Why “Light”?

As many a layman knows, the term Kaballah uses for the divine expression is usually ohr, or light. What the layman may not know is why it’s called light. As we shall see, with the simple notion of light, Kaballah unties a certain persistent problem born of philosophy, or, more accurately, uses the tools of philosophy to free itself of philosophy. The Kaballistic concept of light lays the groundwork both for understanding G-d to truly be beyond our understanding, as well as for having an intimate relationship with that same G-d.

First things first: G-d is not a lamp. The light is a metaphor.

The question is, why this metaphor? Why did the great Rabbis speak of some sort of divine expression and call it light? Of what benefit, in the understanding of G-d, is this notion?

To understand this, as to understand anything, we turn, first, to Maimonides, who codifies the following as Jewish Law and basic Jewish theology, in the second chapter of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah:


In short, Maimonides here refers to a principle that will also be familiar to thinkers of other Abrahamic faiths, the notion that G-d simply is His own knowledge. Unlike a human being who has a mind, G-d IS His mind; there is no separate faculty of intellect in the Divine Being.

This idea is compelled by logic. His knowledge could be one of three things:

  1. A creation separate from Him. In this case, He doesn’t know anything (since his Knowledge is outside of him the way a tree or frog is outside of Him). How does he know His own knowledge? The only answers would be that He doesn’t, or He knows it with some higher knowledge, in which case we must ask what the nature of that higher knowledge is…
  2. A faculty additional to His being and essence, like human knowledge is to us. This leads, as Maimonides describes, to many gods—He and His knowledge exist in relation, a relation that must itself either constitute a higher being or be explained by a higher being. In either case, G-d here is not G-d, and we must continue searching for the First Simple Being. To call His knowledge a faculty thus does not solve the underlying problems of His knowledge being a separate creation that we saw in (1).
  3. His very being and essence, and part of His perfection. In this case, we must admit our own ignorance, for there is nothing in our universe that knows simply by being. On the other hand, why should the limitations of our knowledge, i.e. that we need a separate faculty in order to know, apply to Him? Is He not the ultimate perfection, possessing all the qualities of the creation, without any of its limitations? To paraphrase the Psalmist, if He forms the human mind, does He Himself not know, even though He has no mind like ours?

This third option is summarized above by Maimonides as “He is the Knower, He is the Subject of Knowledge, and He is the Knowledge itself,” even though it is “beyond the abilities of our mouths to relate or our ears to hear.” It is a conception of G-d as a being of perfect and infinite knowledge, even though we cannot even properly understand, in our minds, what a perfect and infinite knowledge is. In fact, we can only say what the perfect knowledge is not.

If everything in our universe derives from Him, He must possess it in some way, and in fact, in the most perfect and highest way. So He knows everything by knowing Himself, that is, simply by being. He and His knowledge are the same thing.

Therefore, when we say He knows, what we are really saying is that He is perfectly lacking in ignorance, misunderstanding, etc., not that He actually possesses a separate faculty of knowledge as we do. This approach of defining G-d by what he isn’t is known as apophatic, or negative, theology.

This very same method of knowing G-d by ascribing to Him all perfection and negating from him all privations, limitations, or lacks—this negative theology—is taken one step further by Kaballah, and applied to his emanation or light as well.

How would G-d express Himself?

To answer this question, we first look at how things express themselves within our knowable universe. There are generally two ways. This is important because the second is often missed (and understandably so, for as we shall see, it is rare-to-nonexistent in human self-expression).

The first way is what we recognize from nearly all human expression. When I speak or teach or dance or type or even wear certain clothes —call this influence or wilful expression. I am not naturally writing this essay. I was not born typing words like these. I choose to do this.

If it was natural (like, say, my heartbeat, or how many bones I have in my right hand) I wouldn’t choose it wilfully, and since I am choosing to express myself in this way specifically (rather than using different words or writing an essay about cute cats) it is clearly not a natural expression. And since it’s not natural, it denotes a change in my own state. An hour ago, I was not writing—not thinking of how to arrange these words, or how to move my fingers to put them into this machine. Now, I am doing these things. I am personally involved in doing this.

Contrast this with the second form of self-expression. Call it light.

Consider the sun. The sun does not choose to emanate its light, but does so naturally. It does not shine for another to understand, or recognize, or accept. It shines regardless. If everything but the sun were to disappear in an instant, it would continue to shine exactly as before. The sun is not invested, emotionally or causally, in what happens to its light. The sun shines naturally, without any change to its own state, constantly, and without choice.

Now, let us apply the principle of negative theology, in which we define His perfection by what He isn’t, by the limitations he does not possess. G-d has the qualities of both of these means of expression, but the limitations of neither. This means He expresses Himself both wilfully (like influence) and naturally (like light).

In other words, if He were to express Himself, He could do it by choice, but without the self-investment and -change that choice would imply if a human being made it in this world. He could do it naturally, like the sun, but without the limitation of the sun’s nature; He is not compelled to shine.

This combination of qualities, of the wilful and the natural, is beyond human understanding. In our realm of understanding, things are either automatic or done wilfully, either natural or a choice. It is only the Creator, who is beyond all limitations, who can have both together.

With this capacity of Divine expression to be both natural and wilful in mind, let us return to our three-way choice when it comes to the Divine Knowledge.

When we revisit Maimonides’s three-way choice, we find that something has changed. True, His knowledge still would not make sense as an entirely separate creation, the first choice. True, it still makes sense as the third choice, as identical with His being and essence.

But what about the second choice? What about knowledge as a faculty secondary to His essence? Before, we rejected this option, because we assumed knowledge would be related to Him like our knowledge is related to us, as an influence, as an act or expression that changes us and in which we’re invested. It was only with the third choice, when we saw His knowledge as identical with His essence, that we applied the principle of negative theology, and admitted His mind is perfect in ways we cannot comprehend.

But what if we apply negative theology to the second choice as well? What if we view His faculty of knowledge not as an influence, but, because He is not limited to expressing Himself in this way, as a willed light?

If He had a faculty of knowledge separate from His essence that was an expressed light, we would not have the problem of many gods, for light, as a natural expression, is totally united with, secondary to, and expressive of, its source. The sun’s light cannot be mistaken for a second sun. It’s purely a function of the sun’s being. In other words, natural light cannot even really be said to exist in the sense that its source exists. If the entire universe was filled with the sun, we would recognize that in truth, light is nothing but the sun’s shining — its natural way of being. Therefore, if His knowledge is a faculty (option (2)), that is, an emanation, it is not a separate being in the same sense as a frog or a tree. Option (2) is truly advantageous to option (1) when we consider a faculty to be natural like a light rather than willed like an influence.

On the other hand, since His is a wilful expression of light (unlike the sun’s), He is also separate from, and not compelled or defined by, this expression. On the contrary, it is just as apart from His being and essence as a creation, in the sense that He chooses to emanate it. In this, light has the advantage not just over option (1) but also over option (3). That is, if we conceive of His knowledge as a wilful emanation, it accomplishes something that conceiving of His knowledge as identical with His essence does not.

