The Mistake Not To Make In 2017

The mistake not to make in 2017 is the mistake of thinking we know what’s going to happen, or, more precisely, that it makes any difference whether we know what’s going to happen or not.

This should not even be possible for a Chassid. Kabbalah is, if it is learned badly, gnostic, platonic, and reductionist; a learner can convince themselves that they are gaining knowledge of the secret undergirdings of the creation, knowledge that can be used in some practical way. These are the patterns; these are the rules that bind the way things work.

Philosophy, on the other hand, does not claim to know of a priori categories from which everything is built with little variance; philosophy is essentially at liberty to follow the evidence where it leads, and if it leads to a place that we cannot know, we can at least be certain of the truth of what we don’t know.

Chassidus is an unfair, paradoxical melding; it says that we can be what we cannot know and we can use all that strange, intervening Kabbalah to get there. Chassidus says that it’s all about G-d, but G-d wanted it to, in a sense, be all about us, and so condescended to make a world that runs parallel to our structures in every way which in turn run parallel to His chosen mode of expression which means that the place which is furthest from him is not so different from one facet of his infinite truth. Chassidus says that the Darwinists have it backward, that it is not that something is True because it happens to survive long enough but that life itself is the truth which is following G-d’s plans.

So much for all of the inevitables, the things that must be, the Kabbalah, with its forms and faces and spheres, the spiritual blueprint of the world that allows too many students to mistake the map for the landscape and assume that the world actually IS predictable.

But the joke was on us; the Kabbalah is just the post-hoc interstitial stuff, the logical outgrowth; “I wish to create a terrible, dark thing called a world, but I wish to dwell there as well, on its terms — I had better create some sort of blueprint, so that all my pieces can find their way back…”

No, our reality is more like philosophy, which seems mundane when “follow the evidence wherever it leads” includes only the broad, stable categories but grows increasingly tumultuous when “the evidence” includes independent beings with wills of their own. Indeed, this mode, in which G-d allows Himself to consider things purely on their own terms, is what allowed the world of Tohu to arise, unsustainable, wild, real, the short-long path, similar to G-d but not close to Him, just like an “independent” human being, just like a world that, with man at the reins, can shoot off at a moment’s notice into the wild unknown.

It turns out that G-d and what He creates in his image are not rule-followers by nature; they do as they please; they create. The world is full of madness and randomness and unpredictability, and (to the horror of the badly-learned Kabbalah) he who knows that he does not know is wisest of all.

And so, according to all the “right” thinking, the “religious” thinking, the rules that all dead things follow, 2016 was just some arbitrary bound, a meaningless set of time signifying nothing of great significance. But we are not dead things, and in some sense a significant time has passed; many of us have felt it, cursed it.

I entered this year with hubris; forgot my place and the place of my chosen discipline. We are not here to understand it — on this, at least, the Darwinists may agree. We are here to take our potential for doing whatever we damn well please and actualizing it in selflessness; we are gods set free with the greatest faith of all time, the faith G-d has that we will choose to be servants to him than deities over our own worlds.

Until we reach that unity and there is only One Will in this domain, literally anything can happen, and this year, it did. We were certain; we thought it could not be; just as certainly, it came to pass.

The reaction is not to cry over our own uncertainty like a first-year student whose Sephiros chart does not match all thirteen tribes.

The reaction is joyous, rapturous awe; the happiest feeling in the world, to lose ourselves and find some truth instead, to remember that we are not the creators and we do not understand.

The mistake of 2016 was to think we could understand.

The lesson for 2017 is to give up more easily, to have faith, to trust, to be willing to follow it wherever it leads.

Just like He does.

Why Unity Is Impractical And You Can, Too

Back to basics: Truth is unity, and unity is truth. They say dead men tell no tales. Mad men tell only tales. That is, the mark of those who have lost their grasp on reality is the incongruity of their reports with what is collectively known to be true; they say grandma is a flamingo and not an old lady with a hairy chin; they say the voices in their head were placed there by the sinister plotting of the world’s anteater population; they say the United States in an orange in the Czar’s fruit bowl (bad example).

Let me put it differently: There’s a famous story in which the Queen of England visits an insane asylum. One of the patients tells her with barely-masked contempt, “You know, inside these walls we are quite certain it is all of you on the outside who are mad.” She responds instantly, “Yes, my dear, but we have the majority.”

With all due respect to the Queen, I think she is more right than she suspects. Those outside the asylum will always have a majority over those inside because the maximum size of the insane man’s coalition is one member. Cooperation is only possible when you have a shared mental reality; you cannot agree to overthrow the government if one of you thinks it’s a baseball and one thinks it’s a plush duvet; you cannot agree to build a tower for any holy or unholy purpose if you do not share a language.

A similar teaching to the Queen’s we learned, L’havdil, from the second Rebbe of Chabad, who said that when two Jews meet, it is two G-dly souls vs. one animal soul. In this summation, the Rebbe demolishes two assumptions: (1) That the animal souls of each Jew can unite in a coalition against the G-dly souls; (2) That unity means one whereas division means two. In this case, the two are united but the one is alone.

First things first: The animal soul exists in a state somewhat like insanity. I do not mean to extend the definition of insanity to all men and simply place them at different points on its spectrum; I have written about this approach before and, if unity is truth, it is the approach to a deep and abounding divisiveness. The only unity down that road is unity in the humility of knowing that none of us knows the truth, and it extends exactly as far as our willingness to not make assertions — an uninspiring prospect.

No, when I say the animal soul exists in a state of insanity, I simply mean that it is fallen, a christian term stemming from their doctrine of original sin which applies to our understanding of that sin as well. The animal soul is fallen, which means that it does not inhabit the world of truth, which means it does not know unity.

The mark of the fallen is their clothes. Not only were Adam and Eve naked before they ate, but they were unaware of their nakedness; the “knowledge of good and evil”‘s instantaneous effect was to make them need to dress themselves.

Good and Evil did not exist before the fruit; nothing was disgusting, repulsive, wrong, nor appealing, attractive, or right. There was only the truth, the naked truth, and man and woman participated in it directly. What need for clothes when everything is a faceted reflection of one unity, an extension of me and I of it, all united as one with itself and its creator?

But then came the fall, and nakedness became unbearable, and we slipped into the obscene slouch we euphemistically call human nature. We became as G-d, who did not only know the creation as he knew Himself but also as a separate reality. We knew good and evil, value judgments that derive from the objective perspective, from separation, from distance, and we pulled on our clothes.

This brings us to the Rebbe’s second point, that unity is not one and division is not two. Unity was one when we were pure intellects, grasping and assimilated into the truth, and two was unthinkable destruction.

But now there are clothes.

Clothes are the symbol of our defeat, our post-hoc means of relating to the world that bombards our senses. Clothes are our nod to external trappings, our acknowledgment that since Adam’s sin nothing in our world is truly as it seems, that what can be known is not essential and that the essence cannot be known. We find the truth now through reflections, we see only the light that finds resistance in an object, but not the object itself. I stare at my coffee mug and know it only as I know it, and not how it knows itself, for my truth is buried in my unconscious and conscious mind, my personality, my faculties, my body, my clothes, and from its end the mug is equally hidden, and to know each other we must work through translations of translations of translations, shifting layers of meaning we pry beneath looking for a light G-d hid away a long time ago.

In this state we are one animal soul. One, and separate. We are one person, stuck in our own heads, writing our own rules for an indifferent universe, writhing under the boot of our own fear, trying to remember a moment in a garden when flesh touched flesh and the uncrossable canyons had not yet breached the earth’s surface. We are like the patients in the asylum, not because (G-d forbid) we have lost grasp on reality but because that same reality has become so fractured that we enter it through 600,000 separate doors.

How do we, dear reader, become two G-dly souls, united, in one reality? If unity is truth, and truth unity, we must work through the clothes, and find the shared reality. We must reverse the insanity of the fruit.

And insanity is not reversed by more information.

