News of the Schism Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Judaism is a religion and a people liable to split upon serious disagreement. At least, this is the sense of Judaism you may get from Jonathan Weisman’s New York Times report on the upcoming “Great Schism” between American Jews and Israeli Jews. The term is Christian, referring to the permanent rupture between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in the 11th century, which is fitting, since in Judaism there has never truly been a Schism, nor is one just around the corner.

Weisman’s primary concern is political. Israeli Jews are moving ever-rightward and toward Trump, while American Jews aren’t. Israeli Jews are ever-less apologetic about the West Bank settlements, while increasing numbers of American Jews, especially young ones, feel alienated by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

None of this indicates an upcoming permanent split in world Jewry, however. A Schism would entail a split in the Jewish identity itself. American Jews would declare Israelis to not truly be Jewish, and vice versa. But will disagreement over Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu be sufficient grounds for this separation?

The question of whether certain rulers are “good for the Jews” has rarely been a matter of consensus in the past. It would shock Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon, for example, to hear that Judaism was about to split in two, though one praised and the other was harshly critical of the Romans. Nor was their disagreement without consequences; Rabbi Yehuda became the head of the sages, while Rabbi Shimon was sought for execution. In modern times, Russian Jewry was divided over whether to support Napoleon or the Czar. Yet, in neither of these cases did Jewish identity itself rupture.

Of course, Jews not only disagree over gentile rulers but also over the actions and allegiances of other Jews. Weisman writes of ongoing Reform and Conservative struggle for legitimacy in Israel, where their movements are in the extreme minority. Although it is difficult to see how the tensions between the Orthodox establishment and these groups may be resolved, Jewish history is full of just this sort of irreconcilable difference.

The biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah uncomfortably dwelled in the land together, yet did not see themselves as two peoples. Why would they, since their forebears united even twelve tribes? In Mishnaic times, so opposed were the houses of Hillel and Shammai that marriage between them verged on impossible. The works of Maimonides, now central to normative Judaism of every persuasion, were denounced by Rabbis to the Catholic authorities in France and burned. Jews died in the early conflicts between Hassidim and the Mitnagdic students of the Vilna Gaon. Nonetheless, these disagreements failed to bifurcate world Jewry. They were usually resolved through a tragedy that reminded the participants of their shared identity.

When groups have split from Judaism—Karaites, Christians, Sabbateans—it has been over things like whether Moses is the greatest prophet, or whether the Oral Law is a legitimate part of the Torah. Today, it is on these central issues that Jews have never been more united.

At this late point in our history, a Jew in Los Angeles and a Jew in Tel Aviv share millennia of history, a rich culture grounded in the Torah, and a language. Neither questions if the Talmud is Jewish or whether Jesus is the Messiah. Whereas a hundred years ago one may have spoken worriedly about the Ottomans while the other paid off a Polish duke, today they mostly speak the same languages about the same liberal democratic problems and usually the same politicians on the same Shabbat. Though one is Sephardic and the other Ashkenazi, they each know the same teaching from the Rambam. They may have different opinions about Israeli security, but the walls of their echo chambers are thinner than the seas separating an Egyptian and a Ukrainian Jew in the 19th or the 9th century.

There will only be two Judaisms if we choose to make it so. A Great Schism is impossible unless we set aside as irrelevant all we hold in common. An American/Israeli Jewish split would be a child of our interpretation, rather than of fact. We would have to willfully declare Judaism itself—religion, history, identity, tribe—to be synonymous with politics. We would then need to make our politics synonymous with saving lives. We would finally have to subscribe to a policy of Jewish non-death, rather than one of Jewish life, for any description of Jewish life shows that what we share is more lasting and profound than what divides us.

If we don’t choose schism, we will realize that Chief Rabbi Lau did not refuse to call The Tree of Life congregation a synagogue and that Rabbi Jeffrey Myers welcomed the President to visit. Mr. Weisman has chosen to interpret the Israeli Ambassador’s presence as the sole public official to greet Trump on that visit as a sign of division between American Jews and Israeli Jews (because we disagree about Trump). In other words, Israeli Jews feel attacked by the synagogue shooter and share American Jews’ grief, to the extent that they send the Ambassador to Pittsburgh. This is somehow read as a sign that the global Jewish community is splitting in two.

In truth, American Jews and Israeli Jews argue over our shared situation because we feel we share a destiny. Few Jews feel left out of North Korean politics.

The pain of disagreeing with other Jews is itself one of our hallowed traditions. It means we are not two people but one people. Our common ground does not necessarily lie between Eilat and the Golan. It is the shared history and shared future of every Jewish soul.

Why History’s Greatest Philosopher Lived in Liadi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Originally posted on Hevria.

Lag Ba’Omer, From The Top

La Ba’Omer is the best. I will explain this holiday to you. But it is a long story.

In the Beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.

