Four Useful Non-Jewish Ideologies

“The gentile makes gods of stone and we of theories.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer

Two questions:
(1) Is G-d true?
(2) Is G-d central to human perfection?

Judaism is not any particular combination of answers to these two questions.

If you answer no to both, you are what’s called an atheist. Atheism is the idea that G-d is not there, and that He plays no role in human perfection, which must be defined in terms of the human beings themselves. Atheism, however, is viewed as so contrary to logic that it is rarely mentioned in Judaism. It is, after all, merely an intellectually bankrupt form of idol worship and a spiritually bankrupt form of humanism.

Idol worship (a very common and relatively rational position) says G-d is true but that He is not central to human perfection. That is, there is such a thing as a Most High being, but that Most High being has abandoned the earth (or at least shared it) with lesser powers. G-d made the thunder, but some other being or concept rules it now; whether that concept is electromagnetism or Thor really makes no practical difference. G-d gave us a mind so we could bend these beings and concepts to our will, through sacrifice and understanding, to extend and improve our being. For the idolator, G-d answers a couple of bothersome questions so the real business of life, the navigation of the various finite powers, may begin. Judaism has been anti-idol since Abraham reached (or began to reach) intellectual maturity.

The opposite of idolatry is a dying art called “enlightened humanism” that says it does not matter if G-d is not technically true, since He is the center of a well-ordered life. In the beauty of art or the profound joy and pain of the human experience lies something once rightly called other, sublime, otherworldly. If philosophy cannot prove that these experiences point to an actually existing Infinite Creator, that makes little difference, since so much of our greatest artistic and intellectual endeavors point toward that Creator. Humanism is like the Pantheon in Rome. A beautiful classical structure with a high dome, at the center of which there is a hole, which at the time of its construction demonstrated a wondrous innovation in engineering: The building is no less beautiful, and can continue standing, even if the piece at the top and the center is missing. Judaism, of course, is founded on that center stone having taken us out of Egypt with miracles and wonders.

If you answer yes to both of the above questions, you are what is considered “traditionally religious.” You say that G-d’s Truth and His centrality to the human endeavor are one; G-d is both real, and I exist for Him. I am not sure you have yet discovered Judaism, however. The Rambam (never mind his kabbalistic critics like the Maharal) would tell you that calling G-d “true” is a gross intellectual error, and that all scriptural or rabbinic sources calling Him just that must be understood in the utmost negative abstraction, their names made possible only by revealed prophecy. A human mind landing on some notion called “truth” and then ascribing it to G-d? Preposterous. The Yiddish word for G-d is der Aibishter. The One Who Is Above, eternally above, above the thing we are conceiving Him of right now.

By the same token, to call G-d central to human perfection is so gross a contextualization as to be factually false. G-d in His Infinitude is far beyond being any basis of perfection humans may strive for, even moral perfection. Is this not the very essence of the chok, the suprarational decree no human being could possibly devise had the Torah not decreed it? We do not keep kosher for health or to have a nice ritual to make our community cohere; none of these can possibly explain the precise workings of the halacha, and bizarre cynical contrivances involving Rabbis making things up based on the norms of repudiated surrounding pagans (or the like) must come into play. This cynicism is important if you are traditionally religious; the Jew doesn’t need it, because he doesn’t have to answer yet to both questions.

Now, the Jew doesn’t deny that G-d being true and being central to human perfection are trivially (if not technically) correct. In this sense, traditional religion can serve as a vessel for Judaism, a sort of ideological shorthand for what it does not capture. Judaism as it speaks to these questions, if it is forced to speak to these questions, is like traditional religion. The problems start when that vessel coarsens and darkens, losing its role as a mere interface through which Judaism speaks to certain narrow definitions and becomes the definition itself. And when that happens, the other answers to the questions become incredibly useful.

If someone is getting too comfortable both intellectually and morally, that is, with the conflation of G-d with truth and of G-d with self-perfection, atheism is a good way to kick over their blocks. “Look at all these arguments that say the truth and the human being are both just fine without G-d.” Thus, the Chassidic Master who said that a Jew ought to be an atheist when their fellow man asks for charity or help. We ought not to say, “G-d will provide for them.” Atheism exists to break through the opacity and coarseness of our representations of G-d.

If their issue is primarily making of G-d a source of blessing and benefit to the human endeavor, idolatry is the temptation: “He exists, I grant, but it doesn’t matter! His benefits are achievable without Him. Why pray when you can work, protest, exercise, or study?” The difficult question for the believer that they ought to ask themselves every night: Is there more to me than there was to Abraham’s father? Would I have seen what my forefather saw?

Finally, if they are not concerned with fitting G-d in their heart but rather hold Him as an intellectual ideal, humanism retorts, “You can be spiritually ordered and complete as G-d would want without G-d needing to actually be there; G-d was the center of your heart all along.” Why do you sit at the Pesach Seder, or light the Chanukah menorah? Are these functionally any different than attending a museum? What makes the Jewish Film Festival Jewish? These, too, can be uncomfortable questions for comfortable Jews.

Traditional religion, in turn, reminds each of these errors that they, too, are errors. It fights atheism’s range of arguments when they wish to end the matter, rebukes idolatrous gnosticism, and rages against humanist myopia.

Meanwhile, the Jew. The Jew belongs to something else, and many sense it. As a perceptive fellow once said, “There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws differ from [those of] every people, and they do not keep the king’s laws; it is [therefore] of no use for the king to let them be.”

The king is no mere drunk historical Persian lecher. The king is The Ruler of All. The problem is, this is a worldly concept, a translation of the truth. When the Torah calls G-d King, it means He is both more a king (in the defined sense of the term) and that He is not a king at all (in that sense). The space of the ark exists to express that there is no space. The center of Judaism is the center because it is not on the map. As ideologies fight and refine themselves upon each other, we remember that they exist for G-d, and not vice versa. So should we exist.

How The Holocaust Became A Political Plaything

By some miracle, the world seemed to decide, after the holocaust, that anti-Semitism was not the Jews’ issue to be dealt with by them alone, as everyone had previously agreed, but the world’s issue to be dealt with by everyone.

This acknowledgment by the nations of the world did not immediately bring the Messiah, as we are learning this week.

On the contrary, this week we have witnessed the awful treatment of immigrant children by the United States authorities, and the fumbling, contradictory, and sometimes downright cruel statements on the matter from the Trump administration. The outcry was powerful and relatively widespread, and as of today the President seems to have reneged on the policy of family separation.

On a related but different note — and this is an important point, for I fully maintain the right to be annoyed by something else this week, no matter how utterly omnipresent some others feel their hobby-horse must be — there were a lot of people, especially online, who brought the holocaust into it.

Of course, the parallels between the dire situation of the immigrant children and Hitler’s concentration camps are very thin indeed. It goes without saying that pointing this out does not diminish the desperate need for solutions on the border at all. It is not even worth replying to the claim that one needs to be “more upset” with the “caged babies” than with the holocaust comparison.

The only part of the now-classic holocaust overreach that still interests me is: Why must the suffering of those sacred Jews be compared with whatever evil flows from your Twitter feed this evening? The people who do this are not anti-semitic. On the contrary, many of them are seeking only to raise up the cause of the immigrant children. Some of the people speaking out against it are holocaust survivors themselves. They mean no harm by their comparison, even though it essentially uses the holocaust, makes from it a tool, desacralizes it.

My question is more, how did we get here? How did one of the most uniquely evil occurrences in the history of civilization become the analogy for so many lesser evils?

My theory is that it’s explained by a historical process that has taken place since the war. As is often the case with Jewish history, it both reflects and illuminated other events taking place around us.

The profaning of the holocaust happens in three steps. To make everyone angry (it would happen anyway upon hearing the details), let’s call them liberalism, leftism, and reaction.


