On Cynical Chassidim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Nature, Wisdom, Prophecy, Torah, and G-d

They asked wisdom: “How may a sinning soul achieve atonement?”
Wisdom said, “The sinning soul shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4)

 

They asked prophecy.
Prophecy said, “Misfortune pursues sinners.” (Proverbs 13:21)

 

They asked Torah.
Torah said, “Let him bring a guilt offering, and he will be atoned for.”

 

They asked G-d.
G-d said, “Let him repent, and he will be atoned for.”

 

This is the meaning of the verse (Psalms 25:8), “Good and upright is the Lord, for He shows sinners the way.”

—Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Makkot 7a
(version of the Vavei HeAmudim,
son to the holy SheLaH)

 

The Talmud describes four answers to the problem of sin, each more lenient than the one which precedes it. Whereas wisdom says the only way to be cleansed of the blemish of transgression is through death, prophecy, from a higher perch, sees that suffering can achieve the same. Torah provides atonement through a sacrifice, whereas G-d Himself says it’s possible without death, suffering, or even a sacrifice if one merely performs the spiritual act of Teshuvah, repentance or return to one’s creator.

There is actually an implicit fifth member, the least sympathetic of the lot, the one who has no advice for the sinner. One might call this unsympathetic friend “worldliness” or “nature.” Nature may be defined (in extreme summary) as that G-dly expression which conforms to the need of the result, rather than the Creator. For example, when G-d speaks light into being (Genesis 1:3), it is in the mode of nature, and therefore the divine act creates an independent entity, a light which has properties and exists by taking up space at certain times, etc.

Now, the problem nature has with sin is that the deepest property of every created being, its first nature, is the role it plays in the Divine Will. Before light’s color and its illuminating properties and its speed is its purpose, the role it plays in G-d’s design for the universe generally, whether that purpose is to have a dwelling place in the lowest realms (as explained in Tanya Chapter 36) or any other.* The role of the divine commandments is to reveal this G-dly truth in the object of the commandment, leather for Tefillin, wool for Tzitzis. Sin conversely denies this inner truth and reinforces only the superficial reality of the creation, creating a rift between the inner directed purpose of a being and its apparent independence, between the result of the Divine act and the Divine act itself.

Since sin is an affront to nature’s very soul, nature’s connection to its source in the Almighty, nature by definition cannot absolve us of sin. Just as an amputated arm cannot sew itself back onto the torso, a nature rendered independent and metaphysically inert cannot undo the destruction wrought by transgression. Sin truly creates nature, in the sense that amputation creates the arm, so this now-independent nature cannot uncreate sin. “Dear universe,” writes the thief, “I am sorry for stealing the money. Please forgive me.”  The universe cannot respond, because the theft has killed some of her children.

So we must turn at least to wisdom. Wisdom is able to see nature in context, which is itself proof that wisdom is greater than nature and comes from beyond nature. If wisdom is the very power to see inner truths, then it is the opposite of sin, which severs the inner truth from its effects. Indeed, Reish Lakish says (Sotah 3a) that “a man commits a transgression only if a spirit of folly enters him,” or in other words, that wisdom and sin cannot dwell in the same place. Where nature in our grisly example is the amputated arm, wisdom is that which connects arms with bodies. However, where the arm does not survive sin, this connective power merely goes into hiding. It, itself, will always have a solution for severed arms; this is its entire being. So wisdom tells us, “The sinning soul shall die.”

Why death? Why not death! The fulfillment of G-d’s will draws the Divine into the world, the infinite into the finite, the living soul into an arm. Sin is death, for death is nothing but the separation of soul and body. Wisdom, sin’s opposite, provides the technical solution. If one has brought death to the world, that dirt washes off only one way. When death finds you, and your soul and body are separated, your debt will be paid. The punishment fits the crime.

But wisdom is the lowest of four, and therefore the least kind. Kindness, in terms of forgiving sin, is proportional to the height of perspective. To the arm that gets cut off, the cutting off is vitally important. Arm-severing is the arch-rival to the power that holds arms to bodies. But prophecy is not nature, nor even the inner truth of nature. Prophecy stands fully above nature and nature’s truth. Prophecy is to creation as the body itself is to the arm that is severed.

