I Saw G-d on Facebook

We do not, in Judaism, agree with the philosophers that greatness is greatness no matter who or what possesses it. Korach erred to think he could bear Moshe’s greatness as easily as Moshe and Aharon’s holiness as easily as any Kohen. In this, he was a heretic, ultimately denying creation ex nihilo, that Moses could be a radically different creation than Korach. So I do not mean to say that a Facebook comment can be genuinely great per se like (l’havdil) a work of Torah.

But if it is no longer a “Facebook comment per se,” if Korach ceases to be Korach by becoming Moshe’s man, then true greatness is possible, the greatness of the inifite. All finite things hold an emptiness at the center called bittul, a negative space that may contain the infinite. Through bittul, the non-great may become great. When we talk about a great FB comment, we’re talking about one that’s becoming nothing inside and out.

 

Here’s what it looks like: I met a severe Yeshiva student on one of my wanderings. He was of European slimness, shorter and younger than average in the study hall, and brilliant. He pursued Judaism with the dangerous fanaticism of a broken-hearted youth.

The ‘danger,’ such as it is, lies in the multi-layered nature of the pit, the hole inside that Judaism will fill, because Judaism must, because if it doesn’t, what am I? Many souls contain a Machpelah, a cave within a cave, a cave above a cave. Only Judaism fills the most bottomless hole, the cavity closer to us than our very being. We can plug smaller, more superficial spiritual needs with worldly pleasures, therapy, art, friends and family, secular knowledge, political activism, or a gratifying job. Sometimes the upper chamber may even be filled by time, the spiritual agonies of adolescence calloused over by the 20s.

The trick of the hole-filling Baal Teshuva, the returnee to Judaism looking to satisfy a need, is to realize that beneath the sinkholes opening along our contingent path through circumstance lies a broader existential tale tied to our very being. We possess emptiness born not of the path chosen for us but of we who walk it, that deep inner vacuum to which Judaism speaks, the infinite desolation that only G-d can make whole. Torah and Mitzvos will contextualize the other problems, the ones of nature and nurture, and may repair them at the level of what they are. They will transform us from biological beings dealing with problems into G-dly souls wrestling with them. But all direct changes to the form of our questions do not require Judaism. Self-discipline and a regimented life come from the army; self-help books and gurus can transform your attitude; medication and diet help depression and anxiety; friends and family give us love.

One of Chassidus’s penetrating insights is that to live a G-dly life is different from conquering the form of your troubles. To heal the animal soul—the path of Mussar/Ethical teachings—may be a prerequisite to the work of the G-dly soul, but it is not that work. The Baal Shem Tov revealed that a commandment performed for a reward demotes the commandment to below the reward. So, too, if the point of the commandment is self-improvement, it elevates the animal traits above the mitzvah. A Korach cannot become a Moses from the outside, by slowly improving his Korach-itude, because Moses is not merely a more ethical Korach. Korach becomes Moshe by first becoming nothing, by finding the infinite emptiness within and introducing it into his life. He does this no matter which contingent foibles and character flaws lie in his way.

It should not surprise us that many a young Baal Teshuva, thinking it’s Chassidus they seek, join a yeshiva and start studying the Tanya. They soon discover the Tanya addresses only a single problem, the union of the souls with the divine. They then remain in a frustrating stalemate until something else shows up to solve their problem. Occasionally it is Mussar that saves the day. More often, it’s one of the other hole fillers, and, their itch scratched and their issue resolved, they stop seeking G-d. My acquaintance, the young zealot, seems to have done just that. He now often posts pictures of himself, bare-headed and often bare-chested, luxuriating in an exotic locale, to Facebook.

 

There was another student in that same yeshiva where I met the first. Where the first was young, this second was older than the yeshiva average. Where the former was fanatical, the latter was disinterested. The first was hungry, seeking satisfaction from every page of the Talmud, every letter of each Chassidic discourse. The latter seemed to hate everyone and everything about our little school, often missing classes, arriving at strange hours with odd friends to study the talks of the Previous Rebbe of Lubavitch in Russian-accented Hebrew. The only things the two students had in common were their distinctive approaches to yeshiva life apart from the established order, tormented spirits, and a penchant for cigarettes.

The Russian (let’s call him) was, without doubt, the most abrasive person I met in perhaps my entire yeshiva career. He had no air of glory about him whatsoever, no sense that, by participating in Judaism, he was doing something noble or extraordinary. He spoke with all the tact of a Moscoloid street rat and had physically assaulted a non-zero number of his fellow students. He had studied philology in university back in the Motherland and spat out the names of philosophers like curses. He liked the Kuzari and alcohol. I think he is an orphan, but he found no loving family amongst us; if he has a void in that sense, it’s hard to imagine we were filling it with our constant exasperation at his moods. He was no Moses (lacking the piety) and no Korach (lacking the delusions of grandeur and the pictured path to fulfillment). He was more a Dasan or Aviram, kicking over blocks for fun, and you wanted to ask him, “Why are you here?” However, in retrospect, it is clear he possessed the knack of every successful fulfillment-seeking Baal Teshuva. He could be here because he was here. Dogged, senseless, persistence without reason or clear reward is the trick of the Baal Teshuva, and you can’t teach it. It appears in other areas of life aglimmer with the sheen of the infinite. The advice for writers, I have learned, is to write. The ingredient of cake, when G-d makes it, is cake. That which is created from nothing has no explanation. Moses can be Moses only because he is, and this mystery the Russian embodies.