In the aftermath of the war, and following the miraculous “everybody’s problem”-ing of Jew hatred, there arose a new world order seeking to maintain global peace as much as possible, and raise the standard of human rights the world over. This liberal order (so-called for the way it values rights) did not view the holocaust only in its particulars, but sought to apply the lessons learned from Hitler on a broad scale.

In more cynical words, what was primarily a Jewish calamity and a Jewish story (and, for that matter, a story of the Romani, the disabled, the homosexual, etc.) was immediately abstracted into a universal cause. What was a fundamentally unique sacred (that is, incomparable) tragedy became everyone’s property.

This was inevitable, because universalism itself was the order of the day. Hitler was terribly pro-German, you see, and his chauvinism was seen as a primary cause in everything that followed. Without his inspiring belief in a country that was down and out and his populist support from patriotic Germans (and German-speaking non-Germans), his ascension to power would have been much more difficult. And of course, an endless focus on self-definition and national pride makes the “internationalist” (read: disloyal) outgroup a tempting target for scapegoating and more…

So, with the support of much of world Jewry (especially American Jews), “Never Again” came to be the slogan. It grew beyond never again in Germany, or never again in a G-d-denying techno-state, or never again for the Jews. It needed to grow beyond these things, because it was the foundational myth of a movement seeking to create a true “humankind,” a borderless global brotherhood of man, in which no genocide was possible and no one’s identity could become so powerful that the holocaust could happen again. Nationalism, populism, and a whole list of other things were deemed antithetical to this world-building, and if one objected, one could simply point to the holocaust and say, “Never Again.”

This was the beginning of how the holocaust became profane, a cheap political tool. It was a sin committed by those who truly wished to prevent another genocide.

The holocaust was a universal phenomenon, but that did not mean it could ever be used against the Jews G-d-forbid. It just meant that their story was now inclusive. What could go wrong?


Jewish fortunes turned up after the war, both in the United States and the fledgling state of Israel, whose population began to swell with refugees from the Arab world. Jews became wealthier, more successful, more accepted into the fabric of life. The long arc set in motion by the holocaust seemed to be the arc of history bending toward justice. The new status quo was defined as an anti-holocaust, and it turns out Jews thrive in anti-holocausts.

There were, however, some rumblings about Israel, rumblings that have, over the decades, grown into a roar. The very people who were the banner of broad globally applicable international human rights had settled into their own land, which they identified with their own people. They did not get along with their neighbors. They had certain populist and national views on things not shared by the nations of the world who allowed them to exist. They seemed awfully un-“Never Again” in their treatment of the Palestinians. Oh, surely they didn’t gas them by the million or what have you, but it wasn’t in the spirit of the thing.

You see, once liberalism universalized the holocaust, leftism (so-called for its side of the room) took the next logical step and took the universal principles without favoring any particular group. Fair is fair, these free-thinkers (many of them Jewish, of course) reasoned. If the world without genocide is what’s really important, we cannot give special dispensations to groups who were victims of our founding calamity. We must apply principle indiscriminately.

Of course, it is very rare within a courtroom and vanishingly unlikely outside of one to see the indiscriminate application of principle, and so this “soft leftism” soon hardened into “hard leftism.” What I am calling hard leftism loves both to eat and to have cakes. You see, the next step after abstraction and universalization of the principle is to apply it, and no one thinks everyone is equally deserving of its application. If we are to create a world of true equality and freedom, where no one need ever worry about even the potential of genocide again, we must knock down thousands of years of differences in power between various groups. We must knock them down with our own assertion of power.

“Soft leftism” says that Jews are no exception to the rules of the new order because the rules are the ultimate good. “Hard leftism,” the next step, says that because the international liberal order was created in part to negate the holocaust, and Jewish fortunes indeed improved under that order, Jews are especially obligated to help those who are now at a disadvantage. “How can you sit by and do nothing,” the Jew is asked, “when you were the primary victim of the holocaust?”

What is important about the calamity perpetrated by the Nazis is not the story of what happened to the Jews per se, nor even the general lessons learned from the tragedy, but the new world free of oppression that must be created, and the old world of imbalance that must be destroyed. And it is from this perspective that even alleging the holocaust may have some uniquely Jewish or sacred quality can itself be seen as a perpetuation of the holocaust. The transformation of the definition is complete. The true holocaust is the system of oppression that must be destroyed. The false holocaust is the historical event.

Sadly, there is a third stage to the holocaust’s transformation.


The reaction (so-called for being the third step) is the logical outcome of hard leftism. Once power is asserted to demolish the world of imbalance and oppression, those who are being knocked down a few pegs will come to question the worthiness of the wrecking crew.

Where liberalism was mere universal principle and everyone theoretically had a seat at the table, leftism is more proactive and exclusionary. “Good people” under the liberal order have no inherent moral standing under the leftist order if they do not actively contribute to the demolition process. Many, indeed, benefit from or are privileged by historical imbalances that cannot be fixed by a personal adherence to principle.

The newly evil question their status, and see an assertion of power against them in service of an ideology. They decide to fight fire with fire. If they are going to be told to sit down, shut up, and let others rule, for that will bring balance to the world, they will stand up, make noise, and throw off the definitions that seek to bracket them.

Underlying this world order which seeks to bind them with rules beyond their control and definitions that do not depend on their actions, they find the holocaust and the reaction to it. The Jews, they see, are the original victim group, the original protected class from whom the order drew inspiration. And they fill with resentment. The Jews are not a people who have suffered. They are a people who make others suffer. The holocaust is now the name for a reviled system of power and control, invented in the name of the Jews.

The perspective of the reaction is, of course, similar (in some ideological respects) to the philosophy of those who perpetrated the actual holocaust.


The reaction is not the end of this process, but rather a step in a vicious cycle, as we can see from a lot of the animus surrounding the holocaust analogy this week.

Those holding by a leftist view of the holocaust are angry with Jews who object to comparing the Nazis to the Trump administration’s immigration policy. They see all the objection as a distraction from the mission of ending oppression now, a mission ironically inspired in part by the holocaust. The actual event of the holocaust is, in their eyes, a distraction from the essence of the holocaust, the world of imbalance. And to allege that the holocaust is in some way sacred and incomparable is to forfeit one’s true Judaism rather than to defend it.

The reaction, in turn, is sick of being told that everything is the holocaust, and view it as an excuse for control. Judaism is, in their eyes, merely a facet of the imposed world order. They double down on rejecting all holocaust language, and anything that language is used to castigate.

The left, in turn, doubles down even further. They insist that this rejection of the holocaust comparison is, in face, a rejection of their entire world-view, which is tantamount to the rejection of goodness itself, which is, of course, to perpetrate a small holocaust.

And so on it goes with every political issue in the age of Trump, who more than any other single figure has signalled the beginning of the end for the liberal order of individual moral responsibility. With the decay of the liberal order, the power struggle intensifies daily. Holocaust-as-any-and-all-oppression and holocaust-as-method-of-control war constantly. And those Jews who see the holocaust as simply the holocaust are lost.


How do we break this cycle?

Undo liberalism? The reaction is working hard at that already, and it’s hard to see how it’s good for the Jews. Many of them wish, ultimately, to reverse what we’ve called liberalism itself, to try to go back to some older world order, to break the bonds of internationalism, in short, to reverse time. And it is an unavoidable fact that the times under the new order have been the best times for Jews to be Jews in history.

I think the key may lie in keeping liberalism, but avoiding its more radical universalizing qualities. Adherence to principle and personal moral action should remain important, so as to avoid the old tribalism, but on the other hand, they must not come at the expense of individual and irreducible stories and souls. In short, the key is to see the holocaust as a lesson for all mankind, but a lesson grounded in a particular story that happened to particular people that cannot be taken away from them or melted down into analogical applications.

