Objective Reality Is For Meeting G-d

“Facts don’t care about your feelings,” some Jews say. I do wonder, though. If facts don’t care about your feelings, why is Rosh Hashana called the “day of the beginning of your action”?

In many other words: Once upon a time, centuries ago, few would have recognized a real facts/feelings distinction, if “facts” mean shared objective reality in the world and “feelings” refer to the private subjective experience of each conscious being. Like other forms of innocence, the unity between the person and the world (through mind) was considered close and true. When I thought well about furniture, the form of the wood and the form of my mind were the very same thing; if they weren’t, I was simply imagining, or my senses were faulty, or I was somehow otherwise malfunctioning. There was no notion of thinking ideas. I was not considered to think of the idea of furniture, but about the furniture itself. There was no idea of a table, produced in my mind and separate from the world, intervening between the facts and my soul.

More recently, men such as John Locke introduced the idea of the idea, and with it, the fact/feeling distinction. The facts may be one way, but my thinking about the facts could be different. Everyone has their own point of view, since everyone conjures their own ideas even about objective, shared reality. As modernity progresses, the mind is found to be ever-more limited by the imperfect body, to be vulnerable to deception and influence on the most basic of levels. At some point, some of us even began to suspect the mind is just a part of the body, anyway.

Nowadays, fans of truth are stuck between a rock and a soft place. The rock is the near-impossibility of returning to our ancient innocence. The challenge is to recapture our confidence in our own understanding, to reverse modern skepticism and believe once more that our minds grasp reality directly. We would need to return to a conception of the world being partially made of mind itself, to reconcile ourselves to an actually intelligible universe (our narrative role as evolved apes on a spinning rock notwithstanding). Perhaps most painful to the modern mind, we would have to undo our sunny skeptical pluralism and commit ourselves to pursuing the single, correct, capital-T Truth, to the exclusion of the many mistaken notions of those who cannot see it. We must forfeit the individual’s freedom to navigate around the truth, for the sake of finding any truth at all.

In contrast is the soft place, the attempt to maintain the fact/feeling shared/private objective/subjective distinctions without falling into relativism and ultimately the annihilation of all meaning. To do this, we must arbitrarily assign some fact/feeling amalgam the status of pure fact, and pretend it is solid ground, when in fact the entire edifice of our reason is built on quicksand.

Take, for example, those who wish to draw the line at science and empiricism, to say these are fact while all else is feeling. The problem is that there is no such statement of fact, not even “the sky is blue,” which is truly devoid of faith-based justification from the realm of “feelings.” Who is seeing the sky in this scenario, and with what tools? How do these tools bring about the subjective experience of this “fact” such that we should believe it to be true? If ultimately we do experience this fact privately, why is the “fact” that the sky is blue really different from the hypothetical “fact” that it’s purple?

Further discourse upon wavelengths or photons just add more such questions, the theory demanding even further justification in subjective experience; throwing more “facts” at the situation does not negate the interpretive frame that allows those facts to exist. All this is before we even get to the question of how we can define the sky as a thing, how we can share our observations with others, how we are so sure these facts “work” at a pragmatic level when we cannot even explain how we know the facts themselves, etc.

Given the rock of reversing five hundred years of history and the soft place of arbitrarily declaring certain feelings to be fact, most people simply don’t think (too hard) about these questions and generally live their lives as if the truth doesn’t matter.

They ignore Rosh Hashana, a day with a solution.

On the 1st of Tishrei, man is created. It is the sixth day, but it’s called the beginning of his work. The previous five days of creation certainly occur; G-d knows of them, and records them in His Torah. But when is it solidified into “action,” work, actuality, objective external reality as we (want to) know it? Only when Adam’s subjective and solitudinous soul is blown into his nostrils.

In other words, there were no facts until there were feelings.

Before creating man, there was no need for objective reality. Man, once created, is a creature full of feeling, an imperfect fact finder, commanded in G-d’s own Torah to assess even narrow legal truths under only the strictest limited conditions. The Torah’s standards for judges are exceptional. The average man on the street is not able to assess the objective truth of things even enough to provide a ruling, never mind to delve their depths.

But if G-d is a subjective being without objective action until Rosh Hashana, and human beings have been subjective since Rosh Hashana, then why is there an objective reality at all?

It can only be to bring subjectivities together.

Facts are not, contra the ancient view, an absolute standard inexorably governing existence. Facts are not, contra modernity, an illusion, nor are they feelings-based propositions chosen for arbitrary promotion. Facts are a place for subjectivities to touch, for man and G-d, and man and man, to find each other.

There is not direct joining of two private souls, which would necessitate becoming only one self. One self is what G-d had before He created the universe, after all. What He seeks from the world is an opportunity to find Himself in other selves. To do this, we must perceive ourselves as separate, and arrive at each other through some sort of external communication. Every detail of His work is tailored toward this end. He creates facts.

Every year on Rosh Hashana, we spend two days trying to awaken ourselves to this reality, that all we perceive as real is merely divine communication, the Creator seeking us out. On Rosh Hashana, we crown G-d king, which is another way of saying, “The world is not here for itself, and we are not here for it. The world is here for us and G-d to rendezvous.”

We choose, on the day when all truth was created from the one truth that we are meant to be together, to become his subjective subjects once more. This year, nothing will stop us. This year, we will find Him, fact and feeling, in Jerusalem, rebuilt.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

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.

Ben Zoma The Skeptic

Perhaps Ben Zoma’s words in Chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot are not as simple as they appear.

The sage seems to be explaining why we should not seek wealth, wisdom, and strength in the traditional senses. You can make all the money in the world, but until you’re satisfied, you’re not rich. You can lift and bench daily, but until you conquer you own heart, you’re not strong. And your twelve PhDs won’t make you wise until you have the humility to learn from everyone.