The truth, and thus unity, the shared reality, is not to be found through spreading more information or learning techniques of persuasion. These may spread out our one animal a bit further, but it will present nothing another animal cannot swallow and make their own private domain. (This is why it’s always entertaining to see each side in an argument tell the other, “You’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts,” as if this has ended arguments since the beginning of time.) The truth is, in a word, impractical; it is not something we stumble upon in the natural proceedings of speaking to others animal-to-animal.

No, since the beginning of time, since the angel first settled at the gate with his sword of spinning flames, there have been only two ways to find the truth, two ways to unity. Neither are about spreading oneself; both are methods of self-refinement. They have many names: The imminent and the transcendent, the worldly and the unworldly, within garments and above them, the many and the one.

The first way: We take our garments, the notion that we are separated from the truth of everything, perhaps even ourselves, and we work within it. We analyze and dissect our clothes and the exact nature of the word around us. We study the difference between a word and its meaning, between the analogy and the analogue. Through this wisdom we are able to press up against the inside of our eye sockets, to pull our garments tight. We begin to understand what makes them more transparent, more seamless, and we begin to clear away the layers of our own interference that we might find the signal, to impose form upon matter. We find to our delight that as we move closer to the external truth, it moves closer to us, for our new refinement is like X-ray vision for the garments of the world, and we just might meet in the middle. Our garments remember they are only garments, and the sin is reversed.

The second way: We take our garments and we refuse to accept them. We leave the bounds of this fractured discourse, and go searching for the truth. We try to move our own truth through resonance, using art, beauty, and deep emotion as tuning forks that something deep within might shake off its outer trappings and reveal itself. We rail against any rules that might bind us; we speak to people in ways that make them uncomfortable because we don’t care for the proper channels outlined by their garments but for the person within. We indulge in absurdity; we meditate; live as if no ancestor of ours ever dreamed to taste the fruit. In a word, we dare to imagine the world of the garden before the fall, and we are so stubborn and so insistent in our contravention of the accepted paradigm that the world moves before we do, and reality takes on our assertions. Our garments remember they are not garments, and we find ourselves in Eden.

Truth is unity, and unity is truth.

The two ways are one way, and the Lord dwells in places of perfection.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Why I Am A Plastic Bag Optimist

On the matter of whether I need to feel guilty when disposing of garbage in plastic bags, my intuitive reaction is a resounding “no.”

But why?

My imagination is as open as the next fellow’s. I can see in my mind’s eye the garbage truck and its massive pile of billowing polymers, and the landfill where those membranes will sit, sheathing their payloads of rotting chicken and eggshells for a thousand thousand years or whatever. “We are choking the earth!” people say. “We will die if we go on like this.” Again, I imagine. I see with my mind’s eye the vast brown Mad Max wastes, in which the endless red sand dunes shift in the wind to reveal the desert’s bedrock — a sea of plastic bags, a straightjacket on the earth.

When I think of this I fill with horror. I have worn polyester pants on a hot summer’s day, and I understand how the earth might feel under all that plastic. On a serious level: won’t our massive-scale waste practices couple with non-biodegradable materials lead to some sort of massive environmental catastrophe?

Let me tell you why I used to think the answer was “no.”

I used to think the answer was “no” based on a certain childlike faith in G-d. That is, He wouldn’t let this sort of mass catastrophe take place. He would surely intervene.

But relying on G-d’s direct intervention is silly. After all, some pretty terrible things have happened on a large scale that seriously challenged and continue to challenge our notions of what a beneficent G-d would allow in his world. Now, granted, none of those scenarios was apocalyptic (Except perhaps for the Biblical flood); they were merely really. really unpleasant, like the holocaust. Still, the line between the categories is blurred, and if you’re risking millions of lives with your plastic bags on the chance that the environmental outcome would assuredly be so bad that G-d would have to step in, I’m not sure if I’d go to Vegas with you.

The G-dly intervention way of thinking is dear to my heart. I feel it is an expression of deep faith and it’s important not to lose it in light of a more reasoned explanation. Nevertheless, there is a more reasoned explanation why not to freak out about plastic bags.

It is a deeper, more adult form of faith to realize that things are the way they are largely because they have to be that way. In other words, the way things could work out has all been worked out from the get-go. The world is a put-up job. Barring some mass decision on humanity’s part to exercise their free will and intentionally bring about an environmental holocaust (as it was the intention of the Nazis to bring about their holocaust), there is very little reason to think such a situation will come about by accident.

Think about it: There is nothing especially dangerous about a landfill. A landfill is to a city what a trash can is to a house. Though it’s true that the trash can empties into the landfill and the landfill does not empty into anything per se, and thus our visions of an entire Wall-E world piled up with trash, planet Earth at the end of the day is ridiculously, preposterously gigantic, and the future in which we are in danger of living in a wasteland made of garbage is remote. The only concern on that account would be for our descendants, and it is hard to even imagine what technology will be able to do even twenty-five years from now, never mind in that far away future when our garbage is supposed to hit critical mass.

No; unless we are some sort of innate doomsayers, utterly responsible for negative outcomes of our actions to an infinite degree, then the connection between my garbage now and the doomsday of my imagination is quite tenuous. It is the same sort of thinking that says we should be nice to our machines now because the robots will not be kind when the revolution comes. It is imaginative; it is possible; it is a ridiculous way to make decisions right now. I think most people would, upon thinking about it, come to agree that our trash worries are similar.

So, what, then, is the big deal? Why do I, too, sometimes fear this outcome? If, on the level, the trash itself is not the problem, what is?

Environmentalists say that it is not so much the garbage itself that is the issue, but rather that garbage is the indicator of other stresses we are putting on the planet with our resource consumption.

I think this hits the nail on the head.

I think what I fear is not what we humans may actually do, but rather our potential to do it. The concern when I put yet another Glad bag out to chill on the sidewalk is not really that I’m helping bring the trashpocalypse, but rather that I am brought to consider my ability to unintentionally cause that great calamity. The guilt is not the guilt of having committed a crime I fully understand, but the diffuse, generalize guilt that comes with power uncompensated by responsibility.

As smart apes with atom bombs and Snapchat, the trip to the end of the driveway is a moment to stop our thoughtless day-to-day activities in service of ourselves and consider what we are effecting on a wider scale. We realize, just for a moment, that there is no check on us whatsoever, that between us and the destruction of the world is only happenstance, that is everyone on earth started throwing all their trash bags into their backyards in unison, or whatever, we could end the world.

Then our critical faculty engages and we are forced to conclude: G-d wouldn’t allow it.

Not “he wouldn’t allow it” because he would intervene and cut power to all the platic factories or the oil refineries or whatever. He intervenes by having made the world exactly as it is.

Smart apes could conceivably destroy their world accidentally. Man, created in the image of G-d, cannot. There is more than happenstance between us and oblivion. On the contrary, we were created on this balanced sphere to bring it to perfection and completion.  It is our resource, and we are its resource, and we were made for each other.

Now, one could respond that certainly as man naturally is he would not destroy the earth; but humans have chosen to exploit her and this will lead to her ultimate destruction, and theirs. Aside from the fact that this argument more or less reduces to an argument that we return to hunter-gatherer societies, which are theoretically man’s “natural,” non-exploitative pursuit, I feel that this argument completely fails to recognize what we really mean when we say man is created in G-d’s image. It is saying somehow that using the earth is not man’s role, that technological progress and the utilization of resources is outside of G-d’s plan and against his will.

It is saying, at essence, that it is only the ape in man who naturally fits into the world, but that the man in man is somehow at odds with the system he was placed into, that mans’ discovery of, say, the steam engine is some sort of divine misplay, that these are secrets not meant to be pried into for we will end up ruining the perfect world with our meddling.

Truly, this gives man too much credit. It is not viewing him as part of G-d’s world at all.

I do not understand the religious view that holds the smart ape conception of man is limiting, whereas the if we are all children of G-d we are free of all bounds. Really, the opposite is the case.

An ape with a brain has infinite potential, and that is terrifying. He can as easily destroy the world as uphold it and that he has not yet destroyed it reflects a disappointing lack of ambition. An ape with a brain could, in theory, do anything.