This blend of irreducible identity and universal morality is itself a classic hallmark of the Jewish mission. It parallels the blend of ineffable soul and grounded body. It is the unity of qualifying and universalizing reason with the self-contained soul that precedes the era of the Moshiach, when there will be an end to darkness and evil will be swallowed up forever.

What A Jew Wants (Doesn’t Matter)

In a sense, an anti-Semite might be forgiven for attributing all evil to the Jews, as there is no evil we will not learn, argue about, contemplate during Shmoneh Esrei, dream about on Shabbos, and master. The anti-Semite thinks the Jews want to conquer the world. Like all good ideas, he stole this from the Jews and got all the details wrong.

A Jew, after millennia of breeding and education on his chosen role in G-d’s creation, is a hungry sieve. He does not turn the blood of gentiles into pastries or the money of rural farms into globalist skyscrapers in Sweden. These are the limited visions of pallid yokels. A Jew turns neutral things in to Jewish things.

What is a Jewish thing? No, not controlling the weather, nor whatever Louis Farrakhan thinks we do in the flickering Walgreens he calls a brain. The only thing that’s distinctly Jewish is our pact with G-d; we’re a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, and in return he destroys the Roman Empire and shoots Hitler though Hitler his messenger. So: A Jew is a sieve. Neutral things go in, things in an eternal pact with G-d come out.

Take the Marxists (please, take them). Karl had Jewish roots but was also a rabid anti-Semite, equating the Jews with capitalism and capitalism with, you know. This has not stopped Jews from snooping around Karl’s books, curious what everyone was so excited about. A Jew is a hungry sieve, you see, and if the world is putting something new on the table, our stomachs start rumbling. Is he really saying that economics contains the key to human suffering? Let us see, let us see. Humans once lived in a society without division, and one day we will again. You have nothing to lose but your chains! Moses calls to an enslaved people with a lost G-d. He tells them to believe, and it is our story, and what was a mundane tale of class exploitation now slips free from the bonds of time and approaches Sinai…

Butbutbut isn’t Marx an atheist materialist? The Jews who follow him agree! How can their participation suddenly make Marxism as Jewish as stepping out when the Rabbi picks the Iraqi chazzan for Mussaf?

First, who said “suddenly”? A small sieve takes a long time to chew through a world-historical buffet. Second, nu nu. You think the Jews are participating in atheism. Perhaps atheism is participating in Judaism. The non-belief in the Creator while yearning for a future of true equality is a non-belief opening the door to some wild G-dliness heretofore off the table. Limiting G-d to existing is so pedestrian, worse than complaining the Left Bank smelled like sewerage.

Besides, the sieve doesn’t believe in anything per se. The sieve does not prefer rice to water. It sorts them with a perfect lack of cognition (as far as I know. Perhaps I can here annoy a panpsychist). It sorts at a mechanical level, because at some base undeniable substrate these things don’t go through those holes and other things do. The sieve may worship rice, may offer sacrifices in the sacred paddy and eat it on Pesach (Sephardi), or rebel against it and deny it ever was and eat it on Pesach (Ashkenazi); the sieve will sort it from water all the same.

To see it’s not intellectual at all, take the Marxists, as in, Groucho. Jews want comedy. Many have written about this. A defense mechanism against oppression, sure, maybe, but why does the tradition continue in Brooklyn where the only suffering is rust and gentrification? And Manhattan? Seinfeld is not suffering (from Airline food?) the way the Jews joking about Stalin were. He is drawn, like so many of his fellow tribesmen and -women, to incongruity, the illogical. He does not see a covenant with G-d in this, though a comedian is a Jewish thing to be, and there’s a reason for that.

A Jew famously wants cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur morning. But a Jew remembers it’s Yom Kippur and in violating the fast with treif food he recalls the covenant.

A really devoted Jew forgets it’s Yom Kippur. This is almost impossible in Israel, which is why this particular form of devotion had been left by G-d to the Americans. The Jew does not think to violate Yom Kippur, because the Jew does not remember there is anything to break. Yet he is a hungry sieve, working at apathy. A Jew puts apathy in a Jewish context; even water run through a sieve is water run through a sieve.

A Jew flees across the sea and puts mountains between him and the city. He marries a non-Jew and spends his life drinking cheap beer and hunting. The sieve is moved to locations and modes it has rarely seen before.

A Jew is a sieve, by heritage and millennia of education. His very being says, “It must be this way, not that way.” Azoi, un nit anderesh.

The redemption is coming. The first time, when we were taken from bondage, you may have been left behind, because you would not strain yourself, would not let go of the illusion that you are like everyone else.

This time, no one will be left behind.

The only question: Will you become a partner in it? Will you let your mind and heart be sieved as well? Will you, in the last moments of illusion, consent to what you are?

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

If Haman Was My Rebbe

I would never take Haman as my Rebbe, nor advise anyone else to do so. But if I did, he would tell me to stop caring about the answers.

The tragedy of Haman, his death-struggle with G-d and the Jewish people that ends with him dangling from his own gallows – it is trivialized by answers. If we seek answers there, we miss the entire point.

“If G-d really exists,” you might ask Haman (if you were stupid enough to make him your Rebbe), “why doesn’t He show Himself?”

“What then?” Haman would answer, before perpetrating some unconscionable act of genocidal violence. What then? Who cares whether He shows Himself or not?

You look at Auschwitz and ask where was G-d, as if some answer to the question will make you happy, as if with the secrets of creation spread out at your feet you would still find your question important. You do not want the release of an answer. You want the draw of the question. Understanding where G-d was would only obviate your question, reduce Auschwitz to something necessary, part of some plan. Really, your question is not searching for an answer; it is a question in search of itself. This is the type of question Haman likes.

Haman would tell you to quit your arrogance and realize your life is not ruled by answers. You do not sit in judgement of it. It is something that largely happens to you, with some rather important choices in the middle. G-d happens to Haman. Haman is a believer, in this sense. G-d is true to him. And he does not care. This is maturity.

Haman repudiates the trendy doubts of small minds, the materialisms and the atheisms, the naturalistic scientism and the happy agnosticism. These are doubts for men who don’t know. Haman is a higher class of rebel. Haman is a man who can know and doubt at the same time; this is the only true form of unbelief. His doubt is unconditional. It is an existential fact of the universe. Haman doubts the same way the sea fills its bed.

Haman sneers at petty men who, faced with the Truth, see no room but to follow it. He is a scion of Agag, a king of Amalek. When the whole world feared to raise a hand against the Hebrews and their almighty G-d, his people stood alone. There is a terrible courage to marching to certain defeat because His dominion cannot seem absolute.

The Jew is Haman’s area of expertise. He knows that in the Jew he finds his eternal enemy. Where he knows and rebels anyway, the Jew doubts and follows anyway. The Jew is doing and then understanding. The Jew cares not for the always-qualified approval of the world. The Jew does not need answers. Just like Haman.

Haman loves learning, and would insist that all his followers be great scholars. Learning is a wonderful experience, where we bring truths into our world and watch them glint in the light of our understanding. They belong to us. Haman is fond of possessions.

Haman would tell his Chassidim (could there be such a thing?!) never to miss a day of Torah study, to always say a kind word to their neighbor and always consider the less-fortunate. Haman would have no problem telling you to give charity or to contemplate the creator or to march for justice in Palestine. It’s all the same to him; whatever you want, darling. As long as you remain the one who chooses, who cares?