Why he would do this is mysterious, and the matter cannot be easily adjudicated in a humble space like this. The best way to put it is that He desired to be in a new way. As He is unto Himself, but in Another place. He wished to demonstrate, to Himself, that He was as True in a false place or that all places were false in light of His truth or something. It took Him six days, and the sixth of these was Friday, and we call it the first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashana, head of the year. (We celebrate the sixth day because that is when man was created, and despite what anyone may tell you, the universe was created for him.)

However, some opinions say that man was, or could have been, or will be created on the First of Nissan — a spring month, halfway across the year from Tishrei, a time of rebirth and sprouting rather than withering and in-gathering. That the world could have been created on either says something about the world.

In any case, these two months have since then ever competed for the main focus of Jewish life. The fall season also includes Yom Kippur,

The fall season also includes Yom Kippur, day of atonement, and Sukkot, the festival of ingathering and joy, and Simchat Torah, when the yearly Torah cycle ends and begins again, for all eternity. The fall season is one half of the dance between man and G-d. It is the part when man tallies his deeds, considers his distance from the Creator, and attempts to make amends. Our motion toward the creator takes the shape, like all things born, of a pregnancy. The relationship is established on Rosh Hashana, when we convince G-d the project of creation is worth continuing. The consummation is on Yom Kippur, when we are as angels in a moment of sublime unity with the creator. The child grows through its time in the Sukkot booth, the seed becoming differentiated and fully-formed, and its birth-culmination is on Simchat Torah.

The spring season is diametrically opposed. It is the time when G-d moves close to man, whether man is ready or not. The relationship is foreshadowed by the drunken celebration of Purim, and a month later is consummated in the commemoration of that ultimate moment of kindness, when G-d took us from Egypt on a promise, on Passover, to go receive the Law in the desert. But we were not ready. That was only the seed. The pregnancy for such a great gift, that it may survive in the world, takes 49 days. The 50th is what may scientifically be respectfully termed “The Event at Mount Sinai”. Between the lesson that there is a G-d before whom nature and empires are a plaything, and the choosing of a nation for a perilous mission, there are 7 weeks. 49 days, and most of them are for introspection and mourning.

One exception is the 33rd, tonight and tomorrow.

The 49 days are called the Omer. The 33rd day is Lag Ba’Omer.

It “happens” (if such a term is not idol worship) that the 33rd was the day of passing of Rashbi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

The Rashbi lived in the Mishnaic period and studied under the famous Rabbi Akiva. He was a master of all forms of Torah, and a contender for one of the greatest men who ever lived. Most relevant, perhaps, for our time, he was the author of the holy Zohar, the book of radiance, key to the Kabbalah. He was, in this sense, something like Moses. While Moses gave the world the Torah in its revealed sense, rules and laws telling man how to live, Rashbi gave the world a hidden Torah, containing the secrets of the creation, mystical prophecy, He spoke of a third realm, a reality between the world and the creation of which philosophy cannot dream. He spoke of metaphors, and they were true metaphors, for what happens below has a source above. He spoke of Light and Vessels, of the heavenly chariot, of secrets that belonged to the few because in the wrong hands they led to madness, idol worship, and death. Not by accident was he the student of R’Akiva, the only of the four to enter and exit the orchard in peace.

Most profoundly, maybe, he revealed an inner truth to the Torah of Moses. He showed that what appeared on its surface to be a law was much more, was a step in the reparation of creation, a step toward the state G-d imagined when He created the world, the state in which He would be known in a different place as He knows Himself. Just as Moses gave us stitches for the binding of will and truth, the animal and G-d’s will, so did Rashbi let us bind the world and G-d, explained to us how the commandments refine the truth of G-d from the world, and their source in the sublime.

I’m sure it was an accident he passed away on the 33rd day of the Omer, and asked that his death be a celebration for all time. After all, the Omer is the process of bringing the simple faith-truth of G-d into a tangible reality, of systematizing the One truth. It has 49 days, because in the Kabbalah there are 50 gates of understanding, but only the first 49 are available to man. We can only prepare. But the 50th gate on the 50th day, the Event at Sinai, G-d must give.

But in Kabbalah, understanding is only the second step. Before understanding comes wisdom, as the question precedes the answer. And in the Kabbalah, there are 32 paths of wisdom. 32 steps to preparing for an even deeper truth. But the 33rd path transcends them and is the ultimate, the place where Highest Truth resounds in the lowest depth, for that’s what makes it highest. For that, G-d must provide, and as he sent Moses, he sent the Rashbi. And that is what, tonight and tomorrow, we celebrate, on the 33rd day of the Omer, between the Exodus and the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

Why Antisemitism Is A Historical Constant

All that varies in Jew hatred, over continents and millennia, is in the details. Every group has their own claim. The Jews killed Jesus (all of us; I was there!), the Jews did not accept Mohammed, the Jews drink the blood of small children. Jews have horns, their men menstruate part of the year. Jews are pathetic parasitic cockroaches. Jews rule the global order. They’re communists! They’re capitalists! They’re Zionists!

As a somewhat religious fellow, my question on all these persistent, bizarre, and contradictory claims is not just “Why?” but “Why, G-d?” It is clearly part of our mission to be distrusted and oppressed; we tell prospective converts that they join their fate with that of a beleaguered people. Why is this the way it must be, in a world where G-d expects the Jew to accomplish things?

