Celebrating Halloween the Chassidic Way

“Why can’t we just celebrate Halloween if it’s secular nowadays?” ought to be a self-answering question for observant Jews. Alas, our passion against paganism may still exist in at least a dormant state, but our passion against secularism does not. That the two are even related has been largely forgotten. Come, then. Let us celebrate the 31st of October in the Chassidic fashion:

The Rambam tells the whole sad story in the first chapter of his laws of idol worship, for it must be the reader’s goal to eliminate foreign worship from our minds and hearts, and our minds and hearts are where, in the story, it first got in. It was the mind and heart that first turned to idols and eventually away from G-d entirely.

No reasonable person could conclude that there is no ultimate purpose or end to the creation unless an alternate explanation presented itself. Man was formed by G-d’s own hands and spoke to Him face to face, so the alternate explanation had to be pretty good. And it was; it was based on G-d’s will itself, an interpretation of it.

First, the generation of Enosh erred in philosophy and reasoned that since G-d has placed the sun as the source of sustenance for the earth, it deserves worship, too. They applied this logic to all spiritual forces, the four elements, constellations. They valued G-d so highly as to make Him irrelevant, a watchmaker, a disinterested king.

False prophets then arose who claimed the intermediaries yearned for worship, that G-d Himself demanded it. And with the stretching out of years, the Creator, quiet and unnecessary, was then forgotten entirely.

If other beings, creations, have importance or efficacy, then they have explanatory power. So was room made for the secular, which existed in theory inherent to the nature of the sun, but needed human reason to bring it out. The realm of things having nothing to do with G-d is first created when we mistake G-d for having created it.

In the Rambam there is little separating idolatry from secularism.* One leads to the other directly; they constitute the error and its eventual consequence.

Today, for whatever reason, we have separated between the unnatural and the natural, the pagan and the secular, witchcraft and philosophy. As we have become ever-more physical even in our spiritual sensibilities, we have come to think of sun worship as something distinct from our experience even as we have come to see secularism as the natural neutral substance of life. A witch cursing an apple for Snow White is a fairy tale, but an apple as a colorless tasteless purposeless hunk of stuff that just exists is called “reality.”

We want to distinguish between sinister necromancy Halloween and cute kids asking for candy Halloween. The latter is clearly not as strange or threatening as the former. The latter could at least theoretically be diverted to G-dly ends, and that is the advantage of secularism over its idolatrous roots. Secularism wants to see things just as they are, and things as they are exist for G-dly purposes, no matter how narrowly you look at them. But if we seek no such purpose and take the secular merely for itself, we live in its lowliness, in its coarseness, in a state of idolatry to which an additional forgetting and numbing have been appended. Such was the world that our father Abraham was born into, per the Rambam, before he walked its sands and peered at its luminaries, before he rediscovered G-d and made Him an heirloom.

We shall not escape secularism through reason centered on our own benefit or perfection. Reasoning with the will of G-d as it relates to our benefit and perfection is what the generation of Enosh did. G-dliness can be found reliably only within a simple faith in Moses’s prophecy, something the Creator gives us and we cannot create. With this, a chassid celebrates the 31st of October and the 2nd of Cheshvan and all other days, past, present, and future.


*By providence, enlightenment secularism has called itself Secular Humanism, and humanity in modern Hebrew is literally Enosh-ity; perhaps we should begin calling it Secular Enosh-ism, to remember.

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“.

On “Knowledge is Power”

If knowledge is power, then Kaballah is idolatry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowledge is power.

Kaballah is just another system.

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

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

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

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

The G-d of Nothing

Imagine you are an ancient pagan worshipping spirits, the forces of nature, or mathematical abstractions. You have no problem saying what your god is. He’s this dude with pale blue eyes and a massive hammer. He can turn into a magnificent swan. She is the perfect triangle transcending all worldly triangularity.