“Who cares?” is your mantra when every answer has a question. You could tell Haman that Amalek is only created by the G-d he believes in to pose an obstacle on the Jews’ way to redemption. “Who cares?” he would ask, before demonstrating clearly that all things which can and cannot be are equal before his true Infinity, and the story of the Jews is merely a contrivance with a beginning and an end, and he would never let you live such a superficial life. A chassid must not be bribed by the surface purposes of contingent, “meaningful” existence. Sure, being a good person is meaningful at some level, but next to eternity…don’t kid yourself, is all he’s saying. “Meaning” is a crutch. If there is something you must do, you do it regardless.

At his tish, Haman teaches: If you do something for G-d because you are certain it means something, you worship not G-d but your own certainty. It is the veil of doubt that makes G-d most real, for we then serve Him in purity. Amalek did it when it was difficult, when G-d was splitting seas and draping darkness, when they were absolutely certain. So a Jew must do it when it’s difficult, when G-d is hidden, when Achashverosh is the clear power in the world.

When Mordechai does not bend and does not bow, Haman understands it perfectly. The Jew cannot be bought with power. They cannot be bought with physical pleasures. They cannot be bought with “meaning,” a life of purpose in the court of a great king. They are stiff-necked and cling stubbornly to the Truth; they will serve G-d, no matter how desolated the holy city, no matter how bitter the exile. There is no way to tear them from this task. Genocide is a quick solution kludged together when all else fails.

Haman, in his plot, brings out the very best of the Jew. They are two halves, and if Haman were (G-d forbid) a teacher of G-d’s wisdom, he would dare his followers to be every bit as committed, every bit as tenacious, as his genocidal plot indicates. He would encourage them in their worship.

In fact, Haman would be happy with the entire Judaism. Except for Purim, of course.

Haman hates Purim, because Purim makes from Haman a Rebbe. Everything is reversed, the chain reaction of his doubt is shown to be a recursive loop in the mind of G-d; it is infinite, He is in it.

He hates Purim, because on Purim it is not the individual who chooses, but G-d who chooses, and G-d can choose anything.

He can choose to make the world mean something.

He can choose to make Mitzvos mean something.

He can choose to know (and so create) the Unity beneath all dualities, and so do away with any dramatic and eternal rivalries. He can make Amalek not some great enemy, but merely another iteration of the same message, another sign.

And He does it all without showing his face, without breaking the doubt.

The doubt is in place.

Yet Haman certainly dies.

My Thoughts When You Quit Observant Judaism

Maybe you’re right.

If you’re right, why do I stay? Joining you would be moral.

You’re not right; you can’t be. All of a sudden, a profound personal philosophy? Yesterday you were chugging the power hour.

Oh, you quote professors now.

Did you specifically learn new Torah sources to reject them? What books have you been reading? I must read them. I must not read them.

Epissedoffmology.

How can you do this to me? You call me blind to everything you see.

Am I supposed to just sit here while you mock what’s most important to me? I’ll wipe that self-righteous grin off your faces.

I can convince you to stay.

I can martial arguments I find convincing. I will put them forward in my most reasonable voice. My tone says, “You’re hurting me.”

At least you’re now following the authentic Judaism of the Talmudic sages to the letter, unhindered by the reforms of Moses.

If it’s all just a choice, choose to be with me.

I love you and everything, but stop pretending this changes nothing.

There are three of us now, you, me, and the Torah, and you cannot speak without sounding jealous, but I remember when the Torah was our love-letter, not my mistress.

I choose Torah over you? Who is this “you” and when was it born?

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

I can’t convince you of anything.

Faith is all I have, and I cannot give it to you. Before, you saw that as wealth. Now, you think I’m poor. I have not changed.

Retreat, retreat. To the small keep, inside.

I can roll my eyes as high as you.

We can still be friends. If we can’t still be friends, you’ll say it’s my fault.

You say you’re “just asking questions” but they all run in one direction.

Well, this hurts.

Maybe I don’t get it because I wasn’t raised religious.

You’re so powerfully authentic, to question. Thank you for joining the club. Thank you for questioning every day, for struggling, for plumbing ever-deeper into what belongs to you. Oh, you’ve left.

I liked you better as I imagined you, sitting before the feat of our shared sages, appreciating the same light, before you opened your mouth and leaped from the tapestry demanding that you, too, were to be encountered.

Repent before me.

Why am I not leaving?

Maybe I’m brainwashed.

I don’t think I’m brainwashed.

You say I’m full of wishful thinking.

I don’t think so.

Don’t you see it’s personal for me?

Why is it all so personal? I need it to be. I hate that it is.

It’s all just labels. We’re really the same, maybe? I hope it doesn’t talk about souls anywhere in Judaism.

I can see in your eyes you’re ready for the part of the movie where we realize loving each other is more important than our intransigent ideological commitments. I’m not ready. I hate those movies.

I probably sin more than you do, but for me it’s unofficial.

You probably care more about Judaism than I do.

You probably have a deeper relationship with G-d than I do. The screenwriters were always on your side.

It’s all just group identity, and you didn’t care to stay in my group. What now? Shall I impale you upon a spear?

I can’t wait for you to abandon the restrictive social codes of religious society so you can acquire better restrictive social codes you apply to all my actions. When did I ever judge you, by the way?

I have never encountered more restrictive rules in my life than in trying to navigate a conversation with you since the fall.

Perhaps I’m your heretic.

I’m sorry. I’m not at fault here. Just thoughts.

You make me feel every time I mention Judaism I’m an evangelist. I hope you’re fooled by my smile/grimace when you bring up psychology.

How can we be having a genuinely angry argument over Artificial Intelligence? The joke is obvious.

You didn’t stick around long enough to observe the strange unfolding of the blossoms from bitter and rejected seeds.

You can’t be fixed. Judaism can’t be fixed for you. Fixing them is breaking them. And you’re meant to be an end, not a means.

You can bring the horse to water but you can’t make him read a book without a million catty comments.

Agony! Can we not step into the past, wrap it around ourselves, and settle among its answers? Religion comes between us? What we imagine comes between us. The future comes between us.

Maybe I don’t get it because I never did hallucinogens.

You tie it to who you are, lay down before me, and dare me to tread on you, but you crouch behind objectivity like a shield. The day is young, but, before sunset, you’ll pick one.

I don’t want to think I’m better than you, but if you dare me…

Even the old songs wither in your mouth. Not because you intend it. Because I can’t slip my mind, in order to find you, past the ironic remove at which you’ve set yourself.

You seem not to like it when I take your choice too seriously.

Why are you still living in this neighborhood?

You don’t want me to define you even by the definitions you provide. You want to float unmoored in pure self-definition. You want to be worshipped, not evaluated.

I know the way is true. I still don’t doubt it’s true. Yet we also stand apart, and so I pause. Must it last forever?

Fine, don’t stay for the experience. Stay for the struggle with the experience. Fine, stay for the struggle with the struggle. Stay for the struggle with the struggle with the –

Am I supposed to pretend I don’t want you to be observant?

I disagree but can’t argue.

Maybe I don’t get it because I’m not handsome enough.

There is some ending to this story where you come over to my side, right?

I can step back and see how we’re united in our opposition. I can step back further and see how that’s not good enough. Stop me when I hit a wall, if you still believe in those.

G-d has made it in such a way that it matters a lot that you’re doing this together with me.

Why can’t we be together?

Why don’t I leave?

Maybe you’re right.

But I won’t.

What do you know about being religious that I don’t?

At least you can go to those deep rebel farbrengens without being sniffed out as a fascinated impostor.

I’m insulted.

What about my worship of G-d was so fake and so horrible it couldn’t inspire you to stay?

You’re going to swear a lot now to prove how real you are, aren’t you?

At least you made a choice.

Infinite questions, no acceptable answers.

Let’s play the game where we guess which book fuels today’s rebellion.

Almost anything is forgivable, except that you’re more forgiving than me.

I hope it changes nothing.

In the end, perhaps we’re all in the cradle or the grave.

