Celebrating Halloween the Chassidic Way

“Why can’t we just celebrate Halloween if it’s secular nowadays?” ought to be a self-answering question for observant Jews. Alas, our passion against paganism may still exist in at least a dormant state, but our passion against secularism does not. That the two are even related has been largely forgotten. Come, then. Let us celebrate the 31st of October in the Chassidic fashion:

The Rambam tells the whole sad story in the first chapter of his laws of idol worship, for it must be the reader’s goal to eliminate foreign worship from our minds and hearts, and our minds and hearts are where, in the story, it first got in. It was the mind and heart that first turned to idols and eventually away from G-d entirely.

No reasonable person could conclude that there is no ultimate purpose or end to the creation unless an alternate explanation presented itself. Man was formed by G-d’s own hands and spoke to Him face to face, so the alternate explanation had to be pretty good. And it was; it was based on G-d’s will itself, an interpretation of it.

First, the generation of Enosh erred in philosophy and reasoned that since G-d has placed the sun as the source of sustenance for the earth, it deserves worship, too. They applied this logic to all spiritual forces, the four elements, constellations. They valued G-d so highly as to make Him irrelevant, a watchmaker, a disinterested king.

False prophets then arose who claimed the intermediaries yearned for worship, that G-d Himself demanded it. And with the stretching out of years, the Creator, quiet and unnecessary, was then forgotten entirely.

If other beings, creations, have importance or efficacy, then they have explanatory power. So was room made for the secular, which existed in theory inherent to the nature of the sun, but needed human reason to bring it out. The realm of things having nothing to do with G-d is first created when we mistake G-d for having created it.

In the Rambam there is little separating idolatry from secularism.* One leads to the other directly; they constitute the error and its eventual consequence.

Today, for whatever reason, we have separated between the unnatural and the natural, the pagan and the secular, witchcraft and philosophy. As we have become ever-more physical even in our spiritual sensibilities, we have come to think of sun worship as something distinct from our experience even as we have come to see secularism as the natural neutral substance of life. A witch cursing an apple for Snow White is a fairy tale, but an apple as a colorless tasteless purposeless hunk of stuff that just exists is called “reality.”

We want to distinguish between sinister necromancy Halloween and cute kids asking for candy Halloween. The latter is clearly not as strange or threatening as the former. The latter could at least theoretically be diverted to G-dly ends, and that is the advantage of secularism over its idolatrous roots. Secularism wants to see things just as they are, and things as they are exist for G-dly purposes, no matter how narrowly you look at them. But if we seek no such purpose and take the secular merely for itself, we live in its lowliness, in its coarseness, in a state of idolatry to which an additional forgetting and numbing have been appended. Such was the world that our father Abraham was born into, per the Rambam, before he walked its sands and peered at its luminaries, before he rediscovered G-d and made Him an heirloom.

We shall not escape secularism through reason centered on our own benefit or perfection. Reasoning with the will of G-d as it relates to our benefit and perfection is what the generation of Enosh did. G-dliness can be found reliably only within a simple faith in Moses’s prophecy, something the Creator gives us and we cannot create. With this, a chassid celebrates the 31st of October and the 2nd of Cheshvan and all other days, past, present, and future.

*By providence, enlightenment secularism has called itself Secular Humanism, and humanity in modern Hebrew is literally Enosh-ity; perhaps we should begin calling it Secular Enosh-ism, to remember.

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

A Pox On Both Your Googleplexes

In the beginning, God created humankind with a mind to perceive the truth of the world and a soul that yearned to transcend that world and achieve love and unity beyond the bounds of reason.

These two goals are opposite goals.

The mind, by nature, affirms the existence of the world. The mind’s career is supported by perceiving the nature of things; things that do not exist do not have a nature. The mind is obsessed with what is.

The soul, by nature, denies the existence of the world. The soul is not interested in the nature of things but can find its way home to itself, to God, and to all mankind the way a bird finds the North after a long and bitter winter. The soul is obsessed with what can be, and what can be is the enemy of what is.

Of course, if a human being has competing impulses and competing purposes — and these are only the highest and most noble of our purposes. Most of the time we’re distracted by far lower ones — then there must be a higher human system to regulate and balance them. And if that higher system was to dissolve, the human being would spin apart.