The body feels pain at the removal of extremities, yet the body continues to survive. To have sinned is to have harmed nature, but not the Divine act which produces nature. The divine act is only harmed inasmuch as it cannot be fully expressed in the lowest place. This is not death to the divine act, which retains its connection to G-d and remains divine. How, then, is the sinning soul cleansed? Death is not necessary, for sin does not bring death. Rather, misfortunes pursue sinners—transgression is cleansed by pain and suffering, and this is enough to pay the debt.

Torah is something different entirely.

Torah is G-d’s wisdom.

As a form of wisdom, one might assume it is similar to the wisdom of the first answer, the inner truth of each creation that offers death as the only atonement for sin. But Torah is not the truth of creation but rather Truth itself. It is not the purpose of nature, but rather the purpose of all purposes, and it cannot be derived from nature.

There is no way to know what Torah will tell the sinner, except by Torah telling us. Or in other words, we do not know what a sin truly is to Torah merely by looking at the spiritual effects of the sin, for all the sin’s perceivable effects reach only up to the Divine act of creation. The Torah is not a creation at all, but rather the source of creation, the knowledge that precedes that G-dly act.

We know how the arm feels about its amputation, how the force connecting the arm to the body feels, and how the body feels. But do we know the mind’s reaction?

The mind propely understood** is not fixed in any causal chain or natural reaction to anything in the person below itself. The mind may choose how to react to any stimulus. If my arm is cut off in a freak accident, I will mourn the loss of the limb. But if the arm is cut off to save my very life, perhaps I will view it with some relief. If I am offered seventy billion dollars to cut off my arm and I will be able to afford the best prosthetics, perhaps I even make this choice willingly and see it as an improvement to my condition. The arm when it is cut off is unaware of this calculus; the pro-attached-arm force has never heard of it; it does not stop the body’s physical pain of losing a limb. The only way to find out what the mind thinks is to ask it.

The Torah says, “Let him bring a guilt offering.” In the eyes of the Torah, the divine mind, inscrutable from below, this is the proper balance; pain and death are unnecessary, and only the Torah could tell us so. We first regret our actions and resolve never to transgress again, which turns intentional sins into unintentional ones before G-d. We then bring a specific animal sacrifice to the temple in Jerusalem, and this atones for our unintentional actions.

Why, in the Torah’s approach, must we first transform our sins into unintentional actions before we can atone for them through a sacrifice? Because no matter which conceptual framing the mind lends to the loss of the arm, there are still facts about the amputation that are unavoidable, that cannot be reframed. Even to the divine mind, which in its Truth is an expression of G-d Himself, things still have their essential natures. The Torah is able to see how losing the arm is not so bad a thing that it’s equivalent to death or suffering, but no amount of broadmindedness can view the arm as more a part of the body than it was before. Similarly, the Torah, in the context of repentance and sacrifice, can see the transgression as a misadventure that is balanced and “justified.” But the Torah, ultimately limited to being wisdom, cannot see the transgression as a positive.

G-d can.

G-d says, Repent and be atoned.

Don’t contextualize and then balance the transgression.

Rather, de-transgress the transgression. Transform the intentional sins into merits (as described in Tanya Chapter 7). Beyond even the mind there is a soul incorruptible possessing infinite power. Its power stems from being totally beyond nature—not nature itself, nor the act that creates it, nor the source of that act in the divine wisdom, but a simple indivisible self that stands in relation to nothing, that is defined by nothing. A self before whom all constructs, even that of “having an arm” and “not having an arm” are interchangeable.

G-d, because He is G-d, because he stands beyond all realities, even the reality of His own wisdom, is able to not just balance or forgive the transgression. He is able to reverse the valence of the debt. He is able to transform an act of violence, of death, of pain against Him into an act for which He will willingly dispense reward.