This ethical direction is rendered as a redefinition of terms, as indicated by the “what is x” form of the Mishna. You may assume wealth means the accumulation of assets, and Ben Zoma tells you that the word really refers to a state of mind. This is in accordance with the general theme of the Ethics, that is, lifnim mishurat hadin, correct behavior beyond the letter of the law.

According to the letter of the law, a Jew is required to earn his or her wealth honestly. Beyond the letter of the law, one must change one’s entire perspective on wealth and adopt ben Zoma’s definition. Property and money are inherently unable to achieve wealth; only the soul can do that. The same is true of the wise man, who goes beyond the requirements of learning; the truly wise know that wisdom is a constant journey. Strength, similarly, has its limits; true strength is the strength to direct strength to an end.

Why does the law deal with traditional notions of wealth, wisdom, and strength, but Pirkei Avot redefine them? It has something to do with the inner meaning of “beyond the letter of the law”. It is not that the Rabbis gathered in one tractate all that a Jew may do extra. It is not a collection of non-obligatory Rabbinic suggestions about proper conduct, but rather the path toward truly transcending the law, to viewing the laws of the Torah in their proper context and proper place, that is, as the commandments of the divine Lawgiver.

We are told by Ben Zoma, on these matters often envied by others, that a Jew seeking a G-dly perspective sees, as the Creator does, the limits of all things. Wealth is only wealth until it meets dissatisfaction; wisdom is only wisdom until it meets stultifying and myopic elitism; strength is only strength until we lose control of it. They are therefore not ends unto themselves, but only part of G-d’s greater plan, and the ethical Jew will work to view them in this context.

However, straight redefinitions of these terms need not be understood pragmatically. Ben Zoma is not telling us to treat satisfaction as the true wealth. He’s saying that satisfaction is true wealth. If we cannot see it, we are looking at it the wrong way.

But what is this vantage point that lets us redefine these worldly qualities?  Certainly the vantage point is closer to G-d than people who worship money, power, or smarts – but what makes the new definitions better than the old ones? After all, G-d could declare that wealth is simply money, if He wished. G-d can do anything. He can even love the quantities that so torment the descendants of Adam.


We are led by the Mishna to a place of equanimity from which wealth, etc. cease to be objects of pursuit and become truths that simply are. We draw close to G-dliness known as Truth, that place of consistency independent of technicality, the arbitrary, and time/space.

Time and space are the height of arbitrary, of course. In their domain, things gain identity by where and when; you and I differ because you’re in Israel and I’m in America, or I’m in the past and you’re in the future. We are different based on what happens to be true about us, rather than our essential natures. In time and space, factories produce objects that are virtually identical but technically separate. We judge them not by their truth but by their circumstance. This one happens to be here and that one happens to be there.

The world of time of space is really a world of falsehood. An individual can possess much wealth by dint of numbers on a bank account, strength by the size of their muscles or their armories, wisdom by knowledge accumulated. But these are circumstantial rather than inherent, the way a can of coke is Nebraskan or Floridian based on where it’s shipped. Two men may be fundamentally identical, and yet their bank accounts vary by millions, and in this world, it is not a contradiction. On the contrary, by the standards of time and space, it must at least be possible.

Ben Zoma brings us beyond the letter of the law and close to the Creator in the sense that the Creator prevails over space and time. G-d is beyond arbitrary. He is true because of what He is, and all other things exist by the truth of His being.

Ben Zoma has found the definitions of wealth, wisdom, and strength that do not change on technicality; one may possess Ben Zoma’s wealth with no money and with vast riches alike. It depends entirely on who the person is, rather than what they happen to have; their spiritual accomplishment and their ability to see beyond physical happenstance is what matters. The Mishna enjoins us to raise ourselves beyond time and space and close to the Truth.

And that is when we are most lost.


Now, the man of time and space has no problem assessing whether or not he is wealthy; far from causing a crisis of doubt, it is a fact of which he is all-too-certain. Then he learns Pirkei Avot and realizes he can be more than arbitrary; his wealth is not wealth, his strength is not strength.

But then, having achieved character and quality, he finds himself struggling to situate himself. What is the meaning of things without his earlier perspective? Without quantitative way markers in time and space, is there anything toward which he can orient himself? Perhaps we are self-defined souls floating lonely in a void of things less real than we are. Perhaps all those things defined in time and space are not real at all.

Answers Ben Zoma: Be healthy, wise, and strong! Do not think that the destruction of your worldly perspective has destroyed your mission on earth. Goals still exist, as do achievements. They are merely qualitative; the soul’s investment in these qualitative things matter.

This same dynamic exists regarding the wealth of others. The man of time and space envies others’ qualities. The man of character and soul is in danger of envying nothing – indeed, of skepticism whether anything deserving of envy can exist at all. Ben Zoma assures us that others may indeed be wealthy or strong, truly. These terms still have meaning. They are just not the arbitrary meanings of his prior assumption.

Therefore, the redefinition of terms is also an epistemic teaching. It is not just providing information or advice, but telling us what we are able to know. For to move beyond time and space is to move beyond the observable. Far from an ethical teaching, Ben Zoma could just as easily be rescuing the authentic man of Truth from wracking doubt.


The Torah speaks to the man from whom nothing is true as surely as it does the coarse one obsessed with his jealousies. It tells us, in its terse words, that how we ought to act and what actually exists are not opposites. On the contrary: what is serves what must be done, and what must be done is a glance into the nature of the truth.

Ben Zoma sits on a mountaintop and calls to the man in the valley. “You do not see the whole picture!” he cries. The man in the valley trusts the sage, and climbs the mountain. Now he can no longer see his house or his neighbor. Unsure he will ever find them again, he resigns himself to life alone on the peak…until Ben Zoma directs his attention back to the valley from which he came, spread out before him like a dappled quilt, a new point of view.

“What is wealth?” asks the spiritual Jew, who will not condescend to answer. Wealth is a false disparity, a façade covering over true worth. One day there will be no wealth, no striving; we will exist beyond space/time in paradise, and all our definitions will inhere in our very selves.