Anyone familiar with the sources realizes prophecy and sagacity are two different qualities, though both prophet and sage receive word from G-d in some way. However, one of Judaism’s great sages must, in our case, be charged with uncanny prescience. Rashi, most famous of all Torah commentators, answers our question in his first words on Genesis.

That the explanation is on the words “In the beginning” indicates just how deep the roots of antisemitism might go. Rashi asks: The Torah ought not (as the book of teachings for the Jewish people) have begun with the world’s creation (which in many ways is none of our business) but with G-d’s first commandment to the Jews, recorded later in the book of Exodus. Rashi answers: The book of Genesis exists to answer the future claims of the non-Jew, who will come and say, “You are robbers; the land [of Israel] belongs to us!” The Jew can respond, “G-d created the world and gives it to whom He will; He willfully gave it to the Seven Nations and willfully took it from them and gave it to us.”

Here is an answer, on a simple level, to those who wish to take the land from the Jewish people, to those who call us thieves, oppressors, insufficiently progressive, etc. It is not, however, an explanation for all antisemitism in history. In fact, it has only sounded relevant since 1948 for the first time in almost two thousand years.

But that is not all that’s contained in Rashi’s words, which demand deeper consideration. After all, does Rashi truly mean to tell us that an entire book was added to the beginning of the Torah, God’s books, just to answer some mistaken future claims? This seems to lend their accusations of theft far more credence than they deserve

Really, the case Rashi raises is not a particular accusation of land theft but rather the eternal claim of the world against the Jew. “You come from the desert, inspired, claiming to have met the Creator and therefore transcended the bounds of this reality. It is surely a spiritual people whose entire nation is founded on the deliverance of, and covenant with, G-d. Surely any claim to a physical land is, on your part, out of place, a ‘theft’ from those who do not claim to have spoken with God.” In other words, the Jew is alien, not because of custom, appearance, or even religious practice (we have “controlled” for these and were still hated) but because their story sets them apart. To be a Jew who does nothing is, by a simple act of history, to stake a claim. And the claim of the Jew (not the claim the Jew makes, it must be reemphasized, but the claim made by history (and G-d) through the Jew) is that there exists a reality before whom the world is nothing. To put it in vulgar modern terms, antisemitism is in some sense the world rejecting a question on its stake to ultimate reality, like a body rejecting an organ transplant.

This, it should be noted, does not excuse the antisemite’s actions in the slightest; no one is compelled to be the messenger for this rejection. However, this does explain why antisemitism refuses to die, as an impulse — because the Jews refuse to die, and with the world as it is now, before any sort of radical messianic transformation, there is a fundamental resentment toward the people whose story negates the world. And since the world includes all man-made ideologies and all of man’s animal impulses, it is never very hard to find an excuse for Jew hatred.

What, according to Rashi, is the Jewish response to this resentment? “G-d is the creator the world and gives it to whom He wills.” Even though a G-dly people may seem to contradict the world, it is, on the contrary, G-d’s will that they enter it, settle a land, and repair the world from within. It is our whole aim to know, and then to teach, that though we may have different stories, we and the non-Jew are made by the same Creator and the “secular” world is as G-dly as the event at Sinai, if not more so. The “solution” to antisemitism can only be found in dissolving the seeming difference between the physical and the spiritual, the mundane and the holy.

The world is an estranged child who has forgotten her roots in G-d, and the Jews are here to guide her back. She must be taught that in her very weakness, in her acknowledgment that she is not just a mother but a child, an offspring of a higher reality, she discovers not death and limitation but true eternal life in service of the One G-d. Just like the Jews.

Joseph, At The End Of History

If we must understand
the world and dangle
it from our fingers
like a porcelain mug,

then our eyes
will always hook
its angled handles,
our desires
bowed and arrowed,
tabled and listed,
slapping each other like
the numbered tiles
guiding through the prayers
the congregation
integer by integer,

and we will act
most madly
to discover ourselves
in the counting,
pulled along by motive motors
like perps weighing gains
and losses
the way the police psychologist
would have told them to.

But if we needn’t know,
and let the cup fall,
we find all the stories
like neat chainmail
cannot wall off the bolt
that slew history
when she was a maiden —

That’s right! She has been
only a ghost:
The UN’s foul choice came
to answer the Zionist voice
which in turn was born
to a people torn from
the land to carry truth
forlorn in galuth
since G-d’s sacred domain
was by Romans profaned,
holy tablets displaced
long after deserting the wastes of Sinai
which never would
have happened
if history weren’t dead
because —

One morning,
rather than rattle against
his own meninges
or dwell on a decade’s pain,
the young Hebrew,
abandoned in Egypt to rot,
somehow chose
in a mind bound not
by money, biology, or electrons,
to ask two others
about their long faces,
and set in motion history,
the story marching
from the mystery
behind his eyes,
all explanations slain,
dead as
of pottery.


Originally posted on Hevria.