Man, however, as classically conceived, is not a powerful creature in a moral vacuum, free to move about the billiard balls of material existence as he wills. He is placed on earth with a purpose, and all of his faculties are directed toward beauty, transcendence, discovery, knowledge, peace. Though he may often choose to go against that nature, he is by definition part of the system of the world, and not in dominion over it. To imagine that his building a factory inherently changes anything is to underestimate G-d’s foresight and overestimate our own power. It is to believe that all that separates the entire project from destruction is time and happenstance.

Thus, even when a man thoughtlessly buys plastic, and thoughtlessly sends it to the landfill, he is compelled to realize that though thoughtlessness is a vice rather than a virtue, a thoughtless vice will not G-d’s creation unmake.

This isn’t due to G-d’s capacity for intervention, but rather due to the inherent nature of people and things, a qualitative inherent nature not often spoken about.

If we spoke about it more often, it might relieve a bit of stress.

Taking out the trash is not a moment to realize our terrible, tremendous power. It is a moment to remember that we have a chance, if we choose, to transform the only parts of life which we truly control, our moral decisions, into an to altar the creator of the system that binds us.

When A Non-Jew Asked What I Believe

A friend who is not Jewish recently asked me, “What are your metaphysical beliefs?” This was the best answer I could give him:

What do I believe?

Well, I’m an ordained rabbi, so that should tell you something. By most outside evaluations, I am what would be called “orthodox jewish,” or even the semi-derogatory “ultra-orthodox.” But I believe these terms are shallow, and the question “what do I believe” remains an interesting one with no simple answer.

It is both harder and easier for me to answer this question than it has been in the past. It’s harder, because distinctive beliefs that are easily delineated seem more beyond my grasp the more I learn about Judaism and particularly the mystical Chassidic teachings that are my passion. It’s easier because the answer, “I believe whatever I’m supposed to” seems more legitimate to me every day.

I once would have said simply that I believe what Maimonides lays out in his thirteen principles of faith. Now I tell myself what I tell 90% of people who say things about Judaism. “It’s not so simple…”

I believe there is a G-d. Who is G-d? By definition, impossible to answer. I once would have said He is the creator of the universe. But He is not just that; maybe not even primarily that. He is transcendent yet imminent, everything yet nothing, beyond yet within. He is at the vertex of every paradox and in both sides of every argument. He is the fulcrum; He is gravity; He is the weights.

I believe in Torah, that G-d revealed and reveals His will and wisdom to mortal man. What does the Torah say? Everything, in some context or other. There are few statements that could authoritatively be said to be in contradiction to Torah, and the threads of its net seem to sweep up every corner, every trailing edge of human existence. The Torah is like a wedge driven through history, a system of rules whose emergent properties are little-understood even after thousands of geniuses’ lifetime study, a mind virus whose propagation has altered the world in ways immeasurable and will continue to do so.

I believe in Judaism. What is Judaism? Judaism is a way that is ultimately not rationally explainable. It is a religion, but it is also decidedly not a religion. At times it seems to be all about following rules and living a moral life. At other times it seems to run black like nihilism in dark veins, to embrace wild chaotic beauty. It is the custom of a small tribe that has survived against all odds, a family that has never sought out new members yet has utterly transformed the world just by existing, and being a family.

These few ephemeral, ill-defined things are the only things I believe in without qualification. Everything else is a discussion, an exploration of shades. I believe in human evil and human good, in systematic imperatives and personal authenticity, in meaning and meaninglessness, in great sages and in simple peasants, in heaven and in death, in happiness and in angst, in the soul and in the body…

The one thing I can say is that I trust in my family, in our traditions, in the age-old story of my people and all we have learned in our travails. My ultimate faith is in the process, in the idea that our tribe is not here for nothing but for a purpose. But I am willing to follow this way and this system wherever it leads, and it has led to wild jungles of antinomianism, chaos, and other areas not considered the normal stomping grounds of religion. It has led to the essence of things, and to particulars, and everywhere in between…

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Judaism Is Crazy And That’s A Good Thing

“Jumbo Shrimp.” “Honest Politician.” “Middle Initial.”

“Rational Judaism.”

It’s not that we shouldn’t engage our minds in Judaism. It’s not that we shouldn’t struggle to make sense of the tradition of our fathers and thereby (and only thereby) make it our own. But to pretend this is anything more than the subjective struggle of Jews, to say that our understanding and our rationalizations and the arguments we throw out in Internet debates are the entirety, or even the main part, of Judaism — this is sacrilege of the highest order.

The strange desire to make Judaism make sense is, I admit, partially Judaism’s fault: it seems such a sensible religion, with many laws and texts and codes and numbered principles, etc. But while these are part of Judaism, they do not get to the core of what Judaism is or ought to be. They are, in fact, tangential, a facade, almost in the category of a necessary evil, and the motivations of those who seek to force Judaism to make sense are suspect.

But that’s not the place to begin. The place to begin is with a fundamental mistake you may remember from your high school English class.

***

Everyone who took English in high school was forced to read Shakespeare (I hope). Most people didn’t come away with a positive impression. The Bard is more than just boring, they’d tell you. The Bard is enciphered. He speaks in a strange English from a distant time and we just don’t see the point in working hard to understand what he says.[i] What (and I honestly couldn’t answer this question) is the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What happens in the story? Why should I keep turning the pages? How are iambic pentameter and blank verse relevant to my life or anyone’s life?

I know these questions because I had them myself. I could tell there was more to the matter than met the eye (he is after all pretty much the most famous and lauded writer in my language, and it’s been like four hundred years) but this only compounded my frustration.

I didn’t “get it” until, perhaps in desperation, they took us to see a play. I think it was The Tempest. It blew me away. Even though there was so much I didn’t understand, it was beautiful. There was a certain grace, a cadence, a subtle rhythmic power to the words. I sensed, in a word, the poetry.

Why did it work on the stage when it did not work in the classroom?

Because Shakespeare wrote plays. He never intended for his words to be endlessly picked apart and for their first reading to take weeks or months. By the time we got to the good stuff in the classroom, the stuff that Dumas described as “Adam’s first sight of Eden,” the play already lay cut open on the surgeon’s table, dead in dissection.

Crazy that Shakespeare could be appreciated in play form without academic study, right? As simple as it sounds, we often forget it. We have a strange tendency to use the wrong parts of our minds and souls on the wrong material. We get mathematical with Shakespeare; we get scientific with philosophy; we get rational about Judaism.

***

Many Jews take a little time each year to, er, swing chickens. Most of us find this pretty weird.

If it’s too weird, if it’s beyond your threshold, if you just can’t do it — I think most of us could appreciate that, too. Don’t do it.

But imagine for a moment there were people who wished to change the tradition, to abolish it from Judaism, to uproot it retroactively by somehow proving that it’s inauthentic or some strange imposition on true Judaism by outside parties or circumstances. Let’s call them the rebels.

These people would eventually become very frustrated, because the hard-hearted traditionalists would ignore their outcry and their protest and for the most part not argue with them. The standard position would be: ignore the haters. Who are the real chickens here? the rebels would wonder, feeling superior in their ability to at least put the idea in the open, to debate it, to confront it.

They don’t realize that the reason the flesh-and-blood human beings who love to argue (seriously) don’t feel like arguing with them is because no one believes their contentions are rooted in purely rational arguments and a desire to find the truth. The traditionalist feels intuitively that the motivation of the average rebel is simply “this is weird.” And the traditionalists have already decided that they don’t care.

The rebel, reassured and seeing and opening, would point out that this is the purest sort of logical fallacy, that the traditionalists aren’t meeting the challenge to their ideas honestly, that they are willfully ignoring logical alternatives and, so blinded, will discern neither the best course of action nor the truth.

“We don’t decide the course of our own actions early in the morning the day before Yom Kippur,” answer the traditionalists, “and ain’t that the truth.”

There is literally nothing the rebel can say to this, except that they refuse to partake in something that does not make sense to them. It is sad, they think, that some people will forfeit their G-d-given intellects. Just sad.

But sad is not the word. The only word to describe the actions of those immovable traditionalists that will not even sit at the debating table and their forays over the edge of rationality is “essential.”

