Originally posted on Hevria.
Originally posted on Hevria.
A teacher of mine who came to Lubavitch late in life tells a story. A friend of his came for the first time to spend Rosh Hashana in 770, the Rebbe’s synagogue, and was surprised by the scene. Hundreds of Jews prayed, relatively quietly, caught up in their own thoughts. He was more used to the wailing, beseeching, dramatic services of his youth, in which the congregation would beseech G-d to forgive their transgressions on the Day of Judgement. An older chassid caught the newcomer staring and asked him, “Is everything alright?”
“Everything is fine. I’m just used to more crying,” admitted the newcomer.
“In Lubavitch,” replied the chassid, “we don’t cry and we don’t sin.”
In other words, the chassid implied that while others may in fact sin and then feel guilty about it on Rosh Hashana, the approach in Lubavitch is to not sin and therefore not feel guilty about it. What are we to make of this? What happens, then, to sinners in Lubavitch?
We could explain the Chabad approach to Teshuva (i.e. repentance or return to G-d) in terms of crying and sinning, or guilt and transgression, in light of a distinction drawn by Ruth Benedict and other anthropologists between the shame society and the guilt society.
In short, the shame society imposes its moral will through social pressure. Right and wrong are enforced as public matters. The guilt society, on the other hand, imposes moral will through the agency of the individuals themselves; when someone does something wrong, they are compelled back to right action by their own regret. Guilt culture relies on a personal conscience, whereas shame culture relies on honor and “face.” In a shame culture, the transgressor has no place in society, as taken to its extreme by the Japanese practice of ritual suicide. In the guilt culture, the transgressor is not defined by their transgression; a disgrace can be forgiven by society and eventually find redemption and pride in living a moral life.
The guilt society, it has been argued, is more morally developed than the shame society, and historically proceeded from it in Ancient Greece, for example. Generally speaking, the West, through the influence of Christianity (whose ideas on the matter are probably related to the Jewish conception of the soul), has largely become a guilt culture. Some have noted, however, that the pendulum in America has recently swung toward a more shame-based system. One of the themes of the current cultural and political insanity in the US is the nascent tribalism, which in turn engenders illiberalism (since the freedom to be a “bad person,” that is, of the other tribe, is not legitimate), which finds coherence in a shame dynamic.
It should come as no surprise that if one seeks to castigate outsiders while solidifying group identity, shame is easier than guilt. A conscience is something everyone has from their birth; it seems, conceptually at least, to exist, to some extent, beyond society. Honor, however (and, for us moderns, celebrity and acceptance) is regulated by perception and need not be grounded in any personal sense of morality; do what you want at home, but don’t you dare come into the public sphere and speak words of hatred and the like.
Some protestors (and lawmakers!) have even taken, as if they were the folk of King’s Landing, to shouting “Shame!” at those they dislike. You cannot shout “Guilt!” at those you dislike. “Guilt!” is a request; it is the public asking someone to align themselves with their own conscience, to regret their own actions. You cannot force someone to feel regret. Shame, on the other hand, is externally imposed, and thus a tempting motivation for those who seek power over others.
This is not to say that guilt is a perfect system either. While guilt does acknowledge the role of the individual in their own ethical behavior rather than merely imposing the will of the collective, guilt is also vulnerable to the manipulation of the individual. Just as power-seekers can manipulate a shame society, so, too, can the criminal and transgressor find rationalizations and self-defense in the guilt society. Where the shaming method can compel actual morality by public standards, the guilt method maintains that the individual is in some sense always the final arbiter of their own moral state (with societal punishment acting as an amoral safeguard).
For example, in the shame society, the man who steals to feed his family has violated the community’s trust and betrayed the trust of his family, who expect a provider. He is dishonored, and must pay the price if he is caught; he himself totally agrees he must pay the price. In the guilt society, the man retains a personal sense of moral rectitude, of being forced into the situation, and though the society may punish him, they have no power to make him view himself as evil.
In short, the shame society defines evil in such a way that its presence can be ascertained without the evil individual’s consent, but in this sacrifices the actual rehabilitation of that individual. The guilt society, on the other hand, defines evil in a deeply personal way that allows for repentance and change, but in so doing forfeits morality and a shared, objective, public experience.