What does it mean that your gods are so easily defined? Definition is (by definition) the act of finding the limits of a thing, the ability to say where they begin and where they end. Thor may be huge but his eyes are shocking chips of ice and the triangle is a triangle but not a square. Even our very ability to truthfully describe these beings with language, our knowledge of the color blue which is the very same color as Thor’s eyes, implies that they are worldly beings existing within the boundaries of our reality.

These are gods of something. The god of thunder. The god of war.

Then Abraham comes along with the radical idea that none of these gods exist on their own but must all derive from one source, one cause, and one power. This One G-d is not like any of the other gods. The One G-d is not defined in worldly terms, for He is not caused by the world, but the world caused by Him. He is not a limited being within the creation, but the ground for creation, that which precedes it, the Uncreated.

The color blue is not something in which He Himself participates. The color blue is something He created, and therefore He precedes it and causes it to exist. What is true for the color blue is true of every other means of defining G-d by comparison. Nothing compares to Him, for He comes before and creates everything.

How, then, can we know G-d? As the famous line goes, if we were to know Him, we would be Him. In other words, the creation cannot know the Creator, unless it ceases to be the former and becomes the latter.

The Rambam and others famously frame this in terms of apophatic, that is, negative theology. We cannot know what G-d is, but we can know what He isn’t. He doesn’t have blue eyes, or green eyes, or red eyes. He doesn’t have eyes at all. We cannot say that He sees, but He also is not blind, nor unseeing. He knows with knowledge unlike ours; He knows by being Himself.

Whereas you, the Rambam may tell the idolators, think that a god has blue eyes, I know that G-d is beyond reckoning. He is not limited to being a particular color, nor any number of colors we know of. The most we can say about Him is that He is not of a particular color or definition; He is more than being something.

He is the G-d of beyond thunder, He is the G-d of beyond war. He is the G-d of everything, from the highest to the lowest. He precedes all of them; they are all His creation, and all of their qualities find their highest expression in Him.

Since He is the G-d of everything, the closer one gets to everything, the close one gets to Him. He is perfect, so we try to be perfect. He lacks nothing, so we try to lack nothing. We can never reach Him, but we do good deeds and build a magnificent temple to remind us what to strive for.

But this, too, is not quite right.

For we are basing what He is beyond, what He transcends, on what we know. We know He is not a particular color and rather the source of all color. But why should we assume He is the source only of what we know? Once we go through the realm of the knowable, one we realize He is beyond and the source of color and taste and cars and race, have we fully exhausted what He is?

Indeed, there are indications in His Torah that there are things about G-d that are not only unknown to us, but fundamentally unknowable to anyone. Think of the miracles of contradiction. Things like bushes and oil burn but are not consumed; the Holy Ark both took up and did not take up space. Not only are these miracles, they are pure contradictions. We cannot say the laws of nature are being broken, for we cannot even describe what is taking place at all. Describe a square circle. Describe what it means to both ride and not ride simultaneously. Describe what it means for something to take up no space because it takes up a certain number of cubits.

No, says the Torah of truth; He is not merely something and not merely everything. “Everything” is a sense of what exists beyond what we know. He exists beyond this sense, too. He is the G-d not just of infinite colors, but of infinite infinities, everything that is possible and everything that is impossible. He exists beyond the distinction of what is and what is not, what can be and what cannot be.

He is also the G-d of nothing.

But if He occupies the realm beyond this dichotomy, beyond something and nothing, then declaring anything non-G-dly would be in contradiction to His truth. If there is nothing He is, and nothing He isn’t, who are we to say that the holy is G-dly, and the mundane unG-dly?

He is not just beyond Creation; He is beyond the distinction between Creation and Non-Creation. Destruction, too, is His. In fact, He is no less destruction than He is creation.

Can we even call the Temple G-dly, but the destruction unG-dly?

The difference lies only in what we see.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Is Advil Idolatry?