If G-d’s knowledge is a Divine Light rather than identical with His essence, then G-d can be truly beyond understanding. Not just in the sense that He is the perfection of knowledge and knows by knowing Himself in a way totally alien to us, but in the sense that His Essence is not that which is even the source of our understanding. In other words, when we apply apophasis to our knowledge and say He is the perfection of this imperfect earthly trait, it is not even to Him we refer, but merely to His emanation. And experiencing or recognizing the sun’s rays gives us no sense of the sun at all, especially if these are only those rays the sun chooses to emanate.

What is not known is not merely the way of His knowledge. What is not known is how He would express anything, and therefore, with a little more thought, what He is beyond His knowledge. He a complete mystery undefined in any worldly terms.

Therefore, divine light is advantageous both to a created knowledge (1) and knowledge through identity (3) — a middle road. It is more united with Him than a creation, yet it does not define G-d in terms of his own knowledge.

On a practical level, the divine light forms a basis for the proper relationship with G-d: On the one hand, we never demean His essence by saying it is some infinite form of our knowledge. On the other, we can endeavor to closely know His knowledge, which is His authentic willed emanation.

The very possibility of a willed divine light frees G-d Himself from the bounds of worldly comparison and definition, and has, for generations of students of the Inner Torah, thrown open doors of possibility their minds had previously thought shut…

Based on Chapters 4-5 of the Tzemach Tzedek’s Derech Mitzvosecha, Mitzvas Haamanas Elokus.

Why History’s Greatest Philosopher Lived in Liadi

I am only a beginner student of philosophy, so when I say the Alter Rebbe is the greatest thinker to ever live, it has nothing of the authority of Yitro, who chose G-d after worshipping all idols on the face of the earth. Really, I am giving a considered opinion that may be wrong but nevertheless may have the charm of consistency. I think Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi is a great thinker, indeed, singularly great, for the same reason I think Bach was a great composer and Michelangelo a great artist and Die Hard a great action movie.

This is not to say that the Alter Rebbe is like any of the aforementioned examples, in truth. Bach composed music and Die Hard is undoubtedly a film with explosions, but the Alter Rebbe is not, primarily, a philosopher; to call him a philosopher is to do him a disservice. His philosophy, Chassidus Chabad, may be the form of Jewish mysticism most interested in discursive reason, rational understanding, and systematic thoroughness, but it is (as the Alter Rebbe and his successors emphasize repeatedly) a Chassidus first and a philosophy second. The Alter Rebbe’s modus operandi was to connect Jews with their own souls and with G-d; wisdom, understanding, and knowledge were his means to achieving this end. The Alter Rebbe would likely judge his philosophy not on its own merits but on its ability to unite Jews with G-d.

Thus, the greatest thinker is not even primarily a thinker. This makes a strange sort of sense, since part of his greatness as a philosopher is his constant awareness of the limits of philosophy. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Suffice it to say that if one wishes to put aside the holiness and true purpose of the Alter Rebbe’s leadership and focus solely on his thought as a more-or-less self-contained philosophy, one must have a standard by which to judge. Now, it is commonly asserted that there is no true standard for great art, but I have found one that works for me. Great art is complex but elegant.

That is, great art is as complicated, as detailed, as differentiated in the particulars as it needs to be. If it is too complex, this indicates either pretentiousness, in which a good idea is dressed up as a fantastic idea, or shallowness, a state of all style but no meat. If the art is, on the other hand, not complex enough for its purposes, this indicates a lack of skill (the artist cannot manipulate their medium well enough) or a block of some sort (the artist cannot express their inner reality from the start). The trick to great art, in other words, is to have something to say and then to say entirely it but only it, to perfectly convey something through the complex prism of formed matter, sculpted medium, words, images, sound.

Take Bach, for example. Bach is not truly great because he is innovative (though he is) or due to, G-d forbid, external “chance circumstance” (he happened to know the King of Prussia). True innovation, worthy of the name, is good only inasmuch as the new is superior to the old on merits. Bach was perhaps both innovative and better than those who came before, and perhaps less innovative and better than those who came after. He is not (or ought not to be) respected because he came along at a certain time and fulfilled a certain role; those who so respect him have never really met him.

Bach is great and respected because the Brandenburg Concertos (for example) are wonderfully complex, but their complexity never escapes Bach’s absolute control. He has something to convey and the medium suits the message. Genius-level music theory somehow becomes simultaneously more itself through his composition while also melting away to leave only the soaring and cascading beauty of the music. Nothing is extraneous, everything is necessary, and the music seems to partially transcend time and space in that perfection.

Not to compare even the thought of the Alter Rebbe to these mundane concertos – but how else can I clearly convey the weight of a complete systematic philosophy that seems to touch on, use, and transform every major thought in human history, yet somehow manages to always yield 613 familiar commandments as its bottom line?

In the world of ideas, the Alter Rebbe is a master composer who uses every tool of his craft. The Alter Rebbe has something to say to Aristotelian causality, Nietzschean power, Platonic forms, neo-platonic emanations, Humean skepticism, Kantian ethics, Newtonian mechanics, Jungian archetypes, Wittgensteinian poetry, Cantorian infinitudes, modern radicalism, postmodern negation and meta-negation, and nearly everything in between.

Of course, since he is the holy Alter Rebbe, he never mentions almost any of this by name, nor was any of it necessarily his intention. He engages true ideas, and all truth is in Torah. The Alter Rebbe converses with and synthesizes Talmudic sources and Rashi, Midrash, the Shelah, the Maharal, the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch, the Ari Zal, the Rambam, the Ramak, the Ikkarim, the Recanati, R’Saadiah Gaon, the Ma’areches, the Haggadah, Sefer Yetzira, the Siddur, Avodas HaKodesh, scripture, and much else besides.

Furthermore, as a philosophy/mysticism hybrid[i], Chassidus Chabad not only deals with concerns of discursive reason but everything in the human experience that lies outside of reason as well. The philosophy of the Alter Rebbe touches on ritual, music, ethics, aesthetics, faith, love, fear, devotion, lust, sin, repentance, and joy. It speaks of them not only as simple goals of thought or as barriers to thought that must be circumvented, but as human realities in complex interplay with our conscious minds.

In addition, the Alter Rebbe’s way contains a thorough and consistent metaphilosophy; we learn when philosophy begins and when it ends, where it applies and where it doesn’t. This includes an extensive treatment of the psychology of thinking and the relationship within us between our faith, reason, emotion, thought, speech, and action – distinctions not the arbitrary possessions of limited man to be transcended but rather ultimately reflecting G-dly truths.

The entire structure of reason itself is thereby circumscribed and purposive in the Alter Rebbe’s philosophy, as we would expect from the integration of faith and mysticism into a rational system. What greater testament to the balance struck by Rabbi Shneur Zalman than the historical fact that Chabad Chassidus was, in its early days, rejected in equal part by the misnagdic opponents of Chassidus and by many Chassidic Rebbes. The former rejected it for being too mystical, the latter for it being too intellectual. In the rich dialectical complexity of unifying the Baal Shem Tov’s fiery faith with the intellectual Judaism that was ostensibly the subject of the Besht’s rebellion, the Alter Rebbe embraces rationality and mysticism in affirmation and negation in an organic and systematic fashion – everything in its right place.