You say my whole life is built upon a mistake you made in your teens.

Make me hate you, then explain how it’d all be so much more peaceful if no one believed in anything.

The one who gets angry first loses.

Are you going to be a good person now? Weird. I thought you were a good person from the day we met.

I’m sorry.

It’s a mitzvah to love you, to rebuke you, to draw you closer. If I don’t do any of these things, and let the relationship atrophy, perhaps finally, finally, we would be alike.

I hold out secret hope that I’ll stumble over the key to winning you over. You hold out the same hope. This is how we love each other now.

Maybe I care about these things more than I love you. Perhaps it was a conditional love. Perhaps it was what we had in common that kept me from your depths. Perhaps this is our long-short road.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Why They Lie To You In BT Yeshiva

The reason you’re lied to in Baal Teshuva Yeshiva is that Judaism is not a cult.

People think a cult is full of falsehood and deception but I’m not sure this is quite right. A cult doesn’t need to lie to you because it does not consider you a thinking human being. A cult manipulates you to be unable to tell reality from fiction and then sells you a truth, a big truth, a truth so overwhelming and simple that the pains and complexity of society and family fade away and life is permeated by a diffuse, passive light compelling and inexorable as the fall, before which the candle of your own soul pales, spits, and gutters…

A cult uses your capacity for attaining the truth to destroy you. Science, with its narrow vision, has the privilege of sharing facts without much concern for transcendent truth. But forging true observant Jews is not a science. It is an art, and art uses lies to tell the truth.

Take, for example, a common conversation from the study hall. Nathan (please call him Nesanel now) insists he’s ready to start wearing black and white and growing a beard. What is a responsible teacher in a position of authority to tell him?

If the Yeshiva is a cult, the Rabbi tells him that he has actually waited too long, because the truth is attained through action and the dress code is one of the actions. Indeed, those who pursue enlightenment must wear black and white; this is the shape that all true adherents take, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a heretic from the outer darkness who wants to use word games to keep you from the truth. Your friends or family might object to this move, but really there is only one thing that matters, and sacrifices must be made if you wish to achieve it. The other students here are too stuck in their own minds to come to this wisest of conclusions, and once you’ve made this change, your superior decision will be pointed out to all the others as an example.

If the Yeshiva is an (ideal) institute of science or some other secular understanding, the Rabbi will present the predicted effects of wearing black and white on Nathan and his environs, based on past examples. A dress code of sorts is excellent for social cohesion in the Yeshiva environment but may have adverse effects on family life. As for the truth as expressed in the actions beyond their practical effects, one wonders about it with a sunny and detached agnosticism; what is the measure of sincerity, or faith, or being an authentic Jew? Who can say? (Some even go so far as declaring all truth to be action itself, that fact and truth are entangled and pragmatism is the highest philosophy.) Until truth can be quantified it does not exist for practical purposes; take your action or don’t, and witness the consequences.

If the Yeshiva is devoted to the delicate art of forming real Jews, the Rabbi’s answer must be complicated, for the same reason art must use lies to tell the truth (as I’ve written about before). If a cult believes that Truth demands the death of the individual, and the “facts-based” approach will not approach the Truth at all, the goal of a true religion is to find some sort of union (or at least common ground) between the Truth and the individual.

The Truth is ineffable and simple, and therefore cannot be communicated, even to the perhaps paltry extent the Rabbi has attained it.

The individual is complex, communicates only through fragmented words, and is looking for an answer.

What follows is a game. It is one of those delightful games, like Petals Around The Rose, in which victory entails figuring out the rules of the game. The Truth, by its very nature, cannot be communicated. And so the lies begin.

The Rabbi will say to do it, or not to do it, or cite some source on the topic at hand. Then, later, in public, they may say the decision made was the wrong one, and advocate the opposite. They will say that the truth is found through both, or the truth is found through neither (but one decision is still the right one). They’ll think that perhaps Nathan should wear black and white but will not tell him so because they don’t want it to be interpreted as their advice. They’ll think that he should not wear black and white and tell him so and then hope that perhaps he does not listen.

What the Rabbi will not do (if the truth is his concern) is give a simple answer, or say the question entirely does not matter. He cannot give a simple answer to the question any more than he can catch God in his pocket and save Him for a rainy day. He can only give an answer that is not an answer, the hunger-inducing bread of heaven, and play the person between the poles, and hope they reach enlightenment.

The seemingly simple question of whether Nesanel should start growing out his beard does not have a simple answer.

The answer is what G-d desires, which is what the G-dly soul desires, which we come to desire by leaving behind the dumb preconceptions of the rational animal.

The answer is the process of answering the question.

The answer is the truth of our own selves we come to through showing our work on both sides of the question.

The answer is that you cannot make something as real as a Jew with an answer.

The answer is that we must live and try it and see if it fits.

The answer is to be true to ourselves and true to the Truth, and figure out how to make them fit.

The answer is that God wants a beard, and wants Nesanel, and wants Nesanel’s beard.

The answer is to pray.

The answer is to tell the truth.

The answer is to play the game, to win, but with love.

Some people do not take kindly to games, however. They don’t understand that they are playing, or they understand something is afoot and it conflicts with their desire for authenticity. They don’t realize that questions about Judaism are aimed at an infinite ineffable faith-bond with God and get upset with difficult answers. They usually end up moving either toward the overwhelming extreme of the cult (which says it can communicate the Truth) or the pragmatic conquests of secularism (which pretends the Truth does not exist because it’s really good at accomplishing things while ignoring it).

They go off and meet some charismatic (or particularly uncharismatic) mentor who has all the answers and tells them there simply are no Jews who wear black and white or who don’t wear black and white. They meet FFBs who never really had to ask the question and take it for granted and say it has a simple answer, the same, for everyone, always, and that’s the end of the matter. They meet someone who never cared about G-d who mocks the game because he cannot eat it or mate with it. They sleep easier after telling themselves that all those agonizing games when they were younger were unnecessary complications from which they are finally free. They find simple answers you can read in a book, without realizing the books are written for orphans and what they need is a parent.

They might read in a book that Tiferes, beauty, is one of the middle sefiros, a synthesis of each side that somehow forms the middle. They might read that Tiferes is also the quality of truth, which like the middle beam stretches unchanged from the heights to the depths. They might read that Tiferes is the quality of Jacob, who is synonymous with Torah, which is synonymous with Truth — that beauty is truth, and truth beauty, and that it is specifically the middle path, where the contradictions should be greatest, that stretches up to God.

They read it all, and perhaps regret they weren’t wise enough to live it.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Is Jewish Religious Tolerance Condescending?

Famously, Judaism does not want everyone to be Jewish. Our vision of a perfect world includes other religions and we even discourage conversion. But more and more lately, perhaps in consonance with a rise in introspection regarding “tolerance” in general, I have seen non-Jews view this open-mindedness with suspicion and even outright contempt. “Surely,” they insist, “you don’t believe those other religions to be as true as Judaism, or you’d convert.”

Good point. A Jew obviously values Judaism, and if he or she takes it seriously, they clearly don’t hold Christianity, say, to be as correct, even if they do hold it to be valid. To an outsider (and even to a Jew who has not really thought about it) this seems like confusion at best or PR sophistry at worst, a dishonest and condescending “pat on the head” to non-Jews.

There are several ways to square seeing other religions as “valid” but not as true as Judaism, and some are more honest than others.

Many today would, I suspect, instinctually reach for the pluralist panic button, that very Jewish invention that declares (through a bullhorn, protest sign, or bumper sticker) that society is better when we allow the mutually-exclusive claims of various faiths to coexist. Pluralism is quite the leviathan to fry, and to properly dismiss it we’d need to deal with relativism[i], perennialism[ii], interfaith relations[iii], the role of Judaism in a diverse and/or secular society[iv]…suffice it to say that the issues are complex and would require in-depth discussion. However, most of that discussion would miss the point entirely. Our question is in the main religious and philosophical, a matter of truth that could reasonably exist in a world consisting of a single human being trying to choose the right path. The more practical concerns of pluralism are of secondary importance if truth is our priority. If at all possible, we must try to find an internal solution that prioritizes the truths within Judaism and hope that correct social results will follow.

