Chassidus — Formal & Inefficient

The greatness and the danger of Chabad Chassidus is its intelligibility. Whereas nearly all forms of mysticism reject the external world to various extents and the conscious mind most of all, Chabad launches a daring direct assault on reality through reality’s honor guard, the ratiocinative intellect of worldly apprehension. The intention is for the the soul’s union with the Creator to embrace all of reality, even the parts that make sense; if the world is full of lies and illusions, it is nevertheless not itself a lie but rather part of G-d’s original desire, the most precious of all prizes, the single ultimate ground for the expression of His unity.

Though Chabad aims to reach the Creator without having to reject the world, there are still prices to pay for its bold intellectual approachintellectual prices. If the intellect must cooperate and be brought into the mystical fold for the way of the Alter Rebbe to work, then a stubborn intellect has the power to ruin everything. Even worse (for a stubborn intellect will usually be caught misbehaving and rehabilitated) is the pliant intellect, the mind that buys quickly and deeply into the assumptions of (Lord help us) the common constructed narratives of 2018.

The problem most recently presented itself to me in connection with the doctrine of hislavshus, that is, the enclothement or investiture of light into vessel commonly described in Chassidic disourses. Chassidus Chabad aims to explain the inner unity of each creation with its Creator using the kabbalistic concept of Ohros v’Keilim, lights and vessels. Roughly synonymous with soul and body, the light of each creation, level, world, dimension, emanation, etc. is that aspect of it which faithfully expresses G-d, whereas the vessel is that aspect which allows that expressive light to exist as other, as “separate” from G-d. Chassidus explains how not only are the light and vessel each united with G-d, but they are, in fact, totally unified with each other as well.

The way light is invested in vessel, and then goes on to be the light for some further reality or creation, is called hislavshus. For example, light and vessel in the realm of emanation, Atzilus, are united in the sefirah of Chochma, wisdom, and this unity in turn is invested into the second sefirah of Binah. Similarly, the light of the soul is united with the intellectual vessels of the human mind, and this unity in turn births our emotions, themselves a unity of the soul’s light with different vessels. All of these investitures are called hislavshus, and it is by these interaction of light and vessel that the cause-effect chain of worlds and dimensions, Seder Hishtalshelus, is formed. This system, this order, is, to the conscientious student who endeavors to understand it, the key to understanding the means by which the infinite G-d expresses himself in the nature of each individual creation, that is, how G-d is united with the world.

But what is the nature of these interactions? Here we come to a break between the way the modern mind is taught to think and the way of thinking the Rebbes of Chabad try to teach the modern mind.

If one studies the Rambam or any other philosophy influenced by Aristotle, one is soon confronted with the idea of the four causes. Any formal substance, that is, anything with being and essence (metzius and mehus) is, on this ancient understanding, explained by four and only four things.

They cover the four distinct meanings of the word “cause”:

(1) The material cause. This is the material substance of which a thing is comprised. A statue’s material cause is the marble of which it’s carved, a tree’s is the biological matter of which it consists.

(2) The formal cause. This is form of the substance that lends it unique essence. Many things have been carved into marble, but the form of this statue is King David; this tree is an oak.

(3) The efficient cause. This is the cause external to the material and form that bring them together. The efficient cause of the statue is its sculptor, in our case, Michelangelo. The efficient cause of the oak tree is another oak tree, the acorn it produces, perhaps the rain that falls on the acorn, etc.

(4) The final cause. This is the unifying purpose or end toward which the being is directed. The statue is directed toward enthralling all who behold it, and the oak tree is directed toward producing more oak trees.

Out of the four Aristotelian causes, two at most have made it into the standard modern worldview, the material and the efficient. Especially under the mechanistic materialism of the early enlightenment (which seems to persist today as the assumed metaphysical framework of most scientists), everything in the world is explained by materials interacting efficiently. A tree or a statue is ultimately just a phenomenon emergent from materials moving around and striking each other like billiard balls. The mind that perceives them is the same sort of phenomenon. To “cause” something in this framework almost always means merely to move it, to touch matter to matter and impart acceleration or energy, etc. The complex transformations of biology are reduced to chemistry which in turn reduces to physics, at least in theory. Though you can understand phenomena differently, at other scales and with other means, ultimate explanation is usually reserved for some sort of efficient interaction, usually at the microscopic, molecular, or sub-molecular level.

This would not matter, except that it hurts our understanding of Chassidus.

When Chassidus says intellect is mislaveish, invested, in emotions, the typical beginner student of Chassidus imagines something like a hand in a glove, when in fact what is intended is more like the investiture of a statue in marble. Within the order of worlds, when we speak of hislavshus, we mean precisely that the light informs the vessel, and the vessel is informed by the light. They are not two separate beings in interaction; they are two tightly bound facets of one motion, one unity. The light of G-d interacts with its vessel not as two material beings touch or transfer energy, but as a form inheres in its matter.

