Testing for Prophets

Can A Politically-Fanatical Jew Identify a Prophet?

Would we be able to tell an Ezekiel or a Jeremiah from a false prophet today? Judgment and intellectual objectivity are necessary factors in a moral life, as Rabbi Dessler explains so well. Upon further reflection, intellectual integrity is no mere moral tenet or a prerequisite for sitting on beis din. Intellectual honesty is also vital for identifying prophets.

Consider a person claiming to be a Jewish prophet approaching the constant online fray, the dust in which to secure victory many of us have chosen the desired reality and gone on to interpret all words to fit as necessary, processing everything through a Bed of Sodom. The only way to determine a true prophet is, as the Rambam writes in his Introduction to the Mishna, to test their prophecy against the future. If every single word the prophet says (apart from predicted punishments) comes to pass in every detail, we are obligated by the Torah of Moshe to listen to them. If even one particular turns out to be false, we know they are no true prophet, and do unto them as the Torah prescribes.

Once, this test for prophecy may have been reasonable. Today, the president says a sentence on video, and one half of the country decides his words erupt from a wellspring of genius that has never been wrong. At the same time, the other half finds them flowing from a pit of foolishness that has only ever poisoned minds. The actual words he says have no bearing on these conclusions. How could we ever find a prophet with such a mindset? The exact half-and-half split would prevail. We would be stuck.

Of course, the same question applies to the law of Moses itself. If we can reread any of the prospective prophets’ statements, we can reread those of the Greatest of Prophets for the same price. The difference is that Moses enjoys the safety of ancient words with an unbroken interpretive tradition. By definition, we must file any new prophet under ‘current events.’ We set a reminder on our phones to check whether the prediction has come through, and judge it with the same mind that posts novel interpretations of the latest safety briefing on Facebook.

 

Why The Future Is His Alone

The test for prophets may also reflect a difference between G-d and idols. Prophecy of G-d is unlike deep spiritual intuition, astrology, or other forms of ‘spiritual prognostication’ at a pragmatic level. Per the Rambam, true prophecy is correct in every detail, whereas all other ways of predicting the future are always wrong in some detail. This contrast makes sense in light of the metaphysical difference between G-d and mere gods, between creation ex nihilo and creation from something.

Creation ex nihilo is the result of a single cause. All other “creation” (really, per the Ramban, the term properly applies to creation from nothing) is just the actualization of some preexisting potential, the meeting of formal and material causes that the Alter Rebbe calls the “צורף כלי,” the smithing of a vessel. Furthermore, no form of magic or mystical power can create from nothing; this ability, the Alter Rebbe explains, is in the domain of G-d alone, since He alone is a necessary being.

It follows that prophets whose insights derive from lesser powers or beings and the perception of their natures, as astrologers understand the stars or the spiritual forces that the stars express, only ever have a partial picture of reality. The subject of their insight is necessarily only one of the multiple parties bringing about the future. Their predictions must be imperfect because they stem from mere partial contributions to the reality of tomorrow. The prophet of G-d, by contrast, with a hotline to the Sole Creator of All, can authoritatively say what will happen tomorrow, for only he has insight into a single cause of everything today. (Of course, the Jew believes that since no finite being has any power to bring about any future, and that all of reality is in the hands of the Creator alone, that the astrologer’s predictions are also insights into G-dliness, of a sort.  However, the astrologer may not know this, and their knowledge is limited to G-dliness as it has already concealed itself within the workings of nature.)

 

Infinite Test

Just as our judgment, even when unrestrained by bribery or preconception, cannot bootstrap morality, it alone can serve as no basis for accepting an individual as a messenger of G-d. The infinite regress of doubt must stop somewhere. We must follow Moses not because we have tested him against an intellectual standard but because of our faith in him and our direct experience of G-d at Sinai. Only this will allow us to check for prophets in our own time with any sense of certainty.