All that is required is repentance***, and to repent is just to acknowledge G-d beyond all realities. This itself is the act that repairs the soul, and that cleans it. The highest atonement, the painless atonement, is not a balancing or a transacting but a shift of our being itself. The sinner realizes that the sinner’s own soul comes from a G-d who is truly beyond his petty concerns, beyond any folly or lust or evil that caused him to sin, beyond even the distinction between sin and non-sin. Authentically realizing this to be his true nature, it becomes so. G-d forgives him not by letting his sins slide, but by an in-dwelling presence that literally transforms the sinner into a servant of G-d and the sins into merits, by standing the sinner himself in that position of needing nothing, being defined by nothing, but simply being, which is being one with G-d.

As the verse says, G-d is good—so good, He does not reckon with the reality of the sin at all, but truly transcends it, and so can offer atonement to all. And G-d is upright—His goodness is not confined to Him alone, but can hold true at every level, can be given to the sinner and be real to the sinner.

This, even the Torah cannot understand.****

 

Based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s “v’Chol Adam,” Shabbos Haazinu, Shabbos Teshuva, 5723/1962

*Sometimes this divine purpose is in line with the teleological end of the creation in the ancient sense, its greatest perfection, but often is not—many things are created to be destroyed, whether literally or through a process of nullification, in which we reveal the inner ayin, the subsuming of the creation in the divine reality such that it has no independent existence whatsoever. An earthly ox is more perfect the more it instantiates the divine ox, but the divine ox is itself utterly nullified to the G-dly emanation. It is therefore good for an ox to be healthy, and it is even better for an ox to move up a teleological level by correctly serving human purposes in the fields or as food, and it is categorically better to use the Ox’s skin for making Tefillin, in which (in Tefillin’s highest form) the Ox serves no earthly purpose, neither for the betterment of the Ox nor for the betterment of man.

**Rather than how it’s commonly understood today.

***The truest expression of the uniquely G-dly atonement is on Yom Kippur. The rest of the year, we can attain it, but only through atonement. On Yom Kippur, the day itself atones; we do not have to do anything, and why should we, if our very souls are beyond the distinction between sin and non-sin? The only reason we also repent on Yom Kippur is so that the mind, the body, the attachment of the arm to the body, and the arm are also aware, at their own levels, that the arm has regrown.

****The fact that this advice of G-d is actually recorded as part of Torah, in the Jerusalem Talmud, is because the Torah, in its source, is absolutely one with G-d Himself, just as the mind in its source is one with the soul itself. The Torah’s advice of bringing the sacrifice is the Torah describing its own perspective (Torah is in the center line of sefirot, which connects all levels highest to lowest); G-d’s advice of repenting and transforming sins into merits is the Torah’s description of its source’s perspective (Torah in its source, beyond even being the center line).

Teshuva: Shame or Guilt?

A teacher of mine who came to Lubavitch late in life tells a story. A friend of his came for the first time to spend Rosh Hashana in 770, the Rebbe’s synagogue, and was surprised by the scene. Hundreds of Jews prayed, relatively quietly, caught up in their own thoughts. He was more used to the wailing, beseeching, dramatic services of his youth, in which the congregation would beseech G-d to forgive their transgressions on the Day of Judgement. An older chassid caught the newcomer staring and asked him, “Is everything alright?”

“Everything is fine. I’m just used to more crying,” admitted the newcomer.

“In Lubavitch,” replied the chassid, “we don’t cry and we don’t sin.”

In other words, the chassid implied that while others may in fact sin and then feel guilty about it on Rosh Hashana, the approach in Lubavitch is to not sin and therefore not feel guilty about it. What are we to make of this? What happens, then, to sinners in Lubavitch?

We could explain the Chabad approach to Teshuva (i.e. repentance or return to G-d) in terms of crying and sinning, or guilt and transgression, in light of a distinction drawn by Ruth Benedict and other anthropologists between the shame society and the guilt society.

In short, the shame society imposes its moral will through social pressure. Right and wrong are enforced as public matters. The guilt society, on the other hand, imposes moral will through the agency of the individuals themselves; when someone does something wrong, they are compelled back to right action by their own regret. Guilt culture relies on a personal conscience, whereas shame culture relies on honor and “face.” In a shame culture, the transgressor has no place in society, as taken to its extreme by the Japanese practice of ritual suicide. In the guilt culture, the transgressor is not defined by their transgression; a disgrace can be forgiven by society and eventually find redemption and pride in living a moral life.

