ההשקפה החב"דית באספקלריית דברי ימי אדמור"י וחסידי חב"ד לדורותיהם

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Ultimate Chasid

I just came across this passage (from Habad: the Hasidism of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, by Roman A. Foxbrunner) describing the ultimate Chabad Chasid: 
Scholarly yet sociable; reticent, yet a capable singer of Hasidic melodies and relater of Hasidic tales and traditions; austere and somewhat ascetic, yet possessing a refined appreciation of this world’s pleasures; earnest but not humorless or somber; deeply religious but not unctuous or pietistic; modest but self-confident; devoted to RSZ [R. Schneur Zalman], but fully capable of thinking for himself: this Hasid personified the profound and paradoxical system that came to be known as Habad Hassidism. 
Personally, I think this is a very insightful description. The more one studies Chabad Chasidus, and the rich oral and written literature describing the history and nature of the Chabad Chasidic ideal, the more one becomes aware of the sophisticated inner world that the Chabad Chassid must attain: A controlled balance between worldliness, intellectual and critical awareness - what might be called "class", on the one hand - and the utilisation of that sophistication for the attainment of a higher purpose; an end to which all the worldly self awareness is but a necessary means. Chabad is a path of discipline and intellectual rigour, which harnesses the best and fullest qualities of humanity in the service of G-d. Thus the Chabad Chasid must live life fully, but the fullness of his or her self expression must itself be a manifestation of Divinity. The ultimate Chabad Chassid achieves self-renunciation in the medium of self-completion.

I am reminded of a letter penned by the Rebbe Rayatz and printed in Hatamim, where he describes the novelty of the Chasidic ideal as making an "inner light and life" manifest within the medium of the complete and healthy self. Only once the individual has achieved human completion can the true ideal of Chasidus be realised. Readers are invited to read the letter themselves, its three pages can be viewed here I, II, III.  

The Foxbrunner passage is cited in an article by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, well worth reading in its own right, and available here.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Immanent Transcendence

I've just finished watching a great lecture (embedded below) by Professor Elliot R. Wolfson, author of Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson (2009). The main theme (if I am reading him right) is that central to each mystical movement is its distinct path, whose boundaries and limitations must be adhered to in order to arrive at the ultimate manifestation of the Infinite and the Unbound. In oisies hachasidus we would say that the only way to be toifus atzmus or ain sof is through the hagbolo atzmis of mitzvos. (The only way to grasp the Essence of Divine Infinitude is via the essential limitation of the Divine mandate - the fulfilment of the Commandments.)   
Unfortunately, Wolfson's vocabulary is somewhat obscure, presenting quite a barrier to the average reader/listener (in Wolfsonian terms, the veil of darkness via which one perceives the light). In an interview with MyJewishLearning, Wolfson claimed that "the delivery of a complex message demands a rhetoric that is commensurately complex and too often Jews outside the academy are not willing to be pushed to think harder and to expand their vocabulary." While I am not sure I agree with him on the first point, and would like to see scholars make the attempt to express themselves in more accessible terms, I do agree that this is rather a tall order.
At any rate, this lecture and the question and answer session that follows is studded with pearls of insight (and humour), and I highly recommend that the effort be made to listen to what is being said and to think about what is meant (don't jump to any hasty conclusions, the ideas are as deep as they are broad). 
One important point that he touches on in the question and answer session is the fact that when we conceive of different levels of reality, or of Divine Manifestation, we must not conceive of them as being completely separate from one another. To enlarge on this idea for a moment: The realm of limitations and boundaries in which we function is not distinct from the realm of the Infinite (indeed, it cannot be, for if it was not itself a manifestation of - and a key to - the Infinite, then the Infinite could not truly be describe as Infinite). These are variant perspectives on the same reality. More-so, it is specifically in the finite world that we can experience the ultimate reality of the Infinite. As we said earlier, the only way to be toifus atzmus or ain sof is through the hagbolo atzmis of mitzvos. In Wolfson's words, the transcendent is within the immanent. 
If the embed feature doesn't work please click on the link below.   
Elliot R. Wolfson: The Path Beyond the Path: Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest for Universal Singularity on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Divine Source Of Atheism

A story: The fifth Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn was once asked, “it is known that all earthly realities stem from a Divine archetype, what then is the Divine source of atheism?” Rabbi Sholom DovBer replied, “The atheist does not believe that God exists as empirical realities exist, and in this he is closer to the truth than many a believer. In truth, the nature of the Divine reality is of a quality entirely different to that of physical existence.”          
The issue of how to reconcile current scientific theory with the 1) belief in G-d and 2) the Torah's account of creation, has been on the table for decades, but the intensity of the debate does not seem to dissipate with the passage of time. The most recent contribution of note is The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. While I have not yet read it  I certainly intend to. I usually find Rabbi Sacks to be eloquent and fairly penetrating. A couple of weeks ago the UK's BBC Radio 4 hosted a discussion between Rabbi Sacks, Richard Dawkins and Lisa Randall. On this occasion I was to be disappointed; while Rabbi Sacks was as eloquent as ever, I felt that he could have done a better job of expressing the Jewish concept of G-d, and defining the role He plays in reality.
The central issue that I would like to address is this: Often, in the course of such discussions, an appeal is made to (one or more variations of) the Argument from Design or (more broadly) to "the wonder of nature", rather than to the Cosmological Argument. Both of these approaches can be found in Jewish sources, but there are two major distinctions between them. 
1) In the language of a Talmudic debate: The Argument from Design is a svarah - its a good idea, it resonates, but its not conclusive; the Cosmological Argument is a hochachah - a conclusive argument. When I say conclusive I do not mean that it cannot be debated; of course one or anther component of the argument may be subject to criticism, but if we except the logical veracity of the Cosmological Argument we must except its conclusions (See here for an earlier post describing the version of the Cosmological Argument made in Choives HaLevovos). On the other hand, the Argument from design will always remain a matter of opinion; for some it has resonance for others it has none. (On a related but slightly different note, the theory of  evolution has absolutely no bearing on the Cosmological Argument, while it does weaken the Argument from Design.)

2) The Argument from Design says that there is an Intelligent Designer, but it doesn't say that their is a Creator, nor does it say much about the nature of the relationship of the Designer with the universe He designed. We may very well conceive of physical existence as an autonomous reality, which has been manipulated by an "external" Designer. Both G-d and physical reality may exist on equal terms, only that physicality has no "intelligence" of its own so G-d supplied some.
The Cosmological Argument, on the other hand, concludes that physical matter cannot have existed for ever (indeed, time itself must have a beginning), it must have been created (not just designed). In this light the reality of Divine existence is shown to be of a very different quality, entirely transcending the limited (time and space bound) reality of physical existence. G-d cannot be defined only in relation to the reality we know, His being is of another quality entirely, existing with or without us. In Chasidus there is an oft quoted saying, "The fact that He creates worlds is not the essence of Divinity". (I can't find the original source right now.)
On a different note, physical reality is shown to be a product of Divinity, its very presence, its own reality, is a function of the Divine reality that makes it be. We can no longer conceive of G-d and the universe as being separate realities that somehow interact to some degree or another. Rather there is no reality aside from G-d, the physical reality that we experience is no more and not less than a limited manifestation of a truer reality; that of the Divine Himself. (This last point is one of the central themes of Chasidus, to which the second part of Tanya, Shaar Hayichud Vehaemunah is dedicated.)            
The Argument from Design may be prettier, more poetic, and if it happens to resonate for you, then it is more accessible; but while the cool-headed logic of the Cosmological Argument, may demand more intellectual effort, the rewards are greater. The rigours of reason provide clarity and a depth of perspective that is far more compelling.      

Monday, November 7, 2011

Chabad: Returning Chasidism to its Roots

Dr. Naftali Loewenthal talks about how the post-modern aspects of Chasidism espoused by Chabad can return Chasidism to its roots and heal the schisms in Jewish society today:

For more inspirational Jewish video, check out: TorahCafe.com!

As an aside, the Chasam Sofer's attitude to modernity is also discussed (and juxtaposed with his tendency to issue lenient rulings on an individual basis), which relates back to some of the conclusions drawn in an earlier post regarding how he influenced the way Orthodoxy came to regard Mendelssohn. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Adon Olam: Casting A Familiar Prayer In A New Light

אדון עולם אשר מלך בטרם כל יצור נברא
Some years ago Prof. Marc B. Shapiro dealt with the translation of the opening words of the well known Adon Olam prayer in a post on the Seforim Blog. He began with the premise that the proper translation must be “Eternal Lord”, but goes on to explain that based upon the expert opinion of Rabbi Meir Mazuz, he is forced to admit that Artscroll’s translation “Master of the Universe” and other similar renderings are in fact more correct. The central point is that the sages of the post biblical era who composed Adon Olam understood “olam” to mean “world” or “universe”, although in the Biblical Canon it usually means “eternal”, or “forever”. Subsequently, another blogger by the name of Zack (Sholem) Berger, took issue with Shapiro’s conclusion. Here again the premise is that the rendering of “olam” as “eternal” is “more plausible”.
While neither Shapiro, nor Berger, justify their premise, their line of reasoning should be clear enough: The words “adon olam” are directly qualified by the continuation of the verse “asher malach beterem kol yetzur nivrah” – since G-d is described here as the one “who who reigned before any form was created”, G-d cannot be simultaneously described as Master (or Lord) of the as yet non-existent universe.
Long before this issue was raised in the blogosphere it was addressed in a Chasidic discourse (mamer) delivered by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Rayatz of Lubavitch. In that discourse (see Sefer Hamamrim 5703, pages 10-11) the Rayatz points out that even if we were to translate “adon olam” as “Eternal Lord”, we would still be left with an unresolved contradiction implicit in the qualifying description itself: The concept of kingship – reign – applies to a particular form of relationship that can only be achieved by a ruler in relation to a group of people who, save for the dynamic of kingship would exist as entirely separate and independent selves. The designation “who reigned” (“asher malach”) cannot be applied to the Eternal Lord absent the creation of ostensibly independent entities (“before any form was created”) over which He may reign.
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