 

Today, checking my Facebook feed, I see two truly great words, words that ring with the full hollowness of a Chassidic story. You must recognize those involved, read the words in an irritated Russian accent written to an old non-friend, a youth from yeshiva. The Russian was never there when the youth slaved over the holy books, was not around when he sculpted a shining new face for himself in the night, was not awake when he closed the book, picked up his jacket, and quit. But beneath the latest in a string of frivolous photos of a new life, the Russian has commented,

with the mournful triumph of the eternally satisfied,

with the confident disregard of those who cannot break free from the bundle of life even if they wished,

with the greatness of those who are empty and thus are Moses,

with the longing of an inner cave so long-buried the explorers have stopped looking for it,

with the laconic, mystified bemusement of those who have suffered worse yet never managed to leave:

“תחזור כבר”;

“Come back already.”

The Cruel, the Less Cruel, and the Kind

They say the opposite of cruelty is kindness, and that the opposite of hate is love, but it is rare to find a man of unalloyed cruelty and hatred. A man of pure hatred is like a man without legs, a tragedy, but an exception that proves the rule.

Most of us are cruel and hateful only in the service of kindness and love. We hate strangers because we love our people; we hate ideas because we love our minds as they are. “Those who love G-d hate evil,” the Psalmist says, extending this emotional dichotomy up to the rarefied reaches of the soul and the better angels of our nature.

No, in a healthy human being, love and hate are often concurrent, two sides of the same coin. The question is how to regulate these tendencies, balance them, and remain a genuinely good person despite our healthy, deeply human capacity for cruelty. Since love can generate hatred, it is not the means by which to balance our emotions. Rather, this role must fall to the mind. It is in this sense of an actual outside power not in dialectic with hatred, and able to control it, that the opposite of hate is not love, but truth.

Look at what in the world is truly cruel: those areas untouched by reason. This why we call some of the worst murders senseless. A man decides his country or religion or tribe is under attack. Out of protective love, he has their back and sallies forth to destroy their (perceived) enemies.

There are several ways to prevent this tragedy, and each failure to prevent it is a failure of reason. First, the mind of this killer has been set adrift from the internal moral law that says murder is wrong. his love, and this his hatred, broke through that barrier, placed there by G-d and education. Second, his mind failed to use its powers of abstraction to impart sympathy to the killer. Love of one’s own tribe is natural to the heart. Love of others through analogy requires moral education; the idea that they are also mothers, children, lovers of country, etc. must be taught to the heart. Third, the last line of defense of the forces of reason failed, namely, externalized reason, also known as justice. Without justice, the emotion of love terminates in dissolution, discord, and difference. To that extent, the emotion itself is self-destructive, a consuming flame without stabilizing wick or fuel that quickly gutters out in chaos.

Less cruel is reason, which ties the self-consuming love to earth and allows it to exist in stasis. The emotion of love is the individual inhabiting their inherent relationships with self and other. When a child loves her parent, she is literally enacting her relationship, actualizing a connection fixed in time; you are my parent by what has already happened, by my birth, and by loving you, I allow that set state of affairs to affect the present. If someone hurts my parents, I am caught in the web of their action; hurting those I love swiftly establishes another relationship that arouses hate in my heart.

The mind circumvents this causal chain, as if by magic. Like the difference between a man and an ox is the difference between love under reason to love untouched by the mind. An ox looks at food and thinks food. It looks at a tree and thinks about a tree. Its mind is merely an expansion of its senses. Reason, though, is seeing food and thinking thankfulness, seeing a tree and perceiving growth. The very power of abstraction places us a handbreadth higher than inevitability. Someone may attack me, but in their attack I may see only their desperation, and in my own rage I see an emotion to be weighed. There is suddenly room for right and wrong; I may separate good from evil on principle since every particular occurrence also falls in some general category. Revenge can be wrong, even if I saw with my own eyes the crime for which my enemy is indebted. This is the very soul of the law.

It is not even a particular principle that is so vital to justice, but rather having principles itself. Approaches on when to reward and when to punish may vary in details, but the law’s abstract nature always keeps more balance than lawlessness. Reason puts love and hate in a context; that is the most important thing. They gain an aspect of what-we-do, where before they sounded like what-we-are. Thereby, we are preserved from cruel chaos.

Why, then, is reason only less cruel?

Reason is a dictator.

Reason says the right thing is right only relative to other things. Nothing is right just because it is right, except, rather unreasonably, reason itself. G-d Himself, by reason, is reason’s recognition that something it can’t explain must be the ultimate context for what’s right; the first ground, an ur-context, is the uncreated Creator. Reason’s highest principle is that even the Almighty Contextless is defined in the context of context.

Reason, but its very chaos-ending powers, by its abstraction and contextualization—in other words, but its very ability to allow opposites to coexist peacefully—keeps us ever apart. Reason tells us a thing is never just itself, but rather exists in a context. Reason tells us that principles are higher than our love, that ideas must be more important than people in order to save people from themselves. It lets us love with a small love, a love influenced by reason that is a pale shadow. We love never the things themselves purely, but also what they mean.

Reason implies that if we come together without third-party mediation, we will destroy each other. If I don’t want chaos, I will meet you only on reason’s property. Yes, that’s a threat.

Can we say we’re together at all? My mind says our love is a good love. Is it so lacking in reality that my mind controls it? My mind cannot even control a brick wall. Is there no love undying? Perhaps only G-d’s, and He Himself is only real as mind, as real as the way things fit together!

The kind is something else. Call it faith. For love to survive, justice must tame it. But for justice to live, faith must direct it.

For the rules not to chafe, for abstractions not to hurt, for principle to be more than a forfeiture of self, we must rediscover a higher love. Not the love of emotions, not the actualization of a relation to an object, but a love rooted in self-definition. Emotive love says, “I love you.” Faith love does not speak, for speech is the sound of communication, and we only must communicate if we are not one. Emotive love is the search for you as me. Reason says the search for you cannot be everything, must ever be a mere action, a mere part of me. Faith says that the search for you is a search for me, when we remember we have never been apart.

Faith says that just as we are one with our own principles, we are one with our Creator and each other.