***

It is a well-known phenomenon to those who work with Baalei Teshuva, Jews who come to Judaism later in life, that they lack a certain klugkeit. Klugkeit, n. (Yiddish) – cleverness; smarts.

The old saying goes: To be religious is to be a priest (read with negative connotations), to be happy is to be a clown (same), and to be klug is to be a heretic (play along). To be all three together is to be a Jew.

In other words, cleverness is the magic preservative that lets religiousness and happiness coexist (no easy feat, many will testify). It is what allows a human being of flesh and blood with a flawed personality and a beating heart full of love and fear live under the rule of an inanimate system of laws without going insane. It is the skeleton key that transforms cages into parlors, prisons into homes. And it is problematic.

The problem with klugkeit is that it’s by definition ephemeral. It’s not written down anywhere, and cannot be written down anywhere. Being klug is antithetical to being orderly and intellectual. A Jew could sit down with holy texts for eighty years and personally build up Judaism from the Chumash and from first principles, and never run into klugkeit. It is what’s written between the lines; it is what’s written on the blank page at the front of all the books. Klugkeit is the mortar that takes millions of  inky letters and turns them into a window illuminated by G-dliness.

Klugkeit is anathema to the Shulchan Aruch Jew, the purist whose Judaism begins and ends with the Code of Jewish Law. The Rav back in the shtetl (and nowadays) finds a heter, a dispensation, a “way around” the law, because he’s klug[ii]. The beautiful rainbow of Jewish customs that bend and warp Jewish laws are functions of klugkeit. A lesser form of klugkeit is what makes religious Jews freak out if their children watch movies and not freak out if their children speak gossip or slander, even though some movies may not strictly be an issue at all in Jewish law and slander is as bad as the three cardinal sins combined. If you ask the parents about this inherent contradiction, they’ll have a very hard time explaining it.

It gets worse. Though it makes some heads explode, the Gra broke Shulchan Aruch. The Alter Rebbe, first Rebbe of Chabad, broke his own Shulchan Aruch, the version he wrote. Chassidim break Shulchan Aruch when they daven late; Litvishers break Shulchan Aruch when they don’t do the full repetition of Shemoneh Esrei. Now understand, these changes are justified; there is room for them, there are explanations for them. These explanations are very good explanations. I certainly wouldn’t want to argue with the Vilna Gaon or the Alter Rebbe, and neither would you. Nevertheless, one needs klugkeit for this to work, for the brain to tolerate the tension between The Rules and the reality of the Jewish religion. Why, one wonders, would the Alter Rebbe not sleep in his Sukkah, but write in his Code that one must sleep in the Sukkah? There are ways of understanding it. But the fact that there is a real Yiddishkeit that wasn’t put in the Code is telling.

Judaism is ultimately a religion of people, not of books, and can often make as much sense as people do. Judaism is more than a book, and, more importantly, it’s more than what can be in a book.

***

Why can’t Judaism be systemized and written down?

Because systemization is death. Literally.

At first, there was no logic and no system. There was only the Truth, the Holy One, Life of Life, Blessed be He. A system could not exist. By definition a system is impersonal, rules created to deal with discrepancies because dealing with things in an ad hoc fashion costs too much time or resources. This is not a problem for the Deity, who is quite capable of dealing with everything personally. A system would mean separation from the Creator, inherent death. It is the death contained in every untruth, in every smothering system that knows no living being, in every sad story you have ever read, in every cubicle.

The downside of the non-systematic personal mode is that there is no way to escape its intimacy, no privacy, no true individuality. An invasiveness that prevented all finitude was the norm, before.

After, G-d created the systems. First, he made logic itself, then the system we call the laws of nature. Both of these were based off of a uniquely divine system called the Torah, which was later brought into the world in the form of 613 general directives which in turn contained zillions of sub-rules.

The goal of Torah was not to teach people how to behave in a G-dly fashion; this was achieved long before Sinai, and practically to perfection. In fact, if the point were merely to have something G-dly, perhaps the Torah would come unwritten and uncodified, without rules, for the system with its numbered laws seem to be artifacts of G-d’s concealment, of his personal aloofness from creation.

Rather, the goal of Torah was/is to smuggle G-dliness into the system, and teach the system how to be G-dly at every level, on its own terms. The idea was to take the infinite, free, personal G-d and show Him to be the defining truth of this limited, bound, rules-driven, systemized, dead rock we call home. And like all smugglers, the Torah must be a master of disguise, a disguise that doesn’t break the system.

But can the person ever be reduced to the mask they wear?

What do we stand to lose, if we forget there is anything under the mask at all?

And so we must be discerning. We must look for the little signs that show there is more to the Torah and to Judaism than its codified disguise.

We have to be just a little clever.

***

So, a Jew makes an error, forgets his klugkeit, and mistakes Judaism for something that makes sense. What’s the prognosis?

At first glance, the patient appears healthy. A rational Judaism is, in fact, a very close approximation of the real thing, not just a caricature but a lifelike sculpture that is hard to distinguish from the living, breathing original for some time.

The reality, however, is that the life has been strained out of the religion of his forefathers, and only clay remains. The demand for rationality is a subtle and pernicious selfishness. It brings one to petulantly hack at tradition; that which makes sense stays, that which does not, falls. This is done, of course, in the name of objectivity; he is trying to fix what he’s received, to preserve it in perfection for posterity. But instead of improving it, he unknowingly forms it in his own image, to his own needs.

This itself is not so bad at first. He will argue (correctly) that this is the Judaism that works for him and that speaks to him, which is infinitely better than the irrational things foisted on him by the irrational Jews of the past without rhyme or reason[iii]. All of this is well and good; it is the picture of a Jew struggling with his Judaism. Lovely.

But he is in danger, a danger that has shown itself to be empirically real. As I mentioned at the beginning, it is the danger of thinking that what you have done with Judaism reflects the Truth. One runs the danger of thinking one’s own preferences or logic contain some sort of objectivity, an obligating objectivity that will convince those crazy Ashkenazim to embrace their leguminous desires for one week a year. If enough things don’t go one’s way, this stress between the person’s understanding of what Judaism ought to be and what Judaism is can culminate in dropping the whole thing entirely, for one’s devotion to any higher truth has been replaced with self-importance; one has become the very arbiter of truth who decides whether those “higher” things conform to oneself.

Worst of all is the heaviness, the burden he must bear if he demands rationality from his Judaism. There are, after all, certain responsibilities that come with this approach. Firstly, whenever anyone is arguing or challenging your way, you must participate, you need to fight or suffer feelings of doubt and inadequacy. And if there is no disagreement (what universe are you from and how do I move there?) there is still a need for polemic, to teach the world, to help them reach enlightenment as you have.

Ultimately, when Judaism will cease making sense (which will happen), when there are hiccups – Judaism will in effect cease to exist. After all, it is only the constant explaining and striving to understand that generate it in the first place, and only its intellectual elegance that sustains its worth. If you stopped thinking about it, it would cease to be. You would literally have taken on the role of the creator. Life as any sort of private citizen enjoying the boons of your beliefs is over; there is no time to enjoy the poetry of G-d’s creation. You are too busy creating heaven and earth.

***

But what about the actual rational foundations of Jewish law? At some point, all of these rules were put forth with arguments, and had to make sense to those who established them. In fact, they have to still make sense to us today. Is not Judaism predicated on Jews being able to understand its laws and mandates? If most Jews can’t keep something, or the Rabbis of the generation can’t understand something, isn’t Judaism subject to change?

The answer is yes, with a caveat – we must remain klug, as all the great Rabbis in history were. One must be sure of one’s devotion to the unwritten human tradition of one’s father before one dares change a word.

Am I in fact telling you that there are principles of and influences on all our great Rabbis that aren’t really written anywhere as if in some great conspiracy? Yes. Is this mad? I think the alternative is madder. The alternative is that the Rabbis worked only off what it says in the books yet themselves contradicted what is written therein and the entire millennia-old religion is a hypocritical joke played on the miserable Jews. It is hard to imagine even the greatest cynic backing such a proposition. Besides, the oral law is called the oral law for a reason.