“What is wealth?” asks Ben Zoma. It is not what the world thinks it is, granted. But it is not a lie. The yearnings of the human heart are not a false mask to be torn off the underlying truth of the world. Wealth is true. Wealth is real.

Ben Zoma gives no simple advice. His definitions are a path in the service of G-d. Raise yourself up until you understand me; realize, from your new position, that what I was saying makes even less sense than before. Read my definitions with fresh eyes, now, when you most need them. See that the definition awakens you to your lack of definitions, and then, when you stand in a position of skepticism denying all words, gives a way forward. Behold the things that to be believed must be preceded by a belief in nothing.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Our Mystic Generation

Every year, Reb Shlomo ‘the Yellow’, the melamed of Nevel, would walk to Lubavitch to spend the Simchat Torah festival with his rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer. Even in his later years when his strength had failed him, he refused to climb onto a wagon for even a minute; every step of the way was taken on his own two feet. “In my Lubavitch,” Reb Shlomo maintained, “no horse will take part.”

ONCE UPON A CHASSID, compiled by Rabbi Yanki Tauber

 

Everyone who tries to learn Torah with a young person today must answer the question, “What do you get a Jew who has everything?”

It was not always so. The Alter Rebbe, a young genius, felt he did not know how to pray, and so exiled himself to Mezritch and discovered Chassidus. He, in turn, wrote the Tanya, as he describes in his introduction, to take the place of his private meetings with an endless stream of supplicants and seekers.

Implicit in this introduction is the non-polemical nature of the Tanya. That is, we already know, before chapter one, that the Tanya will not be working to convince us of anything. It is a work for those looking for guidance. The Rebbe is here to help if you come knocking at his door. If you are a stubborn non-believer or do not know whether it is G-d you want, you are not yet really asking the questions which Tanya answers. This, in turn, leads us to wonder: If the visitor to the Rebbe has not yet learned from the Rebbe, what brings him to come at all?

If we follow the old philosophical rule that motion fulfills a potential of the one that moves, we may assume that the Alter Rebbe’s supplicants sought him out because they lacked. The Alter Rebbe lacked, and so sought out the Maggid; the Maggid lacked, and so sought out the Baal Shem Tov.

It starts with learning. Through one’s self-awareness, one discovers how much more there is to know. One does one’s best, applies consistent effort, and realizes that one is somehow…insufficient. A teacher is needed, for one’s wisdom, for one’s soul, for something that is missing.

But if there is no initial learning, or that learning does not lead to questions, or those questions cannot be seen as arising from one’s very soul, what, then, brings a Jew to search ever deeper in the Torah? If one perceives oneself as lacking nothing, does one ever end up at the Rebbe’s door?

In the Rebbe’s last published discourse, the famous v’Atah Tetzaveh, he describes a generation full of blessings, a synthesis of the authentic lived experience of G-d and the explosive soul expression at the time of His concealment. The generation of blessing is not compelled by outside forces to worship G-d; they live in peace and plenty. The generation of blessing does not serve G-d because it sees Him, either; they have no deep understanding to render them dissatisfied with worldly existence.

Our generation of blessing, in particular, is relatively serene, and happy, and whole in its own eyes. What trouble us, especially the younger Jews reaching adulthood today, are primarily practical concerns free of any existential overtones. Even the desire to learn more Torah (for those who possess it) stems from curiosity or duty and no deep-seated want of the soul.

And yet, somehow it still works. Somehow, they keep coming to Torah, to Tzadikkim, and to G-d. They are moved, as the Rebbe says, not by circumstance internal or external, not by the yawning insufficiency of their own understanding, nor by external circumstance holding them powerless in its fist, but by their very being, by the self uniting both internal and external experience. The soul itself, the soul beyond experience, the soul even beyond death, desires G-d. It deserves Him more than it desires the experience of Him; it desires Him equally in poverty and in wealth, when it is threatened and when it is at peace. The soul does not need to feel deficient to desire G-d, but wants Him even when it lacks nothing, by its nature, because it was chosen.

Thus, we find thousands of strange creatures in our world, those who return daily to their Judaism for no reason at all. They did not choose Judaism in their wisdom; they did not seek out the depths of Torah because of any perceived deficit or shortcoming in themselves. They sought it out for no reason at all. It is a fact, yesh m’ayin, like every person in their life, like the moon.

Our generation of blessing, says the Rebbe, is a generation of mystics. Do not, when you look at their feeble minds, or small deeds, or hearts dulled by easy living, think that they are lowly. It is by these very traits that a Jew can today seek G-d without the help of horse, tragedy, or question. Our generation seeks G-d because they are Jews and He is G-d. Nothing else is needed.

Why, then, do so many well-intentioned Rabbis today, trying to shake a generation of mystics from their perceived complacency, seek to sell Judaism as the answer to questions? True, Torah is a book of instruction; true, Judaism is the deepest rationality. But to place the questions first is, in our generation, the wrong order. A “rational Judaism” assumes questions are important, that things like logic or consistency bother a soul, and that Judaism best resolves these matters in the final reckoning. But why should logic and consistency bother a soul? This is the question that every twenty-year-old in every Torah class in 2018 asks. It is the question behind many of his questions. Why should anyone set aside the broad freedoms of unbridled will or self-satisfaction for the agonizing limits of reason?

We are not rational people; we have no training in reason. Reason died long before we were born, and its death was mistaken for the death of G-d.

But do not mistake our lack of reason for a deficiency, for a problem in need of solving.

Rather, our generation, irrational, wanting for nothing, does not need questions to bring them to the Rebbe’s door. Go out and teach them Tanya, says the Rebbe, and the Jew who has everything will remember who he is, come of his own accord.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Chassidus — Formal & Inefficient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

What A Jew Wants (Doesn’t Matter)

In a sense, an anti-Semite might be forgiven for attributing all evil to the Jews, as there is no evil we will not learn, argue about, contemplate during Shmoneh Esrei, dream about on Shabbos, and master. The anti-Semite thinks the Jews want to conquer the world. Like all good ideas, he stole this from the Jews and got all the details wrong.