The Torah is no medical text but by dint of faith lends more authority to doctors than doctors could claim even by reason alone, allowing them to abrogate temporarily (by declaring a situation life-threatening) certain commandments of G-d. So, too, is the Torah of Moses no tested prophecy but a faith-reality lending authority to a test of future prophets. And just like doctors, those prophets may, too, abrogate certain commandments of G-d temporarily, as Elijah did when offering sacrifices on Mount Carmel.

The Sinatic Event made from every Jew a prophet, and so broke the cycle of prophet-tested-by-test-of-another-prophet. We knew Him, at that time, much as we know ourselves, and saw His presence with our own eyes. It is only this that lends a rational test for prophets of G-d any force.

Korach and the Spies Open a Holocaust Museum

“Right through here please,” says Gadiel ben Sodi. It’s all prepared: cement floors and exposed brick and a real cattle car through which all the museumgoers will pass. Monitors big as billboards show the faces of the holy, fading placidly in and especially out. Thirteen men stand with the pride of builders whose private toil is finally ready for others’ eyes. A fourteenth, a teacher, law-giver, and famous mountain climber with a thick white beard is the first outsider to step through their exhibits. There are nerves in the air—he has also commissioned it.

They show him through the process of history, the special Kristallnacht diorama, the personal artifacts, the solemn crimes. “A stone would weep,” he remarks quietly, and the thirteen try to show no sign of their deep inner satisfaction. They pass the mini-treatment of the European fronts. They conclude with the liberation, the documentation, the arrows reaching like vines seeking sunlight across oceans and to a well-known land in the East Mediterranean.

“Where is the rest of it?” asks the visitor. The thirteen are dumbfounded. One of them, the one with burns, begins to smirk as the other twelve shuffle their sandals. He too-casually walks off to check on something.

“What do you mean, the rest?” asks Shaphat ben Hori, after what feels like forty years.

“Where is the lesson of this museum? What are we to learn?” Tittering among the twelve. Two begin to nod as if this is what they were wondering all along. Ten look merely dumbfounded.

“The whole question doesn’t start, really,” says one of them quickly, as if trying to sneak the words in under a falling blade. “Because the Holocaust isn’t like anything else, so no lessons are really applicable. That’s what ‘holiness’ is, and you chose us for our holiness and its holiness, didn’t you? We are leaders for a reason, and you are our inspiration (there are none like Moses after all) and the Holocaust is incomparably holy and were we to seek lessons or applications elsewhere it would just dilute the particulars of the event itself that we are meant to be commemorating. Other things simply aren’t the holocaust so why do they belong here?” He pauses to take a breath, and before he can continue Moses holds up a single finger. Our Holy Teacher’s eyes move briefly to the thirteenth man, who is dusting off a display case full of Soviet art and whistling to himself.

Moses looks back at the twelve, who in turn are studying the floor. “I am not G-d,” says Moses. Absolute silence reigns. He waits. No one has anything to say. “The Holocaust is not G-d.”

“Well—”

“Since it is not G-d, it is created by G-d. So, the Holocaust has that in common with other things. Doesn’t it?”

“Well, yes,” someone, probably from Yehuda or Shimon, gathers the courage to respond. “but G-d has created things totally differently. I mean, if you say it’s all just the same you’ll get ‘Auschwitz stubbed toes’ and ‘Hitler poor aesthetics taking advantage of populist bad taste’—”

“Just as G-d created the land and the wilderness differently?” asks Moses. The spies wince. “You seem to think that the natures of things somehow overpower the One G-d to produce an insurmountable diversity tantamount to idolatry,” he notes with gently, infinite patience. They catch a flash of gold in his eyes and shudder.

“Ahem.” They turn as one to find the thirteenth man raising his hand.

“This guy,” says Amiel ben G’mali.

“Me,” says Korach.

“He’s gonna show you his slideshow now,” groans a spy.