***

As with most of the truly tricky issues, the problem is one of balance. The question of whether to approach Judaism as something that must make sense to me reduces to the broader question of whether to think of myself as the reason for the entire world’s creation, or to think of myself as dust and ashes. Is the world intended for my manipulation and my conquering, or am I player with a bit part?

The answer is obviously both, and you must learn when each approach is required from you by G-d. It’s another annoying trait of these tricky issues that the answer in the end is, “Do what G-d wants; it is what it is.”

Could there be more ad-hoc answer, a more personal answer, a less systematic answer?

Could anything be more frustrating to the blanket rationalist?

***

Yiddishkeit/Judaism is meshugge. There is no fully rational version of it, and there never has been. Jews use intellect for G-d’s purposes, rather than use G-d for intellect’s purposes. We are not the drivers, arbiters, or creators of truth, and that is a wonderful thing.

One might argue that this cheapens the great intellectual achievements of our glorious tradition – geniuses fighting geniuses in verdant Babylon, the sparks cast by their sabers illuminating minds unto eternity. One might argue that Judaism may not be rational, but I’ll never surrender my intellect; I will never relate to G-d like an animal; I shall cling to the human dignities of cognition and discernment.

There is one answer to these two objections, in the form of a question: What is man, and why does he walk this earth? If your answer is that the highest good is rationality and intellect and this ought he pursue, you are in good company. But this is not the ultimate truth.

The ultimate truth is expressed as a story[iv]. Once upon a time, there was a people called the Jewish people. They were and are chosen for a mission by G-d. You were born into this people. Everything you possess has been gifted to you for the purpose of that mission. To use your abilities, no matter how great, for other ends, is to waste them. And that includes your intellect.

In other words, the question is (once again) whether you are in charge of your fate or whether you are in fact the last chapter of a very old tale nearing its completion.

Now, the story doesn’t make sense. The story doesn’t have to make sense, since it’s a story. It’s ultimately just a tale of what happened to Him and what happened to us, and how we dealt with it, and how we grew, and things got better.

The story is what it is. If it is mad, so be it. If Life is mad, Judaism can be mad. After all, the former flows from the latter.

Yiddishkeit is also wonderful. It is wonderful on its own terms, as simply the greatest story ever told. And it is wonderful for us specifically, who get to step onto the stage right near the end, and bring the waiting audience and the eager Playwright the glorious conclusion they have so patiently awaited.

One thing is certain: You won’t need to understand the plot when you hear the applause.

***

Note: There is a deeper way of framing this issue whereby a lot of what I’m saying in this essay isn’t technically true. From that point of view, though Torah doesn’t need to make sense, it in fact always does. In other words, there is a level at which a conscious abandonment of one’s own rationality actually brings one to see everything in Torah, klugkeit included, as the greatest and truest rationality. Though it is alluded to above, it is ultimately beyond the scope of this essay.

For another (shorter) piece I wrote on the role of intellect in Judaism, check out “The Rebbe, The Chief Rabbi, And The Fossils.”

***

[i] And we can’t even use the normal motivation of appreciating a different culture, ethnicity, or gender; he is the dreaded white male; he is even Anglo-Saxon; he is the very evil we hope to escape.

[ii] Only in the right situation, of course. How do you know which situation is right? Because you’re klug.

[iii] Kitniyot on Pesach is a great example I’ve heard people gripe about recently.

[iv] Or, as we modern people call them probably because they terrify us on some deep level, narratives.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Even Though Judaism Broke My Heart

As the day of my Bar Mitzvah drew near, my father impressed three things upon me:

1. Never to fool myself.
2. Never to fool somebody else.
3. Never to allow myself to be fooled.

~ Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson

He ostensibly came around to the yeshiva to visit old friends but actually, I think, to make sure the place was safely receding into the distance like a police car in the rearview mirror. My room would be his last stop and we’d shoot the breeze about everything except why he left and why he still hadn’t left, why he was still coming around, still paying attention. Our conversation danced around landmines like Israeli politics and his shaved face and the latest frum contretemps, and he’d return home with another brick in our friendship layed slipshod so the cold wind of the world came through the chinks in its walls.

It got better when I started buying books. I had a big windowsill back then, broad enough to be a shelf. From its left side extended my holy books in Hebrew and Yiddish. So it was for five years. Then, one week, with no great fanfare and no mouth of hell splitting my floor tiles, the English books began to sprout from the right side. Gödel, Escher, Bach. The Elements of Style. A History of the Jews. How to Teach Physics to Your Dog. Yom Kippur a Go Go. A Canticle for Leibowitz. Code. A History of Western Philosophy. Fear and Trembling.

He’d pick them up and leaf through them and we’d talk about what I’d read and how I felt about it. I always felt he respected my intelligence, and in secular interests we found common ground. (My mini-collection on atheism drew a spontaneous “Are you going to a convention or something?”)

I felt uncomfortable.

I felt uncomfortable because one week, with no great fanfare, I made a decision to revisit the pursuit of worldly intellect that enriched my youth, and I no longer knew what separated me from the beardless man who stood next to me, a well-dressed and well-coiffed law school applicant so far from my brother whose first day of Yeshiva was my first day of Yeshiva all those years ago in Jerusalem.

We came to Yeshiva with more or less the same goal: To find The Truth and pursue it the way only teenagers could. We learned together, we attended the same classes and farbrengens and trips. We swung chickens over our heads and wrapped tefillin on strangers and talked about G-d and His designs late into the night. I went home for Passover and let my parents know I wouldn’t be attending Georgia Tech in the fall. I had tasted life and had no use for  computer science.

Our studies continued. Together, we left Jerusalem for New Jersey, to learn in a “regular” (that is, frum-from-birth) Yeshiva. Exposed was the face of the beast: teachers who could barely speak English, hordes of jaded students compelled by their parents to continue their religious studies, a cheder full of feral kids, every conversation pervaded with gossip and scandal, sons speaking of their fathers with detached analysis, a culture of frugality bordering on the deceptive and the larcenous, rabbis who either convinced themselves the majority of their students were interested in spiritual pursuits or who otherwise gave in to despair and avenged their idealism by confiscating phones, books, laptops.

I devoted myself to finding the silver lining, and I did, for a while. I know too well that love of someone who doesn’t love you can only go so far. My appreciation for this life began to crumble. So did his, I found out later.

It only got worse. After a disillusioned summer in upstate New York, I went away as a student emissary/teacher to Tel Aviv. I had the toughest year of my life trying to relate to unrelatable people and to stay motivated. He remained in Jersey.  He watched the faculty of his Yeshiva (including one of his heroes) spin out of control with fatwa after fatwa meant to bring the students in line.

I came back to the States and he was gone.

***

I pressed forward – another year of Yeshiva, this time for my rabbinical ordination, my smicha. It was the natural next step after shlichus, and I’d convinced myself all the problems I saw were Israeli problems (many of them were, but not most of them, not exclusively). It was another tough year. The learning was beyond me and the rest of my life loomed on the horizon, begging the constant question, was it all a mistake? Where will you be going next year? What are you going to do with yourself? Do you even like anyone in the community you’re a part of? Do you relate to them in any way?

In a measured voice and with a slight but insistent angling of the head I learned from my Talmud teacher in Jerusalem, I would insist to myself, “I do relate to them in some way. G-d is real. Chassidus is real. It’s all true. This was not a mistake. I will not give up.”

I gradually read the books on the left side of the shelf for pleasure less and less, and the right side sat empty.

The crisis came halfway through that year. The long night when I got off the phone with my rabbi and lay weeping in bed, trying to figure out if my investment had been for nothing, if I had made a terrible mistake that only led me away from normalcy and happiness.

Almost two years later, I’m still here. I’m also back in Jerusalem spending a lot of my day trying to help others taking this same path.

What conclusion did I come to that night? Why did I remain? How can I encourage others toward disillusionment and heartbreak?

The first thing I realized: everybody is looking for something. We have vacuums we must fill one way or another, and we find that there are things in Judaism that satisfy us, be it the peace and warmth of its Shabbos, the  elegance of its theology, its salvation from the nihilistic void of existence. We become attached to these things; they become to us like a lover’s face, a memory of the first walk we took in the rain together, huddled under the umbrella, one.