It must be emphasized that despite the sheer scope and breadth of the Alter Rebbe’s project, none of these components are integrated into his vision inauthentically, that is, without justification in every other part of his vision. On the contrary, the Alter Rebbe’s comprehensive worldview arises as if organically with its own internal logic. This logic derives (as in any system of philosophy) from certain bedrock truths. These truths are both the cause and the organizing purpose of the entire corpus of Chassidus Chabad, and the initial seed from which the erudite synthesis springs.

For all the disparate elements of his system, each pulling in its own direction, the Alter Rebbe’s message is never lost. Every single piece of the kaleidoscopic and (at times) seemingly-contradictory worldview exists to achieve and convey a singular purpose. Never does the Alter Rebbe seem lost in philosophy for philosophy’s sake; the technicality of his astounding mind never becomes opaque; the music is never boring or heartless. The structure is balanced logically and precisely and concludes, both inevitably and automatically, in the commandments of the Torah. No idea manages to spin off into its own form of worship, or arrive at a conclusion contrary to the dictates of Torah. Every single idea is directed toward the fulfillment of an action for G-d, with its correct theoretical, spiritual, and intellectual intention.

Of all the sources from which the Alter Rebbe draws and of all the thinkers both before and after him with whom he converses, it is hard for me to conceive of one that is as broadly-embracing while being as disciplined and thorough as Rabbi Shneur Zalman. The rare confluence of breadth, intricacy, structure, and authenticity can be called elegance. And before we even arrive at his profound holiness, his music, his leadership, his selfless devotion to his fellow Jews, or even his Shulchan Aruch, the Alter Rebbe’s elegance sets him apart.

It is fitting that his philosophy should be elegant above all. This sort of unity between matter and form, soul and body, is the hallmark not only of the style of Chabad Chassidus but of its substance as well, which makes no compromises on the unity between G-d and the world.

The Alter Rebbe’s own teaching is thereby a demonstration of everything he teaches. Between the lone infinite Creator before the creation, and His coming full expression in the lowest of worlds known as Moshiach, lies all of history and the entire human experience as we know it. If there ever lived on this earth one soul who could see how it is all one, my money says it was Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.

[i] In the sense meant here, philosophy refers to what can be known through the senses and logical reasoning, whereas mysticism denotes an experiential or phenomenological experience of the divine usually achieved through circumventing the senses and logical reasoning.


Originally posted on Hevria.

A Tip For False Farbrengers

I once heard an explanation for why students of Chassidus seem to write fewer works of original Torah thought than those who do not study it. Without Chassidus, you learn a text, find what seems to be a flaw in it, study more, and write an essay rescuing the author from his apparent error. With Chassidus, you learn a text, find what seems to be a flaw in it, study more, and realize you were a fool.

Who would publish a book showing the world all the times you were a fool?

However, possessing no recourse in other original Torah thought, bereft of any dashing tales of Rashis in distress or tortured Rambams, I present before you a Chassidic tale of my own devise:

When I was even younger and more self-assured than I am now, I become fond of farbrengen patter. I was a student of greats who knew the words for every situation. They dealt with hecklers and seekers and with boredom most of all. They knew how to stir the heart and draw in the disparate desperate souls placed in their charge by providence and tuition. They were also sincere. I didn’t know sincerity was an important ingredient. I only knew the word.

I was once discoursing in the Yeshiva courtyard upon the importance of fulfilling G-d’s will. Mitzvot, I assured an audience I can’t remember, connect us to G-d. What could be greater than that?

Then: A certain student teacher, a shliach, approached me with a smirk.

It was a group smirk on one face. It was a smirk handed out with champagne at an IPO. It was a smirk backed by confidence backed by respected peers assuring him he was right. It vanished as he said, “Why should I care about connecting with G-d?”

I learned at least three things at that moment.

  • The student teachers at Yeshiva thought I was full of crap. They were right then and would be right now.
  • A farbrenger, if he can’t be sincere, should at least ask himself about any point why anyone should care.
  • I didn’t actually know why it was important to “connect” with G-d.

It is hard to learn sincerity, though perhaps action and experience help. It is less difficult to learn why “connecting” with G-d can seem unimportant but is the most important.

Allow me, then, to offer some brief pointers for any other liars, cheaters, fakers, deceivers, or disappointments interested in making others interested in the Deity:

  • “Connection” is a good word for not saying the wrong thing but terrible at saying the right thing. It’s limp and empty.
  • G-d can seem unimportant because we are caught up in our sense of self, no matter how good for us G-d is. He may be the most high, possess all qualities in His infinite unity, &c., but we are men and women. Nothing compels us to care. The choice is ours. We need him even less than food and water, and even those we may reject.
  • G-d is important because we ourselves, the ones who choose, cannot exist without Him, and in two ways:
    • We cannot exist without Him because nothing can. The nature of all being is non-existence and all is brought forth by the Power of G-d.
    • We also need Him even more than other creations, since we are uniquely like Him. We are the only beings aside from G-d who perceive ourselves as uncreated.
  • This is what should interest us. Our deepest self, the unified subjective person reading these words, may not be what we perceive, but rather a created expression of the deepest truth of the Living G-d. We—in our depths—are souls.
  • G-d matters because He is at the very definition of what we are. If you were to claim disinterest in the matter, I’d ask who claims disinterest. And this question could only be answered…by an interested investigation.


Memorize all this, sweet deceivers, for the next time you are called upon to say something Jewish and deep, and feel not my shame.



Originally posted on Hevria.

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.

Douglas Adams Wasn’t An Atheist

“He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”

“Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.”

“All through my life I’ve had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was.”
“No,” said the old man, “that’s just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the Universe has that.”

“Would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?”

-Various, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”
by Douglas Adams, 1979

Somehow, despite my adolescent devotion to his books, I never found out Douglas Adams was an outspoken atheist until much later. Not that it changed much; I still think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels are some of the most brilliant books ever written. More: I can’t get away from the notion that his novels are a great guide for relating to G-d.

If you never read those books, shame on you. If you only saw the movie, our entire planet deserves to be destroyed. Which is basically what THHGTTG is about. Earth is destroyed for traffic reasons, but all-around-normal guy Arthur Dent is rescued at the last moment by a friend who happened to be an alien all along, and who happens to be a researcher for the titular galactic encyclopedia. Arthur then ends up bending all the rules of space, time, and propriety on his rollicking adventures.

If all of that sounds like high-concept science fiction, it’s not. It is side-splittingly funny. It is Wodehouse in space, or Monty Python on spaceships. Hitchhiker’s is actually a satire. Not of society per se (though there is plenty of that as well), but, like the best satires, of the universe itself. If the book has one message, it is that the universe is insane, that the apparent sensibility of the world is an inch-thick veneer and all is just papered-over anarchy.