Another approach that misses the mark is to double down on the practical, rather than ideological, essence of Judaism. Clearly, our religion is more one of orthopraxy, correct action, than orthodoxy, correct thinking, what with the Rabbinical disagreement over even the very foundations of Jewish belief. If, indeed, “the action is the main thing,” what does it matter if other religions believe in different prophets or (in our view) false messiahs? Actions are what matter! Unfortunately, aside from not really solving the problem—we still believe it’s “better” to put on Tefillin than (l’havdil!) taking the eucharist—this approach ignores what few orthodoxies are fundamental to Judaism. For example, the first two of the Ten Commandments seem rather important, and though we may riotously disagree on the precise nature of G-d there is no question it’s important that Tefillin are for, or at the bare minimum signify, Him.

The best answer, instead, stems from an acknowledgment that Jews do believe in certain truths, and that we believe in them to the exclusion of others. In what sense, then, are other religions “correct”?

The first clue lies in the Seven Noahide Laws, which Judaism holds apply to all of humanity. The difference between these seven and the Jewish 613 is not quantitative but qualitative as well. Though some, such as David Hazony and Dennis Prager, see the Ten Commandments as the recipe for a successful civilization, the Rebbe sees that as the role of the Noahide Laws[v]. After all, the Ten Commandments and the experience at Sinai are the birth of Judaism, where G-d refers to Himself specifically as the redeemer from Egypt. Morality and G-d’s moral law, on the other hand, predate the Sinaitic event by the Torah’s account. The Noahide Laws serve as the rules that make order out of human chaos, that transform the jungle of homo homini lupus into a sustainable civilization and, as such, constitute Judaism’s clearest statement of universal human morality.

And the first of the Noahide Laws is the belief in G-d.

How, one wonders, can the non-Jewish code begin with a decidedly religious command? If the entire world is meant to believe in the G-d of the Jews, how “tolerant” of other religions are we, really? And if this god they must believe in is not our god, how do we really attribute validity to their religions?

This brings us to the second clue, which is that Judaism is not a religion in the typical sense of the word. We have already mentioned how we value orthopraxy over orthodoxy. But in fact even orthopraxy is secondary to the Jewish identity, as is race, nationality, and even theism itself. While there is a defined Jewish religion, Jews can be atheists, non-practicing, or even, in some respects, converts to other faiths, while still remaining Jewish. Judaism is not just a set of actions or beliefs but an essential state acquired by inheritance; I am Jewish because my mother is Jewish. More broadly, we are all Jewish because we or our parents converted, at Sinai or later, and the Jewish conversion process is a merging of stories, the joining of fates within the Jewish mission and the Jewish narrative. To be Jewish is an immutable identity because things that have already happened are immutable; the past is immutable. You cannot undo being born to your mother or taking an oath at the foot of the mountain.[vi]

The Noahide Laws and the intrinsic nature of Judaism bring each other into clear focus. Judaism holds that our G-d, creator of heaven and earth, belongs to all mankind, but that the Jews have a special relationship with him based on the covenant made at the mountain. In turn, this means that the covenant at the mountain, if it introduces a new truth, introduces it not universally but particularly as part of the Jewish story.

More simply: There are two truths about the one G-d. He is both the Creator of heaven and earth and He who took us out from Egypt, and these are different not only contextually but to their very core.

The G-d who creates heaven and earth is, in the eyes of Judaism, a fundamental pillar of creating a lasting civilization, Jewish or otherwise. He is the G-d that the Rambam says we can know, the first existence who needs no others but upon whom all others depend. This G-d can be reached by logic and is the possession of all humankind; He can be presented in argument, puzzled over, contemplated through positive or negative theology. When we say we respect other religions, we respect them inasmuch as they grasp this widely-available truth, at it could be argued the majority of them do.[vii]

On the other hand, the G-d of the exodus from Egypt is He who made a personal covenant with a certain group of people, that unchangeable covenant of the past. The G-d accessed through the covenant is personally bound to us and us to him beyond his involvement in the world’s creation. Our relationship with him is based on faith, forged in the crucible of Egypt by great miracles and hardened at Sinai by a G-dly choice from beyond the veil. The circumstances transcended reason and the laws of nature, and it formed the foundation for all time of our tribe’s relationship with G-d.

So, do Jews believe our religion is “more true” than other religions? Yes, and we would never forfeit our unique relationship with G-d, on pain of no longer being Jewish. Is it therefore false and condescending to say we value other religions?

Not at all. Because the unique truths of Judaism are not something we’re in a position to share. Reason can be shared; faith cannot.[viii] I believe Tefillin are true, but they’re true because they reflect a choice of G-d to care about them conveyed to us through a prophet thousands of years ago. You can possibly doubt that occurrence; you can certainly doubt what it meant; you are not part of the tribe that witnessed it. Our experiences are fundamentally our own, and, beyond what is the common inheritance of all minds, we cannot expect the world the understand them. It is in the shared collective present that we all participate. Heaven and earth were made for all men, and their G-d can be argued for rationally, experienced universally, and shared. Ultimately, we have a subjective and objective relationship with the creator, and the latter belongs to everyone. It is this common ground that we value, and beyond it we have no hopes of convincing others anyway.

True, we do believe that the G-d of the Jews is also the G-d of the universe, but we cannot argue it and we cannot share it. Like all matters of faith, it is a digital switch; it is either on or off, a 1 or a 0, something that happened or did not. It is simple and therefore ineffable and it is not created by us but has happened to us by no personal merit of our own.

Ultimately, much of the truth of Judaism is intimately tied up with being Jewish, which is not a choice we make[ix]. And being Jewish is itself a mysterious matter that precedes our choice, something that happened in the moment between exile and redemption. If billions of G-d’s human beings have not yet hung still in that moment, devoid of all velocity, alone with the creator, we can still celebrate with them the impossible creation, the something from nothing we all call home.

 


[i] That no one’s more correct than anyone else, which I’d be willing to bet a shiny quarter no one has ever believed.

[ii] That deep down we all believe the same thing, a rather lazy assumption powerfully tested by every major religion and way of life. For a short and (from the Jewish perspective at least) perceptive book on the subject, try God Is Not One.

[iii] When we find out that a Jew not acting like a Jew, a Christian not acting like a Christian, and a Muslim not acting like a Muslim turn out to all be exactly alike.

[iv] Other than works of genius like the New York bagel or the script for Annie Hall.

[v] For one of many times the Rebbe applied this approach, see this exchange about the Arab birthrate in Israel.

[vi] And metaphysically, it is these experiences (and also those of the forefathers) that convey to us the Pintele Yid, the Jewish spark that constitutes the deepest and most permanent part of the Jewish soul.

[vii] There is even a laxer standard for the gentile’s affirmation of G-d’s unity, as shittuf, the attribution of causative agency to intermediaries or emissaries, is permitted to the non-Jew. For a treatment of the shared G-d of many Eastern and Western religions, you cannot beat the excellent The Experience of God.

[viii] This is, on the view of the Kabbalah, why G-d bothers to create reason at all, an unchanging objective reality beyond subjective experience. Without an objective reality (accessed by the intentional mind through reason) G-d would forever be separate from his creation; it is specifically the objective reality that is shared. This is also why few aspects of Judaism are purely subjective and most are at least in some way accessible for understanding to the non-Jew; it is through the objective aspects of Judaism that we meet G-d outside of ourselves, as is his deepest desire.