Then times become tough; there is always more than we bargained for; the parts we love cannot be cut out from the undesirable whole that does nothing for us, and that we begin to resent. The things we once loved become the lies we tell to convince ourselves our love continues.

(Even now I still have these moments. I was in Beitar last Shabbos, walking to shul at ten in the morning, the sun warming my face, the sweet breeze blowing off the patchwork farms of the valley, apartment buildings thrust into the blue sky like white sails, so bright you almost had to look away, and a little boy ran in front of me, crossing the calm road with a bottle of wine for kiddush to his father who stood erect like a prince, wrapped in his pure tallis and waiting for his son and the sanctification of the day, their world held gyroscopically still in reality’s storm, and I felt a pang of longing in my heart that carried me to Shacharis and beyond. It shook me. And then it faded into pale memory, and I became once again unconvinced about my choices, and the question ate at me more: Was it all a mistake?)

But it was not for nothing we walked this road. We have merely outgrown our initial impressions, and what we initially loved has been left behind. True, it does not feel like growth. It feels like pain. The little problems with Judaism accrue and become big problems; what you used to overlook is now all you can see. But the problem here is not Judaism changing. It is the way it no longer fits in the box we initially imposed.

And then comes the pivotal moment with its cleaving question: Were you merely blind before? Were you a fool? Is it true that only fools fall in love?

***

If you think you were only a fool, then you must cut your losses and move on. This was never meant to be, and the entire endeavor was merely an expression of your own frailty.

If you were not a fool, then you can come to love it as you loved it before. You were willing to ignore the faults of your beloved because her face was so beautiful. It is now time to do it again, to find the beauty. But it will not happen on its own; that is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, a child’s thing, the serendipitous interlocking of need and fulfillment. The difference between adults and children is that adults cannot rely on serendipity. We must work to find congruence.

We start by shedding our preconceptions. What we used to love about her was a projection of our own needs, and we can’t pretend it’s who she is any longer. We must take her on her own terms, pimples and all.

It’s all in the words. When we start out we say “Shabbos” and feel a rush of joy. But the word wears out, for what is a word but dead letters, sounds forced into an uneasy partnership and bound with imposed meaning. After enough time, it starts to sound like nothing at all, and after more time we start resenting it – “I have a soul; stop mouthing at me! I need to comprehend; the word means nothing to me.” Shabbos has become a parroted cliché. It has become death. Not death by terrorist, 7 o’ clock news; death deep in the Amazon where no one’s around to film it, death as a force of nature, a mute wall, a brute fact.

We have two options. We can either get rid of the word and go searching for some other sounds we hope will not eventually rot in our mouths, or we must find some way to reinvigorate this one. We must find a new definition of “Shabbos.” And what, I thought on my bed that night, is Chassidus, if not a long series of redefinitions, an insistent angling of the head that says, “No, it means this.” And those definitions by nature of their divine origin are of infinite depth.

The upswing: What we hate about it is not it, it’s what we had to call it when we were small. It is not foolish; we were foolish when we met it. Shabbos does not mean what we thought it did. It means something deeper, something G-dly, and in that G-dly reality there is room, say, to not feel bad about your hasty prayers and do feel great about the wonderful food you look forward to all week. From a deeper perspective, that too is Shabbos.

Romance lives, to the extent that the child is the father of the man. As long as there is still some room to expand the definition of our terms, there will always be a reason to stay.

So I teach Baalei Teshuva. I’m not selling a flawed product; I’m selling a deeper and truer place within themselves. I am selling them true love. The job is not to protect them from disillusionment and heartbreak. The job is to give them the intellectual and theological tools to deal with it when it comes. The bumps in the road are part of the journey, the feeling of their own skin too tight on their bodies. We cannot split the sea for them, but we will give them a staff.

When I asked my friend if he was okay with my writing a piece about us, he asked if he had anything to worry about. I told him no. I think we see things from similar perspectives, now. Though in some external ways we come down on opposite sides of the table, we are at least both sitting at it. We have each, in our own way, shucked our childish pursuits, and taken steps to becoming men in this world, men who aren’t fools, men who live according to their convictions. Are we really so different, after all?

My definitions have stretched so I no longer feel distant from my friend in law school. Every day, we seem ever more two sides of the same coin; in fact, every day, everything seems like a side of it. When your definitions are robust, all of a sudden G-d can get in everywhere. On both sides of the shelf, in both friends, and in that mysterious interstitial space that separates all matter and unites it.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place

There was a Russian guy I knew in Tel Aviv who clearly lived with pain and depression. He hated everyone and everything, but not all on the same day. We got along. I once asked him if, when he went to sleep, he looked forward to the fresh start of the morning, whether he felt the potential of the new day when he woke up. He rolled his eyes and said, “What am I, twelve?” If I gave in to my own gnawing feelings of despair, I would’ve said fourteen, since G-d split my life open with an ice pick when I was fifteen.

Okay, there’s no way you’re not going to think that’s melodramatic after you hear the story. I wasn’t raped or abused, G-d forbid; I didn’t try to kill myself; I wasn’t forced to listen to Nickelback on infinite repeat. I just went to a party. Not even a real party; a nice-Jewish-kids-from-the-suburbs-try-to-party party.

That’s all.

It was a Saturday night in September of sophomore year. I remember because before my parents drove me there I showered and changed out of my Shabbos clothes into what I considered social clothes. It probably involved a T-Shirt and jeans. What did I know? I hadn’t been to a high school bash before, but my time had come; a guy in our class lived in a big house, and his folks were out of town for the weekend. I looked forward to it.

There was less Xbox than I expected.

I waved my parents off and went around the back entrance. Oh. Dude from school was hanging out in the Jacuzzi with some girls. Nice guy. Still like him to this day. Welcomed me and told me everyone was in the basement.

Through a beautiful, dramatic living room and down to the bottom. It was busy. A bunch of people were playing pool. Some were smoking hookah. On a side table, someone set up an electronic pocket scale exactly like the one my father uses to weigh gunpowder. Boys and girls cavorted (pardon my French) in the bedrooms. There was alcohol everywhere replenished from a bona fide wine cellar (never saw one of those before). It wasn’t really my thing. Or at least, I wasn’t interested in finding out if it was. Now, my father offered me beer and whiskey all the time and I had definitely noticed these girl things before. None of this should have been any kind of shock. Nevertheless… I retreated into myself, struck dumb. I sat on the side, fended off offers of fun & substances, and waited ‘till the morning for it to end.

It still hasn’t.

The sun came up and I went to school on Monday and after a week the head cold from sleeping for a couple of hours under an air vent in the home theater burned away, but I was different forever. From something I doubt ninety-five percent of the attendees remembered two months later.

Now, by the time you’re fifteen, you already know that you’re screwed up. Some of us know it when we’re very little, but the teen years really ram it in everyone’s face. More and more of your waking hours are occupied by Screw-up; the kid you once were has to fight an uphill battle for every moment of your attention. I knew of my own daily struggle with Screw-up, and since I was a smarty pants in Honors Algebra I made the connection and assumed everyone had their own issues, even though we didn’t speak of the issues, we didn’t live the issues, and we didn’t campaign for acceptance of our issues. Our school was a happy place of music, learning and sunshine (who am I kidding? It was a hippie commune with textbooks. We didn’t even have a building) in a non-ironic, non-creepy way.

Why didn’t anyone release or even talk about the Screw-up at school? It’s possible they did, and I just didn’t notice. I was several years and dozens of disillusions away from beginning to notice other people’s issues, and to this day I have friends who were raised by Chassidic wolves with iced vodka for blood that noticed Screw-up better when they played with their Aleph-Beis blocks than I do now. The subtle web of damaged human contact in which I bathe leaps out at me like the ninja in this picture:

shluchim

I know for a fact, however, that my parents rarely released their Screw-ups, and from my early dealings with my own S.U., I grasped how difficult this was. I tried to live up to them. They were subtle, they were dignified (especially my mother, may she be well and not get too upset over anything I write), and I expected the same of everyone else.