The fact that societies progress from shame to guilt reflects not just changes over time but qualitative differences as well. That is, shame relies on lower functions within the human being than guilt. Whereas every action is a function of a human agent, no human being is defined solely by their actions, possessing, as all healthy human beings do, thoughts, speech, and an inner emotional and intellectual life. Shame culture defines human beings by their actions and thereby eliminates all higher human functions from the discussion of morality. Guilt culture takes a more holistic approach, acknowledging that people exist beyond their actions and, in their deeper functions, abstract away from the world entirely. However, guilt culture also shifts the assessment and enforcement of morality from the objective and easily assessed realm of action to the murky chambers of the human heart.
If one were to explain the shame and guilt cultures as relationships with the Creator, in which G-d was the enforcer of morality rather than society, one might say that shame reflects G-dly immanence whereas guilt reflects G-dly transcendence. After all, if G-d is to judge me purely on my actions and their effects, this relegates the Creator to a relatively pragmatic position. Divine law would not seek to rule over the inner world of the individual, but merely to regulate their external action, and a G-d concerned primarily with external action is one caught up and invested in the goings-on of the world. If G-d, however, not only judges action but also intention, if He is not bound by the details of what has been done and to Whom but can find room to forgo the rules to choose the individual, if, to put it simply, He can forgive, then He truly exists beyond the limitations of the world. Only He who is timeless and limitless may let go of past violation and from His inscrutable essence forge a relationship anew. A transcendent G-d has the ability not to care, and it’s the ability not to care that makes room for the individual, their conscience, and their self-motivated change in the guilt culture.
Judaism contains both aspects. On the one hand, there are certain transgressions whose punishments are merely consequences, where no amount of forgiveness can “undo” the inherently negative action that has been taken. On the other hand, generally speaking, nothing stands in the way of repentance, and especially in the time of year that’s auspicious for Teshuva, Elul and the Days of Awe, we can forge our relationship with G-d anew, for that is His desire. He truly transcends even His own commands, and from that place of infinite mercy, he calls to the soul within each of us to return to its natural holiness. The only thing standing between me and forgiveness is myself, and that is guilt culture.
What, however, are we to make of the problems with the guilt culture we mentioned above in terms of its religious application? Teshuva “solves” the problem of G-d’s commandments, but introduces new issues. The commandments taken alone say that the relationship with G-d is based purely on objective action with no room for “resetting the game board” or going “back to square one,” and therefore Teshuva is also part of Judaism, reflecting a relationship to the Commander Himself beyond the commandments. However, the act of Teshuva, of returning to G-d, can be seen as a subjective dodge of objective morality; the rules exist only to be transcended; we know a Guy. One is not permitted to sin with the intention of later doing Teshuva (we are taught the Teshuva will not avail him) but how are we to look at the commandments from within a Guilt Culture, which places the individual and his relationships at the unmoving center of the wheel around which all else revolves?
Perhaps just as the Commandments alone, as a pure shame relationship with the creator, are not all of Judaism, so, too, adding Teshuva, to introduce the subjective latitude of guilt, is also not sufficient. Perhaps for a complete picture, there is some third way, a synthesis of the strong points of both.
It is just such a synthesis that Chassidus seeks. The shame approach recognizes that the rules, the will of G-d, is ultimately binding, and looks at Him as a being imminent in His commands. The guilt approach recognizes that there’s more to us than rule-following and more to G-d than his mere desires for this world. The shame/guilt synthesis in the Chassidic Teshuva seeks to find the place in man and in G-d where the rules and in the individual, the objective and subjective, the shared and the private, are one.
The truth is that man is more than his actions, but he’s also more than merely a relationship with a transcendent Creator. The way of guilt implies that man is a partner in the relationship with G-d and that he exists apart from G-d’s commandments. But if we were to subvert this and say that man does not exist apart from the law of G-d, then have we not merely reverted back to the way of shame?