The guilt society, it has been argued, is more morally developed than the shame society, and historically proceeded from it in Ancient Greece, for example. Generally speaking, the West, through the influence of Christianity (whose ideas on the matter are probably related to the Jewish conception of the soul), has largely become a guilt culture. Some have noted, however, that the pendulum in America has recently swung toward a more shame-based system. One of the themes of the current cultural and political insanity in the US is the nascent tribalism, which in turn engenders illiberalism (since the freedom to be a “bad person,” that is, of the other tribe, is not legitimate), which finds coherence in a shame dynamic.

It should come as no surprise that if one seeks to castigate outsiders while solidifying group identity, shame is easier than guilt. A conscience is something everyone has from their birth; it seems, conceptually at least, to exist, to some extent, beyond society. Honor, however (and, for us moderns, celebrity and acceptance) is regulated by perception and need not be grounded in any personal sense of morality; do what you want at home, but don’t you dare come into the public sphere and speak words of hatred and the like.

Some protestors (and lawmakers!) have even taken, as if they were the folk of King’s Landing, to shouting “Shame!” at those they dislike. You cannot shout “Guilt!” at those you dislike. “Guilt!” is a request; it is the public asking someone to align themselves with their own conscience, to regret their own actions. You cannot force someone to feel regret. Shame, on the other hand, is externally imposed, and thus a tempting motivation for those who seek power over others.

This is not to say that guilt is a perfect system either. While guilt does acknowledge the role of the individual in their own ethical behavior rather than merely imposing the will of the collective, guilt is also vulnerable to the manipulation of the individual. Just as power-seekers can manipulate a shame society, so, too, can the criminal and transgressor find rationalizations and self-defense in the guilt society. Where the shaming method can compel actual morality by public standards, the guilt method maintains that the individual is in some sense always the final arbiter of their own moral state (with societal punishment acting as an amoral safeguard).

For example, in the shame society, the man who steals to feed his family has violated the community’s trust and betrayed the trust of his family, who expect a provider. He is dishonored, and must pay the price if he is caught; he himself totally agrees he must pay the price. In the guilt society, the man retains a personal sense of moral rectitude, of being forced into the situation, and though the society may punish him, they have no power to make him view himself as evil.

In short, the shame society defines evil in such a way that its presence can be ascertained without the evil individual’s consent, but in this sacrifices the actual rehabilitation of that individual. The guilt society, on the other hand, defines evil in a deeply personal way that allows for repentance and change, but in so doing forfeits morality and a shared, objective, public experience.

The fact that societies progress from shame to guilt reflects not just changes over time but qualitative differences as well. That is, shame relies on lower functions within the human being than guilt. Whereas every action is a function of a human agent, no human being is defined solely by their actions, possessing, as all healthy human beings do, thoughts, speech, and an inner emotional and intellectual life. Shame culture defines human beings by their actions and thereby eliminates all higher human functions from the discussion of morality. Guilt culture takes a more holistic approach, acknowledging that people exist beyond their actions and, in their deeper functions, abstract away from the world entirely. However, guilt culture also shifts the assessment and enforcement of morality from the objective and easily assessed realm of action to the murky chambers of the human heart.

If one were to explain the shame and guilt cultures as relationships with the Creator, in which G-d was the enforcer of morality rather than society, one might say that shame reflects G-dly immanence whereas guilt reflects G-dly transcendence. After all, if G-d is to judge me purely on my actions and their effects, this relegates the Creator to a relatively pragmatic position. Divine law would not seek to rule over the inner world of the individual, but merely to regulate their external action, and a G-d concerned primarily with external action is one caught up and invested in the goings-on of the world. If G-d, however, not only judges action but also intention, if He is not bound by the details of what has been done and to Whom but can find room to forgo the rules to choose the individual, if, to put it simply, He can forgive, then He truly exists beyond the limitations of the world. Only He who is timeless and limitless may let go of past violation and from His inscrutable essence forge a relationship anew. A transcendent G-d has the ability not to care, and it’s the ability not to care that makes room for the individual, their conscience, and their self-motivated change in the guilt culture.