Dear reader, I submit to you that one of the purposes of religion is to regulate the nature of the mind and the desire of the soul, so that they do not pull a human being apart.

I further submit to you that religion is perceived to be in the dumps right now and no one likes it, anyway.

And so, we have the fight between Google Guy and the Forces of Social Justice. And in this fight, I wish both sides success.

Take the FoSJ. This is a group of people, nay, an ideology, becoming ever-more famous for only trusting the mind as far as they can bend it. The sharing or discussion of fact, scientific or otherwise, is discouraged in face of the truest and deepest: some people are more oppressed than others, and now they deserve control.

They seem to deny that a claim, such as “there are biological differences between the sexes,” is even theoretically open to understanding or debate by all healthy adult human beings. They are not at all interested in what is, in the shared reality in which we all participate. All such preoccupations are chaff sent up by the forces of oppression to unlock our focus from what could be, that is, a world in which there is true equity for all.

Of course, in order to measure that equity in a way agreeable to all, the FoSJ must revert to reason and the mind, since reason and the mind are precisely the only means we have of meeting in some sort of objective, you know, world. But this itself is my point — no functioning human being can deny the mind indefinitely. It’s much easier to compel her with selective focus and force of conviction than to get rid of her. This is how one arrives at individuals who can purge heretics from their ranks for not believing that one’s access to the truth is determined by one’s sex, gender, skin color, orientation, etc.

I must reemphasize that I think the FoSJ ultimately come from a good place, though they are lost. They are the latest in a long tradition that seeks to break free from the chains of the human intellect in search of a better life uncompelled by worldly limitation. In this sense, they are utopian (and use science and philosophy as a rationalization for their utopianism, a trick in vogue since Marx). And the utopian stirring of the human soul, the longing, in some sense, for a messiah or a messianic age, has historically been balanced in a religious context.

That is not to say that actual religious messianic yearnings are even-tempered. On the contrary, they have historically led to disaster, in Judaism as well as in other religions. However, inasmuch as every human being has a deep desire to live without rules, and in most human beings this manifests as a longing for a more perfect world, it is remarkably rare that this desire has, in the history of world religion, led to violent or destructive messianic cult. Indeed, it is quite possible that the ability to regulate this impulse has lent longevity to some of the oldest and largest of our faiths.

The way religion regulates the utopian or transcendent impulse within man is through redirecting it toward the world as it is, right in front of us. God (or the realm of spirit, or the higher reality, or whatever) does not keep the imperfect physical world around for no reason; it somehow fits into the plan. The world is not a lie in the sense of something abhorrent to be burned down or ignored or fled, but rather a lie in the sense of something incorrect to be confronted, loved, hated, understood, fixed.

This willingness to engage the imperfect is an earmark of a system of thought that values the truth beyond mere success. If the transcendent messianic impulses of the soul are forced to confront some form of tradition, some logical calculus, or even a mere creation narrative, those impulses cannot maintain their own satisfaction as their end. The utopian vision must explain itself in terms of the past, as an outgrowth of it; the perfect world must “fit” the imperfect one as the conclusion of the plot must fit the rest of the novel. The desire to “burn it all down” or “leave it all behind” must explain why, if it’s worth all burning down, it’s there in the first place, why its apparent qualities are purely evil, why its joys are lies. It must, in short, explain something. And that means the mind has tied it down.

Of course, if there is no agreed-upon tradition, logical calculus, or creation narrative, things become dicier. People reach for some means to constrain the transformative, power-seeking forces of utopia, some shared reality with which to bind them, and in 2017 they land on, of all things, biology and evolutionary psychology.

I feel for Google Guy. The FoSJ are quite powerful in mid-2017, and they have little mercy nor patience for dissenting opinion. I would not want the witch hunt to come after me, and since it was inevitable, I suppose it took some sort of courage to publish his memo.

On the other hand, Google Guy is at least as wrong as the FoSJ, though for opposite reasons. I don’t blame him personally; like them, he is a product of his times; like them, he is one half of an old dialectic, continuing to clash and hash itself out.