Faith says we reason not because we have to but because we can, because it is how we draw our self-contained love into canvasses of other.

Faith says chaos, in its basic motions, in people moving apart and coming together because of their fixed structures, captures a deep truth of us. Chaos is faith in the negative polarity. If we wish to fix it, we control it with reason, and then control reason. The opposite of hate is truth, but not intellectual truth. The opposite of hate is love-truth and being-truth.

By faith, reason’s context is given context. The “it depends” is told it depends. We are not defined by strictures or relationships; they are defined by us, in our very being.

And it is at this point when we reach faith, on the lip of this greatest and most profound freedom, that G-d tells us what we can do for Him.

Originally posted on Hevria.

Peace Be Upon You, Traveler

Peace be upon you, traveler,
through night’s fevered exhale
or sun-charred road,
to lover’s threshold
or the white citadel!

Perhaps you drive through the bank at midnight
because your daughter has a cough
or to hasten morning’s commute.
But maybe you bear
as rushing blood
to foreign lands
circulating dollars
through Taipei’s tunnels
or the flowering alleys of Sao Paulo.

You did not ask my permission,
did not show your face,
real and stubbled red as Capistrano,
or smooth-chinned as the Lotus Temple,
and risk the fleeting.

You were wiser –
like rain cobbling the paths at Sarnath,
like feet smoothing the slopes of Jerusalem,
you chose eternity
and did not show your face.

That’s alright.
This, too, is just a game
of hopscotch
with G-d clapping the time.
If-you-miss-one,
that’s-o-kay,
your-life-leads
else-where
a-ny-way.

Leave.
Forget the rules
and the electric bill!

Can I really blame you
for sneaking out
when all implied authority,
though not declaring it illegal,
finds this smuggling, well,
irresponsible?

Do not fret at our parting.
Your headlamps thirst for the mile;
your ticket pulls you forward.
There is an edge even to this circle;
bless me, and traverse it.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

On The Mysteries Of King Solomon And Koheles

I write this in my Sukkah, wearing my intellectual sleeping cap and bunny slippers, as the birds chirp all around on this glorious first morning of Chol Hamoed.

Why, oh why, would Jews choose to read Koheles, Ecclesiastes, most nihilistic of all twenty-four scriptures, during a festival of joy? Granted, it is not my custom; Chabad does not put an emphasis of reading it during Sukkos. But on the other hand, I do not cynically believe (outside of some rather good jokes) that some other Jews don’t want to be happy. On the contrary, I love Koheles, and if I won’t be reading it with attendant weeping in my airy booth of immense holiness, I will at least take a moment to reflect on its abiding mysteries and its author.

~~~

If you didn’t know, Koheles is a book about how everything is purposeless and achieves nothing. Like another of King Solomon’s works (more on that below) it came off as somewhat unreligious at the meeting to decide which holy works should become canonical Jewish scripture, and like that other work, it was rescued because of its subtle redeeming qualities. (One notes that this is often the case with great geniuses with revolutionary ideas — their perspective is so lofty and removed that it often seems they are not contributing to the thing at all but are rather out just to tear everything down, and only with time does everyone else catch up and realize how great they were. On the other hand, sometimes they are just out to tear everything down and by the time you pierce through the intellectual fog everything is already destroyed. Distinguishing, as non-geniuses, between these types is a matter of great importance, unless you believe in Koheles, in which case it’s as empty and pointless as most human endeavors.) The non-subtle theme of Koheles is laid out at the beginning – Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, etc. And its redemptive quality is its penultimate verse: At the end of the day, once everything is heard, fear G-d and keep His commandments, for this is all man is.

That last line could just be a band-aid, a one-off easy answer to the insurmountable question of the gaping void. But it could also be an aikido throw, a sudden reversal of momentum that puts the rest of Koheles on its back by grounding the multifarious emptiness of the human endeavor upon a rock-solid, eternal foundation. Which isn’t too far-fetched; indeed, all of the ancient arguments for the existence of G-d rest upon the similar recognition of the baselessness of everything we see set before us, and the need at every moment for something to blow life into all of these powerless forms.

But this, too, seems off, since Solomon was surely a religious man at the outset of Koheles just as he was at its conclusion. Why, then, does he not brandish the easy religious answers to the meaning of various worldly pursuits? Could he not stop himself halfway through and reassure us with a wink that man conquers the world at the behest of the True and Eternal G-d, that our love is a function of His? Perhaps the wisest of men knows that we need all pretense of hope stripped away before he relents and finally tosses us a life preserver.

But perhaps it’s not as dark as all that (and besides, such a rendering leaves a holy book of the Tanach as more of a one-time performance than a pillar of reality that is always true). I, for one, like to think of Koheles as Shlomo HaMelech extending us a helping hand. Rather than allowing us to languish in our preconceptions of meaning and the small words we’re convinced hold huge concepts, he allows us, any time we’re willing to accompany him, to break free of those limits and approach one step closer to the divine. What we think is worthwhile is, indeed, meaningless from a higher point of view, and there is always a higher point of view, infinite ranks of them stretching toward the unreachable creator. “At the end of the day, when all is heard, fear G-d” is not a reversal on the despair of the previous chapters, but rather its natural conclusion, the moment when we break free of the atmosphere of the burning earth and find out it’s not all there was after all.

Just as one forgoes home and creature comforts once a year, and remembers how even in the elements G-d protects his people.

Just as one trades in, yearly, the comfortable understanding that wine represents to drink the water of simple men, simple faith, of not understanding.

Just as one could find, once a year, in the Temple, the wisest of sages juggling branches before the people, having abandoned all their meanings.

If I recall correctly, the accompanying emotion of that festival was not despair.