Judaism contains both aspects. On the one hand, there are certain transgressions whose punishments are merely consequences, where no amount of forgiveness can “undo” the inherently negative action that has been taken. On the other hand, generally speaking, nothing stands in the way of repentance, and especially in the time of year that’s auspicious for Teshuva, Elul and the Days of Awe, we can forge our relationship with G-d anew, for that is His desire. He truly transcends even His own commands, and from that place of infinite mercy, he calls to the soul within each of us to return to its natural holiness. The only thing standing between me and forgiveness is myself, and that is guilt culture.

What, however, are we to make of the problems with the guilt culture we mentioned above in terms of its religious application? Teshuva “solves” the problem of G-d’s commandments, but introduces new issues. The commandments taken alone say that the relationship with G-d is based purely on objective action with no room for “resetting the game board” or going “back to square one,” and therefore Teshuva is also part of Judaism, reflecting a relationship to the Commander Himself beyond the commandments. However, the act of Teshuva, of returning to G-d, can be seen as a subjective dodge of objective morality; the rules exist only to be transcended; we know a Guy. One is not permitted to sin with the intention of later doing Teshuva (we are taught the Teshuva will not avail him) but how are we to look at the commandments from within a Guilt Culture, which places the individual and his relationships at the unmoving center of the wheel around which all else revolves?

Perhaps just as the Commandments alone, as a pure shame relationship with the creator, are not all of Judaism, so, too, adding Teshuva, to introduce the subjective latitude of guilt, is also not sufficient. Perhaps for a complete picture, there is some third way, a synthesis of the strong points of both.

It is just such a synthesis that Chassidus seeks. The shame approach recognizes that the rules, the will of G-d, is ultimately binding, and looks at Him as a being imminent in His commands. The guilt approach recognizes that there’s more to us than rule-following and more to G-d than his mere desires for this world. The shame/guilt synthesis in the Chassidic Teshuva seeks to find the place in man and in G-d where the rules and in the individual, the objective and subjective, the shared and the private, are one. 

The truth is that man is more than his actions, but he’s also more than merely a relationship with a transcendent Creator. The way of guilt implies that man is a partner in the relationship with G-d and that he exists apart from G-d’s commandments. But if we were to subvert this and say that man does not exist apart from the law of G-d, then have we not merely reverted back to the way of shame?

The answer lies in the Chassidic twist, the existential reversal so common the mystical way of thinking. Our assumption is that the human being exists independently, is made to bow to external rules in the shame culture, and then transcends those rules in the guilt culture. This is the perspective of the human being, who sees himself first and foremost as an independent existence. But in truth, and from G-d’s perspective, it is not man who comes first and then suffers shame under the externally imposed rules. On the contrary, the rules come first; they are not only the reason for creation but in fact the very essence of the human existence; man is formed in the shape of G-d’s mitzvos, rather than the mitzvos applied to man. We are, at our very essence, united with G-d’s will, and created to follow it. Even the guilt-being, the one that transcends law to touch the Lawmaker, is created in the image of G-d’s will, and for the purpose of fulfilling it. Man, as such, does not truly exist apart from the will of G-d; our independence, which leads to the sense that morality is imposed upon us rather than our very essence, is merely the first illusion. Transcending that imposition does not break the illusion but merely seeks limited relief from it. Only the higher Teshuva, which seeks to negate man before not merely G-d’s laws but G-d Himself, reverses the illusion, allowing a human being to see themselves for what they are — a being created in the image of G-d’s mitzvos.

Shame, which says a man must be moral or risk being cut off from the community or G-d, does not acknowledge the possibility of repentance and only imposes morality externally. Guilt, which says a man must be moral because of his personal conscience and responsibility, acknowledges repentance but loses sight of the sacred nature of that rules-based morality. The Chassidic shame/guilt synthesis says man must be moral because morality is closer to man than anything else is, including his sense of personal transcendence. Therefore he is neither bound by the external imposition of G-d or society nor cut off from repentance, which is the process of returning to his true moral self.

