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.

Ditching Yahweh

Even straight-laced Jews like me can fall into strange cults if they’re not careful.

Indeed, thanks to the Internet especially, we are in immediate contact with all sorts of strange folk even in our own homes. We pay money for the privilege. We are weird.

Anyway. Let me describe for you, in brief, a particular sort of cultist you may have run into.

Unsought, unsolicited, they nevertheless eventually turn up. Like a nasty mold blooming in a dark corner of a synagogue never touched by sunlight; like rot setting into the fatty extremities of the body Judaic unwarmed by even the capillary flow of lifeblood; like a single bot trolling the lonely bowels of a long-forgotten religious subreddit — someone always starts talking about “Yahweh.”

What “Yahweh” is not: The name of the Jewish G-d according to just about anyone who worships him.

What “Yahweh” is: A sort of social signal, like perfectly round glasses or a man’s chest hair framed by a pastel collar; a portent of what’s to come, a clear indicator of the type of person we’re dealing with.

And make no mistake, in conversations about Judaism the one who says “Yahweh” always loses. This isn’t because of the religious injunction against pronouncing G-d’s name, since Yahweh is not G-d’s name. In fact, the true pronunciation of G-d’s name is lost to us. No, you lose when you use “Yahweh” because “Yahweh” users are either (A) antagonistic or misled academics or (B) really odd provincial bumpkins who manage to keep talking about Judaism for years without learning anything.

The Type-A Yahwist is a professor who has studied the history of Judaism from an academic perspective and has come to think that “Yahweh” is the original pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton. They also tend to think that “Yahweh” was a member of the Canaanite pantheon who eventually assumed the role of the G-d of Israel, which is fine, but when you say “Yahweh” at the beginning you’re giving it all away from the get-go.

The Type-B Yahwist is a commenter on chabad.org who loves Jews but just can’t bring themselves to learn Hebrew, or ask a Jew what G-d’s name is (or, more importantly, isn’t). They heard “Yahweh” from a Type-A (or some mysterious Christian source unknown to me) and only mean to sound hip and in-the-know by calling G-d that name.

This typology of Yahwists reminds me of an important lesson from Chassidus. Imagine a thundering, luminous river of Truth sustaining the world. The river, since it is Truth and Light, leaves no room for darkness and falsehood. Everything that touches the water becomes bright and transparent, real and alive. Such is the power of the Truth. That which tastes not of the water, is, in turn, not. And so: There can be no falsehood, for to exist is simply to be a vessel for the Truth.

With two exceptions. (A) At the river’s head, where the waters rage with unrivaled force and have not yet truly become a river but are rather pure, formless, Light, there is a moment when anything might partake of it and survive, for it is life itself in all its possibilities and does not yet discriminate. (B) At the very end of the river’s flow, where one last finger of water extends as a calm pool to slake some minor object’s thirst for being, there is so little light, and so little truth, that clinging to the back of that object a lie might perchance exist, a parasite off the truth, real and undestroyed by contradiction.

The Type-A Yahwist knows Judaism as he knows much else: as part of a synergistic whole, whose grounding principle is the Yahwist’s own understanding. Within his intellect, essential truths are trimmed if necessary. He knows Judaism so much that his knowing becomes primary and the object of his knowledge secondary. The Type-B Yahwist knows too little, and it is not his own intellect that he would lose if he knew the truth, but his own ignorance. Rather than consuming the Truth whole, he fears to be consumed by it, and is content to remain on the edge of the Truth, never bothering to disabuse himself of his mistaken notions. Type-A is arrogant, for from where he stands the Truth is secondary to him. Type-B is afraid and so knows nothing.

The solution for Type-A is to show him that even if the Truth of everything is allowed to speak in its own voice, there can still be unity. The solution for Type-B is to show him that subservience to the Truth is better than freedom without it.

What all Yahwists have in common, in summary, is what every lie has in common, and that is, a conception in contradiction to reality. This is a sorry state of affairs. But it is also good news for those who seek the truth. Since a lie is in contradiction to reality, the reality of the lie is itself unstable. In other words, a lie is only true as long as someone keeps speaking it. Judaism has a G-d named Yahweh only as long as people outside of it say it does.

And sometimes…

Sometimes I worry that I practice Yahweh Judaism.

That’s right. That’s my cult. I live a relatively secluded Jewish life in a small Jewish community. I don’t learn from teachers as often as I’d like. In fact, I learn from teachers even less than I did in Yeshiva, and in Yeshiva it wasn’t much at all.

On the one hand, I’m worried that my Judaism, not exposed to the criticism of true teachers and those in the fold, may have developed corners or edges that are not in accordance with the truth of tradition. I am worried that my Judaism has, over time, become more about me than about Judaism.

On the other hand, I’m worried that I’m not really involved enough in Judaism at all. That, in my far-off, provincial service, I do not fall in the category of a practicing Jew. Perhaps this is the real reason why I have chosen, for the moment, to exist on the Jewish edge: because I am afraid of losing my independence in an intensely Jewish context.

I begin to wonder…was it ever real? Did it ever exist? Was I chasing the truth, or a moment’s fantasy? Did I worship G-d, or my own Yahweh?

This past week, I found the answer.

And the answer is: Go to New York. Go to the community. Go to the Rebbe.

Because if a lie is unstable and exists only as long as a liar maintains it, then the truth is solid as a rock. The truth exists without anyone’s help. The truth, like a river, is refreshing, because it doesn’t need our help.

This week, I went to New York, and I let go. I stopped telling myself stories about what Judaism is, what it means to have a G-d, what it means to be connected.

This week, I let Judaism exist. I let myself be surrounded by it, submerged in it. I let my hands brush across the surface of the wall, and I found it solid, ancient, indestructable. I felt the tension leave me as I realized that G-d and Judaism never go anywhere, that they are constant as everything else moves. Even though I’m not in Yeshiva, the Yeshiva exists; it is there; the students are the same as always. The synagogues with their crown jewel Torahs stand resplendent like a signal fire.

This week, I reminded myself that Judaism is not a cult of Yahweh, that it exists because it exists, like the moon, like a blizzard.

This week, I went back to the place where I last forded the water, and found the river still there, peaceful, eternal, real.

I have done worse in its absence than it has in mine, which makes me humble and happy. Humble to have had the privilege of bathing in the waters; happy to know that they were no ephemeral mirage, but ancient as the earth.

I know what I must do now. I know I must kneel on her banks, and dip my canteen beneath the surface, and carefully carry it back across the lonely miles. I know that the way is hot and dangerous, a large and terrible desert full of snakes and scorpions.

But if ever I lose my way, I can take a sip, and hear what the water says:

It’s real. It’s real. It’s real.

This, despite our ignorance. We who choose the true path do not ourselves know how to pronounce that great and terrible name. But one day, when we make it across the sands and dig our own wells in our own corners of the wilderness and make for the water a home, we will learn that secret word.

And it will not be “Yahweh.”


The picture and its caption are honest-to-goodness from a book from the 19th century.


Originally posted on Hevria.