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.

On “Knowledge is Power”

If knowledge is power, then Kaballah is idolatry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowledge is power.

Kaballah is just another system.

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

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

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

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

Our Mystic Generation

Every year, Reb Shlomo ‘the Yellow’, the melamed of Nevel, would walk to Lubavitch to spend the Simchat Torah festival with his rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer. Even in his later years when his strength had failed him, he refused to climb onto a wagon for even a minute; every step of the way was taken on his own two feet. “In my Lubavitch,” Reb Shlomo maintained, “no horse will take part.”

ONCE UPON A CHASSID, compiled by Rabbi Yanki Tauber


Everyone who tries to learn Torah with a young person today must answer the question, “What do you get a Jew who has everything?”

It was not always so. The Alter Rebbe, a young genius, felt he did not know how to pray, and so exiled himself to Mezritch and discovered Chassidus. He, in turn, wrote the Tanya, as he describes in his introduction, to take the place of his private meetings with an endless stream of supplicants and seekers.

Implicit in this introduction is the non-polemical nature of the Tanya. That is, we already know, before chapter one, that the Tanya will not be working to convince us of anything. It is a work for those looking for guidance. The Rebbe is here to help if you come knocking at his door. If you are a stubborn non-believer or do not know whether it is G-d you want, you are not yet really asking the questions which Tanya answers. This, in turn, leads us to wonder: If the visitor to the Rebbe has not yet learned from the Rebbe, what brings him to come at all?

If we follow the old philosophical rule that motion fulfills a potential of the one that moves, we may assume that the Alter Rebbe’s supplicants sought him out because they lacked. The Alter Rebbe lacked, and so sought out the Maggid; the Maggid lacked, and so sought out the Baal Shem Tov.

It starts with learning. Through one’s self-awareness, one discovers how much more there is to know. One does one’s best, applies consistent effort, and realizes that one is somehow…insufficient. A teacher is needed, for one’s wisdom, for one’s soul, for something that is missing.

But if there is no initial learning, or that learning does not lead to questions, or those questions cannot be seen as arising from one’s very soul, what, then, brings a Jew to search ever deeper in the Torah? If one perceives oneself as lacking nothing, does one ever end up at the Rebbe’s door?

In the Rebbe’s last published discourse, the famous v’Atah Tetzaveh, he describes a generation full of blessings, a synthesis of the authentic lived experience of G-d and the explosive soul expression at the time of His concealment. The generation of blessing is not compelled by outside forces to worship G-d; they live in peace and plenty. The generation of blessing does not serve G-d because it sees Him, either; they have no deep understanding to render them dissatisfied with worldly existence.

Our generation of blessing, in particular, is relatively serene, and happy, and whole in its own eyes. What trouble us, especially the younger Jews reaching adulthood today, are primarily practical concerns free of any existential overtones. Even the desire to learn more Torah (for those who possess it) stems from curiosity or duty and no deep-seated want of the soul.

And yet, somehow it still works. Somehow, they keep coming to Torah, to Tzadikkim, and to G-d. They are moved, as the Rebbe says, not by circumstance internal or external, not by the yawning insufficiency of their own understanding, nor by external circumstance holding them powerless in its fist, but by their very being, by the self uniting both internal and external experience. The soul itself, the soul beyond experience, the soul even beyond death, desires G-d. It deserves Him more than it desires the experience of Him; it desires Him equally in poverty and in wealth, when it is threatened and when it is at peace. The soul does not need to feel deficient to desire G-d, but wants Him even when it lacks nothing, by its nature, because it was chosen.

Thus, we find thousands of strange creatures in our world, those who return daily to their Judaism for no reason at all. They did not choose Judaism in their wisdom; they did not seek out the depths of Torah because of any perceived deficit or shortcoming in themselves. They sought it out for no reason at all. It is a fact, yesh m’ayin, like every person in their life, like the moon.

Our generation of blessing, says the Rebbe, is a generation of mystics. Do not, when you look at their feeble minds, or small deeds, or hearts dulled by easy living, think that they are lowly. It is by these very traits that a Jew can today seek G-d without the help of horse, tragedy, or question. Our generation seeks G-d because they are Jews and He is G-d. Nothing else is needed.

Why, then, do so many well-intentioned Rabbis today, trying to shake a generation of mystics from their perceived complacency, seek to sell Judaism as the answer to questions? True, Torah is a book of instruction; true, Judaism is the deepest rationality. But to place the questions first is, in our generation, the wrong order. A “rational Judaism” assumes questions are important, that things like logic or consistency bother a soul, and that Judaism best resolves these matters in the final reckoning. But why should logic and consistency bother a soul? This is the question that every twenty-year-old in every Torah class in 2018 asks. It is the question behind many of his questions. Why should anyone set aside the broad freedoms of unbridled will or self-satisfaction for the agonizing limits of reason?

We are not rational people; we have no training in reason. Reason died long before we were born, and its death was mistaken for the death of G-d.

But do not mistake our lack of reason for a deficiency, for a problem in need of solving.

Rather, our generation, irrational, wanting for nothing, does not need questions to bring them to the Rebbe’s door. Go out and teach them Tanya, says the Rebbe, and the Jew who has everything will remember who he is, come of his own accord.


Originally posted on Hevria.