~~~

These mysteries are not simplified by King Solomon’s other immortal works, the Song of Songs and the Book of Proverbs. The former, an erotic love poem, slipped into the Tanach only on the insistence of Rabbi Akiva that it is the holy of holies, a statement as wrapped in mystery as the specific nature of the King’s allegory. The man is G-d and the woman are the Jewish people, but what is this intimate love that exists between them, their motions of approach and retreat, the seemingly mystical nature of their union?

Proverbs, on the other hand, is neither ecstatic nor despondent but a sober series of aphorisms and snippets of advice for the man who must live practically in this world. Gone are hints of the byzantine machine-elf workings of the divine bliss and the vast void of punishing unbeing and in their place we have dating advice and business tips. On the other hand, “Proverbs” is really a bad translation of “Mishlei,” more accurately implying “Analogies,” which indicates that there’s more here than first meets the eye…

~~~

Who was the King Solomon who wrote these books? Was he the young king with many wives, powerful and wealthy and wise beyond measure? Did Solomon look around at his father’s Kingdom in his youth and sneer at the foolish pursuits of man? Perhaps he grew older and plied matters of home and kingdom with the practical wisdom we find in Proverbs, before mellowing in his dotage to focus on the love at the center of all things as enshrined in Song of Songs?

Or perhaps Koheles is the name of the old king, his Temple already built and his majesty inscribed for all time, who looked over his deeds as his sun was setting and found every avenue ending in emptiness and despair. As he wrote his sad lament of his wasted time, perhaps he remembered his industrious middle age when he wrote his Proverbs and the inflamed passions of his youth that drove him to pen the Song.

Are either of these portraits of the wisest man to have ever lived?

~~~

Perhaps the easiest lesson for us to draw from his works, without needing to approach his genius, is that King Solomon was a Jew, and that a Jew is complicated. The simplest lesson of the Lulav that all the kids learn in school is that each species represents a different type, and that we need all of them to fulfill the Mitzvah.

Perhaps for the Tanach to be complete, we needed to meet a Jew who was insanely in love with G-d, and a Jew utterly despairing of his entire life, and a Jew surmounting with practical wisdom all obstacles in his path, and to know that they are the same man, that all of these things are the way.

Even if we can’t untangle them, neither in the text nor in our own hearts, at least we are in good company. As the old chassidim said, “If we are to be crazy, it’s good to be together.”

Our species joins with three others, and together we are the will of G-d.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Love and Fear in Elul (part 1)

By G-d’s grace, weird politics have given me a little insight into some difficult passages:

A learn-through of the discourse “Ani L’Dodi” from the Alter Rebbe’s Likkutei Torah and the Rebbe’s “Ani L’Dodi” of 5732 reveal strange contradictions, mysteries within mysteries, all bound up with the relational modes of love and fear.

Love and fear at their most basic are simply two ways one connects to another. Understood simply, the difference between them lies in how they are implemented: Fear is the connection that disregards the inner life of the person as themselves; it is an objective connection separate from feeling or perception. Love, on the other hand, is a connection that acknowledges the inner form of both parties; it is a “subjective” connection wherein one’s inner makeup is directed toward another, and vice versa. It is this distinction which gives rise to the common understandings of love and fear and attraction toward or repulsion from something. These common understandings are less nuanced and therefore fraught with contradiction; to love someone is to be connected to them in an inner fashion but to simultaneously be separated from them by the very insistence of one’s own feelings into the picture, whereas fear/repulsion/hatred often manifests not in escaping from the object of fear but being permanently bound to it as if by fate. On the whole, however, in terms of our conscious/active perception, love represents a connection and fear the negation or fleeing from such a connection, and thus the common definitions.

These notions of love and fear give rise to the famous formula, D’chilu-R’chimu-R’chimu-U’d’chilu, or, Fear-Love-Love-Fear — basically a path to unity, the process of connection to the creator that terminates in utter nullity within the deity. The first step is the Lower Fear, also known as accepting the yoke. In this case, the connection disregarding the inner life is the first vitally important step because one’s inner life is not yet ready to love. This is the responsibility that precedes appreciation. It is the idea that there is G-d, a King over the world and over oneself, to whom one must pledge devotion. Whatever the King demands is what one will do, and one’s appreciation or understanding of those demands is utterly irrelevant. The relationship is (apparently, see below) based entirely on the manifest truth of His existence and dominion and not on one’s feelings or understanding at all.

Next are the small and great love, wherein one works on an understanding and appreciation of the creator, bringing one’s intellect and emotions around to a grasp (and therefore an appreciation) of G-d and His commandments. The great love at its highest reaches is an ecstatic communion with G-d in which one’s entire personality is perfectly congruent and transparent to the creator. However, (again, in the basic understanding) there “remains one who loves,” a separate creation, bound to G-d only through the intermediary of love, feeling, “the relationship” in all its declarative existence. This is why there is a final step.

The final step is the higher fear, which (like the aforementioned lower fear) disregards the inner life and experience of the person for a relationship based in external objective reality. Unlike the lower fear, however, the higher fear is reached after the achievements of the small and great love have been attained. In other words, while the lower fear circumvents one’s understanding and appreciation by necessity (because these faculties are not yet refined enough to grasp the creator or his commandments) the higher fear circumvents these things by choice, that is, in order to escape the state of being “one who loves” and simply ceasing to be, in complete and utter transparent unity with G-d.

All of this is relatively simple, the order of G-d’s service in chassidus as known to first-time learners etc.

Then we try to understand these Elul discourses…

First we read that both love and fear, if they are to be established permanently in one’s personality, demand objects. That is, it is impossible to truly fear on one’s own, in one’s head as it were, and that is one of the reasons why the fear one feels on the high holy days can only be born from a revelation of G-dliness, some perceptible expression of G-d to give anchor to our fear. After all, it is only the knowledge of something which allows an emotional reaction to its form — it is only by either seeing a good meal before our eyes, or at least knowing the form of it in our minds, that we can desire it.