The answer lies in the Chassidic twist, the existential reversal so common the mystical way of thinking. Our assumption is that the human being exists independently, is made to bow to external rules in the shame culture, and then transcends those rules in the guilt culture. This is the perspective of the human being, who sees himself first and foremost as an independent existence. But in truth, and from G-d’s perspective, it is not man who comes first and then suffers shame under the externally imposed rules. On the contrary, the rules come first; they are not only the reason for creation but in fact the very essence of the human existence; man is formed in the shape of G-d’s mitzvos, rather than the mitzvos applied to man. We are, at our very essence, united with G-d’s will, and created to follow it. Even the guilt-being, the one that transcends law to touch the Lawmaker, is created in the image of G-d’s will, and for the purpose of fulfilling it. Man, as such, does not truly exist apart from the will of G-d; our independence, which leads to the sense that morality is imposed upon us rather than our very essence, is merely the first illusion. Transcending that imposition does not break the illusion but merely seeks limited relief from it. Only the higher Teshuva, which seeks to negate man before not merely G-d’s laws but G-d Himself, reverses the illusion, allowing a human being to see themselves for what they are — a being created in the image of G-d’s mitzvos.
Shame, which says a man must be moral or risk being cut off from the community or G-d, does not acknowledge the possibility of repentance and only imposes morality externally. Guilt, which says a man must be moral because of his personal conscience and responsibility, acknowledges repentance but loses sight of the sacred nature of that rules-based morality. The Chassidic shame/guilt synthesis says man must be moral because morality is closer to man than anything else is, including his sense of personal transcendence. Therefore he is neither bound by the external imposition of G-d or society nor cut off from repentance, which is the process of returning to his true moral self.
And therefore when it comes to Teshuva “we don’t cry and we don’t sin.” “We don’t cry,” that is, we are not caught up in our own personal sense of Teshuva, in the guilt culture, in the assessment of our own transgressions and our ability to transcend them and reconnect to G-d. Rather, “we don’t sin;” we are trying to find that place within us where we remember what we are, the shoresh of Tikkun, the space beyond understanding where we are made in the image of G-d’s mitzvos, where sin is not only shamed, not only a reason for feeling guilty, but simply inimical to our very being.
In escaping even our own guilt, we leave behind the higher human functions and turn, instead, toward the Creator, who, with great trust, gave us a soul and then hid Himself away. He hoped that we would not be distracted by the muttering of others nor even our own spiritual pursuits. He hoped that we would not suffice with merely the Law, nor even with the Law Giver, but that we would keep striving for that True and clear place where we and He are one.
Here we are again.
We made it. Congratulations. Last year’s Rosh Hashana can’t have been a total disaster.
Look, I know you’re busy, and honestly, one more discussion about how profoundly meaningful it all is and I’d be spitting nails myself.
“Meaning” is overrated, seven pale splintering letters holding up the levy, preventing the flood of the world from obliterating the way of G-d and summing up what makes “having” “Him” “in” your “life” so special after all.
Might as well admit it – “Meaning” just means that the room has a sunlight, that the stupid system (all systems, including intelligence itself, are stupid) is not the end but only the beginning of a reality, a metaphor, a symbol, shadows on the cave wall.
So yes, Elul is “meaningful,” it’s not just a month but the time that we blah blah blah.
Elul is nice. it makes us happy, productive, it’s healthy and helpful and really good for getting where we’re going and doing deep things along the way with the people we love and even with our Creator. There are scales, a king, a judge, memory, music, honey, apples, joy, a field, guilt, a desert, sin. It hurts but in a good way, and we’re definitely going to change.
I know, I cling to my cynicism as a crutch because I’m really afraid of the bright light of God’s salvation. I don’t change because I don’t believe I can change, which I can change, by believing I can change. I’m being overly dramatic or not dramatic enough. I’m whirling in epistemological circles. I need to just get over it. I need to farbreng. I need to study. I need to daven. There are solutions.
The problem is too much I; it’s too little I. It’s not enough learning. It’s too much learning. It’s idealism, it’s pragmatism. I need to spend more time outside; I need to stop thinking I need to. The answer is street performance or street violence or street sweeping. Real men are busy making money. This is not how a business runs. Get it together. It’s insulting not to have it together. It’s insulting to have it together. Read my book. Five simple steps to fixing everything. Acquire something, lose something, follow the steps, fit the form.