Google Guy, of course, represents the mind in the current contretemps, and the mind is just as central to the human reality as the transcendent yearnings of the soul. Whereas the latter seeks to escape reality and its governing principles to achieve perfection, the former is by nature attuned to reality and its governing principles. The mind’s entire purpose is to see what fits and what does not. When someone tells Google Guy that there are no non-social differences between men and women (because that’s what we deeply wish were so) he raises both eyebrows (because he has studied the matter, and no).

He then begins putting together charts and diagrams and weaves the words of science!

But science is not synonymous with the mind, not really. Just as the FoSJ express the deepest yearnings of the human spirit unmoored from any system or past to guide them, so does the Ev. Psych. expert adhere to the principles of logic and intellect undirected toward any higher or transcendent end.

I speak not only of performing science for the sake of science, not only of the continued insistence of scientists that teleology does not exist, but most pertinently of the absolute refusal to consider human beings as more than purely physical, the way a rock is physical.

In 2017, some scientists are barely willing to countenance that there is perhaps more to a man than there is to a mollusk. And when they do countenance it, the difference is explained in purely evolutionary, and therefore material, terms. This is the role of Evolutionary Psychology, the study of how to excuse the meaningful, purposive, mental, and spiritual in terms of the material. It is a realm of knowledge geared toward It is a field born of a fierce faith that putting stuff together can somehow create a private subjective mind and that this then-nonexistent subjective consciousness was selected for survival purposes.

Whether or not this faith is justified, evolutionary psychology now plays the role of marriage counselor, trying to reconcile our biological knowledge with the obviously spiritual nature of our experience, which has been estranged from modern science since modern science was invented. It purports to achieve this unity by explaining how the spiritual nature of our experience is purely biological. Of course, the real trick lies in explaining how explaining itself can be purely biological, and it is again an article of faith that one day neuroscience will do just that.

If this sounds vaguely messianic, that’s because it is. Just as, ironically, the FoSJ must at least superficially kowtow to the mind to argue for their anti-intellectual position, so must the scientists contradict themselves by using their inexplicable subjective private experience to argue that such things are mere “emergent phenomena” of neurons or the like. And just as the FoSJ wave away any actual reason that might slow down their quest for utopia, so do social scientists refuse to acknowledge that human beings exist and will always exist beyond the grasp of quantifiable theories.

Traditionally, religion regulates the tendencies of the human mind to categorize, quantify, and understand. Though approaches to God are usually characterized by rules, a defined path, or a limited way, ultimately the human being exists beyond any of these constraints (thereby allowing for repentance, further growth, and forgiveness in the pursuit of said way).

But when the mind is not regulated by an appreciation for the limitations of rules or analysis, the human being, as a unique creation with infinite individual worth, is ultimately lost in favor of making things fit. And the dystopian potential of ideologies that makes people fit need no further elaboration.

Though Google Guy himself may not call for anything of the sort, the social and scientific analysis of human beings without constraint inevitably leads to things like valuing people for their IQ or market value, tendencies already present in the hyper-quantified world of Silicon Valley and spreading to other areas of our society.

The FoSJ and Google Guy are not really so different from one another, in the end. They are half-responses to the deficiencies of each other’s position, deficiencies that developed with the death of an overarching and unifying understanding of the human condition. The FoSJ see what a world ruled purely by “reason” with no room for the transcendent human being looks like, and are horrified. Google Guy sees what world ruled without any reason looks like, and is horrified. And they respond to each other with the opposite extremes, with syntheses that do not truly acknowledge at a fundamental level the existence of the opposite point.

But it does not have to be this way.

Rather than trying to synthesize the broken pieces of the enlightenment project, we could tap into ancient springs and revive ourselves with the old wisdom. For if we turn to the old understanding of God and man and their relationship with one another, we will find that the mind necessitates the transcend human spirit, and that the spirit exists only for the purpose of the mind, and that these two things are really one thing, a complete human being, who exists for unifying purposes.

Or we could continue to argue politics.