A Jew, after millennia of breeding and education on his chosen role in G-d’s creation, is a hungry sieve. He does not turn the blood of gentiles into pastries or the money of rural farms into globalist skyscrapers in Sweden. These are the limited visions of pallid yokels. A Jew turns neutral things in to Jewish things.

What is a Jewish thing? No, not controlling the weather, nor whatever Louis Farrakhan thinks we do in the flickering Walgreens he calls a brain. The only thing that’s distinctly Jewish is our pact with G-d; we’re a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, and in return he destroys the Roman Empire and shoots Hitler though Hitler his messenger. So: A Jew is a sieve. Neutral things go in, things in an eternal pact with G-d come out.

Take the Marxists (please, take them). Karl had Jewish roots but was also a rabid anti-Semite, equating the Jews with capitalism and capitalism with, you know. This has not stopped Jews from snooping around Karl’s books, curious what everyone was so excited about. A Jew is a hungry sieve, you see, and if the world is putting something new on the table, our stomachs start rumbling. Is he really saying that economics contains the key to human suffering? Let us see, let us see. Humans once lived in a society without division, and one day we will again. You have nothing to lose but your chains! Moses calls to an enslaved people with a lost G-d. He tells them to believe, and it is our story, and what was a mundane tale of class exploitation now slips free from the bonds of time and approaches Sinai…

Butbutbut isn’t Marx an atheist materialist? The Jews who follow him agree! How can their participation suddenly make Marxism as Jewish as stepping out when the Rabbi picks the Iraqi chazzan for Mussaf?

First, who said “suddenly”? A small sieve takes a long time to chew through a world-historical buffet. Second, nu nu. You think the Jews are participating in atheism. Perhaps atheism is participating in Judaism. The non-belief in the Creator while yearning for a future of true equality is a non-belief opening the door to some wild G-dliness heretofore off the table. Limiting G-d to existing is so pedestrian, worse than complaining the Left Bank smelled like sewerage.

Besides, the sieve doesn’t believe in anything per se. The sieve does not prefer rice to water. It sorts them with a perfect lack of cognition (as far as I know. Perhaps I can here annoy a panpsychist). It sorts at a mechanical level, because at some base undeniable substrate these things don’t go through those holes and other things do. The sieve may worship rice, may offer sacrifices in the sacred paddy and eat it on Pesach (Sephardi), or rebel against it and deny it ever was and eat it on Pesach (Ashkenazi); the sieve will sort it from water all the same.

To see it’s not intellectual at all, take the Marxists, as in, Groucho. Jews want comedy. Many have written about this. A defense mechanism against oppression, sure, maybe, but why does the tradition continue in Brooklyn where the only suffering is rust and gentrification? And Manhattan? Seinfeld is not suffering (from Airline food?) the way the Jews joking about Stalin were. He is drawn, like so many of his fellow tribesmen and -women, to incongruity, the illogical. He does not see a covenant with G-d in this, though a comedian is a Jewish thing to be, and there’s a reason for that.

A Jew famously wants cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur morning. But a Jew remembers it’s Yom Kippur and in violating the fast with treif food he recalls the covenant.

A really devoted Jew forgets it’s Yom Kippur. This is almost impossible in Israel, which is why this particular form of devotion had been left by G-d to the Americans. The Jew does not think to violate Yom Kippur, because the Jew does not remember there is anything to break. Yet he is a hungry sieve, working at apathy. A Jew puts apathy in a Jewish context; even water run through a sieve is water run through a sieve.

A Jew flees across the sea and puts mountains between him and the city. He marries a non-Jew and spends his life drinking cheap beer and hunting. The sieve is moved to locations and modes it has rarely seen before.

A Jew is a sieve, by heritage and millennia of education. His very being says, “It must be this way, not that way.” Azoi, un nit anderesh.

The redemption is coming. The first time, when we were taken from bondage, you may have been left behind, because you would not strain yourself, would not let go of the illusion that you are like everyone else.

This time, no one will be left behind.

The only question: Will you become a partner in it? Will you let your mind and heart be sieved as well? Will you, in the last moments of illusion, consent to what you are?

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Is Advil Idolatry?

Here’s the scenario: You wish to worship the one G-d, yet you have a mild headache. You are fortunate enough to possess three adult-dose ibuprofen tablets, which you know to relieve these exact symptoms. You also possess a glass of water and, intriguingly, a hard-boiled egg. What are you going to do?

Don’t answer too quickly. There is no small measure of theology afoot here, in this common, apparently mundane circumstance.

The first philosophical issue with taking an Advil for your headache is the problem of induction. A skeptic such as Hume would ask how you know that ibuprofen will relieve your headache better than the egg. You cannot rely on past experience with the substances, as all experience on logically tells us about what has already happened, whereas the future, today’s Advil, may raise your cholesterol while the egg heals your headache. It does no good to claim it was always the opposite in the past, or that in your past your expectations in this scenario were always met, since the accuracy of past predictions may itself be merely an artifact of the past, irrelevant to today.[i]

No, if we are to properly face our dilemma we must assume we know certain truths about the universe in a future-proof way. Call them axioms, assumptions, or the direct experience of the atemporal. Say we know G-d, and G-d made the Universe, from the beginning, with a certain consistency. Things have names reflecting an adherence to an internal and an external order. Call this “nature.” The Advil is better for our headache than the egg, all else being equal, since this is the nature of ibuprofen.[ii] We ought to be comfortable with Advil having a nature, as our scenario starts with a desire to worship the one G-d, who made the world intelligible.[iii]

However, having escaped one problem by setting forth the notion of nature, we immediately find ourselves trapped anew.