And therefore when it comes to Teshuva “we don’t cry and we don’t sin.” “We don’t cry,” that is, we are not caught up in our own personal sense of Teshuva, in the guilt culture, in the assessment of our own transgressions and our ability to transcend them and reconnect to G-d. Rather, “we don’t sin;” we are trying to find that place within us where we remember what we are, the shoresh of Tikkun, the space beyond understanding where we are made in the image of G-d’s mitzvos, where sin is not only shamed, not only a reason for feeling guilty, but simply inimical to our very being.

In escaping even our own guilt, we leave behind the higher human functions and turn, instead, toward the Creator, who, with great trust, gave us a soul and then hid Himself away. He hoped that we would not be distracted by the muttering of others nor even our own spiritual pursuits. He hoped that we would not suffice with merely the Law, nor even with the Law Giver, but that we would keep striving for that True and clear place where we and He are one.

Smells Like Elul Spirit

Writing about it won’t help.

I’m so angry.

I’m so angry for being born and for being in this place. Not really. not authentically. Not in a way that I’d want to reverse the process of being born or being in this world. See, even that’s not real. And that’s part of why I’m angry.

I’m not really angry either, if anger is some sort of wild-fire. This is not wild. It is low, a low simmer, a single coal glowing at the heart of a cold galaxy, but it last and lasts and lasts, and so do I, and that is not happy and it’s not sad and it’s not completely dead. It’s a long, slow, imperceptible wrath. It is a punch to the face that was thrown when I was born and is still in a state of constant arrival, and that arrival is somehow wrapped up with this thing I can’t control, which is being. Here.

I’m angry that I have a body, that it’s limited and that it pegs me in one place and one time and people can look at it and see me. I sometimes forget I have it, and every time I look in a mirror and remember first there is shock and then the dull thud of that one warm coal.

I’m angry that all I am is angry. I’m not “motivated” or “passionate” or even “furious.” These almost imply that something other than me exists. Nothing other than me exists. There is me, and there is my anger at being here.

I remember a time when there was more. My childhood seems like some atavistic echo of Eden. I loved and hoped and had faith, though I wouldn’t have called it that. The older I got and the more I learned and the better (for a time) things got on paper the more I spun away from myself. It’s not because of anything I did. I know it. I’m still angry.

I’m angry that I had to become this broad to survive, that nuance and contradiction are the walls I must dash behind to avoid the glaring light. I wanted to be made whole and not half to lie here bleeding, pieces held together by force of will: You will be one. You will be one. You will be one.

I’m angry that G-d is small and I am big and that I don’t know how to fight that anymore but I am still not going anywhere, not going to admit I’m going anywhere, not going to countenance the slightest suggestion that I’m going anywhere, because I am as stubborn as this stupid world, a rock cast into a stream, sinking and unchanged and uncaring whether the flow’s subtle alteration at my presence ultimately does or effects or is anything with a name. I’m angry that I’m here for vengeance: Midah k’neged midah, measure for measure, I keep showing up at this table, and so will you, and it’s always your move.

I’m angry that I cannot remember where I hid the key to my ball and chain but that I can remember in aching clarity every time I have tried to claw my way out and fallen, every failed attempt, every cycle the same story, and though things change it is never the way I want or the way I intend and never because I sat down and decided they would.

I’m angry that I still know I’m here for a reason and that one more soul in one more body for one more moment is your infinite pleasure and that sometimes I even glimpse it…

I’m angry that I remember the way I used to dance on Simchas Torah, ripping my throat raw and trying to stomp holes in the floor, crying, slamming, because it is the nature of my romantic side to try to say how I really feel once a year and if Simchas Torah isn’t real and the Jews’ backs lacerated with holy and unrepentant whip scars are not your flag and they don’t dance anyway then it’s all nothing and the world can sink into a flood for all I care. But all of that was a long time ago and now I just can’t anymore because there’s been too many and your face is still hidden and there is not a single day that this stupid world doesn’t spit in my face and you don’t care.

I’m angry that you put me in this place where I can forget you care, where I am broken and we sing to you on Yom Kippur to a tune rending and sublime that we are like clay in the hands of the sculptor, an anchor in the hands of the seaman, and maybe you will reel us in. Maybe you will reel us in. Maybe you will keep our form. But perhaps not. Perhaps this is all some joke, and that we went from love to hatred to cold, uncaring apathy is just some preparation for the next test or demonstration.