Even the source of much of the magical mischief in Adams’s universe works on this principle. The Heart of Gold (which drives much of the plot) is the most coveted spaceship in the galaxy because it runs on the infinite improbability drive, which can accomplish anything as long as you know precisely how improbable it is that it should ever happen. Arthur Dent’s adventures are basically a series of impossibly improbable events, a story emergent from chaos, and the actual galactic Hitchhiker’s Guide (from the selections of the encyclopedia sprinkled throughout the books) is a smirking chaperon that might let its charges get devoured by aliens on a lark.

All of this seems to have very little to do with G-d. Indeed, some might say it’s a claim in the opposite direction. But I think that springs from our confusion.

We are, indeed, so confused. The Internet, for all its boons, has allowed for a lot of communication without much nuance. It is very hard to convey precise tone in written form, as even professional writers will tell you. So we throw a lot of words at people every day hoping that something sticks in the way we imagined, and we try to divine the meaning clutched in the cold fingers of the words our friends, acquaintances, enemies, and perfect strangers put in front of us.

Somehow, in the confusion, a lot of our jokes get taken seriously.

Somewhere in this mess, a lot of humor passes us by.

And we begin to lose grasp on what precedes what.

It is, after all, only a firm grasp on reality that makes things funny. It is the surprise of contradiction, the subversion of expectation, that the soul so enjoys. Humor is a flying buttress of the mind; it hangs off the orderly construct of the intellect and supports it from the outside. It is absurdity commenting on order. But in chaos there is no expectation, no surprise, and no humor.

If the absurd and the chaotic become our default headspace, become the ground for all thought, then there is no humor. When Mitch Hedberg says, “Who would make their plants hard to reach? That seems so very mean,” it’s funny because it’s a riff on some aspects of reality (infomercials and their language) that are so dull they no longer parse at all. When comedians note how ridiculous politics is, the implication of every single bit is, “The world could make so much sense, but it doesn’t!” Many Americans don’t “get” British humor because they have no grasp of formal conversation and boring sentences in the first place. They do not know the rules, and feel no joy from their breaking.

I learned the wrong lesson from Hitchhiker’s. What I was supposed to learn (as an unconscious corollary, no doubt — obviously the main goal of the book is entertainment) was that the world is mad because there is no ordering force to the universe. What I learned is that the world is mad even though there is an ordering force to the universe.

“After all,” I tell Mr. Adams, “that’s why it’s funny.”

“It’s funny because it’s a book, you dolt,” he’d probably say. “In reality it’s not funny at all. Haven’t you ever heard that all comedians are depressed?”

Yes. If you were Arthur Dent, you would probably be an emotional wreck. But when we read Hitchhiker’s, we have access to someone Arthur Dent doesn’t know.

We have access to Douglas Adams, the winking narrator, the one who tells the story and grins from above at the beautiful workings of his mad universe. We know the author, who has constructed the tale to make us laugh, and in doing so, has acknowledged the reality of the order and sense we all know, deep inside, to be right.

We read the book not from within, but from without, and even meaninglessness becomes magical.

So ride happy into that starry sky, Mr. Adams. In my eyes, you pulled off the greatest absurdity of all. You gave me something you swore you didn’t have: Faith.

So long, and thank you for the tisch.



Originally posted on Hevria.

Thank You, Orthodox Jews

Dear frum-from-birth Orthodox Jews (even the ones I know),

I’m just writing to say thank you.

I am a Baal Teshuva. I did not grow up within the traditional Jewish world. I was brought into it by people like you. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

Now, I know you’re waiting for the sucker punch, for when I say “but” and then explain how your communities and lives would only be enriched if you would just listen to me more, or watch this movie, or purge so-and-so from our ranks, or repair such-and-such an institution. You’re waiting for the part where I tell my brave, dark truth about all the skeletons I’ve discovered in your closet.

But that’s not going to happen.

For one, I haven’t really discovered many skeletons. I read some things that other people have found (allegedly — I am not them, I was not there, and I do not know, and I feel no obligation to say I do) and they make me sad. But the situation is not all-or-nothing, and who knows what’s true about anything you hear, and there is no obligation to care, etc. etc.

Secondly, I worry that revealing your skeletons does not demand my bravery (after all, they populate bestseller lists and garner lots of hits for websites). I worry that the brave thing is to say what is not said enough, which is that sometimes we Baalei Teshuva can be a bunch of ungrateful little prigs.

And so, I say without caveats: I am grateful for you. Yes, you. Every single frum-from-birth Orthodox Jew. Collectively.

You are collectively guilty of changing my life for the better, just by being you and existing. Because you’ve taken me in and taught me Torah and shown patience for me and the countless others that are now a huge part of your community. Because very, very, very rarely have I ever encountered a frum yid who said, “You don’t belong here because you weren’t born religious.”

So I’m telling you, the FFBs, the ones who may think, a little bit, deep down inside, that you’re hopelessly backward for being born and raised religious — you don’t need to change a bit.

I’m telling you this because too few of us who come to this community later in life ever say “thank you.”

We who came as outsiders to your world are much more content to take the high road and enlighten you with all we know of secularism.

We are too happy to use the very principles you taught us to bind you to our plans for your lives.

We hear from your throats that have spoken words of Torah since infancy Chassidic stories on the holiness of illiterate peasants and we are thoroughly convinced of our own greatness.

We imagine that Torah and Truth belong to no one, that they simply pool around our feet, and we needed only to bend over to partake, that we alone have invested and we alone are to blame for our newfound piety.

We, who did not know “todah” until one of you beautiful souls mercifully slaked our thirst, cannot now say “thank you”.

“Thank you” is sometimes as hard as “I’m sorry.” Both of them painfully indebt us to another. But that pain is ennobling. Gratitude raises us up from our animal nature and compels us to respond to kindness with kindness — the foundation of all human relationships.

Chassidus tells us that the root of all evil is yeshus, separate, self-sustaining existence; its opposite is expressed in the bowing of the prayers, when we say Modim anachnu lach, We thankfully acknowledge…

So: I thankfully acknowledge.

I thankfully acknowledge not just those who actively reach out to the not-yet-religious, but even those of you who never speak or do anything for us Baalei Teshuva at all. I thankfully acknowledge that it was you who kept the flame of Yiddishkeit bright enough that I could see it in my corner of the world.

I thankfully acknowledge that you let people like me into your homes and onto your streets, even though you know the danger, even though you understand it will change your way of life in unpredictable and perhaps irreversible ways.

I thankfully acknowledge that even though you might see the arrival of people like me as some sort of godsend or blessing, you did not have to see it this way, and that until Moshiach’s times, everything has downsides, even me. I thank you for believing in us.

I thankfully acknowledge that you have generally been quite patient with my lack of knowledge and even my own self-importance. I remember saying once at the Mayanot Yeshiva in front of some of you that the entire hope for the Jewish people rests on Baalei Teshuva. Thank you for not slapping me. I kind of wish you did.

I thankfully acknowledge my many teachers, both my peers and my elders, without whom I would not even know enough to be a part of this conversation. I thankfully acknowledge your long hours listening to me as I mangled my Aramaic and Hebrew and Yiddish, and treasured me even in my arrogance, and nurtured me so I at least know something of my own heritage today.