We wish to take Advil instead of the egg for our headache, since the Advil has a pain-relieving nature when ingested. But isn’t this relying on a limited being, that is, ibuprofen tablets, instead of relying on upon G-d? After all, the original idolaters worshipped the sun and moon because they thought it would help their crops grow; perhaps I worship Advil to help me get back to work. Ingestion would not be the strangest form of worship.[iv]

Now, perhaps we could separate Advil from idol by pointing out we do not believe the medicine alone will help us, but rather that G-d gave it the power to help us. However, the origin in G-d of a creation’s beneficent (or malevolent) power is only enough to negate the most radical idol worship, which holds G-d has abandoned the earth entirely to the forces of nature. This is full-progressed idol worship, civilized and mature, and it sounds suspiciously similar to Emerson and Thoreau.

The original idol worship, however, does not exclude G-d as an active force consistently present in the universe generally or human lives specifically. It merely claims there are other powers, too, with the ability to open or close the valves of divine blessing at will, like ministers to a king. The original sun worshippers did not think the sun was the source of its own power with G-d long gone, but rather that the sun was appointed by G-d to bestow vivifying radiance upon the earth, and despite the origin of its appointment and its power in G-d, one must thank and praise the sun as well if one wants the crops to grow.

What does this have to do with taking ibuprofen? I’d understand if we thought Advil had a choice in whether to cure our headache, leading us eventually to thank and praise it. But we apparently see the medicine the way a true monotheist sees the sun, i.e. as the “ax in the hands of the wood chopper,” merely instrumental to G-d’s purposes, and possessing no free choice whether to help or hurt us at all. Advil is merely G-d’s tool. It has a curative nature, bestowed upon in by G-d, and it is only G-d we thank for it. We are not like the sun worshippers of old. Right?

Wrong.

Though the sun worshippers’ mistake manifests most clearly in the case of an intermediary with free will, it also expresses, in a more refined fashion, in every inherent quality. That is, Advil’s pain-relieving quality can in itself be the object of a subtle form of idol worship.

The question is, what is nature? We noted before that the very logic ingesting Advil (instead of an egg) for your headache is based on the nature that inheres in the medicine, a nature very much connected to a G-d who exists beyond time. What is the nature of this nature?

If the nature of Ibuprofen is a set of rules or laws created by G-d as an independent entity, this means that both the man who deserves a headache and the man who deserves his headache to end will be served by the Advil equally. If this does not sound scandalous, the business equivalent would be that a man who deserves to be richer and a man who deserves to be poorer are served equally, under the law of nature, by identical business practices.

In other words, although we do not think the Advil (or shorting stocks, or collecting airline miles) is a being with free will that can choose to help us, we do see it as having a nature that determines outcomes for us, regardless of other considerations, divine considerations. Though G-d is the ultimate power, this object will bring me a certain measure of blessing, regardless of what G-d wants, regardless of whether I reject Him or worship Him. It has power, beyond His control.

One way we could try to circumvent this problem and still rely on ibuprofen as monotheists is through the permissiveness of miracles. After all, if G-d wishes, He may intercede and prevent the salutary effects of Advil on, say, Martin Shkreli (it may be His sense of humor). That G-d intercedes in nature is, after all, fundamental. There is thus a means to ensure that even though by nature the medicine has the same unchanging effect, beyond nature it does not.

Yet this is no true negation of idol worship, since we should still have to concede that nature is a power independent of G-d. Even though He can negate its power at any time, ibuprofen must still be negated to express the will of G-d, and when it is not negated but soothes Shkreli’s aching wrists, it is acting “beyond” G-d’s will! The Creator must prevent nature from running its course every time an evil man receives good business advice. What, then is nature, if a countervailing system of behavior must so often avert it? And who, then, is the one G-d, if His ax handles are so often in rebellion?

Rather, the nature of the Advil, its palliative properties, must be wholly dependent on G-d, with no ability to help or hurt outside of Him. They must not merely be caused by G-d, derive their power from Him, and then act independently. They are not merely created by Him at every moment, technically dependent on G-d, because then the question would remain, what is being created? and the answer could be, a consistent nature irrespective of G-d’s will.

No, to negate the idolatry of qualities, we must understand nature itself, without any miracle and before even looking to its source, as an expression of the divine will. As the Holy Baal Shem Tov put it, a leaf only turns a specific way in the wind if G-d’s desires it. This is true, even though the wind is part of nature and governed by the consistent laws of nature. It is G-d’s will that there should be a leaf, that there should be a wind, that circumstance should bring them and their natures together, and that the wind should so twist.

Advil has the nature of relieving headaches, but that nature, just like headaches or the futures market, can never come to benefit anyone outside of G-d’s will. Nature, in the first place, is merely an expression of G-d, and its existence independent of Him as a second power He has any need to change or subvert is illusory from the start.[v]

In order to truly not worship idols, to believe that G-d is the only power, one must look at the qualities inherent to nature as an integrated part of the more general divine expression, thick with natural, supernatural, unexplained, inexplicable, well-understood, and even human causes. This creation of G-d, a complex weave constantly unfolding according to His desire for our universe, is at no point beyond His control, and in no way contrary to His wishes. It is, in its minutest detail, exactly the way it must be, even when it appears independently, alone, and without regard for the truth.

A Jew takes Advil instead of an egg for his headache, because ibuprofen has a quality of pain relief in its G-d-given nature. A Jew also knows that this nature has no power whatsoever outside of G-d. If it relieves his pain, it is only because he is deserving in the eyes of his Creator. This is how one may live in the realm of nature and bow to no image nor rely on any power besides G-d alone.


[i] This is without mentioning the problem of how, on a purely experimental or experiential basis, we are meant to understand the egg to be an egg, when its appearance, location, DNA, etc. are all quite different from what we have previously encountered. To rule out medicinal qualities a priori is thus to demonstrate a closed-mindedness unbecoming those who learn primarily from experience.