So, even love demands an object and cannot be generated by one party alone. This is not earth-shattering. Though fear is indeed more rooted in external objectivity whereas love is a function of the internal faculties of one’s being, for anything to be consciously detected to a human being it must pass through the intermediary of intellectual recognition/contemplation. Nevertheless, in the case of fear, we can say that the object of the apprehension is actually the external reality (I am aware of something beyond me that renders me nullified in some way) whereas in the case of love, the object of the apprehension is more the act of detecting the divine (I am aware of being in alignment with or grasping something beyond myself).

The Rebbe explains further that, though (as we have just noted) all forms of love and fear require objects and those objects are all accessed by man through intellectual contemplation/recognition, sometimes that recognition is implanted (it seems, automatically) through an external revelation, whereas sometimes it must be attained through the efforts of man. Specifically, the lower fear’s contemplation/recognition of G-d is accomplished by man’s efforts, whereas the higher fear’s is implanted by G-d.

To summarize so far: Fear is a connection with another rooted in an objective fact rather than the inner life of each party. The experience of fear is a function of one’s intellectual apprehension of this external, objective fact. This apprehension, in the case of the lower fear, is accomplished through the effort of the individual. In the case of the higher fear, it is accomplished through some process by G-d, and the person is, it would seem, a mere passive recipient.

The difference between the activity of the lower fear and the passivity of the higher fear are made clearer by their specific divine objects. The objective fact that one must apprehend to achieve the lower fear is G-d’s utter dominion over the universe He creates, ultimately: “The one thinking this very thought could not exist were it not for G-d.” And the logical conclusion — the one thinking this very thought will subjugate himself to the will of his creator. The fact that causes the higher fear is the perception that G-d in His infinitude transcends all creation and all limitation. Aside from impossibility of attaining such an impression on one’s own steam (being that all comprehension begins within the framework of logic and the very worlds one is utterly negating in comparison to G-d), the inherent passivity of the higher fear is reflected in one’s logical conclusion — not that one must subjugate himself to G-d, but that one indeed is already subjugated to the point of having no definition outside of G-dliness itself. In other words, and in accordance with our understanding of the higher fear mentioned above, there is technically no person left as such to actively do anything, but rather only an expression of the creator. We thus see how the higher fear is surely utterly passive, a recognition of the reality of the infinite creator given to one by the Creator, whereas the lower fear can be accomplished through the efforts of man.

It is at this point, however, that things take a turn, and in order to understand it, we must re-examine, from first principles, our entire understanding of love and fear.

(to be continued)

A Bochur In Suburbia

G-d, what I wouldn’t do for a nice communist revolution.

The first sign I wasn’t in Israel anymore was when the entrance into the airport had no mezuzah. The bare doorpost sat naked with no anatomical features begging a kiss, a lover demurring – your passion is endearing, but not tonight, my sweet. Then we took the highway north and for over a week now I’ve been installed in the north Atlanta suburbs among the magnolias and the nice houses and the crushing despair.

Suburbia is death. There is no fire so intense it cannot be smothered by middle-class people trying to inch their way forward to better Botox or whatever the hell is going on here. They eat food that is poison, maintain social niceties while remaining either indifferent or secretly hostile to their neighbors, and anesthetize themselves with a couple of hours of television on weeknights and shopping at the polished temple of consumerism, the shopping mall, on weekends. Sprinkle with golf, season with a bit of synagogue, and let sit until someone keels over from heart disease and their plaque (this is in horrible taste as plaque in the arteries is often the cause of death) goes up on a memorial wall or, if they were rich, a building. The people here have no artistic aspirations and put all their energy into their children who are raised to be just like their parents, but richer.

It is comfortable; it is meaningless; it is where I grew up. I have lived a spoiled existence, and let me assure you: no matter what food is put on the table, no matter how much medicine we have access to or how much “education” we get, meaning is elusive, and the thirst for it stamped out.

I had a conversation last week at shul with a group of boys heading toward the second half of high school. One of them mentioned “shanah bet” (lit. “year two”), the term some people give to those few wild and wacky souls who extend their gap year between high school and college into a second year in Israel. I said I hated the term, and I do. I hate it (I told them, it all spilling out too quickly to not sound a bit manic) because it implies that the second year is “the second year” which means that the first year was only “the first year,” a construct limited in time, a set hour to stuff in a bit of Jewish culture and learning before one is free to go on with “real” life, unaffected and unchanged, because that’s how one decided one would approach the experience from the get-go. In other words, even the holiest country in the world and the transformative power of ancient religion and baroque spirituality cannot do anything against the bourgeois desire to be normal and earn money. They suffocate everything they touch with their fake lives devoted to nothingness. And it bothers me. (The teens just grunted or something, and changed the subject. Whatever. I already devoted myself to at least try.)

Coming from a place where at least there is a certain spiritual rhythm to life, where no one can claim to be a pure materialist, where lives are more worth living because more examined, it is very easy to hate suburban America. This is why the Rebbe loved the hippies, even while most religious leaders were appalled – at long last, some were willing to breach the walls of normative middle-class America and search for something. And once they started searching, many remarkable people discovered meaning through their Judaism. Sure, a lot of other weird stuff came with the cultural revolution – but anything is better than white picket fences, two car garages, and steak for dinner. Anything is better than the material road that heads nowhere.

The torchbearers of those ’60s ideas, the ones who keep the countercultural flame alive and with whom I should identify because they don’t settle for “normal” American life are, thank G-d, plentiful and powerful. They live mostly on the coasts of our country and they are the ones who set our cultural tone, through their creative works and by the concerted efforts to be cooler, savvier, and sexier than anyone in flyover country. It is to them that I and thousands like me turn when we have had enough, when the sprinklers and joggers scratch against the insides of our skulls and we just need a bit of soul before we explode.