It is only by this understanding that we understand the questions (How do the infinite light and finite vessel interact?) and the terms (G-d and His causations are one) of Chassidus. It is also vitally important to realize that the unity of G-d with the finite creation goes far beyond the unity of hand with glove, especially if we are to move on whether the finite creation exists apart from Him at all. The assumed ultimate explanation of all causality as efficient, in the austere mechanical sense of materialist scientism, is thus a detriment to at least one fundamental building block of Chassidic metaphysics.

Of course, I do not mean to imply that most students of Chassidus think of light and vessel like hand and glove. Eventually, most students of Chassidus who do not rethink their own metaphysics circumvent this issue by the power of the Rebbes’ pedagogic metaphors, e.g. education. The Rebbe will explain hislavshus in terms of education, and hislavshus is understood in the correct sense, and only in the correct sense, from the process whereby a teacher edifies his student.

There is no true material explanation of how a student learns from their teacher, since there is no true material explanation of a private unified human being’s abstract thought. Just as I can materially explain how strawberries moved from my hand to yours but I cannot explain what it’s like to taste them, I can materially explain how meaningful sound vibrates in your ear but cannot explain how you came to know the information it carries.

Instead, the process of teaching and learning is assumed to work more or less in the ancient way; our minds participate in the forms of the object of study; their nature becomes one with the protean hylic matter of the intellect. In other words, the expression of the teacher is mislavesh in the mind of the student. The student’s mind is not mechanically compelled by the teacher but rather is unified with his teaching, reflecting them in a lower place; it now conveys the teacher’s thought as part of its own identity, the way a block of marble conveys a sculpture.

When the student of Chassidus unpacks this educational metaphor, he gets a sense that hislavshus is not about a compulsive or causative material mechanism at all* but is rather an interlocking system of spiritual inhering causes — a true hishtalshelus chain from the highest of heights to the coarsest reality, a cosmos permeated by, defined by, G-d. And there are other metaphors used in Chassidus (such as metaphor and intimacy) that also serve to negate the materialistic assumptions.

However, these metaphors are not sufficient for truly understanding by the standards of Chabad. The average student of Chassidus today can reach a non-material feel for hislavshus, but that intuition will not be integrated with their general understanding. In other words, though they may in practice fail to explain education in material terms, they tend to assume this merely reflects ignorance on their part. They assume that education, like all formal or final causality, can ultimately be explained materially.

In this, they fail to understand their own understanding. Hislavshus, Memalei Kol Almin, and Seder Hishtalshelus are not meant to be miraculous notions belonging to G-d alone, that we can only approximate with “poetical” illustrations. These are precisely those aspects of G-dliness we are meant to relate to most directly, most rationally, and with our intellect at full tilt. They are supposed to be integrated into our waking understanding of how the world works, as ultimate and truest explanation.

On final analysis, if the notion of formal causality (or something like it) cannot be reintroduced and the tyranny of efficient causes cannot be laid to rest, our understanding of the unity of world and G-d as explained at length by the Chabad Rebbeim will always be lacking. There will always be a gap between the way we understand the world to really work and the inexorable chain of being and emanation spoken by the Creator at every moment.


*Interestingly, material mechanistic causality is a much better metaphor for the non-intellective kochos makifim, such as will, and their supernal analogues, such as Ohr HaSovev. It could be argued that the average student of Chassidus, insofar as actual understanding goes, groks these higher notions better than he understands hislavshus and Ohr Hamemalei. A chassid who understands miracles better than nature might sound like a pleasing reversal, until he pays a bill, suffers from a cold, or, most importantly, thinks. In addition, most of his animal soul’s claims are very natural, and if he can only see how G-d commands the creation of his animal nature but not how G-d works through that animal nature, how the deepest truth of that animal nature is G-dly, the chassid creates for himself an assar panui minei

20 Things I Didn’t Learn In Jewish Day School

In eight years of modern orthodox elementary and middle school and four years of trans-denominational high school, I never learned:

1. The flag of each tribe. (Each of the twelve Hebrew tribes marched in the desert under its own flag, with unique colors etc. Despite the Hebrews being very cool and interesting, by eighth grade I would’ve been better-versed in the seven forms of lightsaber combat than the twelve tribes if left to my schooling alone. But, praise to the G-d almighty who cares for all His creatures, my grandmother of blessed memory bought me a set of books called The Little Midrash Says, the greatest influence on my life as a Jew.)

2. Why there is no good kosher pizza. (If you pull your kids out of public school you’re a bad person because you’re leaving the less-fortunate kids to suffer, but if you pull your kids out of Pizza Time and put them in Di Fara you’re just being practical and wanting what’s best for little Liam.)

3. That Jews died to keep their yarmulkes on. (Despite a minor obsession on the part of teachers with the origins in custom of a fully-codified and binding law concerning male Jews covering their heads, in school I never really ran into the stories of how far Jews would go defending the “custom.” Nazis would throw yarmulkes on the ground and make their owners stomp on them, and G-d help you if you resisted. These are not things to be cast aside if you’re on the school soccer team. Oh well. Good thing I hated sports.)