[ii] We have a tendency nowadays to focus on the mechanism of this medicinal nature. An in-depth exploration of why this mechanism will only ever get us so far, and the way it is more of an answer to how than why, is for a different essay.

[iii] Moreover, in the form of an intellect apparently subject to description by words.

[iv] Cf. Baal Pe’or, worshipped through defecation before its image.

[v] This raises the question of why there are miracles at all – a good question to have, for another time.

If You’re Hungry, Eat Yourself

The truest things cannot be understood, because they themselves understand, and what understands cannot be understood.

Take a man or woman. We peel off their star chart or Spotify most-listened tracks of 2017 and we see them for what they are in their complexity, and we tell them, “In this, I think I see you.”

We try to understand by encompassing, by bringing the object within ourselves and analyzing it, feeling out its soul. Within, within. Deeper, deeper.

But there is no object, no fine prism so bewitched with their soul-light, that they cannot say, “It is not I, who is now speaking, that you hold in your hands.”

This is true even in our beloved’s arms.

“That is my IQ, my funniest joke, the content of my bedside table. It’s the color of my eyes. It’s not me.”

We give up on all these physical things, and, in a stroke of inspiration, ask, “What about your words? In fact, what about your very protests that you cannot be understood? In the ‘it is not I,’ do we not hear the speaker, negated but present?”

But every time, at every train station and at every wedding, they’ll say, “That’s not I, which is not I.”

So we set out to gather up all the not I in the world, the alarm clocks, the sand, fruit flies, and the reefs, every non-straight line and every non-black non-raven, but the realization dawns that it’s not enough.

Through this method we will never know what it is to sit square on the hypotenuse or fly on black wings.

We cannot, through negation, understand one who understands.

“I” is a lonely thing, which probably has something to do with why so many of us hurry to define ourselves this way and that and pretend that they can be understood, when really they can only understand, and turning that faculty in upon themselves yields no data.

The dissatisfaction of trying to understand the “I” rankles.

There’s seemingly no recourse; they are as real as we are, and so cannot be contextualized, systematized, and made to cohere.

These processes only begin with the understander as a given.

How, then, are we even aware of an “I”?

We can see them.

Sight is the wrapper of things so profound it takes generations to speak their name. Though I cannot understand the understander, I can see the seer.

It is not something I try to do; trying can be understood.

It is something that falls upon me, that take me by surprise.

Where once we struggled to understand, the “I” is suddenly present in his totality; but as we attempt to approach, it disappears.

Before the image fragments, we see him framed, in his wholeness, in his resisting presence. His soul is, just for a moment, present within us. Our reality does not encompass his. It gives way before his, allows him to float in the negative space we’d collapse by our slightest breath.

This is what it means to eat and grow more hungry.

Understanding is filling; the good becomes our own flesh. Things stitch together in our minds like reconstituted proteins.

But the understander, the other soul, is not found in chemicals, cannot be described by logic, even though those are the tools he uses, the letters and words for his meaning.

We take him for food but he cannot be digested. He can be seen but not touched. he can be known only at a distance.

We see, and give way to his reality, and remain empty. We cannot eat it; we can only see it.

We see in the depths of their eyes another soul, another understander, and know we will never be satisfied, that we will never be one.

And, despite what you may have heard, there are options open to us other than eating.

Because, though we cannot prove it nor convey it nor properly understand it ourselves, the “I” is the same as our “I”.

Imagine if all you could eat was yourself. You are starving and start at your feet. You work your way up into the torso, past the navel, and are struck by a strange notion.

You realize before you reach your own stomach that it already resides where you would send it by eating it. This cannot be. You will never be full this way; eating this way will undo your eating.

But maybe your mistake is in your approach. Perhaps you’ve had it all backward.

Who says your stomach is more “I” than an apple just because it’s on one side of your skin?

Perhaps the world is all you, all within you, and your skin is not a sleeve holding you together but a mobius strip, a membrane with only one side.

If an “I” cannot be a brain or a stomach or an apple or anything negotiable, what, then, is it?

G-d is everything other, and also our deepest self, and our skin only has one side.

There is one G-d; we are, in our inscrutability, as real as Him, and He is all that’s real.

The One who understands is, at the deepest place, the only One who understands, behind every pair of eyes, at the deepest reach.

He is different everywhere because His Torah is true and He is One with it.

The Torah is the decryptor finding in the encyphered essence of every rock and rock song the Rock of Ages.

And if all souls are one as they spring from the Divine Truth, then we not only eat or see, but inhabit the same verbs from the inside.

It is G-d, and therefore ourselves, and therefore G-d, whom we are trying to assimilate.

Between the one who sees and the seer who is seen lies only a perfect prism casting illusions, and our mission is to unmake it by seeing through it, to show it what it is and therefore that it isn’t.

We hunger deeply for that which we already possess but cannot, in our striving, see.

It will not do, either, to cleave to inertia and hope it will fall into our laps, for if this were the expectation, why do we exist at all?

We are “I”s who are meant to understand, in the end.

So, we must confront the layered complexity with which we’re entangled and settle not for food that satisfies nor hungry visions.

We must delve into these modes, find the non-being that delineates their fences, and push through to the seeing Seer, the knowing Knower, the Truth at the heart of and above everything, the One G-d.

The world is ours if we eat ourselves; G-d is in our own hearts.

The subsumer, in turning his being upon himself, is subsumed; the understander gives up on understanding, and attains, in his nothingness, freedom.

This is religion.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

A Teaching of the Rebbe Rashab

In commemoration of the birthday of the Rebbe Rashab, 20 Cheshvan, 5778.

Why would G-d create the universe? It doesn’t make sense.