And they are, to me, more than a let-down.

They are a disgrace.

They are such a disgrace that they make me rethink everything I ever thought about my middle-class hometown.

Hungry and bright-eyed, I looked to the prevailing culture for some fortification, for freedom from the material to let my soul run free. And what I found instead was love.

Love is all you need – the spirit of the ’60s, summarized. The highest and most sincere ideal of our cultural leaders. Empathy and compassion define the spirit of our times – for the weak, the underdog, the immigrant, the downcast, the other. This is 2015 in all its holy rebellion, raising the cry against hatred, discrimination, and other not-nice things.

What is Love? Baby don’t hurt me, no more. At its essence, it is the appreciation of people over any system or set of rules. This is why its kabbalistic “nemesis” is the attribute of judgement, severity, and systems. If the system is hurting people, if they are not getting their due, it is love that compels us to rescue them. Love is what the soul is doing when it expresses itself creatively to reach out to another soul, human knowing human at a deep level. Love says the rules can fly when someone is in need. I appreciate this sentiment. In fact, I recently made a long argument that Judaism is all about love, and not a system as most people think.

But, on the other hand…

It is impossible to explain it better than the inimitable Neil Postman in his castigation of television and entertainment culture, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (which I highly recommend). In his introduction, Postman compares the two most famous dystopian works of the early 20th century, Orwell’s “1984” and Huxley’s “Brave New World.” He writes:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”

Huxley was a prophet. Because over two decades since the fall of the Evil Empire, with liberal democracies abolishing 1984 to the realm of scary ideas, Brave New World still sounds like something possible. In fact, it sounds like what happens every day.

Down with what I wrote in that other piece. Up with the rules. Long live the system. Give me that old-time religion, the Judaism with its strictures and minutiae, with its statements of fact that cleave between right and wrong like the shochet‘s knife, with its thousand-year-old laws that we go through fire and water not to shift an inch. Up with strictness, rejection, and the stern visages of the court judges.

Down with love.

“There is a great difference between desire and love,” you may be thinking. To compare the hedonism Postman talks about with “true” expression of the soul is unfair. It is like comparing binge eating or eating junk food with healthy eating. It is not the expression of the soul that love and desire share that is at fault. It is the way they are applied, you may think. This idea, I admit, has validity. But so does the other end of the stick. There is, in fact, something very wrong with love, the very love that most people see at the counterbalance to everything wrong with the world.

The biblical paragon of love was Korach, moved to join the public sphere by his sympathy for the underprivileged, asking, “Why do you put yourself above the nation?” Moses law-giver says, “There are rules. G-d says I’m better than you.” And Moses is the all-time greatest Jew ever, but Korach’s name is synonymous with division and in-fighting, his name disparaged forever. Korach has no rational argument. He is not saying that G-d did not appoint Moses over the people. It is basically just Korach and G-d both saying “I exist, take it or leave it,” and G-d wins. This to me is the blueprint of all love. Love is the foundation, the life source, of all division, dangerous because it seems to argue for unity.

Love is the great deceiver. Love is self-centeredness in selfless packaging. Love is an explosion of the soul outward, an aching need imposing itself on reality, man bellowing “I EXIST” into the void. Love is meaning to those who have given up on intellect, given up on becoming. Love is meaningful if somehow the lover is meaningful, for it is only an expression of the lover; yet the lover needs love to himself have meaning. This is the paradox of love, the cruel joke we play on ourselves again and again. I shall find meaning in my pleasures, meaning in what I create, meaning in knowing another human. Why are these things meaningful? Why, because they’re love. Just as if you allow a mathematician to divide by zero he can prove that Winston Churchill was a carrot, so, too, if love is the purpose of existence, everything is the purpose of existence, and thus nothing is. Today, West is holy, for my soul is pulled West, needs West, empathizes with West and finds it the finest of all directions. Tomorrow, West is to be avoided and all my concerns move East. Even if the great progression from West to East never takes place and I remain a lover of West all my life, it is not because West has any inherent value; it is not because there is any truth to the world. It is because I am G-d and where my love goes, all else follows.

This is the only spirituality the culture of the coasts seems to offer; it is all I can find. The modern G-d is to exist; those who are awake seem content to emote ’till they’re dead, to paraphrase a good song.

And yet, dealing with lovers, having mentally forayed into that world, having dipped my toe into the zeitgeist, I have gained a new appreciation for Picket Fence, Georgia.

The bland rule-followers, the non-creatives, those who toil most of their lives only because it is their lot, or only because they thought not better of it, may not be famous, but they also never asserted their existence to the universe. They are content to be nothing, to follow in the grooves of reality instead of recarving those grooves. It may be that they blindly do things that are not in the ultimate sense Good, that are against the purpose of their creation – but they at least have the humility to potentially know the true Good one day. When kindness has, in the past, become cruelty, it has been due to the limitations of kindness’ nature. When the rules have produced cruelty, it has been accidental, a technicality.

It reminds me of the famous debate about the American founding fathers. Surely you know, point out the modern lovers, that those revered for the freedom granted by their system were in fact slave-owners, racists, sexists, greedy, and violent. They do not deserve our respect, for they were not able to love as we love today, and their system was not one of freedom but of oppression. To which I reply: You are correct, they did not love, they may have done terrible things. But they have a great advantage over lovers; love is emergent in their system; the very claim you make against them is only possible because their system sustained itself long enough for you to be born and was free enough to allow your dissent. The rules plus time were the perfect vessel for the eventual conveyance of your passions. Their system and its free speech, however, does not necessarily emerge from love; with love you never know. If the wind blew in the right direction to make us impassioned about freedom, perhaps free speech would have become a law, but the loving souls of the democracy may very well have asserted their love elsewhere and in the process strangled dissent. Love is inherently fickle and selfish, whereas the rules may be the wrong rules but rule-following in itself is a humble and righteous endeavor.