Korach already has the projector out and gives a glare to the spy that would crack open the earth. He turns to Moses, manages a smile, and launches into his presentation. NEVER AGAIN lights the nearest wall. Korach clicks through trigger warnings and into disturbing images from Rwanda, Syria, China, and other, closer places. A somber Eastern European fiddle accompanies the diagrams for a well-designed #NeverAgain Genocide Exhibit, including booths where visitors can sign up to volunteer with or donate to contemporary aid organizations. The music ends and Korach awaits Moshe’s response with rubbing hands.

Moshe looks disappointed. Korach’s eye begins to twitch. “You don’t like it, do you?” Moshe shakes his head.

“This is all politics,” Korach enunciates through gritted teeth. “You’re only saying this because if the Holocaust isn’t special, you aren’t special either.” The spies gasp.

“The holocaust is not G-d,” says Moshe again.

“It’s not even holy!” Korach nods.

“Since it’s not G-d,” continues Moses, “it is created by G-d. Since creation is ex nihilo, from nothing, the Holocaust has nothing inherently in common with those other things.”

“You can’t be serious,” says Korach. “You just told the spies in last week’s parsha that One G-d means one inherent nature underlying everything. It’s the same G-d in Israel as in the wilderness; that was their mistake. Now you want me to ignore the obvious essential similarities between Dachau, North Korea, and Texas, between me and you?”

“We have nothing in common,” Moshe says, full of sorrow.

“We’re speaking the same language!” cries Korach.

“It’s hard to say,” says Moshe diplomatically.

“But wait,” objects a spy, “What are we meant to do? How do we finish the museum? Is the holocaust comparable to other things, or incomparable?”

“Good question,” says Moses. “May I suggest learning lessons from the Holocaust not through direct qualitative comparison but through the principle of divine providence whereby every incomparable ex nihilo particular your soul encounters is itself a communication of G-d to be understood and used in His service?”

“But then all inherent natures are just like miracles!” cried a shocked spy.

“But then my mind’s ability to compare has to depend on a higher supra-rational logic!” complains Korach.

“I’m hungry,” says Moshe. “Is there falafel nearby?”

Ethical Reason — A Crash Course

In connection with Michtav M’Eliyahu (“Strive for TRUTH!” vol. I, THE ROOTS OF MUSSAR).

 

Reason maintains coherence through being a self-contained process, or, in other words, pursuing the truth for its own sake because it is true.

Any external reason to care about the conclusion of your thoughts is called a bribe.

A bribe influences the conclusion of a line of thought away from the truth.

An animal cares about its thoughts because they help it preserve its body.

Man is thus least an animal — least bribed by his temporal/spatial body — when he thinks but is totally indifferent to the conclusion of his thoughts, i.e. when he thinks abstractly.

Thought is therefore less bribed and more likely to be true the fewer bodily needs we feel and satisfy.

However, once we think with total detachment, we no longer feel ethically compelled to act by the conclusions of our thoughts, for we are detached from them.

In a state of pure, detached reason, the only ethic is the internal coherence of the truth. Without a state of pure, detached reason, the only ethic is the bribery of the body.

Or:
In the state of total intellectual detachment, there is no ethics.
But only in a state of total intellectual detachment can there be ethics.

The solution to this contradiction is faith, which through identity provides an ultimate reason to care about the conclusion of our thoughts.

“This is wrong,” they tell Aristotle, and he may always reply that he is not, at the moment, Aristotle, because he is not thinking abstractly, and no abstract thought can ever, on its own, compel him to act differently.

“This is wrong,” they tell a Jew, and he can never not be a Jew, for he is compelled not by his own understanding but the G-d who creates him and makes him what he is from the inside.

Therefore, “If someone tells you there is wisdom among the nations, believe them. If they tell you there is Torah among the nations, don’t believe them.

So: One can only really think if one is a mensch, a human being in the fullest sense. But reason and judgement are themselves limited and cannot form the basis of our ethics.

It’s not that we must be menschen in order to think (though this is also true), but that the entire purpose of thought is simply to internalize and unite with our (axiomatic, faith-based) menschlichkeit, which is part of who we are, as the chosen people of G-d, one with His holy Torah.