Here’s the scenario: You wish to worship the one G-d, yet you have a mild headache. You are fortunate enough to possess three adult-dose ibuprofen tablets, which you know to relieve these exact symptoms. You also possess a glass of water and, intriguingly, a hard-boiled egg. What are you going to do?

Don’t answer too quickly. There is no small measure of theology afoot here, in this common, apparently mundane circumstance.

The first philosophical issue with taking an Advil for your headache is the problem of induction. A skeptic such as Hume would ask how you know that ibuprofen will relieve your headache better than the egg. You cannot rely on past experience with the substances, as all experience on logically tells us about what has already happened, whereas the future, today’s Advil, may raise your cholesterol while the egg heals your headache. It does no good to claim it was always the opposite in the past, or that in your past your expectations in this scenario were always met, since the accuracy of past predictions may itself be merely an artifact of the past, irrelevant to today.[i]

No, if we are to properly face our dilemma we must assume we know certain truths about the universe in a future-proof way. Call them axioms, assumptions, or the direct experience of the atemporal. Say we know G-d, and G-d made the Universe, from the beginning, with a certain consistency. Things have names reflecting an adherence to an internal and an external order. Call this “nature.” The Advil is better for our headache than the egg, all else being equal, since this is the nature of ibuprofen.[ii] We ought to be comfortable with Advil having a nature, as our scenario starts with a desire to worship the one G-d, who made the world intelligible.[iii]

However, having escaped one problem by setting forth the notion of nature, we immediately find ourselves trapped anew.

We wish to take Advil instead of the egg for our headache, since the Advil has a pain-relieving nature when ingested. But isn’t this relying on a limited being, that is, ibuprofen tablets, instead of relying on upon G-d? After all, the original idolaters worshipped the sun and moon because they thought it would help their crops grow; perhaps I worship Advil to help me get back to work. Ingestion would not be the strangest form of worship.[iv]

Now, perhaps we could separate Advil from idol by pointing out we do not believe the medicine alone will help us, but rather that G-d gave it the power to help us. However, the origin in G-d of a creation’s beneficent (or malevolent) power is only enough to negate the most radical idol worship, which holds G-d has abandoned the earth entirely to the forces of nature. This is full-progressed idol worship, civilized and mature, and it sounds suspiciously similar to Emerson and Thoreau.

The original idol worship, however, does not exclude G-d as an active force consistently present in the universe generally or human lives specifically. It merely claims there are other powers, too, with the ability to open or close the valves of divine blessing at will, like ministers to a king. The original sun worshippers did not think the sun was the source of its own power with G-d long gone, but rather that the sun was appointed by G-d to bestow vivifying radiance upon the earth, and despite the origin of its appointment and its power in G-d, one must thank and praise the sun as well if one wants the crops to grow.

What does this have to do with taking ibuprofen? I’d understand if we thought Advil had a choice in whether to cure our headache, leading us eventually to thank and praise it. But we apparently see the medicine the way a true monotheist sees the sun, i.e. as the “ax in the hands of the wood chopper,” merely instrumental to G-d’s purposes, and possessing no free choice whether to help or hurt us at all. Advil is merely G-d’s tool. It has a curative nature, bestowed upon in by G-d, and it is only G-d we thank for it. We are not like the sun worshippers of old. Right?

Wrong.

Though the sun worshippers’ mistake manifests most clearly in the case of an intermediary with free will, it also expresses, in a more refined fashion, in every inherent quality. That is, Advil’s pain-relieving quality can in itself be the object of a subtle form of idol worship.

The question is, what is nature? We noted before that the very logic ingesting Advil (instead of an egg) for your headache is based on the nature that inheres in the medicine, a nature very much connected to a G-d who exists beyond time. What is the nature of this nature?

If the nature of Ibuprofen is a set of rules or laws created by G-d as an independent entity, this means that both the man who deserves a headache and the man who deserves his headache to end will be served by the Advil equally. If this does not sound scandalous, the business equivalent would be that a man who deserves to be richer and a man who deserves to be poorer are served equally, under the law of nature, by identical business practices.