A philosopher knows it doesn’t make sense. G-d is, of course, the perfect, necessary being. He needs nothing; He is utterly complete in a fashion quite beyond human reckoning. Even the words “complete” or “perfect” fail to describe him, for our words work metaphorically, and to say He is perfect is to say He shares a quality of all other things that are perfect, of a category or form or nature of perfection. But G-d does not exist in a category; He is His own form; He has no nature but is the ground of all natures. To say He is perfect is only to say he lacks all known imperfection. This is the highest thing we can say about G-d. But how, then, does G-d come to create a universe? When we act, we act because we are lacking something. When we want something, it’s because we want something — we are found wanting; we lack. But He does not lack. Therefore, He does not want. If He does not want, He does not want the universe. And yet the universe is here. Isn’t it?

A kabbalist also knows it doesn’t make sense for G-d to create the universe. In the beginning, we are taught, there was G-d and his infinite light, the full expression of His being. The light filled the entire place of the void; all that was, is, will be, can be, and cannot be was filled with His light, was filled with the fullness of His self-revelation. He decided to create the universe, and so He moved His light to the side, leaving over a vacuum and an empty space, into which he poured a single ray of the original light. This is the primordial Kav, the ray or vector, by which He creates all worlds spiritual and physical. After an infinite number of infinite descents, the Kav eventually creates the worlds of emanation, creation, formation, and action, and finally the very physical realm in which you are reading these words. The universe is the terminus of a single beam of His expression within a space devoid of the knowledge of G-d. And one day, in the messianic age, when the purpose of the world’s creation is fulfilled, that void and empty space will once again be full of His infinite light. First, his light filled it. Then, there is the creation, and his light is removed. Finally, his light is returned. So, the light was here, and one day it will be here again. The universe is just a moment in between. What could be the point of that?

One source says, He created the universe in order to be known. He wanted something else, something other, to taste of His truth. But when only He and His light existed, there was no other. In fact, there was no room for other, as a concept. All of reality was subjective. Everything was I. There was no room for thou. There was no room for reality. Everything was “in His head.” So G-d contracted his “I” and left a void and an empty space, so that objective reality may arise, and then He created other beings, who could meet him in that objective reality, and they could know each other. A Creator looking down at reality. A creation looking up at reality. A shared place. And He would no longer be alone.

But this itself does not make sense. For in our physical universe, we do not know Him. His presence is so concealed here that we have no inkling of what He is, and many have even forgotten that He is. The objective meeting ground is almost entirely beyond our grasp. “The Creator,” reminds the philosopher, “is completely beyond the limits of human intellect, to the extent that none of our words describe Him.” We know Him only through negations, only by saying what He is not, and even then, this is not an experience, not knowing — it is running on fumes, a grasp of His reputation. We do not know Him the way we know our mother, the way we know ourselves. It is only the soul as it stands above, or the abstract intelligence of the angels, that begin to understand the Creator. If He wished to be known, He should only have created the higher realms, the hidden realms, where G-d is as obvious as the rising sun and as directly experienced as ice cream. If He desired to be known, why would he create the low pit of physical reality?

Another source says He created the universe in order to actualize His potential. Before He created objective reality, He was only able to do it, and once He did, He actually did it. Everyone knows that doing it is better than the ability to do it; the perfection of potential is in its actualization. To this, both the philosopher and kabbalist speak up. The philosopher objects that we’ve misunderstood, since obviously the perfect being is pure actuality; He does not have unfulfilled potentials, since that would entail multiplicity which cannot be true of G-d. The kabbalist objects that we’ve misunderstood, since what part of His infinite light being the full expression of His being did you not understand? Everything that can be and cannot be is expressed in that One Infinite Light, the Ein Sof.

We might object that the universe does not exist as a physical entity within the unity of that expression. That is, even though everything is somehow contained within His infinite expression, it does not exist there as it does when He actually creates it by removing the light etc. But this is no real objection. Everything that happens from the removal of the light down to the actual physical universe is only a lower, more distant, “dimmer” expression of those same realities. In simpler terms, the creation of all worlds from His light is a subtractive process. The world is created by taking things away, not by adding them. And so if He already has his light, actually creating a physical universe adds nothing to it. It is not a further expression of Him. On the contrary, it is the slightest, most limited, most infinitesimal part of what He already possesses in Himself, before the creation. This is the general rule: There is no potential above that lacks actuality. He already possesses everything that can (or even cannot) exist. So why go through the diminishing process of actually creating a universe?

Indeed, the creation of the universe does not make sense.

He creates it simply because He desires it. If he wanted it because of its qualities, that would imply He was lacking those qualities, and He is not. He does not want, or lack, anything. He chooses to create the universe not for its qualities, but for its deficiencies. He “desires a dwelling place in the lower realms;” He does not desire it because it accomplishes some end (this being impossible, since he has no ends that are not accomplished), but for its own sake, for no reason, from a place beyond reason.

But if He himself is the perfect being, utterly actual, and lacking nothing, then how does He choose to create the universe for its own sake? He does not choose to create a being, for he is lacking potentiality, and if such a being were possible it already exists, one with His light. He does not create a new potential for a being, since if that potential were new, it would not have been expressed in His infinite light, which is impossible, since His infinite light is the full expression of His being. Whence, then, the Universe?

Rather, He chooses to create the world from the place of His own “being beyond being,” where He does not exist at all in any sense of the word existence, where we say He exists only because we cannot say He does not exist. This is what we call G-d’s own self, and it cannot be said to exist, or not exist. It is beyond all reckoning. There, in Himself, he bears potentials that are not actualized, for He Himself transcends the binary distinction of existence and non-existence, potential and actual, perfect and imperfect. Within Him, there is imperfection, though the word “is” refers to something utterly unknowable. Within Him, imperfection is a limitation and violation of His Truth only as much as perfection is. And it is from this place that He chooses to create the Universe. And therefore, it is only the physical universe, in violation of all laws that seem to bind Him, that fulfills not some external or arbitrary calculus that He creates, but satisfies Him Himself.

