, if we’re to appreciate it, we must consume Chassidus mindfully, slowly, and personally, in the original.

When we do that, Chassidus becomes the greatest pleasure in the human experience.

In fact, if I were out to coarsen the Maamar (pronounced “my-mer”) and downplay the pleasure of learning one, I would describe the experience as savoring fresh ice cream with hot fudge. For me, it is the end-goal of the entire Jewish endeavor. Getting up in the morning for Minyan is eating broccoli. Learning Talmud is like the drive to the ice cream place. Intellectual/Philosophical analysis of Judaism is like when you’re expecting ice cream for Shabbos dessert and the owner of the house produces their super-healthy fruit salad. Hanging out with people interested in Minyan and Talmud and Philosophy is like handing over your sweet, green money to some stranger that works at the ice cream stand.

Learning the Maamar is, to some extent, like eating the ice cream. But if a scoop of ice cream is one experience in a lifetime, the Maamar is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In fact, life is merely the thing we do when we are not learning The Maamar. It is the process of searching for something that is as perfect as The Maamar, and when it is not found, making it so.

If you think I’m exaggerating, you’ve never learned a Maamar. However, you may have learned a so-called “Chassidic Discourse,” which sounds as appealing as eating the box the ice cream came in.

It is the “Chassidic Discourse” that convinces people they can suffice with little snippets of inspiration from the Chabad.org Facebook page rather than actually learning the text. After all, if the entire point is to vaguely “inspire me to do good stuff,” and the inspiration comes wrapped up in all sorts of time-wasting boring informational “Discourse,” why even bother with it? I’ll just have someone let me know what the takeaway was.

But really, The Maamar is not a discourse. The Maamar is a conversation. The moment we stop viewing a Maamar as a conversation is the moment we stop enjoying Chassidus.

Summaries and imitations miss all the little moments that make a maamar special. They miss out on the entire back-and-forth, the audience participation, the way the words on the page interweave with your thought process to create a mystic cogitational sugar rush.

If all you know of Chassidus is one-liners or short synagogue speeches, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

So let me explain what it’s like:

 

“V’Kibel. The Jews received in the times of Haman what they began at the giving of the Torah.”

Chills. The beginning is always full of excitement. The beginning is always a quote. A quote of something old and strong, words that have held the earth on their shoulders for thousands of years, or perhaps longer.

“The question: But at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people were the apex of creation, free and holy, ready for their face-to-face with G-d. In Persia, every man, woman, and child was sentenced to death and living in the shadow of exile and the Creator was hidden from them. Yet somehow Sinai was only the beginning of a process that was only completed during Haman’s decree?”

Forget the next nine pages. This question is the perfect turn of phrase, better than Shakespeare. This question is a question that could burn on our lips from the moment we wake until we fall into fitful rest. This question is our question before we realize it is our question. This question will turn up when we fully decipher our genetic coding. Every time we encounter the intersection of pain and purpose, this question is growing through the cracks in the pavement. Every time we wonder whether up is down or darkness is light, this question helps us right our ship, reminds us that there is an order to the universe. At the same time, it tells us our place in that order is a sad place. This question is a dare The Maamar makes to itself, wriggling its eyebrows, eyeing its audience. “Watch,” it says. “Watch how I answer the aching question that is your life.”

The Maamar is not something you come to. The Maamar is what you have been living all along but never known how to explain.

“But at the time of the decree, they served G-d with self-sacrifice (to the point of death), not just for their faith but for the individual commandments.”

A wrinkle of the most Chassidic order. A statement like a knot. We have expected a solution and received confusion. This is the way the order of the universe is upended and the low and the humble are shown to be greater than the greatest? Whence this relativism? Is something really better just because it hurts? And if it is, for what do we strive? If I understand correctly, The Maamar is offering a gift. But I need The Maamar to tell me whether I should take it…

“They were inspired to self-sacrifice by Mordechai the Jew, the Moses of his generation.”

More chills. The Maamar is giving me that old-time religion, that ideal vision, someone to look up to, and unlike moral quandaries this is something I feel I desperately need. Spot = hit. Epic.

“Mordechai’s main work was learning Torah with the children, who are the foundation of all Israel, whose breath spent in Torah study upholds the world.”

I feel The Maamar’s passion. I feel its author crying out in these stately phrases. A Maamar speaking about children learning G-d’s words is almost a tautology. Innocence calls to purity; a thousand ulterior motions are burned away; a glance of Eden flashes through the cracks.

“As it says in the Midrash, Mordechai learned publicly with 22,000 students. Haman approached and Mordechai said to them, “Escape, so you do not suffer with me.” They said to him, “We are with you, for life and for death.” They accepted all punishment to not be separate from Torah.”

The Maamar takes the sublime pleasure of the story, of the narrative form we know from godforsaken Hollywood or from novels, and finds its gnarled root in the Truth, and in the history of our people. As Jews we tend to be too busy complaining to notice the true nature of our own story. The Maamar, with its head held high, reminds us of dark days and the luminous souls who triumphed. If we are to appreciate the G-dly words it is about to share, we must look upon them from the place where integrity rages inside us.

“And so, in one aspect, through their self-sacrifice, the Jews at the time of Haman were greater than those at Mount Sinai. But we need to understand:”

The Maamar is always saying we need to understand when it asks its questions. It’s never, “The matter makes no sense.” The Maamar, despite being truer than anything in the universe, still treads with humility sweet as honey.

“Is not the ideal of almost every Mitzvah to live by them, rather than to die by them?”

I knew there was something fishy about that self-sacrifice stuff. Judaism is not a death cult. Nu, The Maamar, let’s share some reasonable questions over a cup of tea. You may be humble, but I am not. Is that okay?

“Even the three Mitzvot which we die rather than violate are merely more important than life itself; death is not central to their fulfilment. Dying for the sanctification of G-d’s name is merely one commandment. Why should it be necessary for the completion of the Sinaitic revelation?”

The Torah is a life pact, not a death pact. This question is the counterpoint, the other end of the stick. Self-sacrifice is no longer the answer; it is the question. This interplay will be the launching board for the higher realms, where in a three-fold movement the Maamar will cut to the heart of all matters. It will answer all these questions with such answers that the questions will melt away and become nothing, or will become their true selves, which are really the same thing, and for a brief moment in the parallax everything will fall into place and we will snatch a glimpse of the Most High.

 

But I leave that for your own study. Though the Maamar continues, our shared experience of it here does not. However, my point — that the conversation with the “Chassidic Discourse” is sweeter and more satisfying than any candy — is made.

People think that The Maamar is too philosophical or deep for them, that it’s a space of intellectuals to wax eloquent on G-d.

But The Maamar does not expound upon G-d. This is like saying Van Gogh expounds upon stars and cypresses. The Maamar is not out to convince you. “This is what I see,” says Vincent with a sad smile. “Take it or don’t.”

If we knew Vincent, we’d take it.

The Maamar is not about knowing in the usual sense. The Maamar is as much or more about wonder than knowledge.

The Maamar inspires the same childlike awe as a magic trick; it, too, makes something disappear and then return.

First the Maamar declares its own nullity. The Maamar says that the Maamar is merely a vessel, that the truest pleasure we have ever known is not strictly real per se. The card has disappeared, leaving only the magician’s bare palm. Then, the magician brings back The Maamar (with all its ice cream offspring). But only on the magician’s terms.

And learning the magician’s terms is, in turn, the whole point of the Maamar.

The Maamar says magic is a form of self-expression we live daily.

If you want to feel that magic, you should learn The Maamar. Don’t be one of those people who shows up in heaven and is read the riot act over never having enjoyed fresh ice cream with hot fudge.

YOLO. Go learn.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.