I’m angry because you probably think it’s funny that I try to defend you sometimes. It’s funny because I wouldn’t know you to defend you, and all words in your defense are hypocrisy anyway, and besides, when was the last time you came around? But it still makes me angry. It makes me angry like a child who has lost his head, and that’s all I am, pathetic and myself.

I’m angry that your excuse for creating people who will always look but never find is that you, too, are committed to always looking and never finding. Perhaps you won’t reel me in, but: It’s a stupid pastime and I’m sick of it. I’ve had it up to here. Not because of some righteous and noble cause of your people in history or defending the weak or hating evil. Because I am so tired. I am so angry. I am tired and angry and here, still here, always here, one day and then the next, and I cannot step into the boats you may have sent with the rising tide, and that is your fault too.

I take credit for none of it. I am not responsible. I am responsible, maybe, for still being here. Always. A coal.

But coals do not fold themselves into words for others; embers are not seen.

And writing will not help.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

How to Sin Successfully

My dear Schnook,

As we both know, sin is an art, a way of life, a form of human expression on par with love in its depth and involvement. It is also, as is evident from my personal experience and from your letter, quite a difficult undertaking. Most people are so discouraged at the outset they must either convince themselves sin does not exist or live a life ever in fear of it. While I do not consider myself a professional sinner (and in fact, as every demonic devotee knows, there is something noble about the amateur, who receives nothing in return for his efforts but the opportunity to practice the craft he so loves), I am an experienced one. I think it is well past time I share some of my knowledge of this unholy pursuit.

It is disrespectful to dismiss an earnest human endeavor as simple, over-easy, or worthless, and sin is no exception. There are many people of a religious bend who seem to think sin lurks at every corner and will leap out at them if they stop uttering prayers for even a moment. These people should also be afraid of sneezing around paint buckets and producing Starry Night. In truth, what they are afraid of barely resembles the grand tradition of true sin. It is impossible to sin by accident. On the other hand, you have the unwashed horde of ne’er-do-wells who think they are pinnacles of demonic achievement. Your new group of friends, I am sad to inform you, falls into this category. If you will not exchange them for a worse crowd, I must at least show you their mistakes, that you may be guided down paths of true darkness all the rest of your days.

I have organized my thoughts into five categories, each negating a different iniquitous inaccuracy:

1. Remember Whom You’re Hurting

The neophyte transgressor must first focus on building, and only later on demolition. Start seeing your charity dollars, for example, not as “good points” or the mitigation of your “wrongdoing,” but as anti-sins. What is a sin? A poke in G^d’s eye. What is an anti-sin? The divine eye drops.

Most people tell a terrible lie, for example, and decide all of a sudden that they’re sinners. Pathetic. Where was your passion for morality ten minutes ago, when you called your mother for her birthday? You did not think of it as an anti-sin. The most you would call it was “being nice.” Maybe in your mind you got some points for your good behavior so you don’t have to feel so guilty all the time (more on that racket in section 2).

The problem here is one of imbalance. You can’t be an old man with candies one second and the fell spawn of Satan the next. This is giving yourself too much credit and taking yourself much too seriously. It is like thinking you can be a bad son to your friend’s mother. You just don’t mean enough to be mean enough.

We thus see that to be a sinner, one must have a conception of, and relationship with, G^d. I know what you’re thinking: “Why does everything always have to be about Him?” But if you don’t humor Him at least at first, even your best no-no will only ever amount to the sin of smoking weed — a victimless, empty, waste of time that sometimes makes you feel good. This is not how real men do things, Schnook.

2. Don’t Feel Guilty

One of the most prevalent misconceptions facing the aspiring evildoer is that guilt follows bad deed. Certain Jews, often ones that birth children, take it upon themselves to enforce this terrible lie (Q: How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb? A:”No, don’t worry, I’ll just sit here in the dark.”). And it is a lie, a lie that lingers in the human consciousness like the smell of hot dog relish lingers in a Yeshiva hallway after the students do P90X.