 

Richer than Donald Trump

Surely, there are benefits to a Trump presidency for any conservative. That regulations have been reduced, taxes cut, and a Conservative justice installed to the Supreme Court are all boons to the United States. However, many of us have always seen the degradation of character and, thereby, of reasoned political discourse on a national scale, as the primary cost of Mr. Trump’s presidency. This is a cost we continue to pay in fresh, unpredicted forms on a near-daily basis.

Who, after all, could have predicted that in 2018 Conservatives would be bowing to money?

It’s not that they are directly bribed, exactly. Rather, many have come to value a certain businessman over those who make meaningful sacrifices for the country. This is not even a dichotomy between wealth and principle. It is, in fact, merely an abandonment of a principled definition of wealth. There are many ways to measure how rich a man is. Many conservatives have now settled for the lowest.

Consider: President Trump has billion(s) of dollars, but what has he ever given to our society?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a progressive. I don’t despise the rich. I appreciate a businessman, a capitalist even, who invests in projects and provides goods, services, and jobs to the population. When the whale’s money goes into the bank or the stock market, this is to the benefit of thousands and millions of small fish, who can then take loans and make their smaller trades. In all of this, Mr. Trump has undoubtedly participated.

However, it is surely unfair to compare the largely self-interested machinations of the invisible hands to the sacrifices of time, autonomy, health, and sometimes life that the immigrants in our armed forces make for the American way of life.

Strangely, if one were to look not at the ledger of income or assets, but, as we are encouraged by Judaism, at what one has given away, those who should punch at a level far lower than Donald Trump have shown themselves to be far wealthier.

3% of all US veterans are foreign-born. Many Haitians and Africans, those immigrants the President doesn’t want, serve as firefighters and soldiers, policemen and airmen. They put themselves in physical danger and give years of their lives to the public service; they do not, in return, get to eat American fast food or to watch all the channels they do in the white house. They do not claim to have bone spurs. They do not discourse upon their own personal Iraqs, Afghanistans, or apartment fires.

In return, many soi-disant conservatives respect men such as Sheriff Clarke, who cover themselves in hardware for cable television, over the experience of actual Americans who happen to be African immigrants who really serve in the military.

What is happening to us? Why are believable expressions of sacrificial devotion lower in our eyes than the words of those who constantly claim them for political points?

It seems that under the Party’s new reorganization of priorities, some have decided the forms of wealth that matter are those light up the sky of even the dim inner world of the classroom bully in their passing. Mr. Trump is brilliant because he is wealthy, and he is wealthy because he, like, has a lot of money. Money is intellect is power is worth.

Such is the philosophy of people who, while constantly venerating military service, turn from the sacrifices of their fellows to judge all immigrants the way the King commands.

It is no escape, either, to claim that one respects no-one, holds no men in high regard, and is simply acting pragmatically on economic policy. For people who respect no one, those who resort to this retreat into cynicism always seem to be defending the President. They wield their lack of admiration for people who deserve it without the knowledge that it is a double-edged sword (who can respect a man who respects no men?). Finally, they continue to attribute meaningful distinctions to the President that Mr. Trump almost never makes himself, speaking as he does on immigrants as much as he is about the countries from which they happen to hail.

Mr. Trump builds hotels on multiple continents. Who, however, decided this is true wealth? It is, perhaps, purchasing power. In contrast, the Mishna says he is wealthy who is satisfied with his portion. A different chapter solemnly reminds us that more possessions lead to more worries. Rabbeinu Bahya writes on the ten ways in which one who trusts G-d is better-off than an alchemist who can transform dross into gold. Man’s power is exhausted trying to defend his wealth from thieves, and the more money he has, the more his exhaustion grows.

If we are to respect a man for his wealth, why must we conflate it with the material evaluation of his earnings or possessions?

Few speak, in the political context, of the ways in which wealth is a good only in combination with the intelligence to dispose of it wisely and the character to not be tempted by those purchases or investments that would turn those riches into a great burden. Few speak, in politics, of the way mismanaged or dishonest wealth can lead to one’s destruction.

