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 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.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 4)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

We finally continue our series on atheist arguments that help us improve our faith in G-d. Our previous installment spoke about the perennial question, “What caused G-d?” Indeed, it is a good question, and we spoke about how we need to think of G-d as the uncaused cause of the classic Cosmological Argument, how G-d is qualitatively different from everything else.

This time, we will be dealing not with the existence of the creator per se, but rather a problem with religion.

4. The infinite creator of the universe cares about what we do? Preposterous.

Rather than say G-d is such a trifling matter that His existence is irrelevant, this argument takes quite a different tack. It is incredibly hard to understand, we are told, that the same being of infinite power who created the universe would care at all about the humans on earth. He is too big to care about our behavior, our feelings, or perhaps our existence as individuals at all.

There are several ways to answer this argument, and several ways in which it thus helps us improve our theism.

The theistic preconception many of us naturally have from our childlike understanding of G-d is that the creator essentially exists for our purposes, rather than vice versa. It is indeed this approach, wherein G-d is the solution to all of our problems and we are the solution to none of His, so to speak, that turns many people off from religion. When the deity is constantly on our side and helping us live our lives, the whole enterprise begins to smell somewhat…artificial. Man-made. A put-up job.

And so, the atheist points out: Either your guy is infinitely powerful and the creator of the Universe, or He is your own personal cheerleader, warrior, confidante, etc. How can He be both?

The obvious answer to this question is also a bad one, and that is, “He’s G-d; He can do anything.” There we go. You don’t have to think. You don’t have to question or self-evaluate. All the atheists’ favorite things…not.

The truth of serious religion, as any thinking theist knows, is that we exist for G-d, rather than the other way around. The question is, how can we possibly exist for a being who is transcendent and infinite and totally beyond us in every way?

In Judaism, at least, there is more than one answer to this question, and each leads to a different way of looking at the entire G-d/Man dynamic.

The philosophical, nonmystical position, especially in the Maimonidean view, maintains G-d’s simplicity and infinitude as the ultimate truth, to which all other aspects of reality, including Judaism, must conform. Thus, on the matter of whether G-d cares about us or anything that happens on earth, the answer is a resounding no. G-d doesn’t care about anything. G-d doesn’t have feelings; feelings are a logical contradiction to being G-d, as is caring, thinking, or anything else we know from our experience. After all, if G-d feels, then there is Him and His thoughts, and they exist in some kind of unity, and any unity must indeed comprise some third, higher category, and this leads to some sort of strange holy trinity that falls flat on Jewish ears, not to mention it means G-d has parts and is not truly infinite.

No, the Rambam is forceful in his insistence that there can be no positive knowledge of G-d, that what he is totally incomparable to anything we know of. And that includes emotions like concern, love, hatred, compassion…

So, what is a human being to do? What does it mean to serve G-d? And what does the Rambam make of the religion of Judaism, with its famous 613 precepts and a metric ton of moral responsibilities demanded of mankind?

Suffice it so say, there is an entire way of looking at man’s service of G-d that allows Him to “remain still” as we do all of the moving. We work to refine ourselves and achieve a connection to the Good, and the more we refine ourselves, the more we are transparent vessels for the truth of G-d, though He will never feel or care about our efforts. Though there exists an ultimate reality that creates and sustains the world, whose existence the atheist denies, there is nevertheless no interaction between that reality and us. The historical revelation in our religion, says the philosophical view, is, on the whole, to teach us how we can refine ourselves and become vessels for knowing G-d.

If all of this sounds to you a bit like Cthulhu, impersonal and cold and far vaster than anything to which man can relate, you’re not alone. But there is another option open to the theist that is as rationally consistent and in consonance with religion, divine revelation, and man’s moral responsibility to G-d.

Such is mysticism, in which G-d’s unity and transcendence are not the ultimate truth to which everything else must bend. But instead of relying on a dismissive “G-d can do anything” approach to the Creator’s relationship with the creation, Chassidus, Kabbalah, and Jewish mysticism write at great length about the G-dly desire for revelation in a place of darkness, and how the Creator’s simplicity and transcendence are not contradicted by His reaction with the world. This is achieved by the kabbalistic concepts of G-dly light and the ten sefirot, concepts absent from Jewish philosophy and claimed as part of the divine revelation of the oral tradition of Kabbalah.

And so, once again, those who believe in G-d must indeed confront, and try to understand, a contradiction it sometimes takes an atheist to see.

My Short ‘Shrooms Story

Once upon a time, when I was younger and less wise, I spent a shabbos at a campus Chabad house in Manhattan. The rabbi seemed like a pretty cool guy, definitely on the wacky end of the spectrum, which is good I suppose.  Anyway, I’m doing what any good Chabad bocher would do at the shabbos meal Friday night, shmoozing with tons of college kids, being charming, and representing Judaism.

This one guy ends up across from me sometime near the soup course and he’s super intense, super curious about Judaism. Over the course of the meal, I basically tell him my whole life story, plus a whole Purim maamar about randomness, rationality, G-d’s love of the Jewish people, etc. He seems very interested, which is unusual and has ME very interested. He says the maamar is beautiful, which I think is beautiful.

It’s one of those conversations where the whole room is a murmuring blur, through the courses, through bentsching. It’s me and him, a back and forth. We retire to the sitting room, where for the first time he tells me that he was once in Yeshiva.

“But the Yeshiva really disappointed me.” Interesting.
“Yeah, all the Rabbis there preached humility but were really egotistical.” INTERESTING.
“I just wanted a focus on G-d, but all they were interested in was Talmud.” AHHHHHHHHHH!

“You know,” I told him, the voice of suave confidence, “you should really try a Chabad yeshiva some time. Chassidus is all about G-d.” At this point we have been speaking for about two hours, and I feel like I’m in one of those stories that only happens to other people where you wrap tefillin on the guy and now he lives in Jerusalem with a long white beard and twelve beautiful children.

Then he says, “I don’t really believe in Judaism.”

We speak for another hour. I do the apologetics thing which I would never do nowadays. He keeps shaking his head. It’s not like he has counterarguments. I can tell his mind is simply made up. But why? Was his yeshiva experience really that bad?

At long last, when I am tired and spent and my initial enthusiasm for this guy is waning, he looks around conspiratorially and says, “Have you ever heard of psychadelic mushrooms?”

So it turns out that the one guy I ever met that I thought I might be able to turn on to chassidus once realized on a mushroom trip that G-d does not exist but that Moses and Jesus were both tuned in to the eternal brotherhood of mankind, and that’s why he would never be religious.

Beaten by mushrooms.

I collapse sadly into my bed.


The next morning, the Rebbetzin, who is quite wonderful, a very nice person, comes up to me and says, “Wow! What did you say to him? He has never stayed here longer than half an hour before. You must have really had a good impact on him.”