I thankfully acknowledge your patience. I still have so much to learn, and my words sometimes exceed my wisdom.

I thankfully acknowledge your willingness to even talk about my ideas, suggestions, and innovations. The fact is, “we have always done/understood it this way” is more powerful than my great insight. You do not have to explain yourself to anyone, particularly someone who just got here and who may, tomorrow, leave.

I thankfully acknowledge those of you who wish I would no longer speak as a Baal Teshuva, but rather as yet another member of the community, the same as any other. This is perhaps your greatest kindness of all, but I hesitate to accept it. Perhaps you should be more discerning.

I even thankfully acknowledge those exceptions who prove the rule: you who are more strict, who will never see me as one of your own. I understand you, and I thank you. Your voice, too, is important (you don’t need me to say this, but since some might say the opposite, I will). You want to protect your people and your way of life from those who would unmake, through destruction or drastic transformation, that which you have built. You doubt whether we are truly invested, whether we will not, with the power that belongs to all that is young and new, use the life you have given us to destroy you.

No, I do not want you to forget that I am a Baal Teshuva. I want you to weigh me with your standards, as you weighed the advantages of taking me in, and I will thankfully accept your assessment, like a parched traveler who, at the end of the wilderness, accepts a sideways glance along with his life-giving water.

Thank you for hearing my ideas and stubbornly rejecting most of them.

That’s what your parents, and their parents, and their parents did.

That’s why you were born to a frum family, a family that accepted an idea at Sinai, and rejected afterward.

It is only through that age-old rejection, after all, that I came to be here.

Thanks again,


Tzvi Kilov



Originally posted on Hevria.

Everything You Know About Chassidus Is Wrong

I begin with a confession.

Some say they’re involved with Judaism because of its eternal truth, or because it is the tradition that runs in their veins, or because it is the best way to make sense of the world and their place in it.

I am involved with Judaism because of the pleasure I get out of it. More specifically, I am involved with Judaism because of the pleasure I get out of studying Maamarim, the Chassidic Discourses of the Chabad school of thought.

A Maamar is a big deal because everything you know about Chassidus is wrong.

Chassidus is not those Buddhist-sounding memes I repeat to myself mantra-like when looking for inspiration. Chassidus, as an intellectual endeavor, is nothing like learning philosophy or science. Chassidus is not a nice source for your next Shabbos table Dvar Torah. For the love of G-d, Chassidus is not a social and cultural movement founded by Rabbi Israel Baal She-zzz…

These are pale imitations of what Chassidus really is, and are pathetically unsatisfying compared to learning a Maamar. These are the “No-Fear Shakespeare” or the “Sparknotes” of the mystical Jewish endeavor. These are the perspectives on Chassidus that claim to give you the real thing while preventing you from understanding why the thing is great in the first place. They are the reason why a million high school graduates say they know Shakespeare and don’t like it while neither of these statements is true. Don’t do that to yourself.

Rather, if we’re to appreciate it, we must consume Chassidus mindfully, slowly, and personally, in the original.

When we do that, Chassidus becomes the greatest pleasure in the human experience.

In fact, if I were out to coarsen the Maamar (pronounced “my-mer”) and downplay the pleasure of learning one, I would describe the experience as savoring fresh ice cream with hot fudge. For me, it is the end-goal of the entire Jewish endeavor. Getting up in the morning for Minyan is eating broccoli. Learning Talmud is like the drive to the ice cream place. Intellectual/Philosophical analysis of Judaism is like when you’re expecting ice cream for Shabbos dessert and the owner of the house produces their super-healthy fruit salad. Hanging out with people interested in Minyan and Talmud and Philosophy is like handing over your sweet, green money to some stranger that works at the ice cream stand.

Learning the Maamar is, to some extent, like eating the ice cream. But if a scoop of ice cream is one experience in a lifetime, the Maamar is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In fact, life is merely the thing we do when we are not learning The Maamar. It is the process of searching for something that is as perfect as The Maamar, and when it is not found, making it so.

If you think I’m exaggerating, you’ve never learned a Maamar. However, you may have learned a so-called “Chassidic Discourse,” which sounds as appealing as eating the box the ice cream came in.

It is the “Chassidic Discourse” that convinces people they can suffice with little snippets of inspiration from the Chabad.org Facebook page rather than actually learning the text. After all, if the entire point is to vaguely “inspire me to do good stuff,” and the inspiration comes wrapped up in all sorts of time-wasting boring informational “Discourse,” why even bother with it? I’ll just have someone let me know what the takeaway was.

But really, The Maamar is not a discourse. The Maamar is a conversation. The moment we stop viewing a Maamar as a conversation is the moment we stop enjoying Chassidus.

Summaries and imitations miss all the little moments that make a maamar special. They miss out on the entire back-and-forth, the audience participation, the way the words on the page interweave with your thought process to create a mystic cogitational sugar rush.

If all you know of Chassidus is one-liners or short synagogue speeches, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

So let me explain what it’s like:


“V’Kibel. The Jews received in the times of Haman what they began at the giving of the Torah.”

Chills. The beginning is always full of excitement. The beginning is always a quote. A quote of something old and strong, words that have held the earth on their shoulders for thousands of years, or perhaps longer.

“The question: But at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people were the apex of creation, free and holy, ready for their face-to-face with G-d. In Persia, every man, woman, and child was sentenced to death and living in the shadow of exile and the Creator was hidden from them. Yet somehow Sinai was only the beginning of a process that was only completed during Haman’s decree?”

Forget the next nine pages. This question is the perfect turn of phrase, better than Shakespeare. This question is a question that could burn on our lips from the moment we wake until we fall into fitful rest. This question is our question before we realize it is our question. This question will turn up when we fully decipher our genetic coding. Every time we encounter the intersection of pain and purpose, this question is growing through the cracks in the pavement. Every time we wonder whether up is down or darkness is light, this question helps us right our ship, reminds us that there is an order to the universe. At the same time, it tells us our place in that order is a sad place. This question is a dare The Maamar makes to itself, wriggling its eyebrows, eyeing its audience. “Watch,” it says. “Watch how I answer the aching question that is your life.”

The Maamar is not something you come to. The Maamar is what you have been living all along but never known how to explain.

“But at the time of the decree, they served G-d with self-sacrifice (to the point of death), not just for their faith but for the individual commandments.”

A wrinkle of the most Chassidic order. A statement like a knot. We have expected a solution and received confusion. This is the way the order of the universe is upended and the low and the humble are shown to be greater than the greatest? Whence this relativism? Is something really better just because it hurts? And if it is, for what do we strive? If I understand correctly, The Maamar is offering a gift. But I need The Maamar to tell me whether I should take it…

“They were inspired to self-sacrifice by Mordechai the Jew, the Moses of his generation.”

More chills. The Maamar is giving me that old-time religion, that ideal vision, someone to look up to, and unlike moral quandaries this is something I feel I desperately need. Spot = hit. Epic.

“Mordechai’s main work was learning Torah with the children, who are the foundation of all Israel, whose breath spent in Torah study upholds the world.”

I feel The Maamar’s passion. I feel its author crying out in these stately phrases. A Maamar speaking about children learning G-d’s words is almost a tautology. Innocence calls to purity; a thousand ulterior motions are burned away; a glance of Eden flashes through the cracks.

“As it says in the Midrash, Mordechai learned publicly with 22,000 students. Haman approached and Mordechai said to them, “Escape, so you do not suffer with me.” They said to him, “We are with you, for life and for death.” They accepted all punishment to not be separate from Torah.”

The Maamar takes the sublime pleasure of the story, of the narrative form we know from godforsaken Hollywood or from novels, and finds its gnarled root in the Truth, and in the history of our people. As Jews we tend to be too busy complaining to notice the true nature of our own story. The Maamar, with its head held high, reminds us of dark days and the luminous souls who triumphed. If we are to appreciate the G-dly words it is about to share, we must look upon them from the place where integrity rages inside us.

“And so, in one aspect, through their self-sacrifice, the Jews at the time of Haman were greater than those at Mount Sinai. But we need to understand:”

The Maamar is always saying we need to understand when it asks its questions. It’s never, “The matter makes no sense.” The Maamar, despite being truer than anything in the universe, still treads with humility sweet as honey.

“Is not the ideal of almost every Mitzvah to live by them, rather than to die by them?”

I knew there was something fishy about that self-sacrifice stuff. Judaism is not a death cult. Nu, The Maamar, let’s share some reasonable questions over a cup of tea. You may be humble, but I am not. Is that okay?

“Even the three Mitzvot which we die rather than violate are merely more important than life itself; death is not central to their fulfilment. Dying for the sanctification of G-d’s name is merely one commandment. Why should it be necessary for the completion of the Sinaitic revelation?”

The Torah is a life pact, not a death pact. This question is the counterpoint, the other end of the stick. Self-sacrifice is no longer the answer; it is the question. This interplay will be the launching board for the higher realms, where in a three-fold movement the Maamar will cut to the heart of all matters. It will answer all these questions with such answers that the questions will melt away and become nothing, or will become their true selves, which are really the same thing, and for a brief moment in the parallax everything will fall into place and we will snatch a glimpse of the Most High.


But I leave that for your own study. Though the Maamar continues, our shared experience of it here does not. However, my point — that the conversation with the “Chassidic Discourse” is sweeter and more satisfying than any candy — is made.

People think that The Maamar is too philosophical or deep for them, that it’s a space of intellectuals to wax eloquent on G-d.

But The Maamar does not expound upon G-d. This is like saying Van Gogh expounds upon stars and cypresses. The Maamar is not out to convince you. “This is what I see,” says Vincent with a sad smile. “Take it or don’t.”

If we knew Vincent, we’d take it.

The Maamar is not about knowing in the usual sense. The Maamar is as much or more about wonder than knowledge.

The Maamar inspires the same childlike awe as a magic trick; it, too, makes something disappear and then return.

First the Maamar declares its own nullity. The Maamar says that the Maamar is merely a vessel, that the truest pleasure we have ever known is not strictly real per se. The card has disappeared, leaving only the magician’s bare palm. Then, the magician brings back The Maamar (with all its ice cream offspring). But only on the magician’s terms.

And learning the magician’s terms is, in turn, the whole point of the Maamar.

The Maamar says magic is a form of self-expression we live daily.

If you want to feel that magic, you should learn The Maamar. Don’t be one of those people who shows up in heaven and is read the riot act over never having enjoyed fresh ice cream with hot fudge.

YOLO. Go learn.



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.

My Rebbe Is An Activist, But I’m Not

Even respectable chassidim agree that talk is cheap. I’ve heard them speak about it for hours at farbrengens.

However, every respectable chassid also knows that the three garments of the soul, in descending order of truth/reality, are thought, speech, and action. So really, action is cheap.

Maybe that’s why Jews love action.

Oh, I’m not saying Jews are stingy with words, especially if they’re complaining. But the type of speech Jews like nowadays isn’t speech at all. College graduates gussy up action to seem like words. Newspaper ads, protest slogans, “think”pieces.  Not for these is humanity distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom by the term “medaber,” the ones that speak.

After all, animals communicate. Bees dance, dolphins whistle, dogs urinate (some human protesters have taken this approach as well). Everything in the assuredly vast range between gnats and investment bankers shares the same type of speech, the type that leads to the manipulation of food or mates (I heard praying mantises get a two-for-one special). What is the fundamental difference between sniffing under another dog’s tail and demolishing that snotty know-it-all with a facebook comment? Both are important practical skills in their respective species; both are fundamental to social interaction; one of them might even make you friends.

Real speech of the “medaber” type is about abstractions. Eleanor Roosevelt once said the endlessly tweetable quote, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” This only proves that she considered the average mind sub-human (in violation of Democratic values!). The quote should say, “Human minds discuss ideas; animal minds discuss events and people.” This means that math major was in some sense expressing more humanity with their non-ironic goggle glasses than you were by picketing Monty Python for sexism, which should make you nervous.

Jewish speech is really just more Jewish action. And no one does Jewish action better than Lubavitch, which some compare to McDonalds franchises and some compare to cockroaches, and no one knows which is more insulting. This weekend you can tune into the incredible Kinnus HaShluchim, the annual conference of Chabad emissaries all over the world, a room full of chassidim who have done it, who have set up shop for life in the far-flung reaches of the globe just to wrap tefillin on or light candles with or feed kosher food to another Jew who needs it. Watch them speak about actions and act on speeches (“Spontaneous dancing!”).

They are heroic, they are self-sacrificing, they were a big part of making me who I am today, and I salute them. They are doing G-d’s work.

They are also doing the Rebbe’s work. The Rebbe who said “action is the main thing” in every talk. The Rebbe, who transformed a small chassidic court into etc. etc. The Rebbe, who always demanded more and for whom no words were sufficient.

For him, action certainly was not cheap.

“Wake up!” says the reader, if they’re even half-Chabad. “This world is important, it’s all happening here. We have to do the mitzvos, we have to bring moshiach and light up this darkness!” And that’s true. There is no use arguing what the Rebbe made so clear. The world is dark, and it does need moshiach.

Action is still stupid, though. Light for lighting up darkness is also dark. When someone wants Moshiach because it will fix the world, then they don’t want Moshiach. When they’re shvitzing with lepers in Bangladesh (can you put tefillin on the wrong arm if it’s the only one left?) in order to see their dead loved ones again, it’s not redemption they want. When they, lord help us, deal with Israelis in order to bring peace to land, they are missing the point. And that’s the problem with action, in a nutshell: wrestle with a muddy man and get dirty, wrestle with the world and you become redefined in its terms.

Action will never capture moshiach for moshiach’s sake. Action will never be a yearning to know a G-d who is beyond this world. Action is ever declarative of the world’s existence.

Inaction is much better. Like the story Rabbi Manis Friedman tells about the reactions of the “Orthodox” Jews to the enlightenment. Reformers would come and say, “Such and such a custom is archaic, not real Judaism, beyond twisted, and worst of all unhygienic, care to comment?” Group one replies, “You may be right, we’ll look into it.” Group two replies, “You’re definitely wrong. We will do twice as many unhygienic customs, just to spite you.” Both of these groups, though opposites, are equally reactive to what the world says, and they act. Group three, and this was the general Lubavitch approach says, “We will keep on doing what we always have done, uninfluenced.”

The only real escape, if you don’t want to play the world’s game, is inaction.

I am forced to conclude that when the Rebbe says take to the streets, or storm the defenses, or turn over the world, he’s not talking about the same type of thing as Occupy Wallstreet or The Tea Party. It is not a “rah rah we can change the world” type of thing. Which is fortunate, since those types of things are often crawling with bacteria and self-righteousness.

Really, what the Rebbe is demanding is inactive action, or action not caused by or meant to effect the world. Only that can break the cycle of darkness and introduce a truly new light. Of course, connecting to something transcendent is a lot easier in speech and thought than it is in action. The Rebbe is actually demanding the hardest thing. Color me surprised.

The Rebbe is thus hardly an activist. People hear the Rebbe say, “Take to the streets and dance!” and get excited because this they can do, because transcendence and authenticity are so hard but moving their legs is easy. But it’s not meant to be easy. It’s like the people who hear they have to trust G-d so they never do anything to earn money. An amusing comparison, since the people that make the first error normally hate the supposed laziness of those who make the second. But these two people are one and the same. They both choose the sections of the directive that make things easier.

Turns out, we need both sides (shocker). You need balance. But not a balance where you sometimes learn and sometimes act. A balance where your learning and action interact to produce something new. An action that neither respects the world nor attempts to change it, but changes it through transcending it.

There must be some way to make action more than action, to change the world but remain unaffected by it.

So you can stay in Acopolco, explaining mikve to the coyote’s wife, and I’ll remain in this dark room typing these words. Sure, you’ll learn every morning, and I’ll shake the lulav with a Jew. You’ll tell yourself your actions, which are easier for you, are motivated by what you learn in the books. I’ll tell myself that the thinking that I enjoy is all going to be brought down into action.

Meanwhile, the exile spins on, and neither of us really wants moshiach. Neither of us wants everything to change. Both of us are inured to the dark, and our efforts will keep perpetuating it.

For me, the first step into the light will be the one away from my inner world and into public affairs. But others have the exact opposite problem. We should both get to work. Time’s a-wastin’, and the action is the main thing.


Originally posted on Hevria.

The Rebbe, The Chief Rabbi, and The Fossils

In the fall of 1987, the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits of blessed memory, engaged in a short correspondence about something the Lubavitcher Rebbe once wrote. The Chief Rabbi’s position was that, though well-stated and perfectly above-board, the Rebbe’s argument was “simplistic” (which Rabbi Jakobovits claimed is not at all in the pejorative; he used the Rebbe’s argument before he ever read the Rebbe’s words on the matter).

What is the simple argument in question?

The Rebbe wrote a famous letter in December 1961 on the much-hyped Torah/Science clash, specifically about evolution and the age of the universe. In it, he mentions the issue of fossils, dinosaur bones, etc. which seem to be, uh, slightly past their six thousandth birthdays. The Rebbe makes two points. The first: It is conceivable that dinosaurs and the like existed a few thousand years ago, and the earth’s past “atmospheric pressures, temperatures, radioactivity, unknown catalyzers, etc., etc.” could have created fossils in a much shorter time than is normally considered possible.

This answer is common in the Torah/Science dialogue. It’s the second part which earned the Chief Rabbi’s attention:

“(b) Even assuming that the period of time which the Torah allows for the age of the world is definitely too short for fossilization (although I do not see how one can be so categorical), we can still readily accept the possibility that G-d created ready fossils, bones or skeletons (for reasons best known to him), just as he could create ready living organisms, a complete man, and such ready products as oil, coal or diamonds, without any evolutionary process.

As for the question, if it be true as above (b), why did G-d have to create fossils in the first place? The answer is simple: We cannot know the reason why G-d chose this manner of creation in preference to another, and whatever theory of creation is accepted, the question will remain unanswered. The question, Why create a fossil? is no more valid than the question, Why create an atom? Certainly, such a question cannot serve as a sound argument, much less as a logical basis, for the evolutionary theory.” 

As previously mentioned, the Chief Rabbi does not argue with this point, but calls it simplistic; he resorted to using it because it was effective, but on its own it leaves him uncomfortable. This raises the question: If there are intellectual explanations for evolution and the age of the universe that fit with Torah, and in fact the Rebbe himself brings such an explanation for fossils as his “Point A”, what does the Rebbe gain with this second point? The explanation seems tacked on for those backed against the wall by science and have no other way out but to say “He just made fossils. So there.” The Rebbe confirms everyone’s worst suspicions about religious fundamentalism by ignoring evidence of an ancient universe with an argument that could be applied to any scientific fact we don’t like: G-d just made it look that way. Why would he do that? No idea, and how dare you ask.

Seems like a fundamental misstep, pun intended.



Now, the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Lubavitch, or Chabad, is known for a specific, well-defined, vast theology/philosophy concerned with every aspect of life. Therefore, if we hope to understand the Rebbe’s position on any given matter, it would pay to examine the general perspective of Chabad philosophy.

Perspective is important because even if everyone agrees on empirical fact, where each person stands influences the interpretation of those facts. An example that’s near and dear to my heart is the endlessly-repeated back-and-forth on the relative evils of religion and atheism that I get to meet quite often thanks to the Internet (imagine the effort one used to have to exert to find idiots arguing. Now the entertainment is right in your bedroom). Archie the Atheist will say, “Grr, the religions. Crusades, terrorists.  Source of all evil. If only we all listened to the science.”

Davros the Devout will respond, “Bah! Humbug! You are wrong, because Hitler/Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot/Dawkins!”

Archie will smile and say, “How do you know that those people weren’t evil because of the little bit of influence religion had on them?”

Davros will reply, “For that price, perhaps the evils of the religious are only due to not being religious enough. It’s too much G-dlessness that made them that way.”

You get the idea. Obviously the issue is more complicated than that, but it is clear one cannot deduce anything about the nature of evil from the examples of evil men alone, but must always fall back on one’s general vision of reality. This particular debate can be reduced to a fundamental disagreement about man’s true, “uncivilized” nature, i.e. whether man is naturally evil or naturally good. Whichever way one hypothesizes, one’s theory is untestable, as any debate on the Internet (despite all appearances) takes place from within the boundaries of civilization; no one arguing today can claim to be free of the influences of religion or atheism. Who can say whether thousands of years of religion has refined man or cast him into the depths, if a controlled test cannot be performed? Pure empiricism is not enough. When it comes to how one feels about the facts, living with the facts, perspective is everything.



Why are we here on this earth?