[ix] We even say this is true of converts, who are retroactively revealed to be lost Jewish souls.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Hello. It’s 2 AM. And Pesach Is Coming.

I learn Torah now from 2:30 to 3:30 on Thursday mornings.

This is how it happened: I have a chevrusa (a one-on-one study session) with a genius from Israel once a week. It involves a lot of him talking very quickly and me nodding as if I understand, and we used to do it at 8:30 P.M. his time, 1:30 P.M. my time, when I was in Atlanta. But now I am in Hong Kong, and his schedule cannot change, and so — 2:30 A.M.

So now on Thursday night I typically go to sleep at 10, wake up at 2, go back to sleep at 3:45 (if I can), and get up at 9 (work starts later on Thursday, making all this possible — thanks, G-d!). At around 2:10 A.M. I make a cup of tea and drink it staring out the apartment’s living room window at the lights and the bay. Then I grab a liter of water and a cup, open Google Hangouts, and find our place in my copy of Moreh Nevuchim. There is no sound other than the thankless toil of the air conditioner.

A ring pierces the silence.

I start, resist the urge to look over my shoulder, paranoid. I am worried about…what exactly? I am worried about the cosmic balance upset by this clandestine antemeridian study session. Surely this venture cannot succeed.  I, who cannot do anything consistently for more than two days, am going to keep a commitment to learn medieval philosophy at witching hour? An outrage. A scandal. When do I learn during my regular daily schedule, I wonder. I seem to rack up way more hours playing video games and concocting brilliant Facebook statuses….

My teacher’s face appears on my laptop screen against the backdrop of his library.

We do not greet each other.

Greetings are a luxury. Greetings are for day-time Torah, part of the schedule, that hallowed space before work or on lunch break or during the commute. Even out-of-the-ordinary occurrences still occasion a greeting; the order of life itself condones a touch of madness, allowing for a “fancy meeting you here” or even a “good evening, officer.” We expect the unexpected, some of the time.

But when you wake up at an hour normally reached only by accident (“oh look, half a season of Daredevil I haven’t watched!”) to do something good that is totally unnecessary, salutations are the least of your worries.

In the moment before we fail to greet each other, I find myself surrounded by the spirits of all the Yeshiva students I have known who somehow studied Torah for twelve hours a day. My memories of them encircle me, like a strange cross between priori incantatem and the bickering familial spirits of that great masterwork Mulan:

“Philosophy, shmilosophy. 100 pages of Talmud a year! That’s what Rabbi K. says!”

“Yeah, you’re really devoted to chassidus. That’s why you show up to learn it so often.”

“Pesach is coming and I’ve only learned the Alter Rebbe’s Shulchan Aruch with Kuntres Acharon. I feel like such a slacker.”

“You know, this weird middle-of-the-night once-a-week tryst with the Rambam only serves to salve your guilt over all the other learning you’re not doing.”

“You’d know for sure whether to say birchas haTorah before this chevrusa if you were not fundamentally irresponsible.”

But this puritan pantheon, this cruel court, this glowing nimbus of garish guilt implodes the instant my teacher says, “Can you hear me? Good. We are on page…”

The Rambam speaks tonight on the eternality of the world and the nature of volition. Our discussion, like all our Rambam discussions, terminates in that Great Mystery who is the G-d of his philosophy. If the Guide is an intricate chamber of complex, crystalline design, then G-d is its oculus, the highest point to which everything converges, where is found — nothing, a gap, empty space, a window to the sun.

And together, in the night, we taste the sun-Torah. Here, in the Moreh, is a Judaism in which G-d does not move and our goal is to become refined enough to appreciate His stillness. Here is a universe governed by order flowing from the commonsense reality of what is, rather than underlying abstract principle. It is a worldview in which randomness is the opposite of order, an exception that proves the rule, at odds with the modern idea that randomness is the rule that generates the world’s apparent order.

The philosophy of the Rambam can rub us 2 A.M. learners the wrong way.

Because we revel in a bit of randomness. Because disorder is our operation space. Because Purim precedes our Passover.

Because we are the night thieves.

We steal the witching hour for Torah study and a friendly conversation on Jewish belief. When the sun sets we crawl out of our flop houses like goblins, glad to be free of the hateful light of day and its unerring constancy, a tireless reminder of the things we could never be.

We, the night walkers, stride sure in the silver moonlight, ever-shifting, treacherous. Some nights there is no moon, our inspiration dies, and we are full of shame. We reschedule our good intentions or simply roll over when the alarm rings, as we have a thousand times before, unable to care.

So, no, we may not have the riches of the day workers. We yearn for that normal, scheduled, productive life. But as long as we don’t have it, we sleep in our shabby apartments with barely a dime to our name and dream of being men one day and in the night we wake to play and ply our secret trade. At the moment, due to my own weakness, I do not learn in the light. But I learn in the dark. My tower to the heavens crumbles, but I etch holy words upon the ground. In the dark, we still twist wires. As the Dutchmen steal from the sea, we steal from the night.

The day of our national redemption is coming, and Torah after midnight is the perfect preparation. Our ancestors were slaves and idol worshippers who in their toil could not remember the G-d of their forefathers; they could not hack G-d by day. All they had to their name was a little spilled blood when their creator came in the middle of the night, found them awake and ready, and redeemed them.

So if you are like me and your actions are lacking and your devotion is weak and you wonder to yourself sometimes if there has not been some mistake and perhaps you cannot do this at all — take heart. Who you are is not in question, and what is a mere drop of blood in your eyes is not worthless. You are one of the many who in the depth of night find a foothold. By the power of that one good deed, we, too, shall cross the sea.

We, too, will wake up.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

 

Ditching Yahweh

Even straight-laced Jews like me can fall into strange cults if they’re not careful.

Indeed, thanks to the Internet especially, we are in immediate contact with all sorts of strange folk even in our own homes. We pay money for the privilege. We are weird.

Anyway. Let me describe for you, in brief, a particular sort of cultist you may have run into.

Unsought, unsolicited, they nevertheless eventually turn up. Like a nasty mold blooming in a dark corner of a synagogue never touched by sunlight; like rot setting into the fatty extremities of the body Judaic unwarmed by even the capillary flow of lifeblood; like a single bot trolling the lonely bowels of a long-forgotten religious subreddit — someone always starts talking about “Yahweh.”

What “Yahweh” is not: The name of the Jewish G-d according to just about anyone who worships him.

What “Yahweh” is: A sort of social signal, like perfectly round glasses or a man’s chest hair framed by a pastel collar; a portent of what’s to come, a clear indicator of the type of person we’re dealing with.

And make no mistake, in conversations about Judaism the one who says “Yahweh” always loses. This isn’t because of the religious injunction against pronouncing G-d’s name, since Yahweh is not G-d’s name. In fact, the true pronunciation of G-d’s name is lost to us. No, you lose when you use “Yahweh” because “Yahweh” users are either (A) antagonistic or misled academics or (B) really odd provincial bumpkins who manage to keep talking about Judaism for years without learning anything.

The Type-A Yahwist is a professor who has studied the history of Judaism from an academic perspective and has come to think that “Yahweh” is the original pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton. They also tend to think that “Yahweh” was a member of the Canaanite pantheon who eventually assumed the role of the G-d of Israel, which is fine, but when you say “Yahweh” at the beginning you’re giving it all away from the get-go.

The Type-B Yahwist is a commenter on chabad.org who loves Jews but just can’t bring themselves to learn Hebrew, or ask a Jew what G-d’s name is (or, more importantly, isn’t). They heard “Yahweh” from a Type-A (or some mysterious Christian source unknown to me) and only mean to sound hip and in-the-know by calling G-d that name.

This typology of Yahwists reminds me of an important lesson from Chassidus. Imagine a thundering, luminous river of Truth sustaining the world. The river, since it is Truth and Light, leaves no room for darkness and falsehood. Everything that touches the water becomes bright and transparent, real and alive. Such is the power of the Truth. That which tastes not of the water, is, in turn, not. And so: There can be no falsehood, for to exist is simply to be a vessel for the Truth.

With two exceptions. (A) At the river’s head, where the waters rage with unrivaled force and have not yet truly become a river but are rather pure, formless, Light, there is a moment when anything might partake of it and survive, for it is life itself in all its possibilities and does not yet discriminate. (B) At the very end of the river’s flow, where one last finger of water extends as a calm pool to slake some minor object’s thirst for being, there is so little light, and so little truth, that clinging to the back of that object a lie might perchance exist, a parasite off the truth, real and undestroyed by contradiction.

The Type-A Yahwist knows Judaism as he knows much else: as part of a synergistic whole, whose grounding principle is the Yahwist’s own understanding. Within his intellect, essential truths are trimmed if necessary. He knows Judaism so much that his knowing becomes primary and the object of his knowledge secondary. The Type-B Yahwist knows too little, and it is not his own intellect that he would lose if he knew the truth, but his own ignorance. Rather than consuming the Truth whole, he fears to be consumed by it, and is content to remain on the edge of the Truth, never bothering to disabuse himself of his mistaken notions. Type-A is arrogant, for from where he stands the Truth is secondary to him. Type-B is afraid and so knows nothing.

The solution for Type-A is to show him that even if the Truth of everything is allowed to speak in its own voice, there can still be unity. The solution for Type-B is to show him that subservience to the Truth is better than freedom without it.

What all Yahwists have in common, in summary, is what every lie has in common, and that is, a conception in contradiction to reality. This is a sorry state of affairs. But it is also good news for those who seek the truth. Since a lie is in contradiction to reality, the reality of the lie is itself unstable. In other words, a lie is only true as long as someone keeps speaking it. Judaism has a G-d named Yahweh only as long as people outside of it say it does.

And sometimes…

Sometimes I worry that I practice Yahweh Judaism.

That’s right. That’s my cult. I live a relatively secluded Jewish life in a small Jewish community. I don’t learn from teachers as often as I’d like. In fact, I learn from teachers even less than I did in Yeshiva, and in Yeshiva it wasn’t much at all.

On the one hand, I’m worried that my Judaism, not exposed to the criticism of true teachers and those in the fold, may have developed corners or edges that are not in accordance with the truth of tradition. I am worried that my Judaism has, over time, become more about me than about Judaism.

On the other hand, I’m worried that I’m not really involved enough in Judaism at all. That, in my far-off, provincial service, I do not fall in the category of a practicing Jew. Perhaps this is the real reason why I have chosen, for the moment, to exist on the Jewish edge: because I am afraid of losing my independence in an intensely Jewish context.

I begin to wonder…was it ever real? Did it ever exist? Was I chasing the truth, or a moment’s fantasy? Did I worship G-d, or my own Yahweh?

This past week, I found the answer.

And the answer is: Go to New York. Go to the community. Go to the Rebbe.

Because if a lie is unstable and exists only as long as a liar maintains it, then the truth is solid as a rock. The truth exists without anyone’s help. The truth, like a river, is refreshing, because it doesn’t need our help.

This week, I went to New York, and I let go. I stopped telling myself stories about what Judaism is, what it means to have a G-d, what it means to be connected.

This week, I let Judaism exist. I let myself be surrounded by it, submerged in it. I let my hands brush across the surface of the wall, and I found it solid, ancient, indestructable. I felt the tension leave me as I realized that G-d and Judaism never go anywhere, that they are constant as everything else moves. Even though I’m not in Yeshiva, the Yeshiva exists; it is there; the students are the same as always. The synagogues with their crown jewel Torahs stand resplendent like a signal fire.

This week, I reminded myself that Judaism is not a cult of Yahweh, that it exists because it exists, like the moon, like a blizzard.

This week, I went back to the place where I last forded the water, and found the river still there, peaceful, eternal, real.

I have done worse in its absence than it has in mine, which makes me humble and happy. Humble to have had the privilege of bathing in the waters; happy to know that they were no ephemeral mirage, but ancient as the earth.

I know what I must do now. I know I must kneel on her banks, and dip my canteen beneath the surface, and carefully carry it back across the lonely miles. I know that the way is hot and dangerous, a large and terrible desert full of snakes and scorpions.

But if ever I lose my way, I can take a sip, and hear what the water says:

It’s real. It’s real. It’s real.

This, despite our ignorance. We who choose the true path do not ourselves know how to pronounce that great and terrible name. But one day, when we make it across the sands and dig our own wells in our own corners of the wilderness and make for the water a home, we will learn that secret word.

And it will not be “Yahweh.”

 

The picture and its caption are honest-to-goodness from a book from the 19th century.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

When A Non-Jew Asked What I Believe

A friend who is not Jewish recently asked me, “What are your metaphysical beliefs?” This was the best answer I could give him:

What do I believe?

Well, I’m an ordained rabbi, so that should tell you something. By most outside evaluations, I am what would be called “orthodox jewish,” or even the semi-derogatory “ultra-orthodox.” But I believe these terms are shallow, and the question “what do I believe” remains an interesting one with no simple answer.

It is both harder and easier for me to answer this question than it has been in the past. It’s harder, because distinctive beliefs that are easily delineated seem more beyond my grasp the more I learn about Judaism and particularly the mystical Chassidic teachings that are my passion. It’s easier because the answer, “I believe whatever I’m supposed to” seems more legitimate to me every day.

I once would have said simply that I believe what Maimonides lays out in his thirteen principles of faith. Now I tell myself what I tell 90% of people who say things about Judaism. “It’s not so simple…”

I believe there is a G-d. Who is G-d? By definition, impossible to answer. I once would have said He is the creator of the universe. But He is not just that; maybe not even primarily that. He is transcendent yet imminent, everything yet nothing, beyond yet within. He is at the vertex of every paradox and in both sides of every argument. He is the fulcrum; He is gravity; He is the weights.

I believe in Torah, that G-d revealed and reveals His will and wisdom to mortal man. What does the Torah say? Everything, in some context or other. There are few statements that could authoritatively be said to be in contradiction to Torah, and the threads of its net seem to sweep up every corner, every trailing edge of human existence. The Torah is like a wedge driven through history, a system of rules whose emergent properties are little-understood even after thousands of geniuses’ lifetime study, a mind virus whose propagation has altered the world in ways immeasurable and will continue to do so.

I believe in Judaism. What is Judaism? Judaism is a way that is ultimately not rationally explainable. It is a religion, but it is also decidedly not a religion. At times it seems to be all about following rules and living a moral life. At other times it seems to run black like nihilism in dark veins, to embrace wild chaotic beauty. It is the custom of a small tribe that has survived against all odds, a family that has never sought out new members yet has utterly transformed the world just by existing, and being a family.

These few ephemeral, ill-defined things are the only things I believe in without qualification. Everything else is a discussion, an exploration of shades. I believe in human evil and human good, in systematic imperatives and personal authenticity, in meaning and meaninglessness, in great sages and in simple peasants, in heaven and in death, in happiness and in angst, in the soul and in the body…

The one thing I can say is that I trust in my family, in our traditions, in the age-old story of my people and all we have learned in our travails. My ultimate faith is in the process, in the idea that our tribe is not here for nothing but for a purpose. But I am willing to follow this way and this system wherever it leads, and it has led to wild jungles of antinomianism, chaos, and other areas not considered the normal stomping grounds of religion. It has led to the essence of things, and to particulars, and everywhere in between…

 

Originally posted on Hevria.