Who am I to declare that G-d cannot thrive here in the suburbs as well as anywhere else?

Declarations are love. Silence is wise.

So, give me that old-time suburbia. Give me the ’50s, which may never have achieved the sublime but also never produced the binge using of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, or the binge watching of the ’00s and ’10s. Give me the normalcy, the banality. Save me the wise pronouncements. Give me the houses made of ticky-tacky that all look just the same. Give me the stillness, the politeness. (Politeness is wonderful. Politeness is a system that lets you get along with people you don’t love, even with people you hate; at its extreme it is military discipline, which lets men kill and be killed next to each other and still eat at the same table at night.) Give me elevator music and yards mown for the neighbor’s benefit. Give me quiet unhealthy dinners together with “Jeopardy” on the ‘tube and the elliptical with Gordon Ramsay swearing at people. This is the dead-looking soil that may one day produce delicious fruit; Williamsburg is people loving fruit until fruit ceases to be fruit and becomes people.

I would not eat in Williamsburg.

 

Image from Flickr.

Originally posted on Hevria.

Why We Hate Know-It-Alls

In one of the talks of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, nestled in a truly epic Baal Shem Tov story, is the following exchange:

He blurted out: “Is it possible to study G-d’s Torah with an uncovered head?!”

Moshe asked in reply: “And why should it not be possible?”

Avraham Moshe: “Because it’s insolent in the extreme.”

Moshe: “What insolence?”

Avraham Moshe: “Insolence toward heaven!”

Moshe: “But the whole point of covering one’s head is to show that one stands in awe of his Master; a person who has no Master cannot show that he stands in awe of Him. Out of respect for you, however, I’ll put on my hat.”

He rose to bring it, leaving R. Avraham Moshe thunderstruck, shuddering and bleary-eyed, open-mouthed but speechless.

By the time his host returned, he was able to say: “Words like this oblige a man to rend his garments.”

Moshe disagreed: “I’m afraid you’re wrong. The law requires that one rend his garments only if he hears the Divine Name articulated, but not if he hears someone say that he does not believe in G-d.”

And with that Moshe spelled out his outright denial of the Creator’s existence, of the Torah’s Divine origin, and of all Thirteen Principles of the Faith as enunciated by Rambam. At the same time he insisted that he dearly loved the Torah; he liked and respected its students, and found no favor to a scholar too difficult; but he had no faith in the Creator and His commandments.

Here, in all its ugliness, is the classic case of the thief in the tunnel, the religious hypocrite. His hypocrisy is mitigated by his admission of disbelief, but he more than makes up for it by being obsessed with the intricacies of religious law which he does not follow and thinks irrelevant.

This is an obsession with knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

It is the realm of the know-it-all.

What makes a know-it-all infuriating? My first thought was pure jealousy. Someone knows more than me, and I resent that. But it’s not so simple. Most of us are familiar with experts submerged deeper in their arcane areas of study than anyone ever need be. Further, the expert is not afraid of (and often quite enjoys) public idiot hangings. Think Sherlock Holmes, or Gregory House, or Lincoln Rhyme. Everyone else is hopelessly outmatched by their genius, they are extremely flawed, and we root for them to the bitter end.

No, It’s not that someone else is smarter than us that ticks us off so much. It’s not even that they’re willing to blatantly demonstrate their superior expertise. It’s that their broad and eclectic bookshelves and the endless hours ferreting out and squirreling away their Internet gleanings serve no one. When your friend begins replies to all statements with “actually” (“Actually, Marie Antoinette never said ‘let them eat cake.’” Ugh.) he is not actually engaging in conversation. You spit out a fact, he spits out a fact. Modems trading queries.

Imagine if he had just as much knowledge and the exact same self-confidence, but asked, “Didn’t Rousseau write that long before Antoinette was Queen?” What a difference this makes! (The Rambam says: “If he sees his father violate Torah law, he should not tell him: ‘Father, you transgressed Torah law.’ Instead, he should tell him: ‘Father, is not such-and-such written in the Torah?’, as if he is asking him, rather than warning him.”) He demonstrates respect not only for French History and for himself but for his friends as well. Because when you speak to him of the revolution, it’s not to merely seek the truth; that’s what books are for. It’s to talk to him, and you hope that he will talk with you.

Bottom line: It’s obnoxious when the knowledge, instead of the relationship, is the bottom line.

Which brings us back to the Rebbe’s story of Moshe and religious hypocrisy. For Moshe, the Torah and the intellectual pleasure it offers, not his relationship with G-d, was the bottom line. Which, one has to imagine, G-d finds annoying. Here He is, trying to give a great gift to His chosen people (“They are to be desired more than gold, yea more than much fine gold, and are sweeter than honey and drippings of honeycombs.”), and they get so caught up in the intricacies of what the Torah is that they forget Who wrote it. The Torah is the only means by which we can have any relationship with the Creator, for the simple reason that the finite is only relevant to the Infinite by the Infinite’s choice, and never the other way around. But in our short-sightedness we sometimes think that the Torah is about us, our knowledge and our world. And this gives rise to our tendency to deviate from G-d’s will.

Think about this logical progression:

  1. G-d tells me what he wants from me in his Torah;
  2. If I do it, it makes him happy, and if I don’t, it pains Him;
  3. Therefore, I’ll do it.

As long as the person has a solid knowledge of Torah’s divine origin, this is all a no-brainer. It’s pretty much like this, which we do all the time:

  1. My mother tells me she loves flowers;
  2. If I do what she says, it makes her happy, and if I don’t, it pains her;
  3. Therefore, I’ll buy her flowers for Mother’s Day.