That night, in my eyes, everyone’s worth took a dive.

Since that night, in some small way, people are animals.

You know what it’s like? Stand in front of a mirror, make sure no one’s around, and take the pointer and middle finger of each hand and insert them into your mouth (I’m going somewhere with this). Pull back and sideways at your mouth’s four corners so you reveal a good amount of tooth and gum. See how creepy that is? Aren’t your hyper aware of your skull right now? We love the sight of our own faces, normally. But that’s because we think of ourselves as ourselves, not as animated meat sacks. Like everything from umbrellas to ultrabooks, the sign of good craftsmanship is the sublimation of the atoms and the molecules and the wood and the plastic into something higher. Look just a little too much at the meat and it’s unsettling. The composite disintegrate into parts, matter disengages from form, we become aware of our bodies, and we don’t like it. I certainly didn’t like it that September night in sophomore year.

I want to go back. I want to be fourteen, when I was worried about my sanity but not about the world’s. I want days that end as optimistic and as integrated as they start. I want to greet the stars not with weariness and melancholy but with the wonder I felt as I gazed at the celestial and mortal glowings on the drives to grandma’s house and didn’t understand how the moon followed us home.

Most nights, I think it’s impossible, and sleep to forget.

When I don’t, it’s because an old Jew in Brooklyn who spoke English with an accent said that this world is not a jungle. This world is a garden, he said and says. He, whose sainted father wrote kabbalistic teachings that strike the mind like orchard-scented thunderbolts but died young surrounded by loincloth-wearing savages for insisting on Kosher matzah for his congregants. He, whose father-in-law had to send teenaged yeshiva students to their deaths to teach Jewish children about Moses. He, who from childhood struggled to understand how in Messianic times we will thank G-d for the tribulations of this longest exile, its inquisitions and its pogroms and its bookend holocausts.

He insisted and insists that the world is G-d’s garden.

Why do I believe him, when I do?

At fourteen I had high hopes for the world even though I’d met my own potential for ugliness, and I would have needed only the G-dliness within to right the sinking ship of my thought, words, and deeds. At fifteen, my eyes opened to a flawed reality, and I needed to hear a brave voice. I needed to hear that there was more at issue here than my feelings. I needed to hear someone deny, truth to power, that prayer was here to make us feel better about the messed up world and that the highest human achievement existed in the context of that mess. I needed someone to deny that everything good is only a metaphor for something evil. I needed to hear someone say that G-d is real, the most real, and that He runs the world, that it’s not a jungle and that so help us, warts and all, we will say it’s beautiful and we won’t be lying.

If I can trust that after plunging through layer upon layer of disillusionment and fear I will hit upon the solid ground of his conviction instead of some naïve dream, I’ll escape this place.

I really should call that Russian guy.

 

Featured image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0. Post title shamelessly stolen from an Explosions in the Sky album which you should listen to while you stargaze.

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

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation

A certain moment in Asterix the Gladiator always struck me as odd, even poignant. Asterix and Obelix are recruited as gladiators in the Coliseum in Rome, and meet a group of burly, courageous, childlike warrior-slaves who await their gruesome fate in the arena. Asterix, subversive as always, teaches the gladiators children’s games (duck, duck, goose; “I bet I can make you say X”; riddles) that they (naturally) enjoy more than their regular occupation. They sit in a circle in the center of the coliseum and begin to play, to the outrage of the audience and Caesar, who if I remember correctly sends in the lions, who are in turn put off their appetites by the Gaulish secret weapon, Cacofonix (I should really reread those comics…)

Grown men, capable and powerful, sit in a circle and play at children’s games. It’s an image that has fascinated me for some time. I constantly see it playing out in real life. I think it’s inescapable. I think it’s the trial of our generation. To understand why, we have to know that there are three recurring states in Jewish history, three missions, three challenges. The first originates from the Hebrews in their desert wanderings, and the second two are in the story of Purim. Every time, a leader sent by G-d helps the Jews triumph.

 

 

Imagine our ancestors and their lot in life for those forty years in Sinai. They ate the skyfood and drank the rockwater and wore clothes that grew with their bodies and spent all day learning G-dly wisdom directly from Moses, generally recognized as a good Jew and universally recognized as a great leader. The story of their lives must be peaceful, happy, and short. What could possibly have gone wrong? Well, there were the complaints, first about the water, then about the food. There was the golden calf. Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, perishing in the temple. Korach’s rebellion. The debacle with the spies. The hitting of the rock. Man, we wonder, reading all this every year for the rest of eternity, what was wrong with them?

Their problem was faith. Faith is a terrible thing, fickle and useless. Faith is the story in the Talmud of the robber in his underground tunnel, ready to steal and kill, asking G-d for success in the night’s mission. He believes that G-d runs the world; he even believes G-d can make him successful. But between his faith and his actions there is a sharp disconnect. And who doesn’t know a friendly atheist who can remind you of the religious atrocity of the day? Clearly, faith in G-d doesn’t make people better people.

No, for that, you have to see G-d. That was Moses’ job, and it took forty years to drum it into the Hebrews. G-d is not a concept. G-d is real, like tables and chairs are real. The soul sees Him; the challenge lies in the fleshly eyes that do not. Moshe Rabeinu is the tent-stake G-d drives into reality to make a fair game between the material and the spiritual. Almost everything we ever deal with is made of gross physical matter, while the belief in a higher existence is up in the air, ephemeral and difficult. Until people meet Moses, that is; somehow, he changes their minds (this phenomenon is so dangerous to the strict materialist that he invented the modern concept of charisma to explain it away).

The parallel of the desert is the shtetl, the secluded Jewish village of Europe, a world left in ashes by the Nazis and the Soviets. In the shtetl, Jews lived an impoverished, precarious physical life with a bounty of spiritual riches. Judaism was the soil, the air, the food of the shtetl; all of life was Torah and the ever-challenging yet ubiquitous Aibishter (Almighty). In spite of Pogroms and compulsion from modernized Jews to integrate into the more accepting Western European non-Jewish society, life in the shtetl was a life of peace, where all the rules were certain and G-d’s dominion was supreme. The challenge was to take the faith that was as natural to those Jews as mud in the street and effect deep internal change. For this, they went to a Rebbe, a personal Moses.

 

 

What is a Rebbe?

There once was a family of peasants who fell far behind on their debts to the nobleman of their estate. The nobleman threw them into the festering dungeon beneath his castle. The dungeon was underground, dead silent and dark. The only contact with the outside world came every day at noon, when the trapdoor in the dungeon’s ceiling would open and a servant would throw food into the pit.

Time passed. Months dragged into years. The family, refusing to die, inbred, and produced children, who with the passage of the years themselves married each other. The nobleman passed away, then his son, then his grandson. Those hoary elders who had once lived outside of the pit tried as best they could to pass their memories of the sky and the trees to their descendants. They eventually passed on, and faded into the past. The remaining family members were split into two camps: those who believed in an outside world, mainly on the word of their parents’ parents, and those who held that the outside world was a fairy tale made up to give hope to little children. The arguments between the two groups were long and never reached any conclusion. Those who believed pointed to the daily food that came through the trapdoor as proof; the others would scoff and say it proved nothing. Pits produce food from their ceilings; that’s just the nature of it, no fantasies required.

One day, a man fell into the pit, together with the food.

They convened a council. Even the most scabrous of the prisoners put aside their lice scratchers and gathered around the newcomer, who seemed rather upset for some reason. The less intellectual ones offered him a brand new scratcher as a comfort, but this made him cry more for some reason. Someone couldn’t stand it anymore and asked him, “Well, is it true? Is there an outside world?”

The man looked at them as if they were mad, and spoke, for as long as he lived, of the sky and the trees and everything else from the surface. Even those who always believed had trouble relating to him; he was so different, so emphatic and certain. But no one could deny his claims, not because of his charisma, but because it was true; he was from there. Where else could he possibly be from?

 

 

That’s a Rebbe, and that’s the difference between seeing and believing.

We can learn how to see, if we choose.

 

 

Inevitably, the Jews cannot live peacefully forever. The clouds of glory will recede; the shtetl will burn. They must learn to live under Haman.