1) The nonreligious answer ultimately negates the question; to assume an absolute answer is to assume an absolute reality outside of any individual perspective which simply doesn’t exist, and no amount of scientific discovery and observation will answer the question. The universe simply is, we simply are, and we might as well live a satisfying existence while we’re here.

2) The religious answer is that we’re here to do what G-d wants. Life involves making the right choice between the gross and physical and the G-dly. We are only given so much time here, and we are responsible for our actions, words, and thoughts. “I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil…choose life!”

3) Chassidus’s answer is that we’re not here at all, at least not in the usual sense of the word. It’s not that we exist, i.e. that we walk this earth, eat of its fruit, sleep, work, love, and raise children, and G-d expects us to do all the aforementioned in a G-dly way. He is all there is, was, and will be, a Necessary Existence, and everything that’s not Him is either false or an expression of Him. We don’t exist. Oh, it seems that we do exist? So G-d must need us for some great purpose. We’d do well to fulfill it.

The difference between the religious answer and the Chassidic one is only in our perspective; both advocate fulfilling G-d’s commandments and learning his wisdom. They are nevertheless profoundly different.

The religious and nonreligious answers both have human experience as the ultimate baseline of reality; the question is merely whether there is any higher cause which humanity can serve other than itself. For example, the nonreligious say that human intellect is an end unto itself, and thus any and all thought and inquiry needs no justification, the same way a basketball needs no justification. It takes up space; it exists. No more explanation is needed. The religious say that the human intellect is a means to an end; think kind thoughts and holy thoughts, and protect yourself from falsehood and blasphemy. Thoughts of illicit pleasure or of violence towards one’s fellow are contrary to G-d’s wishes.

Chassidus says that there is no intellect, there is only G-d, and if you seem to have thoughts, they’re only here to play some role in G-d’s plan. In other words, it’s not that intellect (or the world for that matter) is neutral, and we must use it according to G-d’s will; everything that exists is a claim against G-d’s singularity and must argue for its own right to exist. Guilty until proven useful.



At first, there was just G-d. He then created a world. The world is here for a specific purpose, and nothing exists without being part of that purpose; there is nothing here on technicality or by chance. This includes the human intellect. In fact, human intellect is the crowning glory of His purpose; He wants to fully express Himself in a place that denies Him, and there is only one entity in the entire creation that can go against his will, a human being. What makes a human, human, is the intellect. The mind can do one of two things: deny its Creator entry and thereby lose all justification for its own existence, or emancipate Him by thinking G-dly thoughts and thereby actualize the greatest potential in all of creation.

What, by the way, is a G-dly thought? This is a contradictory phrase. Is there any reason to suppose that the infinite being that created everything falls within the limits of rational thought? The most logical assumption is that an infinite divide separates G-d from us and our conception. Only one side of the relationship can initiate a connection, and it’s not the limited, physical side. If G-d decides for some strange reason that He wants to be known by the hunks of flesh that walk on two legs, it’s a different jar of gefilte fish. This odd desire of His gives genesis to the vast wisdom known as the Kabbalah. The Zohar and other works describe an intricate spiritual system of interlocking worlds, lights, vessels, contractions, and creations that span the vast distance between our physical world and G-d’s infinite light, a system that is utterly unnecessary. If G-d wills, physicality can arise with no spiritual antecedents, from true nothingness; He instead created logic, the System that must underlie anything that hopes to hide Him. Then He acted according to his own arbitrary rules as much as possible, and revealed his actions to the sages, all that we might be able to relate to Him, so that there could be a G-dly thought.

The practical upshot here is that knowledge is a dependent creation and a tremendous lowness in G-d’s eyes that one ought to use only to fulfill its purpose. Knowledge, as an end unto itself, does not exist, and that’s why the Rebbe added his second answer. The question, Why create a fossil? is no more valid than the question, Why create an atom?

The more one comprehends, the more it seems everything must be comprehensible. The scientific worldview assumes that everything follows rules and patterns. If there’s something that seems to not make sense, it’s only because we haven’t yet invented a tool, physical or theoretical, that’s accurate or powerful enough to plumb the thing’s depths. A phenomenon that cannot be apprehended by the intellect in some way is by definition beyond the reach of science, and since science has never met such a phenomenon, it must not exist; a new discovery comes along that seems to contradict Torah, and if we cannot understand how the two can coexist, it bothers us. We demand answers. And the Rebbe spends much of his letter dispensing the answers: interpolation vs. extrapolation, dating methods, untestable assumptions, etc. But there is another aspect of reality that cannot be left out. As “simplistic” as it sounds, as much as we may have to leave our comfortable thrones as the arbiters of truth, there are some things that cannot be grasped by reason. He is the basis of reality, and intellect is a means to an end, not the other way around. It is more surprising that we comprehend anything than that we fail to comprehend something. The Rebbe’s second argument is not the desperate gamble of a harried believer, but the contextualization of the intellect, without which G-d remains divorced from reality, even for the religious.



This is why it makes sense to reach out to other Jews and get them to do things like wrap Tefilin or light Shabbos candles. Emphasis, to do things. The Rebbe advised people never to get into debates or intellectual arguments about Judaism on the street; get the commandment performed, that’s all that matters, that’s what will get people in touch with their heritage and their G-d. What of the marketplace of ideas, of weighing Judaism against other systems of thought? How could leather or a palm frond ever bolster confidence in Judaism as a way of life? Shouldn’t we be rational and only do that which totally makes sense to us?

Every Jew has a special Jewish soul, indestructible and united with G-d. Doing a mitzvah, one of His commandments, awakens that connection. One who serves G-d because it make sense really serves themselves, like a spouse who gets married because their mate is “just perfect” and get divorced when reality ousts the dream. This logical misstep of the religious, trimming G-d to fit their tastes instead of the other way around, transforms the whims of an individual into moral absolutes that must bind all of humanity. It changes an individual trying to do the right thing into an aggressor who campaigns against the heretic and apostate. They are the driver and G-d is the vehicle. Only the non-rational reaction to the warm glow of the Shabbos candles or the taste of the Matzah, the feeling that somehow the Mitzvah is right, is home, is G-dly, is a healthy foundation for lasting religious observance, and, for a method that banks on an empirically ridiculous claim to a soul, works well.



Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century and in the words of Freeman Dyson, “[A] famous joker and a famous genius, [but] also a wise human being whose answers to serious questions made sense,” understood this view of intellect. He related the following:

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

At first blush it’s a grounded rebuff of artistic fancy by a levelheaded scientist. Not really, though. Implicit is the appreciation of artistic sentiment, that the flower is beautiful not only as a source of knowledge, a specimen to be dissected, but as a mystery, something that exists beyond us that we are allowed to see. And in the end, what is the point of science’s analytical microscope? To bring one to a greater appreciation of the ineffable. The scientist need not dictate terms to reality; on the contrary, through his discoveries, he allows reality to blow his mind. With his peerless grasp of the workings of the body, he touches the exaltation of the spirit. In the words of R’ Saadiah Gaon, the goal of knowledge is to know that He cannot be known.

No bones about it.

Featured Image of Anisopodidae in Amber By EvaK (EvaK) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons