How Academic Chassidus Isn’t

Kislev, time of darkness, month of light. We celebrate the flames of Chanukah and the warmth of Pnimius HaTorah, the secrets, the soul. As the Ten Commandments were given in the third month from Nissan, so was the Alter Rebbe freed from prison in the third month from Tishrei, thereby initiating a new epoch in the study of Chassidus, in the burning of the oil, transcending and permeating ever after.

Transcending, because Chassidus extends beyond its metaphors, attempts to use what is understood to convey or at least intimate the ineffable, and to arouse from its slumber the spark of faith in every Jewish heart.

Permeating, because it is not even confined to the sublime holiness of the Kabbalah, and like the Truth itself flows into every crack and contour of reality, showing how even here, even in this place, even in these terms, there is nothing other than G-d.

Chassidus chooses its own metaphors, using the Kabbalah as its highest guide and every dimension of pshat, remez, and drush, the simple, symbolic, and exegetical to bring the truth lower and lower, until it becomes nearly physical, vibrating not with the rarefied energies of the spiritual worlds but the rhythms of everyday life we were so sure were dead…

There is a strange practice, however, once a niche hobby and now growing slightly more popular, of studying Chassidus as an academic subject. Its texts are hauled out and compared, convoluted technical terms are assigned, historical context is considered. And it works. There are some academics who are masters of Chassidus, especially compared to me. Their knowledge is thorough; they have read not merely most of the discourses and sforim themselves but have also read everything ever written around Chassidus, about it, as a sociological, historical, and religious phenomenon.

They know everything. It’s disheartening.

It reminds me of a story I heard when I first went to yeshiva, about the famous Marcus Jastrow, whose dictionary, despite its age and arcane formatting, is still the go-to tool of the English-speaker looking to learn Talmud in Aramaic. I learned that Jastrow was a true academic, with a PhD from back when the Germans invented them and really meant business. His knowledge of the Talmud was staggering, and his dictionary, compiled long before the invention of electronic research tools, thoroughly boggles the mind.

He knew everything, too.

No yarmulke, though.

I’m not saying the academic study of Chassidus necessarily leads you to taking off your yarmulke.

I do know this, however: The study of Chassidus outside of the academy leads you to putting on your yarmulke.

The nature of Chassidus, the entire point of the transcending and the permeating and the fluid metaphor, is the endless climb into faith indescribable, and the bond between Jew and G-d, and the performance of the six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Torah.

If it is not that, it is not Chassidus.

Therefore, Chassidus cannot be studied academically, in the manner of the university.

Chassidus can’t be studied in university because too few professors will ever feel the tendons in the chicken’s wings as they swing it above their head.

Chassidus can’t be studied academically, because the analysis always says “Chassidim believe” or “adherents understand” but almost never “I am obligated” or “we pray.”

The academic study, subset (though not, as some have proposed, the totality) of intellect, may speak of reality as a null register or the soul’s desire for inexistence, but this is the furthest reach of intellect’s humility. The mind can know that the mind isn’t everything, but it’s still the mind saying it, and the professors never quit, or close down the university.

Chassidus isn’t meant for professors, because how many religious studies majors spend Tishrei with the Rebbe or allow their elbows to run out against the rough Jews the Baal Shem Tov so loves? How many academics see the dignity, the glory, the refinement in fixing a wagon wheel in the Russian mud, or clambering over synagogue benches?

Chassidus can’t be studied academically, because too many words have already been written attributing motives to Chassidic Rebbes that their own children missed because they never studied Hegel or Zen Buddhism.

Chassidus cannot be studied academically because you start by comparing it to Derrida or Kierkegaard, and then you begin to view them as somehow equivalent commentaries on identical truths, and in the end the frustrating non-answers of Chassidus help you better understand the philosophers. This would not be a problem, except it is anathema to the stated goals of Chassidus.

Chassidus doesn’t belong to professors.

Professors belong to Chassidus, according to Chassidus, anyway.

This may sound imperious or even threatening. This is appropriate. Chassidus is not a toy. Many have died for it, and for the minor Jewish customs it inspired them to keep.

Every Rebbe says that the Torah belongs to those who are humble, who are swept away by her, who approach her looking not to impose nor merely to learn but to toil in the word of G-d. Can an academic agree? Their profession is to learn; they exist to analyze detachedly. Can they study Torah? Can they study Chassidus?

There are rumors that Chassidus might provide a framework for rescuing us from our nihilism of late. The problem is that, shockingly, Chassidus actually believes in something, or at least Someone. All her discussions terminate in traditional Judaism; we save the world through Torah and Mitzvos and Teshuva and Emunah, Moshiach is an actual person as necessitated by actually binding law from an actual G-d who actually exists and actually spoke to us and has expectations.

It is not Buddhism.

Chassidus can’t be studied academically because an academic will too often engenders an academic way, and if the Lubavitcher Rebbe appears to be of above-average intelligence his life-calling is said to have been engineering and not plumbing the deepest secrets of the Torah. The deepest secrets of Torah are stepping stones to some new thing, and the attempt to rescue world Jewry was an engineering problem.

You can’t study Chassidus as an academic subject because Chassidus always has the last laugh. Its system is self-destructing; it teaches the mind how to break out of itself, to float up in transparency and become a vessel to the light. Academics are, of course, aware that this is the goal (it’s hardly a secret). Somehow, however, you rarely seem to sniff the light about them.

They can learn it, but they cannot, because of prior obligations, be it. So can they learn it?

Don’t get me wrong. Even their own study of Chassidus is not the academics’ fault. This was always the danger of Chabad in particular. Great Tzaddikim, students of the Maggid, opposed the systemization of Chassidus, the thousands of words and lengthy expositions, because they knew to distrust the intellect and what a human being can destroy with it.

This was largely the story of the 19th of Kislev, of the Alter Rebbe’s salvation from the Czar’s prison, and the danger was justified by a parable.

The king’s son is dying, and nothing can save him. There is only one thing they haven’t tried, one stone unturned. He is told that if the prize of his kingdom, the crown jewel, is ground into a potion, it may save his son’s life. The king agrees immediately, and they destroy what is most precious to his kingship to save the Prince. They pour the potion into his sickly mouth. “If one drop goes in,” says the Alter Rebbe, “it was worth it.”

But when we learn Chassidus, we ought to tremble.

Its teachings are the very crown of the king. They were given to us for no other purpose than to save our lives.

If one drop goes in, it was worth it.


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 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.

We Have Too Much College Education In Chabad

This piece is part of the series, “Readers Take Over Hevria.” People wanted me to write about “the lack of college education in Chabad communities.” My reaction was, naturally, to disagree.

First, a disclaimer: I’m not sure if the readers know, but I have no college education, and it’s sort of Chabad’s fault. I took a gap year that has been extended indefinitely. My bachelor’s degree is in Talmudic Studies and came with my smicha from the Rabbinical College of America. Anything I write about college is something I cannot possibly know firsthand. I have opinions on the matter notwithstanding. And when was the last time ignorance stopped someone on the Internet, anyway?


As I found out when I began to spend time with so-called “Frum From Birth” Lubavitchers (it’s questionable whether there is a frum twenty-year-old on earth whose religiosity can be gaplessly traced to their birth, but whatever), the definition of the term “magnet” is different in Crown Heights than it is in, say, Cleveland.

This leads to great hilarity. The Baal Teshuva, talking about his education, says he went to a Magnet School, and the shliach at his yeshiva begins to snicker. The term that some hear as “school for the gifted,” he hears as, “school for the touched,” touched in the head, since a “magnet” in vulgar Chabad parlance is one of the irredeemably strange people that show up at the local Chabad House or at “770,” drawn to us as if by some invisible force. (This term is made all the more charming for being mindlessly, innocently, offensive.)

What a strange turn of circumstance: a word that to the outside world denotes intellectual excellence is, to us, the guy I knew in Tel Aviv who was certain he was the messiah and blamed his every stomach ache on the machinations of the satan.

Similarly, “college education” tumbles into different ears and lands in each with its own meaning.

When I first made the decision to continue my Jewish education over my secular education, I thought a college education was a fine thing I was sacrificing to immerse myself in a religious journey. Many people I met on my journey did not share that reverence. On the contrary, most chabadniks see colleges as festering pits of evil. Because, firstly, colleges foster a rather heretical approach to life. As Francis Bacon once said, “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism.” Some have noted a very little philosophy is often all that’s required.

More central to the Chabad criticism of college are the points brought up by the Rebbe in his letters, which focus on the moral degradation that the standard four-year undergraduate experience brings to bear on Jewish souls still young and impressionable. After all, if otherwise somewhat-reasonable eighteen-year-olds can be convinced to spend a second year in yeshiva by a band of black-frocked and bearded dinosaurs, imagine the depths of temptation and decadence a professor with a twitter account can pull them into.

All of this is an old discussion; it makes sense. To not beat around the bush: Boys who go to college from Yeshiva at eighteen find themselves suddenly surrounded by pretty girls. The pretty girls will, through a totally passive influence, like Aristotle’s unmoved mover inspiring the circular motion of the sun, inspire those boys to do stupid things they wouldn’t do if they were on shlichus in Argentina. And the difference (to those who are wondering, what’s the difference between this and the Yeshiva wi-fi) between college and the yeshiva wi-fi is that at college they’re much more likely to be convinced that the stupid things they do are actually smart things and that the religious strictures of their youth are stupid things. This, no bathroom-accessible wi-fi alone can accomplish.

But all of that is so graphic, obvious, and irrelevant. I am here not to talk about the moral impact of college, but about the education you get there, and how there’s a lack of it in Chabad.

On this front, I am pleased to say that college is almost always completely unnecessary for a Chabad yeshiva student. Indeed, to actually go to college after a full run through the yeshiva system is quite redundant.

Let me explain.

Growing up, my dream for college was basically a huge library full of interesting books and people interested in interesting books, just like me. There would also be other people, older, who had already read a lot of interesting books, and who had interesting things to say about them. Some of these things would be super-insightful, or life-changing, or really useful. Some of those things would even be new!

But that, from what I gather, is not what college really is, and most of the people that go to college are not really interested in something like that. As far as I can tell, college is something that we must go to because we must go to it, like high school but more expensive. Our entire lives, we are groomed toward attending college. “If she doesn’t go to that particular day care, who knows whether she will get into a good school?” This is done because we are told that going to a good college means having a good life. At least, our parents feel better.

In order to actually attend, there are all sorts of hoops to jump through that have nothing to do with merit, intelligence, or learning, unless acing standardized tests is a merit. Once we get there, already saddled with a ridiculous amount of debt, we have the privilege of being around fellow students who are going there because they have to, for socioeconomic reasons and because mom and dad expect it. We get to learn from teachers who are either interested in teaching but not particularly knowledgeable, or who are masters in their fields but don’t particularly enjoy teaching. A lot of professors seem to be there because their first job choice didn’t work out.

The topics we study are either dry and practical (computer science), or arcane and useful only to the academic (comparative literature), though practical things could be learned much more cheaply elsewhere, and most of the students are not destined to be academics. Big ideas that inspire a person to change their life and make them a deeper, more fulfilled person seem to be a rare encounter at University; again, most people are not looking for them. To paraphrase the Rebbe, rarely does any topic learned in University alter the student’s life and outlook more than the dentistry student’s studies effect his.

Indeed, the colleges’ attempt at ethical or profoundly humanistic education seems to reduce to a short laundry list of beliefs, useful for virtue signaling and politics, such as “socialism good, absolute morality bad.” More attention is paid to pushing a homogenous, unilateral view of the world than to actually helping anyone think for themselves or stand on their own two feet, intellectually or morally. This is why disagreeing with a college graduate often ends in being told, to one’s frustration, that if we had only attended college, we would agree with them. Thus (and this is saying something), more people graduate four years of college with solid jobs than with the tools to develop their own worldview, think for themselves, and pursue the good for the rest of their lives. Very few people seem to see this as a squandered opportunity.

But hey, at least the textbooks are cheap.

All of this is very, very different than Yeshiva.

After all, Yeshiva is something that we go to because we must go to it, just like cheder, just like mesivta. Our entire lives we are groomed to go toward finishing the Yeshiva system. This is done because if we finish Yeshiva, we get a shidduch from the right family, and we have a good life. At least, our parents feel better.

But in order to stay in Yeshiva, there are all sorts of hoops to jump through that have nothing to do with merit, intelligence, or learning, unless sitting still and doing what we’re told is a merit. Once we get to Yeshiva, already saddled with a ridiculous amount of debt, we have the privilege of being around fellow students who are going there because they have to, for socioeconomic reasons and because mom and dad expect it. The teachers in Yeshiva are either knowledgeable or good at teaching, but rarely both. Many seem to be there only because their first job choices didn’t work out.

The topics we study are either dry and practical (halacha) or arcane and useful only to the academic (gemara l’iyyuna; advanced chassidus), though practical things could be learned more cheaply elsewhere and most students will not become rabbonim. Big ideas that inspire people to change their lives and make them deeper, more fulfilled people are a somewhat rare encounter in yeshiva; most students are not looking for them.

Indeed, the yeshivas’ attempt at ethical and profound religious Jewish education seems to reduce to a short laundry list of behaviors, useful for virtue signaling and shidduchim, such as “short hair good, pointy shoe bad.” More attention is paid to pushing a homogenous, unilateral view of the world than to actually helping anyone think for themselves and stand on their own two feet, intellectually or morally. This is why disagreeing with a yeshiva graduate often ends in being told, to one’s frustration, that if we had only attended yeshiva, we would agree with them. Thus (and this is saying something), more people graduate 3-5 years of yeshiva with a desire to be a businessman than with the tools to develop their own worldview, think for themselves, and pursue the good for the rest of their lives. Not enough people seem to see this as a squandered opportunity.

But again, at least the textbooks are cheap.

Therefore, I really don’t see why a Yeshiva graduate need attend college, or vice versa. Both were created for the intention of sharpening the minds and adding to the knowledge of our intellectual elite. Both are now places that everyone attends for social reasons, which is not to the benefit of the average student or the intellectual elite. Both of them are perpetuated by societal systems that, too lazy to do their own research, demand a sort of coffee filter institution to sort for them the wheat from the chaff.

If the development of complete human beings and complete jews, temimim, is the goal, then we may have strayed a bit off-target.

And we must not let our schooling get in the way of our education. As Bacon once said, “depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion,” and once we get religion, we just might have a shot at G-d, if you’re enough of a magnet to believe it…



Originally posted on Hevria.