This is what is accomplished by the moment of the universe, the moment  between His infinite light filling the void before creation and the messianic age. It is not the same light. The first light was the full expression of His being, but since it was an expression, it was not Him Himself. And through the universe, the blink of an eye between eternities, He Himself is expressed, in a new and greater light.

Based on the first discourse of the famous “Samech Vov,” Yom Tov Shel Rosh HaShana 5666.

A Framework For Torah Politics

One of the tensions Chassidus is most concerned with is between investiture and transcendence. G-d has made the world in such a way that both are necessary but are opposing forces. Investiture is necessary if one wishes to truly change something — the famous example is that the brilliant teacher cannot give the student his own knowledge as-is but must, if the student is to truly learn, convey the lesson at the student’s level of understanding. Transcendence, however, is necessary to truly change something, for to change is to become something new, not just to reshuffle what one is. A teacher who only invests himself at the level of the students’ understanding can give them nothing they don’t already have; a teacher who only transcends them can give them everything but they will understand nothing. It seems that instead some sort of synthesis is needed.

If we assume (and it seems a safe assumption) the Torah is meant to teach the world G-dly wisdom, we would need some synthesis in our understanding of it as well. Indeed, even a superficial analysis, we see that there are varying levels of investiture and transcendence — a written law and an oral law; four books of the Torah vs. Deuteronomy, the speech of Moses; Torah in the holy tongue and Torah in translation. Nevertheless, these syntheses provide no obvious approach to the relationship of Torah to worldly ethics and (less ethical, and more worldly) politics. This leads to a tendency for investiture and transcendence to separate out, like oil and water. What is required then, for Torah to “teach” politics, is a framework for their synthesis.

Without such a framework, we see the extremes in the usual attempts to apply Torah to a political context. On the investiture side, you have those who believe the Torah speaks directly to our political choices in the real world. Verses are selected (more on the true nature of this selection later) in support of a candidate or ideology. Mrs. Clinton is compared to G-d, the Zohar is said to have predicted a Trump victory. People point to this law or that Midrash to demonstrate the Torah’s support of progressivism or conservatism, limited government or entitlements, traditional sexual values or transgenderism. The obvious problem with this is that the truth of G-d is co-opted for fights that are all too human. This, in turn, incentivizes new interpretation of the Torah, trying to read it in a way that supports our pre-existing biases.

On the transcendence side, however, one sees a desire to remove Torah from any connection to worldly concerns at all. The Torah says only what it does, they wish to say, and any resemblance to secular matters is purely coincidental. This leaves a Jewish politician, say, free to support whatever position they like as long as it is not in clear violation of the law. However, this attempt to leave Torah uncorrupted also leaves it impotent, having nothing to say on matters of great importance to the average man seeking to do what is right. Further, it corrupts the Torah in every sense other than the legal one. That the book is the truth rather than a mere guide for action falls by the wayside, at least as far as truth human beings can appreciate or act on. Ultimately, it places a strict barrier between the human mind and the book and forbids its traversal — the mind is too universal and objective and would only apply the Torah to places, as a holy book, it has no business going.

So, everyone who wishes the Torah to be a holy and true book of practical moral teaching must find some kind of synthesis. Just such an approach was put forth by the Rebbe Rayatz, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch, sixth Rebbe of Chabad. The Rebbe Rayatz was the leader of Lubavitcher Chassidim in Russia under Stalin and was no stranger to political movements and their Jewish followers. His famous incarceration was the work of the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish communists later largely purged by the dictator.

On one of his journeys, the Rebbe Rayatz encountered a group of people arguing over which political system was supported by Torah, and each one brought proof that his position was favored by Torah. They asked the Rebbe his opinion. He told them that Torah, being the ultimate good and truth, contains and is the source of what is good in all the political systems.

This is not so much a straightforward synthesis as a redefinition of terms; we are not saying Torah is good so much as redefining good and truth to mean what Torah says. This is not arbitrary. If the Torah is G-d’s wisdom, it precedes the world and defines the world; it makes sense that “good” is defined by Torah rather than vice-versa. Therefore, what the Rebbe Rayatz has technically done is applied an even higher transcendence than what was previously considered. Not only is Torah too good for the world, but goodness itself is too good for the world. The entire process of seeking a “true” or “good” course of action is, in the Rebbe’s view, non-secular, since Torah itself is the G-dly Torah.

However, this further form of transcendence is, in fact, more permitting of investiture than it might appear. For if the Torah is merely a document existing beyond worldly concerns it is quarantined from practical application. But if Torah is truth itself, then any true or good aspect of any non-Torah worldview, no matter how base, is Torah — the way in which the thing is openly connected to the truth. Conversely, this does not bring the Torah down to the level of manipulation for political ends, because the only true end is the Torah itself.

More simply — the Rebbe acknowledges that every politics has some truth to it, but also that anything which is not Torah itself can never be the whole truth. The Torah is both invested and transcended, the truth of every thing but fully present in nothing except itself.

This synthesis allows us to begin to approach matters of Torah and politics without having to worry about whether the Torah is sidelined or corrupted. Take, say, universal healthcare. Sources can be brought from either side of the matter. The Talmud recognizes a need to heal the sick and the cost of care on individuals and communities. But what cannot be said is that there is no Torah opinion on the matter — since the very notion that anything about a man-made healthcare system can be good or true is predicated on reflecting Torah. On the other hand, we also cannot say that any man-made system is the Torah or could shift the Truth an inch, since if we know Him, we would be Him, and no approach to worldly affairs until Moshiach’s coming can be Truth.

We can plot a course of action that does not violate the Torah. We can even devote ourselves to fulfilling it in thought, speech, and action. But to build any sort of secular system is by definition to build something outside of Torah. It is only by bringing to bear G-d’s will upon our actions (rather than by trying to bridge intellectual systemic gaps) that we can bring true peace between the truth of G-d and the truth of the world. This is what is meant by Moshiach — to find the true part of every thing, and return is to the Truth that’s only one.