It is becoming increasingly common that politics in the United States is split along new lines that leave no good choices to a conservative, traditionalist, or adherent to an Abrahamic religion. I am speaking not only (I say, as the excitement of the same old battle rises within us) of the 2016 election, with its famously bad candidates, but also of the underlying culture war of which that election was in many ways symptomatic.

The culture war is itself no longer a fight about which principles ought to limit the pursuit of political power, but rather simply a struggle for power between two sides that share no common reality. There barely remains in our discourse any philosophical framework in which to argue.

Ultimately, these sides have spun away from each other with the weakening of any overarching system that can find a balance between our analytical minds and our transcendent, dreaming souls.

If our only options are an abandonment of all reason or subjugating ourselves to the dictates of biology and evolutionary psychology, I choose neither. Until we can find something that splits the difference, a pox on both your houses.


Originally posted on Hevria.

The Rebbe, The Chief Rabbi, and The Fossils

In the fall of 1987, the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits of blessed memory, engaged in a short correspondence about something the Lubavitcher Rebbe once wrote. The Chief Rabbi’s position was that, though well-stated and perfectly above-board, the Rebbe’s argument was “simplistic” (which Rabbi Jakobovits claimed is not at all in the pejorative; he used the Rebbe’s argument before he ever read the Rebbe’s words on the matter).

What is the simple argument in question?

The Rebbe wrote a famous letter in December 1961 on the much-hyped Torah/Science clash, specifically about evolution and the age of the universe. In it, he mentions the issue of fossils, dinosaur bones, etc. which seem to be, uh, slightly past their six thousandth birthdays. The Rebbe makes two points. The first: It is conceivable that dinosaurs and the like existed a few thousand years ago, and the earth’s past “atmospheric pressures, temperatures, radioactivity, unknown catalyzers, etc., etc.” could have created fossils in a much shorter time than is normally considered possible.

This answer is common in the Torah/Science dialogue. It’s the second part which earned the Chief Rabbi’s attention:

“(b) Even assuming that the period of time which the Torah allows for the age of the world is definitely too short for fossilization (although I do not see how one can be so categorical), we can still readily accept the possibility that G-d created ready fossils, bones or skeletons (for reasons best known to him), just as he could create ready living organisms, a complete man, and such ready products as oil, coal or diamonds, without any evolutionary process.

As for the question, if it be true as above (b), why did G-d have to create fossils in the first place? The answer is simple: We cannot know the reason why G-d chose this manner of creation in preference to another, and whatever theory of creation is accepted, the question will remain unanswered. The question, Why create a fossil? is no more valid than the question, Why create an atom? Certainly, such a question cannot serve as a sound argument, much less as a logical basis, for the evolutionary theory.” 

As previously mentioned, the Chief Rabbi does not argue with this point, but calls it simplistic; he resorted to using it because it was effective, but on its own it leaves him uncomfortable. This raises the question: If there are intellectual explanations for evolution and the age of the universe that fit with Torah, and in fact the Rebbe himself brings such an explanation for fossils as his “Point A”, what does the Rebbe gain with this second point? The explanation seems tacked on for those backed against the wall by science and have no other way out but to say “He just made fossils. So there.” The Rebbe confirms everyone’s worst suspicions about religious fundamentalism by ignoring evidence of an ancient universe with an argument that could be applied to any scientific fact we don’t like: G-d just made it look that way. Why would he do that? No idea, and how dare you ask.

Seems like a fundamental misstep, pun intended.



Now, the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Lubavitch, or Chabad, is known for a specific, well-defined, vast theology/philosophy concerned with every aspect of life. Therefore, if we hope to understand the Rebbe’s position on any given matter, it would pay to examine the general perspective of Chabad philosophy.

Perspective is important because even if everyone agrees on empirical fact, where each person stands influences the interpretation of those facts. An example that’s near and dear to my heart is the endlessly-repeated back-and-forth on the relative evils of religion and atheism that I get to meet quite often thanks to the Internet (imagine the effort one used to have to exert to find idiots arguing. Now the entertainment is right in your bedroom). Archie the Atheist will say, “Grr, the religions. Crusades, terrorists.  Source of all evil. If only we all listened to the science.”

Davros the Devout will respond, “Bah! Humbug! You are wrong, because Hitler/Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot/Dawkins!”