4. Why Gush Katif was, regardless of one’s politics, a tragedy. (I learned all my empathy from the way Jews spoke about fellow Jews when I was in high school. I’m famous for it.)

5. Does G-d exist? (I would’ve loved to see certain teachers fight over this. Preferably to the death.)

6. Why to care about Zionism. (Everything was HaTikvah this and Yom HaAtzmaut that, but it was weird talking about a country when the United States itself was basically a non-starter, even in modern orthodox school. It would’ve been cool to examine the various reasons for and against Zionism prior to the founding of the state of Israel. It would’ve perhaps kept my friends in high school from calling Jewish History class propaganda.)

7. What the federation is, and why it’s important. (Accepted as axiomatic; a sort of First Cause, as it were. I immigrated from South Africa; what did I know why my parents never read the Atlanta Jewish Times or went to play basketball at the JCC?)

8. Why do we all watch Saturday Night Live? (Another confusion stemming from the immigrant experience; another axiom.)

9. About gefilte fish and cholent. (I don’t need a full class on Jewish cuisine (although why not?) but I’ve never forgotten when in that same Jewish History class those foods of the shtetl were explained socio-economically without any reference to the benighted and backward pre-enlightenment Jewish Law that gave their impoverished lives rich meaning (that today we can barely comprehend) and prohibited removing the bones from fish on Shabbos.)

10. Why anyone would fall for a false messiah. (Messiah shmessiah, when are we getting Hamilton tickets?)

11. Why Jews didn’t and don’t accept Jesus. (Easier to avoid; more educational – and perhaps threatening to certain denominations – to confront.)

12. How there are world-historical intelligences among Jewish religious thinkers, and we should be proud of them. (Einstein, yes; even Freud, in high school, got a nod or two. But Rashi we never learned with a sense of awe or adulation; I can’t recall ever studying a mind-boggling Ramban until adulthood. We were never given a sense that Maimonides and his interlocutors are among the all-time big hitters of philosophy generally. The extent to which his genius in particular is a blazing beacon illuminating the sky of Judaism that falls to earth as the precious-beyond-measure living heritage of every single boy and girl making out on the soccer field…was not emphasized.)

13. That Jews are represented in cults far beyond their percentage of the population. (Is something wrong with us? Are we all here or all there? Perhaps in the odd yearnings and impulse to rebellion we find some hint of the fundamental Jewish spirit that might help to define what it means to be uniquely Jewish in America in the 21st century. Perhaps you should’ve told us to be afraid of cults. I got my revenge now. I went to Yeshiva and joined the group that my 9th grade history teacher told me ‘could keep their messiah.’ I have yet to achieve her level of understanding; I don’t drink enough Kool Aid.)

14. How the Maccabees were religious fundamentalist zealots and they ought to be honored anyway. (What I did learn in high school, hilariously, was that Jews should be embarrassed for killing all those non-Jews at the end of the book of Esther. Calling our Jewish homage to the (Hellenistic, Antiochus-providing, naked wrestling, pig-sacrificing, Zeus-statue-erecting) Greek Olympics the “Maccabi Games” is the equivalent of calling the WWII Memorial “A Testament to Aryan Resolve” but killing all those Persians before they killed us is the challenging part of our history. School, man.)

15. About the struggle for modern Hebrew. (Someone did a book report on Ben Yehuda once, but the full topic, his isolation, what he put his family through, the opposition of many Jews to the return of Hebrew, and ultimate triumph for better or worse of a uniquely revived ancient language was glossed over. Would’ve helped me focus in what felt like twenty years of Hebrew class.)

16. Why Judaism is not a misogynistic religion. (I was almost too lazy to Google just to get the devil’s advocate position, though I did, and it was very interesting.)

17. Whether anyone was opposed to Reform Judaism, and why. (Implied would be that there was a time before Reform existed, or perhaps Judaism was always in some way Reform, and this could now be explained. If Reform is a new thing, the case would have to be made for why this new thing is now Judaism; that would lead to a conversation about the Rabbinic process, whereupon I could at least share the things I had to Google so maybe in Twitter arguments nowadays my classmates couldn’t say they never heard any sort of defense of ‘Orthodoxy.’)

18. Why so many of our great grandparents cared about or respected the Talmud. (“Rabbinic Literature” implies that you have to care about this as much as you have to care about Hamlet, and no one cares about that anymore. (I do! Thank you Mr. Robson.))

19. Why anyone could possibly object to playing basketball on a Shabbos afternoon inside an Eruv. (This was, for me, the last straw. I thought I was crazy, because I went to your schools, I went to your churches, I went to your institutional learning facilities. I wasn’t the one that was crazy. All I wanted was a Pepsi.)

20. Why Jewish day school was invented, when it was invented, what came before it, and whether it’s a good idea. (I don’t actually expect them to teach this. It’d be like discussing prison reform with the inmates. But I certainly didn’t learn it, and for that, it rounds out this Stupid Buzzfeed-style List.)


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.