Too few speak about the worth of an immigrant’s life given for this country.

Too few weigh it against all the gilded walls of the Mar-a-Lago and ask themselves whom they respect, or why.

Cancer the Ineffable

I want to argue against something, but I can’t quite manage it.

There is much to admire about the non-profit organization that shares a name with its slogan, hashtag, cross stitch kit, etc., “F!ck Cancer.” They fight for a good cause. They raise awareness, in particular, through their obvious comfort with a well-deployed obscenity. Even their logo is a work of minor genius.

I didn’t realize just how culturally pervasive Eff Cancer is until I saw Reddit the day after Jorien ‘Sheever’ van der Heijden announced her breast cancer diagnosis. For page upon page of comments, thousands of fans were able to express their reaction in only two words. It reminded me, l’havdil, of the ritual responses of Judaism, how when something terrible is announced in the Jewish community (G-d forbid) you will see, repeated dozens of times at the bottom of the page, “BDE,” Baruch Dayan HaEmet, Blessed be the true Judge.

Here is where I confess that the “l’havdil” is not written with mere obligation, but with a glimmer of hesitant passion. When it comes to cancer I am, of course, against. but when it comes to Effing Cancer…am I for?

The point, I suppose, of saying “Eff Cancer,” (beyond marketing) is that no time is more appropriate to be inappropriate than in the face of a scary, pervasive, and often deadly illness. There is no reason to respect this force of evil and terror in our lives. We mock our enemy and redouble our efforts to care for those it hurts and find new ways to fight it, together.

But I still have this little dream that one day I’ll write an honest essay about why it’s wrong to say Eff Cancer.

I don’t want to sit and moralize. I don’t want to be the person who hauls out the book and points, finger quivering as it channels the power of justice, to where it says you’re not meant to swear, how it’s indicative of moral decay, how it blemishes the faculty of speech and betrays a lack of character.

don’t want to be that person. No one likes them, and for good reason. They live in a world of abstraction. Their hearts are closed. That version of me cares more about the rules than he cares about the trials and agonies of living, breathing human beings. How dare he brandish standards of proper behavior in the face of the deepest suffering many ever know? How can he place that book and his finger under the noses of their families?

Again: I don’t want to be that guy.

I want to be the guy who actually understands morality, cares about it truly and deeply. I dream of appreciating proper behavior, not just in standard situations but particularly in extreme circumstances. I want to want to know in my bones that the rules are the salvation from suffering, that our love for human beings should extend to the love of unflappable dignity written black-and-white on the cracked surfaces of human souls, holding their continents together.  Our love should extend to what a human being can be, a gentleman, a lady, a sage.

In Yeshiva one sometimes encountered strange guys like the ones in my dream. Their whole lives testify that the dream may be within mortal reach. They have good upbringings and refined natures and even in the face of deep frustrations they never swore, probably never thought to, were probably traumatized by the kids at camp from Crown Street who knew all the words. The relief of the curse word, the rush of released profanity, would feel to them like a violation, and the voice it gave to their frustration would be a stranger’s voice.

I am not one of those people.

But perhaps there’s hope for me and those like me.

Maybe we aren’t just (to use C.S. Lewis’s mocking term) trousered apes. Perhaps we do not spend our whole lives constrained, ready to find emancipation in the tactile pleasure of stabbing exactly the right four-letter word deep into someone’s face like the world’s happiest pole vaulter. We probably know we are meant to control ourselves. We are meant to learn how to love refinement and never lick our fingers. Just as the inner animal breathes a sigh of relief as we fire off fusillades of flippantly fabulous F bombs, we know another part of us whimpers, left to fight disease and terror without the cloak of manners to give grace purchase an inch above the pain.

Maybe the story of the Creator and His rules will one day be to us, upon full understanding, just as moving, as vast, and as profoundly human as the story of cancer.

I want to one day know that not swearing, as a principle, as a way of life and a state of being and a form of worship, is closer to me than cancer can be to anyone.

Until then, I can’t argue.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

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.

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.

Why Beethoven Is Better Than Bieber

“Better? How can you say better?”

This is a very common question nowadays, what with the collapse of all discourse into postmodern nihilistic emptiness. As with all such questions, it can only be answered by a return to old ideas, ideas older than the current back-and-forth between enlightenment and post-enlightenment thinking.

Once, in those benighted days, people thought a work of art or a course of action could be “better” than the alternatives, subjective preference be damned.

How were they able to do this?

There are several layers of groundwork that must be in place to truly argue for it, and expounding on them would take much more effort (and time) than I can currently give. Suffice it to say, one would probably begin with the question of whether a human being can actually apprehend the truth of anything, then move on to what that truth it, work one’s way through the steps of the ancient philosophies, perhaps discover G-d along the way, and (more important for our purposes) even discover man.

It is this last part of the groundwork that forms the foundation for the ladder of better and worse. Simply stated: A human being is an animal that can do something no other animal can do. Just as an animal is a plant but more, so too is a human an animal but more. A human being is an animal that can think.

When we say “think” here, we mean in the old sense of the word. Not that one can process data, or accomplish organized tasks, or even organize socially. Rather, to think is to grasp the form of the object of thought, to understand what it is, in distinction to other things.

If I think about dogs, I will come to realize they are not cats, and that they are not tables, and that they are not the Pythagorean theorem. But I will also come to realize dogs probably are more feline than they are Pythagorean. In this sense, to think is to grasp what different things are, and how they fit together. Therefore, a human being is an animal that can grasp what different things are, and how they fit together.

However, not all things are created equal in their form. This is evidenced by the difference between man and other animals. Our dog, for example, can definitely react to a cat differently than he reacts to a table. However, a dog cannot react to the Pythagorean theorem at all.

Why? Because a cat not only possesses a form but is also made of physical material. A dog cannot really think in the human sense, cannot grasp forms, what a cat is and how it fits together with dog food or squirrels. A dog reacts to a cat differently than a table but does not understand what a cat is in any abstract sense; it could not tell you what makes a cat a cat, but only that the thing in front of him right now, with the claws and brushy tail, must be chased. In other words, it grasps not so much the form of the cat as the smell or appearance of certain matter. A form is general, abstract, and qualitative; a dog grasps only what is particular, concrete, and embodied.

This is why Pythagoras spoke only for people, and not for animals. A human being can grasp more of reality than his best friend; a human can grasp what things are and how they fit together, even if they are general, abstract, and qualitative.

It follows, then, that the more one grasps form over matter, the further away from an unthinking animal one becomes: Just as a chipmunk can sit on a log, so, too, can a man as wise as a chipmunk. But to craft a mahogany chair informed by engineering and aesthetics, to impose a form on the log and reduce its matter to that which is necessary (or most beautiful) to hold up a sitting person, is a profound reflection of what makes us human. The latter is the imposition of the general, the abstract, and the qualitative upon the matter of the log. It is the imposition of form onto matter. It is what humans can do that no animal can do.

Similarly, there is a difference between a hooky melody with lyrics of young lust and the Ninth Symphony.

The difference is not, as our modern minds are trained to think, one of complexity. It’s not that Beethoven uses a full orchestra whereas Bieber uses Pro Tools, per se. Complexity and the dominance of form over matter are not synonymous. We could make the information conveyed in the Ninth Symphony more complex by breaking it up into smaller pieces. But taking an ax to a chair and reducing it to kindling makes it more complex, too, and what is achieved is only chaos. Chaos is not an expression of form but rather the deepest expression of matter, because to grasp a form is, again, to grasp not only what things are but also how they fit together.

The “how they fit together” aspect of a form derives not only from the form itself (because, after all, chaos and white noise are technically forms as well) but from a third aspect of every thing, namely, its purpose. The matter of a chair is wood; this an animal can appreciate. The form of a chair is its legs, its seat, the specific shape of the carving, etc., and that is human handiwork. But what makes the chair a chair rather than an oddly shaped arrangement of stuck-together kindling, what lends the form an advantage over the matter, is ultimately the chair’s purpose; it’s for sitting. If either the matter or the form is not conducive to sitting, then the chair ceases to be a chair, and its form ceases to be an imposition on its matter, and we are left with a jungle-like chaos inimical to humanity.

The same holds for Beethoven. What makes Beethoven a higher form of human expression than “Baby” is not raw complexity, but rather a complex form used to the specific ends of the great composer.

It is this purposive complexity, the masterful demonstration of unity and harmony in the imposition of form over matter, that is the higher form of music. The simpler, more rhythm-based forms of Mr. Bieber, especially as they are so focused on the animal realm of material sensation, simply do not manage to achieve those heights.

And so, for humans, at least, Beethoven is better than Bieber, since it is more in line with what we are, and is a clearer demonstration of what makes a person more than an animal, that is, our ability to grasp what things are, and how they fit together.

On The Topic Of Having A Band At Slichos

With thanks to Eli Berger, who wanted me to write something about Jewish aesthetics.

If live music can stir our emotions and slichos is meant to be an emotional prayer connecting us with our creator, it might seem like being against a band at slichos is pure stodgy contrarianism.

But the truth is, unsurprisingly, more complicated. The reactionary distaste for live music at what is meant to be a mere prayer service like any other has nothing to do with the way non-Orthodox Judaism uses instruments or even with the music being a distraction from prayer. We all know that musical instruments were used in the Beit Hamikdash, and very few of us have powerful emotional attachments to the grief of exile that we will only listen to instruments in a Jewish context when the Third Temple is rebuilt.

No, the objection to a band at slichos has to do with authenticity and reflects a deep existential dissatisfaction. The question is: Were we robbed, or weren’t we?

The Jews who want a band to play their slichos feel like even if they were robbed, there was still something left over. Even if the thieves came in the night and took, with the Temple, with prophecy, with our innocence, our true love and fear and G-d, and we sat mostly bereft, they did not take everything. We still have something left. If we go to slichos and hear the music and are moved, that motion of the heart and soul is good and true and G-dly, it’s what He wanted, and our slichos is only enhanced.

The Jews whose noses curl up at live music at slichos feel, deep in their hearts, because of a certain painful honesty, that they were robbed to the last slipper and have nothing left. Band or no, they have nothing to place before their creator at slichos, not really. They will certainly try, but their efforts will always be insufficient. We have been living purely off of G-d’s mercy for some time now. No, all that’s left for us, even in these powerful prayer services, are the widow’s empty vessels. We work our lathes in the long dark, we go through the same motions. We hammer out the slichos, one word at a time. One day, we will have oil to pour into them. The oil is nothing but ourselves, if we can find it. But a live band won’t help us find it. We still have the tunes, the words to arouse passion, which are part of the nusach. But to think that a bit more music will push it over the top and invoke the miracle of Elisha? No.

The Jews who would have a band think this is defeatist thinking, the intellectual shtetl, the exile inside. They’d say that these traditionalists aren’t even trying.

The traditionalists will reply that, on the contrary, we’re the only ones who are still trying. It is these vessels that will hold the oil, whole and complete, needing no decoration. They are what will survive, passed on hand to hand in the cold. Only these plain vessels will ever make it back into the light.

In Defense Of Taking Offense

It stands to reason that free speech laws protect especially speech disliked by those in power. Otherwise, there would be no need for a law. However, free speech on its own is only a negative principle, and governmental respect of rights has never and will never be enough to sustain a civilized society.

What do I mean when I say that free speech is a negative principle? The First Amendment does not tell us what we should say or what speech means; it simply says that whatever it is, the government ought not to get involved. It is concerned with rights rather than what it right. Take, for example, flag burning. Flag burning is a form of expression that I think should be counted under the First Amendment and protected in this country. After all, is speech to be free only if it is patriotic? Where is that constitutional caveat? No, those who protest this country should have the right to speak their minds. Indeed, they have the exact same right to speak as one who praises America. Neo-nazis have the same rights as peace protestors who can speak as freely as pulpit clergy who in turn have as much of a voice as Black Lives Matter. This is what makes America unique – we say that the government has no power over the speech of any of these individuals.

However, this legal principle has led to a modern turn on the political right, in which all speech is viewed as equally valid and anyone who is offended by, say, a neo-nazi sending them pictures of gas chambers somehow has a weak character and is viewed as too childish and soft to deal with American freedoms; they must need their safe space. In other words, a legal negative principle (that the right to free speech shall not be infringed) has come to mean that all speech is beyond moral castigation.

This happened the same way everything in 2016 has happened: Too many years of unbearable progressive puritanism and doublespeak has fueled a partisan hatred of the left; anything that even smells like Barack Obama or his administration is indelibly tainted and must be purged from the conservative ranks. Therefore, since Social Justice Warriors say that praising America is an act of violence and asking someone to play golf is a microaggression, all speech must be equally morally valid. If that logic sounds absurd, it’s because it is. If there is one lesson I have learned from the kulturkampf of this year and this election cycle, it is that two wrongs do not make a right.

The left’s delusion does not mean that gas chambers are a joke, or that any jerk off the street deserves to say his piece in one’s home or business. More important: If someone at my dinner table cries “To the gas chamber with you,” it is not a moral weakness to kick him out of my house. On the contrary, it is moral strength; it is hating evil. But in 2016, hating evil is equivalent to needing a “safe space” free from being offended. Call it whatever you like; I’m willing to bet you would not allow just anyone to come onto your private property, to your business, or even up to you in the street and speak their mind with impunity. If, for example, you are walking with your mother down a public road and someone starts hurling verbal abuse at her and you do not get offended, you are the worst sort of cretin. True, no number of words will twist your ankle, but it is just as true that honor often demands a response to effrontery, especially when it is not our own honor we are defending.

What I am saying, in other words, is that free speech is more of a rule for what the government cannot do than a guiding principle for life. As a moral principle, it fails the same way that libertarianism fails generally. That philosophy does not recognize the need for a shared moral code in society. The United States Constitution limits government censorship of speech but never tells us what man is or what happiness he ought to pursue. It does not explain that no matter how law-abiding a citizen may be, there will never be neighbors living in peace so long as there is contempt between them. It does not and cannot explain what peace is, or what neighbors are, or that speaking in a certain way will inevitably make people hate you, and that this is natural and human and just. That is because the constitution only limits government power and trusts other moral authorities to guide man in forming a functioning society, a role fulfilled at the time of the constitution’s writing by religion.

It slanders the founders to say they considered all speech that is legal to be right. It is false to assume that they sought no Judeo-Christian peace and love of their neighbors and always spoke whatever dark thought entered their minds. This is to attribute to the Founders a post-modern nihilism, a view of society in which every individual truly is detached from the common good. Not merely declining to centrally legislate for the common good, but rather failing to care about it at all, which is madness.

The notion that society will survive just as well with every man truly caring only about his own affairs goes not against the legal but against the moral core of our country. It is a cruel nearsightedness warned against by the holy texts of our religions, in which “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours,” a society of alienation, detachment, and moral turpitude.

It leads to a situation in which base opportunists with racist followers are defended by conservatives when they are kicked off Twitter. True, Twitter is run by progressives with a double standard. But two wrongs do not make a right. People from whom the average conservative would have categorically distanced themselves ten years ago are defended with the perennial argument that got Mr. Trump nominated, the argument that the left does worse all the time.

A man who says whatever he wants is a slave to his worst impulses. Though the government should not stop him, he should stop himself, and we should look down on him when he doesn’t. But instead, we now defend his right to service from a private company, no matter what he says, and call his political views conservative if he makes feminists upset.

All because “the left is worse”.

Two wrongs make a right to free speech, anywhere, at anyone’s expense.

And don’t you dare get offended…