In other words, although we do not think the Advil (or shorting stocks, or collecting airline miles) is a being with free will that can choose to help us, we do see it as having a nature that determines outcomes for us, regardless of other considerations, divine considerations. Though G-d is the ultimate power, this object will bring me a certain measure of blessing, regardless of what G-d wants, regardless of whether I reject Him or worship Him. It has power, beyond His control.

One way we could try to circumvent this problem and still rely on ibuprofen as monotheists is through the permissiveness of miracles. After all, if G-d wishes, He may intercede and prevent the salutary effects of Advil on, say, Martin Shkreli (it may be His sense of humor). That G-d intercedes in nature is, after all, fundamental. There is thus a means to ensure that even though by nature the medicine has the same unchanging effect, beyond nature it does not.

Yet this is no true negation of idol worship, since we should still have to concede that nature is a power independent of G-d. Even though He can negate its power at any time, ibuprofen must still be negated to express the will of G-d, and when it is not negated but soothes Shkreli’s aching wrists, it is acting “beyond” G-d’s will! The Creator must prevent nature from running its course every time an evil man receives good business advice. What, then is nature, if a countervailing system of behavior must so often avert it? And who, then, is the one G-d, if His ax handles are so often in rebellion?

Rather, the nature of the Advil, its palliative properties, must be wholly dependent on G-d, with no ability to help or hurt outside of Him. They must not merely be caused by G-d, derive their power from Him, and then act independently. They are not merely created by Him at every moment, technically dependent on G-d, because then the question would remain, what is being created? and the answer could be, a consistent nature irrespective of G-d’s will.

No, to negate the idolatry of qualities, we must understand nature itself, without any miracle and before even looking to its source, as an expression of the divine will. As the Holy Baal Shem Tov put it, a leaf only turns a specific way in the wind if G-d’s desires it. This is true, even though the wind is part of nature and governed by the consistent laws of nature. It is G-d’s will that there should be a leaf, that there should be a wind, that circumstance should bring them and their natures together, and that the wind should so twist.

Advil has the nature of relieving headaches, but that nature, just like headaches or the futures market, can never come to benefit anyone outside of G-d’s will. Nature, in the first place, is merely an expression of G-d, and its existence independent of Him as a second power He has any need to change or subvert is illusory from the start.[v]

In order to truly not worship idols, to believe that G-d is the only power, one must look at the qualities inherent to nature as an integrated part of the more general divine expression, thick with natural, supernatural, unexplained, inexplicable, well-understood, and even human causes. This creation of G-d, a complex weave constantly unfolding according to His desire for our universe, is at no point beyond His control, and in no way contrary to His wishes. It is, in its minutest detail, exactly the way it must be, even when it appears independently, alone, and without regard for the truth.

A Jew takes Advil instead of an egg for his headache, because ibuprofen has a quality of pain relief in its G-d-given nature. A Jew also knows that this nature has no power whatsoever outside of G-d. If it relieves his pain, it is only because he is deserving in the eyes of his Creator. This is how one may live in the realm of nature and bow to no image nor rely on any power besides G-d alone.


[i] This is without mentioning the problem of how, on a purely experimental or experiential basis, we are meant to understand the egg to be an egg, when its appearance, location, DNA, etc. are all quite different from what we have previously encountered. To rule out medicinal qualities a priori is thus to demonstrate a closed-mindedness unbecoming those who learn primarily from experience.

[ii] We have a tendency nowadays to focus on the mechanism of this medicinal nature. An in-depth exploration of why this mechanism will only ever get us so far, and the way it is more of an answer to how than why, is for a different essay.

[iii] Moreover, in the form of an intellect apparently subject to description by words.

[iv] Cf. Baal Pe’or, worshipped through defecation before its image.

[v] This raises the question of why there are miracles at all – a good question to have, for another time.