You don’t have to be a genius, just someone who wants to be a good son/daughter/brother/sister/aunt/uncle/friend/etc. Who would deny their mother flowers on Mother’s Day?

The problems start when the obligations are divorced from the relationship. Instead of the above progression, most of us relate to G-d like this:

  1. G-d tells me what he wants from me in his Torah;
  2. If I do it, I’ll be fulfilling the Torah’s commandment, and if I don’t, I’ll be in violation of Torah’s commandment;
  3. Therefore, I’ll do it, as long as I care about eventual rewards and punishments for my behavior in the afterlife (or, as long as I care about what a book/rabbi/community/prospective spouse thinks about me).

It’s not much of a relationship at all. Sure, if I can convince myself I’m saving my skin by doing what you want, I’m all over it. As soon as I find a way out, see ya. No one is hurt by my not wearing a yarmulke, and therefore I just don’t care; I end up saying things like “I’m afraid you’re wrong. The law requires that one rend his garments only if he hears the Divine Name articulated, but not if he hears someone say that he does not believe in G-d.”

What a know-it-all.

Instead, we can treat G-dly revelation like the next person who tells you that same old joke. It’s not about intellectual exercises or a compelling novelty. It’s people who love each other, huddling around a scrap of light in a dark and lonely place. Even poor gifts wax rich when givers prove they’re kind. Don’t say, “I’ve heard that one before.” Just smile, and nod, and know another.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

The People Who Don’t Know How Much I Love Them

Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke

 

I was going to write a piece called “Why Kosher Pizza Sucks.”

But…

Tonight I feel battered.

Tomorrow, I won’t. But tomorrow is tomorrow, and tonight is now. And whenever I get pensive, melancholic, and withdrawn, I find my thoughts centering on those I’ve loved in secret. In secret not because of fear, but because the words are not meant to be spoken, are meant only for clutching to the heart as scraps of intimate poetry, to haunt and uplift me in the night. These people wake up and walk around and go to sleep, and they don’t know that I love them.

It’s not that they mustn’t know. It’s that they can’t know.

It can’t be expressed.

For me, it’s easier to salve my intellect through writing than my heart. “The chambers of the heart cannot be written down,” says the Talmud.

But I’m going to try.

In the merit of feeling broken open, witness those who draw me across the infinite divide:

***

(1)

She was my friend in middle school, and as we got older we drifted apart until the only rope between our tugboats was Facebook. She is quirky, from a family of quirkies, and has a smile like sunshine. She was more into drugs than I was…I may have said some things. What did I know?

What do I know now?

One day, I commented on something she said on Facebook, something small, a stupid TV show. And a mutual acquaintance of ours attacked me (the first thing he said to me in any form in perhaps a decade) for being religious. And there it was, all laid out: we used to be similar, with similar interests, and we grew apart, and maybe it’s all my fault for running away to Israel and ensconcing myself in Yeshiva and this life and if she wanted she could twist that knife.

But she didn’t.

She came to my defense. She said he should leave me alone, that I’m a Jewish man trying to be Jewish, and that it deserves respect.

Never in my life have I felt more vindicated.

 

(2)

I step down Jerusalem sidewalks, watching Jews flutter outside my sonic enclosure, drummer breaking the beat they don’t know they’re stepping to. As is Jerusalem custom, they stare notes through the cracks in my walls.

A Yiddishe crone creaks in the breeze like a flagship, a mother to fleets wrapped in black sailing, crow’s nest wreathed with faded pink flowers, aged prow tacking at the spray of the changing tide. She goes about her business.

At the sound of my heavy footfall, she glances aft, and looks away, probably without a thought. She can’t know that I’d die for her at 3:30 on a Jerusalem Sunday.

I wouldn’t die for Moon or Mercury, nor for Harrison or Page; they paint my stars but won’t carry my weight. But she…she is everything, for an instant. I watch over her until she finds a safe harbor.

 

(3)

He got on my nerves, always tagging along, laughing at my jokes too often, saying “Hi” more than was reasonable, twice in an hours’ span.

We just saw each other, what do you want?

We’d learn together, and he wouldn’t understand how I like to casually drift in, to feel comfortable, to take the situation’s temperature – he was too eager, too fast, unable to keep from looking over at me ten minutes before lunch was over, silently questioning my preparedness.

I started dreading the time we spent together. He threw my rhythm off.

One night, I felt downtrodden and exhausted, angry with everything, and especially that I’d have to learn with him. As I recited Hebrew words with a heavy heart through gritted teeth, he grinned and made one of his unfunny jokes.

And, because I felt broken and downtrodden, it was funny. It was wry and penetrating. It brought a grin to my face that I couldn’t understand.

He is an orphan.

It occurrs to me that I didn’t understand him because my heart wasn’t broken enough.

 

(4)

I sat, begrieved and aching from the mess my life became. He approached, walking lightly, as if his body was weightless.

That’s what he does for a living. He takes the weight away.

He asked me what was wrong.

I shrugged.

He told me I should listen to happy music.

I told him that the world said I was tone-deaf, and sang too loud.

He shook his head in disgust. “Tzvi,” he said, “you don’t even want to know what I think about them.”

My voice choked and my eyes watered.

As he walked away, his feet didn’t touch the ground.

 

(5)

He knows, and he never says anything.

How does he do that?

 

(6)

She is the embodiment of my every doubt; not about people, but about G-d. She is a good person. She is nothing but kindness and benevolence, and in case you think that’s blind, I’ll tell you this much – she does as best she can.

Well, she did.

Because it all fell apart, and it can only be put on G-d, and how can He do this? It’s worse than war and world hunger and even Nickelback; it’s personal, and one thing after another, and in direct proportion and a consequence of her kindness.

Suffering in direct payment for goodness.

Yet she goes on.

I guess I must, as well.

***

 

Image from Flickr

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.