I’ll figure it all out in the morning, with a structure, with a calculus. I’ll cobble something together at the last minute, find the cruse of sincerity in some un-excavated corner, make some dumb resolutions, keep half of one.
It will be drenched in meaning. Meaning will suffuse it like a fine chai. It will be so soaked in meaning I’ll need to use three Clean & Clear cloths.
It’s probably part of the plan, one of those dastardly Jewish plots to crash the stock market or end apartheid or circumcise the lizard people.
For weeks they trot out all the lectures and the books and the explanations and the alcohol and the heartfelt sincerity, intentionally trying to goad and annoy us.
So what? So what?
The only relief from all the meaning, from the too-familiar face, is G-d, arbitrary, non-existent, the chooser.
He wants it all for no reason at all; he wants it for what it is; it means nothing.
Either clean up your pathetic act and do the damn Mitzvos, Tzvi, or don’t. If you choose the former, you just have Him. If you choose the latter, you have nothing.
There are no stories about Him, there are no words that capture Him, nothing compares in individual or species.
How do you even know it’s Him you’ve met?
You’re just going to have to trust Him.
If He is indescribable, what’s so good about Him?
Answer the question before you show up here.
We find Him either in the brute manipulation of stuff into the correct configurations, or not at all.
If the correct configurations correspond to forms emanated both necessarily and willfully in a mode of infinitely detailed inter-inclusion as a web of meaning that captures all of the creation and neatly dices each being and all of their properties into a perfectly balanced framework whose very shapes convey the Truth unknowable and permeate reality with unlimited purpose, okay.
It’s only because He wanted it that way for no reason.
It means nothing.
Just do the damn Mitzvos.
Originally posted on Hevria.
By G-d’s grace, weird politics have given me a little insight into some difficult passages:
A learn-through of the discourse “Ani L’Dodi” from the Alter Rebbe’s Likkutei Torah and the Rebbe’s “Ani L’Dodi” of 5732 reveal strange contradictions, mysteries within mysteries, all bound up with the relational modes of love and fear.
Love and fear at their most basic are simply two ways one connects to another. Understood simply, the difference between them lies in how they are implemented: Fear is the connection that disregards the inner life of the person as themselves; it is an objective connection separate from feeling or perception. Love, on the other hand, is a connection that acknowledges the inner form of both parties; it is a “subjective” connection wherein one’s inner makeup is directed toward another, and vice versa. It is this distinction which gives rise to the common understandings of love and fear and attraction toward or repulsion from something. These common understandings are less nuanced and therefore fraught with contradiction; to love someone is to be connected to them in an inner fashion but to simultaneously be separated from them by the very insistence of one’s own feelings into the picture, whereas fear/repulsion/hatred often manifests not in escaping from the object of fear but being permanently bound to it as if by fate. On the whole, however, in terms of our conscious/active perception, love represents a connection and fear the negation or fleeing from such a connection, and thus the common definitions.
These notions of love and fear give rise to the famous formula, D’chilu-R’chimu-R’chimu-U’d’chilu, or, Fear-Love-Love-Fear — basically a path to unity, the process of connection to the creator that terminates in utter nullity within the deity. The first step is the Lower Fear, also known as accepting the yoke. In this case, the connection disregarding the inner life is the first vitally important step because one’s inner life is not yet ready to love. This is the responsibility that precedes appreciation. It is the idea that there is G-d, a King over the world and over oneself, to whom one must pledge devotion. Whatever the King demands is what one will do, and one’s appreciation or understanding of those demands is utterly irrelevant. The relationship is (apparently, see below) based entirely on the manifest truth of His existence and dominion and not on one’s feelings or understanding at all.
Next are the small and great love, wherein one works on an understanding and appreciation of the creator, bringing one’s intellect and emotions around to a grasp (and therefore an appreciation) of G-d and His commandments. The great love at its highest reaches is an ecstatic communion with G-d in which one’s entire personality is perfectly congruent and transparent to the creator. However, (again, in the basic understanding) there “remains one who loves,” a separate creation, bound to G-d only through the intermediary of love, feeling, “the relationship” in all its declarative existence. This is why there is a final step.