Ladies and gentlemen, what is our goal? To sin. Not to mope about in a mental fog with dirty laundry piling up in our corners like so many dropped popcorn kernels (these sheaves for the poor!). Guilt immobilizes, and a sinner is nothing if not a go-getter. The lazy and mattress-bound try to convince themselves that their sleep is a war against G^d, but you and I know the truth. Inertia is merely neutral; guilt prevents excellence.

It’s really about self-respect, in the end. You don’t see the do-gooders laying about not helping little old ladies across the street. We can’t afford to lose this war.

Sin, dear Schnook, but feel nothing. Feeling is the burden of those you sin against. Don’t take it upon yourself.

3. Never Do What You Don’t Want To Do

I once encountered a helpless case (his words, not mine) who desperately wanted to join our foul ranks. He decided he was unfit due to his love of Anti-Sins and distaste for the vast majority of really good transgressions. Trying to teach him, I presented the hypothetical case of the do-gooder who does good even though he does not want to.

“Even more righteous!” babbled the noob. “The self-sacrifice! The dedication!”

After I slapped him about his jowly chops, I pointed out what is obvious to all us old-timers. Nothing real was ever done ’twas against the doer’s will. It is no great thing, and it is, in fact, quite sad, to force oneself to do good though every brain cell and heart string rebels against it. It is no great thing to sin without gusto.

“You seem to agree with me that only he who naturally enjoys the sin ought to sin.”

I slapped him again and explained that his error was not one of insufficient goodness (or badness), but one of an utterly mistaken understanding.

Once again, it comes down to just whom you’re aggravating with your crime. Just as no spouse appreciates flowers only provided to spite one’s nature, the Uniforce will hardly blink if you kick a puppy just because you feel it’s adorable and you love it. If, on the other hand, you foster a sense of how you delay G^d’s dominion on earth every time you do not sanitize the shopping cart handle, and enjoy the pain you bring the Creator with all your heart, you will have all of heaven in an uproar.

It’s the little things, Schnook, the little things we do to others. A mere sense of duty never destroyed anything worthwhile. Ask a hun.

4. We’re All Going To Hell

The concept of hell has been bandied about by both sides for millennia. Reams of propaganda on the subject fill the shelves of many a religion. Thousands live their whole lives fearing its flames (if they knew better, they would fear the Justin Bieber Accordion remixes and the prepackaged pastries). A rarer specimen wants to go there as the manly soldier aspires to battle, daring his enemy to test his resolve. All of the above people have something in common, and that is their stupidity.

For the hell-fearers, I have bad news: everyone goes there whether they want to or not. Hell is not optional. Hell is essential, a next step, part of any refined education, and certainly part of public education. No one manages to make it through life without some suffering, and the afterlife is no different. Yet somehow the hell-fearers have the gall to look down on hedonists. Let’s face it: a hell-fearer is a hedonist, a late hedonist, one who misses the good stuff now and finds it later in his sparkly afterlife.

Pain and pleasure are for the enslaved, Schnook. Stand for something real.

Which brings me to —

5. –But Who Cares

The other side of the story, the few people who want to go to hell. Not for suffering, you see, but for principle. These people are misled. They are like the do-gooders who look forward to heaven not for its delights but because their struggles will be vindicated. What a sad lot. As I’ve been saying this entire letter, you need not look to consequences, rewards, punishments, or others for justification of your iniquity. The professional does the sin for its own sake, for its inherent evil. The sin is not a means to an end, it is the end. I know what you’re thinking: what about the poke in the eye? Well, it’s a bit complicated, but suffice it to say, the sin and the poke in the eye of the Creator are one and the same thing! The creator can’t avoid it. He decided on G^dly revelation and gave us the unique opportunity to sin for its own sake.

It is so very shallow to look at a perfectly legitimate sin, e.g. some juicy gossip down at the watering hole, and say that its evil is proved by its severe punishment. The sin itself is evil, on its own terms. Hell has nothing to do with it, one way or the other. It is a distraction from our grand task, our high art, our noble mission.

May you perpetrate outstanding offenses,

Your friend,

Sam

 

Inspired “sort-of” by C.S. Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters,” but it’s not really his fault. Image from Flickr.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.