What are Jews to do when the most powerful of all government officials declares death to all who practice Judaism? Their knowledge of morality, of living a G-dly life, will not suffice. The question is: Your Judaism or your life? One may see the truth, but is it one’s entire reality? A pit-Jew may know with complete certainty that there is a Truth, but will they die for it? In other words, is it possible to make distinctions between life and Judaism? When life is Judaism in the most real way, such that death is the easy decision, it’s called Mesiras Nefesh, and it reflects the deepest part of us where we don’t just do Jewish, we are Jewish, before we are male/female, human, religious, or even logical. In the times of Purim, the Jews finished what they started at Mount Sinai; they realized that they could not and would not be separated from G-d. If our souls only saw G-d, there could be an obstruction or a blindness that severed our connection. But our souls are one with G-d, and it only takes a genocidal maniac to bring it out of us. That’s why G-d sends the genocidal maniacs. Mesiras Nefesh, as a relationship with G-d, isn’t for the fainthearted.

 

 

In the dark days under Stalin, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rayatz, stood against the darkness with utter impunity. He ran an underground network of ritual pools and slaughterers and, most importantly, chadorim, Jewish children’s schools, to keep Judaism alive. He gave no quarter or any easy answers, and Jews flocked to him by the thousands. He sent his Yeshiva students, often children of fourteen or fifteen, beloved as his own daughters, on deadly missions throughout Russia. The KGB would take them out in the dark of night and shoot them. The Rebbe would send replacements.

This is Mesiras Nefesh: He once said in a talk that if they come to you and tell you that either you put your child in a government school or they will burn you alive, you should jump in the fire. This was illogical; you would die and they would get your kids anyway. Nevertheless. Nevertheless.

A Chassid wrote to him once, explaining how the authorities warned him that they knew of the recent birth of his son, and that if he had the boy circumcised they would send him to Siberia. The Rebbe wrote back a two-word answer: “Fohr Gezunterheit!” Go in good health! How the Chassidim loved him, and he them.

Mesiras Nefesh, in its most pristine, nonsensical, G-dly form, is perhaps found in a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidus. He once became aware through spiritual means that he would share his portion in the world to come with another Jew. Curious, he sought the Jew out, and the trail led him to a shack in the middle of the woods. The owner greeted him at the door, and what an owner! Large as a house. Grotesquely fat. The Holy Besh”t asked if he might stay the night, and the Jew acquiesced. The Baal Shem Tov watched his host for a day, and could not figure out what great merit he possessed to partake in a rich afterlife. The Jew’s service of G-d was subpar at best: questionable Tefilin, hasty prayers without a Minyan, a day spent hunting without Torah learning. The only unusual thing about the man was his size, and the eating that caused it, enough for a battalion at every meal. The Baal Shem Tov asked the man why he ate so much, if he’d pardon the question.

He said, “When I was young, my father was killed in a pogrom. They dragged him into the middle of the town square and decided to burn him. Now, my father was a small man, very skinny, and when they threw him into the fire he went up like kindling, returning his soul to his maker in moments. I decided then and there that when they come for me, and throw me in the fire, I’m going to burn and burn and burn and burn…”

Does it make sense to you? No? Good.

 

 

As inevitable as the genocidal maniac is, the eventual Jewish victory is even more inevitable. Ask Haman, or Stalin. But the new world order comes with its own set of problems. External enemies evoke Judaism like nothing else; in their absence, it’s easier to forget our souls. Many Jews who lived on the brink of execution day and night in the Soviet Union moved to the United States and, to put it kindly, became just like the rest of us. Cars, TVs, pools, vacations. Stuff. What happened to life is G-d and G-d is life and shoot me if it makes you feel better about it?

In the Sinai Desert, the issue was a Judaism that wasn’t true enough. In the time of Haman’s decree, the issue was a Judaism that was true to the point of martyrdom, but that truth was dependent on an outside cause. A disciple of Moshe might not have to die for his Judaism, might only be able to sacrifice his animals in the temple, or his money to charity, but what he does, he owns. His merit cannot be taken away from him. The follower of Mordechai in Haman’s times, the time of the decree, operates at a level that is much more serious; he is willing to sacrifice his life to put his right shoe on before his left as Jewish law dictates, but that decision does not come from him; it is forced upon him. Remove the outside force, and he reverts to whoever he was before, spiritually penniless.

It is only after Haman’s decree, when Esther is the queen and Mordechai is second to the King and the Jews live in wealth and security that they G-d expects them to combine the two approaches. Everything they do, they will own, because there is no outside spiritual impetus, no great enemy to drive them toward G-d. There’s only wealth, fortune, and power. But they no longer live in the shtetl, and the old method of a surrounding culture that will buoy their spirits and isolate them from depravity is no longer an option. They are of the world now; they have left the desert. Their inspiration has to come from within. Mordechai can instruct them, but he can no longer carry them. They themselves must arrive at the decision that all they want, with the same depths of self-sacrifice as their fathers who weathered fire and water, is G-dliness. And then G-d will grant their wish.

 

 

This is what it means to live in 2014. There are very few Jews today who could honestly claim to exist in a cultural bubble actually helps their service of G-d. There are very few Jewish leaders who can confer upon us their experiences from beyond the pit. On the other hand, there is also no immediate danger to the Jewish people, few dictators that have the power to threaten the lives of millions of Jews, who force us to choose between our lives and our Judaism. For this, we can all thank G-d.

That same Lubavitcher Rebbe who stood up against Stalin arrived in the New York harbor at an old age, in a wheelchair, determined to start again, as he did when he left the shtetl for a life of roaming exile in Eastern Europe. His American followers greeted him, and he did not like what they had to say. They told him, in effect, that America was different. The old Jewish way was the European way, and would never work on those golden shores.

His immediate response was to make a historic speech, and declare that “America iz nisht anderesh,” America is not different. It can work here, too.

 

 

We stand at a point of history unlike any other. It has never been so trivial to be Jewish, so easy to forget. It is so simple to be an American first, an Israeli first, a humanist first, an environmentalist first, a citizen of the world first, a democrat first, a republican, a social media cultist, an animal rights activist, an anti-bullying protester, a vegetarian, a vegan, a gun nut, a lifehacking gizmodo cellphoneista, a businessperson, a family man, an interior decorator, a charedi, a secularist, a kitten picture captionist, a yiddishist, a jerk, a pop culture flunky, a music nerd, a Talmudist. We are distracted. It is not a religious issue; it’s the logical issue of wasted potential. Just as it is a terrible waste for grown men to play children’s games, so, too, it is terrible for us, the first generation of all time who have to opportunity to be Jewish on our own, from within, to decide we prefer shiny objects and the fad or anti-fad of the day.

Someone once wrote to the Rebbe about the inherent limitations of being an observant Jew. Isn’t it a form of slavery? they wondered. Hundreds of rules, hundreds of restrictions. You can’t even put on your pants the way you want to.

The Rebbe’s response, to paraphrase:

Freedom is relative. Take a plant, for example. The highest form of expression for a plant, what separates it from mere inanimate objects, is its ability to grow. Therefore, to stunt its growth is to limit its freedom. But to root the plant in one spot and to disallow it free motion is not an imposition; on the contrary, plants don’t move. An animal, who can also move, is considered abused if it is kept caged and never allowed free range of motion. Freedom for the animal is different than that of the plant. So too, when we make the step to human beings. A person can think abstract thought, while an animal cannot. To deny a person an education, the ability to think, to express his or her innate intelligence, is oppression, but an uneducated animal has lost nothing at all. Within humanity there is a subset called the Jew, with a unique mission from G-d that comes with its own needs. The Jewish soul is not free unless it is connecting to G-d through Torah and Mitzvos, just as a person is not free without intelligence and an animal is not free in a cage. And that is why Judaism is freedom.

We have to break free from the distractions, and realize just how much potential we have. G-d believes in us, as do all the Rebbes, from Moshe to Mordechai to our own time. Grown men must put away their toys and their riddles, and become who they were born to be.

 

Image courtesy of Flickr.