Archie will smile and say, “How do you know that those people weren’t evil because of the little bit of influence religion had on them?”

Davros will reply, “For that price, perhaps the evils of the religious are only due to not being religious enough. It’s too much G-dlessness that made them that way.”

You get the idea. Obviously the issue is more complicated than that, but it is clear one cannot deduce anything about the nature of evil from the examples of evil men alone, but must always fall back on one’s general vision of reality. This particular debate can be reduced to a fundamental disagreement about man’s true, “uncivilized” nature, i.e. whether man is naturally evil or naturally good. Whichever way one hypothesizes, one’s theory is untestable, as any debate on the Internet (despite all appearances) takes place from within the boundaries of civilization; no one arguing today can claim to be free of the influences of religion or atheism. Who can say whether thousands of years of religion has refined man or cast him into the depths, if a controlled test cannot be performed? Pure empiricism is not enough. When it comes to how one feels about the facts, living with the facts, perspective is everything.



Why are we here on this earth?

1) The nonreligious answer ultimately negates the question; to assume an absolute answer is to assume an absolute reality outside of any individual perspective which simply doesn’t exist, and no amount of scientific discovery and observation will answer the question. The universe simply is, we simply are, and we might as well live a satisfying existence while we’re here.

2) The religious answer is that we’re here to do what G-d wants. Life involves making the right choice between the gross and physical and the G-dly. We are only given so much time here, and we are responsible for our actions, words, and thoughts. “I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil…choose life!”

3) Chassidus’s answer is that we’re not here at all, at least not in the usual sense of the word. It’s not that we exist, i.e. that we walk this earth, eat of its fruit, sleep, work, love, and raise children, and G-d expects us to do all the aforementioned in a G-dly way. He is all there is, was, and will be, a Necessary Existence, and everything that’s not Him is either false or an expression of Him. We don’t exist. Oh, it seems that we do exist? So G-d must need us for some great purpose. We’d do well to fulfill it.

The difference between the religious answer and the Chassidic one is only in our perspective; both advocate fulfilling G-d’s commandments and learning his wisdom. They are nevertheless profoundly different.

The religious and nonreligious answers both have human experience as the ultimate baseline of reality; the question is merely whether there is any higher cause which humanity can serve other than itself. For example, the nonreligious say that human intellect is an end unto itself, and thus any and all thought and inquiry needs no justification, the same way a basketball needs no justification. It takes up space; it exists. No more explanation is needed. The religious say that the human intellect is a means to an end; think kind thoughts and holy thoughts, and protect yourself from falsehood and blasphemy. Thoughts of illicit pleasure or of violence towards one’s fellow are contrary to G-d’s wishes.

Chassidus says that there is no intellect, there is only G-d, and if you seem to have thoughts, they’re only here to play some role in G-d’s plan. In other words, it’s not that intellect (or the world for that matter) is neutral, and we must use it according to G-d’s will; everything that exists is a claim against G-d’s singularity and must argue for its own right to exist. Guilty until proven useful.



At first, there was just G-d. He then created a world. The world is here for a specific purpose, and nothing exists without being part of that purpose; there is nothing here on technicality or by chance. This includes the human intellect. In fact, human intellect is the crowning glory of His purpose; He wants to fully express Himself in a place that denies Him, and there is only one entity in the entire creation that can go against his will, a human being. What makes a human, human, is the intellect. The mind can do one of two things: deny its Creator entry and thereby lose all justification for its own existence, or emancipate Him by thinking G-dly thoughts and thereby actualize the greatest potential in all of creation.

What, by the way, is a G-dly thought? This is a contradictory phrase. Is there any reason to suppose that the infinite being that created everything falls within the limits of rational thought? The most logical assumption is that an infinite divide separates G-d from us and our conception. Only one side of the relationship can initiate a connection, and it’s not the limited, physical side. If G-d decides for some strange reason that He wants to be known by the hunks of flesh that walk on two legs, it’s a different jar of gefilte fish. This odd desire of His gives genesis to the vast wisdom known as the Kabbalah. The Zohar and other works describe an intricate spiritual system of interlocking worlds, lights, vessels, contractions, and creations that span the vast distance between our physical world and G-d’s infinite light, a system that is utterly unnecessary. If G-d wills, physicality can arise with no spiritual antecedents, from true nothingness; He instead created logic, the System that must underlie anything that hopes to hide Him. Then He acted according to his own arbitrary rules as much as possible, and revealed his actions to the sages, all that we might be able to relate to Him, so that there could be a G-dly thought.

