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.