The final step is the higher fear, which (like the aforementioned lower fear) disregards the inner life and experience of the person for a relationship based in external objective reality. Unlike the lower fear, however, the higher fear is reached after the achievements of the small and great love have been attained. In other words, while the lower fear circumvents one’s understanding and appreciation by necessity (because these faculties are not yet refined enough to grasp the creator or his commandments) the higher fear circumvents these things by choice, that is, in order to escape the state of being “one who loves” and simply ceasing to be, in complete and utter transparent unity with G-d.
All of this is relatively simple, the order of G-d’s service in chassidus as known to first-time learners etc.
Then we try to understand these Elul discourses…
First we read that both love and fear, if they are to be established permanently in one’s personality, demand objects. That is, it is impossible to truly fear on one’s own, in one’s head as it were, and that is one of the reasons why the fear one feels on the high holy days can only be born from a revelation of G-dliness, some perceptible expression of G-d to give anchor to our fear. After all, it is only the knowledge of something which allows an emotional reaction to its form — it is only by either seeing a good meal before our eyes, or at least knowing the form of it in our minds, that we can desire it.
So, even love demands an object and cannot be generated by one party alone. This is not earth-shattering. Though fear is indeed more rooted in external objectivity whereas love is a function of the internal faculties of one’s being, for anything to be consciously detected to a human being it must pass through the intermediary of intellectual recognition/contemplation. Nevertheless, in the case of fear, we can say that the object of the apprehension is actually the external reality (I am aware of something beyond me that renders me nullified in some way) whereas in the case of love, the object of the apprehension is more the act of detecting the divine (I am aware of being in alignment with or grasping something beyond myself).
The Rebbe explains further that, though (as we have just noted) all forms of love and fear require objects and those objects are all accessed by man through intellectual contemplation/recognition, sometimes that recognition is implanted (it seems, automatically) through an external revelation, whereas sometimes it must be attained through the efforts of man. Specifically, the lower fear’s contemplation/recognition of G-d is accomplished by man’s efforts, whereas the higher fear’s is implanted by G-d.
To summarize so far: Fear is a connection with another rooted in an objective fact rather than the inner life of each party. The experience of fear is a function of one’s intellectual apprehension of this external, objective fact. This apprehension, in the case of the lower fear, is accomplished through the effort of the individual. In the case of the higher fear, it is accomplished through some process by G-d, and the person is, it would seem, a mere passive recipient.
The difference between the activity of the lower fear and the passivity of the higher fear are made clearer by their specific divine objects. The objective fact that one must apprehend to achieve the lower fear is G-d’s utter dominion over the universe He creates, ultimately: “The one thinking this very thought could not exist were it not for G-d.” And the logical conclusion — the one thinking this very thought will subjugate himself to the will of his creator. The fact that causes the higher fear is the perception that G-d in His infinitude transcends all creation and all limitation. Aside from impossibility of attaining such an impression on one’s own steam (being that all comprehension begins within the framework of logic and the very worlds one is utterly negating in comparison to G-d), the inherent passivity of the higher fear is reflected in one’s logical conclusion — not that one must subjugate himself to G-d, but that one indeed is already subjugated to the point of having no definition outside of G-dliness itself. In other words, and in accordance with our understanding of the higher fear mentioned above, there is technically no person left as such to actively do anything, but rather only an expression of the creator. We thus see how the higher fear is surely utterly passive, a recognition of the reality of the infinite creator given to one by the Creator, whereas the lower fear can be accomplished through the efforts of man.
It is at this point, however, that things take a turn, and in order to understand it, we must re-examine, from first principles, our entire understanding of love and fear.
(to be continued)
Writing about it won’t help.
I’m so angry.
I’m so angry for being born and for being in this place. Not really. not authentically. Not in a way that I’d want to reverse the process of being born or being in this world. See, even that’s not real. And that’s part of why I’m angry.
I’m not really angry either, if anger is some sort of wild-fire. This is not wild. It is low, a low simmer, a single coal glowing at the heart of a cold galaxy, but it last and lasts and lasts, and so do I, and that is not happy and it’s not sad and it’s not completely dead. It’s a long, slow, imperceptible wrath. It is a punch to the face that was thrown when I was born and is still in a state of constant arrival, and that arrival is somehow wrapped up with this thing I can’t control, which is being. Here.
I’m angry that I have a body, that it’s limited and that it pegs me in one place and one time and people can look at it and see me. I sometimes forget I have it, and every time I look in a mirror and remember first there is shock and then the dull thud of that one warm coal.
I’m angry that all I am is angry. I’m not “motivated” or “passionate” or even “furious.” These almost imply that something other than me exists. Nothing other than me exists. There is me, and there is my anger at being here.
I remember a time when there was more. My childhood seems like some atavistic echo of Eden. I loved and hoped and had faith, though I wouldn’t have called it that. The older I got and the more I learned and the better (for a time) things got on paper the more I spun away from myself. It’s not because of anything I did. I know it. I’m still angry.
I’m angry that I had to become this broad to survive, that nuance and contradiction are the walls I must dash behind to avoid the glaring light. I wanted to be made whole and not half to lie here bleeding, pieces held together by force of will: You will be one. You will be one. You will be one.
I’m angry that G-d is small and I am big and that I don’t know how to fight that anymore but I am still not going anywhere, not going to admit I’m going anywhere, not going to countenance the slightest suggestion that I’m going anywhere, because I am as stubborn as this stupid world, a rock cast into a stream, sinking and unchanged and uncaring whether the flow’s subtle alteration at my presence ultimately does or effects or is anything with a name. I’m angry that I’m here for vengeance: Midah k’neged midah, measure for measure, I keep showing up at this table, and so will you, and it’s always your move.
I’m angry that I cannot remember where I hid the key to my ball and chain but that I can remember in aching clarity every time I have tried to claw my way out and fallen, every failed attempt, every cycle the same story, and though things change it is never the way I want or the way I intend and never because I sat down and decided they would.
I’m angry that I still know I’m here for a reason and that one more soul in one more body for one more moment is your infinite pleasure and that sometimes I even glimpse it…
I’m angry that I remember the way I used to dance on Simchas Torah, ripping my throat raw and trying to stomp holes in the floor, crying, slamming, because it is the nature of my romantic side to try to say how I really feel once a year and if Simchas Torah isn’t real and the Jews’ backs lacerated with holy and unrepentant whip scars are not your flag and they don’t dance anyway then it’s all nothing and the world can sink into a flood for all I care. But all of that was a long time ago and now I just can’t anymore because there’s been too many and your face is still hidden and there is not a single day that this stupid world doesn’t spit in my face and you don’t care.
I’m angry that you put me in this place where I can forget you care, where I am broken and we sing to you on Yom Kippur to a tune rending and sublime that we are like clay in the hands of the sculptor, an anchor in the hands of the seaman, and maybe you will reel us in. Maybe you will reel us in. Maybe you will keep our form. But perhaps not. Perhaps this is all some joke, and that we went from love to hatred to cold, uncaring apathy is just some preparation for the next test or demonstration.
I’m angry because you probably think it’s funny that I try to defend you sometimes. It’s funny because I wouldn’t know you to defend you, and all words in your defense are hypocrisy anyway, and besides, when was the last time you came around? But it still makes me angry. It makes me angry like a child who has lost his head, and that’s all I am, pathetic and myself.
I’m angry that your excuse for creating people who will always look but never find is that you, too, are committed to always looking and never finding. Perhaps you won’t reel me in, but: It’s a stupid pastime and I’m sick of it. I’ve had it up to here. Not because of some righteous and noble cause of your people in history or defending the weak or hating evil. Because I am so tired. I am so angry. I am tired and angry and here, still here, always here, one day and then the next, and I cannot step into the boats you may have sent with the rising tide, and that is your fault too.
I take credit for none of it. I am not responsible. I am responsible, maybe, for still being here. Always. A coal.
But coals do not fold themselves into words for others; embers are not seen.
And writing will not help.
Originally posted on Hevria.