The practical upshot here is that knowledge is a dependent creation and a tremendous lowness in G-d’s eyes that one ought to use only to fulfill its purpose. Knowledge, as an end unto itself, does not exist, and that’s why the Rebbe added his second answer. The question, Why create a fossil? is no more valid than the question, Why create an atom?

The more one comprehends, the more it seems everything must be comprehensible. The scientific worldview assumes that everything follows rules and patterns. If there’s something that seems to not make sense, it’s only because we haven’t yet invented a tool, physical or theoretical, that’s accurate or powerful enough to plumb the thing’s depths. A phenomenon that cannot be apprehended by the intellect in some way is by definition beyond the reach of science, and since science has never met such a phenomenon, it must not exist; a new discovery comes along that seems to contradict Torah, and if we cannot understand how the two can coexist, it bothers us. We demand answers. And the Rebbe spends much of his letter dispensing the answers: interpolation vs. extrapolation, dating methods, untestable assumptions, etc. But there is another aspect of reality that cannot be left out. As “simplistic” as it sounds, as much as we may have to leave our comfortable thrones as the arbiters of truth, there are some things that cannot be grasped by reason. He is the basis of reality, and intellect is a means to an end, not the other way around. It is more surprising that we comprehend anything than that we fail to comprehend something. The Rebbe’s second argument is not the desperate gamble of a harried believer, but the contextualization of the intellect, without which G-d remains divorced from reality, even for the religious.



This is why it makes sense to reach out to other Jews and get them to do things like wrap Tefilin or light Shabbos candles. Emphasis, to do things. The Rebbe advised people never to get into debates or intellectual arguments about Judaism on the street; get the commandment performed, that’s all that matters, that’s what will get people in touch with their heritage and their G-d. What of the marketplace of ideas, of weighing Judaism against other systems of thought? How could leather or a palm frond ever bolster confidence in Judaism as a way of life? Shouldn’t we be rational and only do that which totally makes sense to us?

Every Jew has a special Jewish soul, indestructible and united with G-d. Doing a mitzvah, one of His commandments, awakens that connection. One who serves G-d because it make sense really serves themselves, like a spouse who gets married because their mate is “just perfect” and get divorced when reality ousts the dream. This logical misstep of the religious, trimming G-d to fit their tastes instead of the other way around, transforms the whims of an individual into moral absolutes that must bind all of humanity. It changes an individual trying to do the right thing into an aggressor who campaigns against the heretic and apostate. They are the driver and G-d is the vehicle. Only the non-rational reaction to the warm glow of the Shabbos candles or the taste of the Matzah, the feeling that somehow the Mitzvah is right, is home, is G-dly, is a healthy foundation for lasting religious observance, and, for a method that banks on an empirically ridiculous claim to a soul, works well.



Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century and in the words of Freeman Dyson, “[A] famous joker and a famous genius, [but] also a wise human being whose answers to serious questions made sense,” understood this view of intellect. He related the following:

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

At first blush it’s a grounded rebuff of artistic fancy by a levelheaded scientist. Not really, though. Implicit is the appreciation of artistic sentiment, that the flower is beautiful not only as a source of knowledge, a specimen to be dissected, but as a mystery, something that exists beyond us that we are allowed to see. And in the end, what is the point of science’s analytical microscope? To bring one to a greater appreciation of the ineffable. The scientist need not dictate terms to reality; on the contrary, through his discoveries, he allows reality to blow his mind. With his peerless grasp of the workings of the body, he touches the exaltation of the spirit. In the words of R’ Saadiah Gaon, the goal of knowledge is to know that He cannot be known.

No bones about it.

Featured Image of Anisopodidae in Amber By EvaK (EvaK) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons