And Choose Life
Essays 2018 / Winning Essays
Third Place Winner of MyLife: Chassidus Applied 2018
“The Aibishter (G-d) punished you with a good head!” –R’ Mendel Futerfas to R’ Pinye Korf
Before anything else (though sometimes we learn it only after everything else) Chassidus teaches us that sometimes a notion we see as self-evident is not always the only way of viewing something. Even the most intellectually non-conforming among us may not think to challenge certain default perspectives and values we have learned to consider axiomatic. To me this is most obvious with regard to the value contemporary Western culture attributes to the intellect, the empirical, and the measurable, in stark contrast to Chassidus’s singular value for G-d and then anything else connected to Him by extension.
Many of us today struggle with issues of personal worth and meaning. We feel adrift and alone. We feel connecting to others or to any kind of meaningful existence is impossible. We wonder if there is anything or anyone worth connecting to. We struggle to believe in ourselves and in the people we love. We feel swept up by the prevailing zeitgeist, voiceless; we don’t feel alive; we feel crumbling, or empty, and we plod onward.
In contrast, the picture of a Chossid is a person filled with life, sometimes elderly and with a stooped gait, but always with a spring in his step, a hint of mischief in his eyes, or a niggun (Chassidic melody) at his lips. What is it that gives the Chossid this joy, this penetrating aliveness, this stubborn engagement sometimes in spite of painfully difficult life circumstances? What has he that modern man lacks?
The answer lies in the values of each. What does prevailing Western philosophy teach us to hallow above all else? What elements of the Western weltanschauung does the Chassid reject?
I will be drawing on ideas from the Hemshech(1) of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe 1 Rashab, beginning Shavuos 5665 (“Hemshech Shavuos Samech Hey”) to address these issues.
II. The Challenge
Western culture has a long history of valuing the intellect and the power of reason. Chabad Chassidus discusses the story of Chanukah in its historical context: intellect was a central element of the BCE Greek aesthetic, so while the Greeks respected the Jewish people as “People of the Book” – as scholars and intellectuals – they refused to abide the senseless commitment the Jews had to a Being not of logic, to Someone who sometimes did not seem to make sense, who could not be contextualized in any rational capacity the Greeks were comfortable with. The Greeks attempted to force the Jewish people to assimilate their ideology to one more agreeable to the Greek intellectual constitution, one in which the presence of the Divine did not hang thickly above their gymnasiums like a lingering threat that there is meaning to this life.
Our culture today seems to echo this sentiment. Today the Internet is rife with pockets of virtual shouting matches about modern issues of morality including abortion and sexuality that culminate in the most scathing of ad hominems – that the other side lacks intellectual integrity, cannot think for himself, and/or is stupid. Where most often the differences between the two sides boil down to a conflict of values (e.g., human worth as determined by viability and competence versus as bestowed by a Higher Power) people seem to want to believe they are being entirely rational, and so when they chance upon a disagreement, they relegate their opponent to the class of the unintelligent or the irrational, the simple-minded, of those who fear intellectual rigor or challenging old perspectives – all the most denigrating of pejoratives.
The central challenge this essay will address, with G-d’s help, is the destructive impact that placing empirical logic and quantitative reason at the pinnacle of our value system has on us psychologically. Following are four specific examples:
1. Within the self: because we ascribe so much worth to that which can be measured – physically or psychologically – we consider ourselves only as valuable as we are accomplished, intelligent, talented, good-looking, or otherwise measurably distinct. The less we measure up to the standards we set for ourselves, the less we believe in our own worth as human beings and consequently in our ability to affect the world around us. In addition, we sometimes get into the habit of dismissing our own emotions because they are not things we can understand or intellectually contain. We fall into a painful cycle of emotions unacknowledged festering beneath the surface, never quantifiable enough to warrant our attention.
2. In relating to others: this attitude we have about ourselves we extend into our relationships with others. We consider others worthy in one of two contexts: either in the capacity in which they enhance us, or, when we find that others measure up to the standards we set more completely than we do, we consider them greater than ourselves, and this offense to our worth we resent. Just as we learn to dismiss our own emotions, we disregard those of others, finding it difficult to truly be present with another when there is nothing we can do or say to complete the jagged edges, the imperfections and the psychological messinesses that characterize us as humans.
3. In faith/belief and intuition: within the psyche is a wealth of untapped reserves in near-limitless quantities: faith, intuition, creativity, courage, resilience, and strength. Because of our insistence that the intellect and what it can contain are the greatest expression of our humanity, we lose out on parts of ourselves that cannot be as easily quantified. Sometimes we may intuitively sense something we later discover is true in actual fact, but we refuse to acknowledge it in its preintellectual state because unproven we don’t believe it is worth anything. Other times, we look to past experience to size up our abilities and conclude we don’t have the strength to endure a difficult horizon. Often this belief in our own inability is the self-fulfilling prophecy that creates the very results we anticipated.
4. In our connection to G-d: the modern-day believer will often struggle to relate to G-d as immanently and personally real. G-d seems grand and impeccable to the point of being untouchable, and we feel that we cannot possibly access any sort of connection to Him. We foist upon G-d the perfection and invulnerability we idolize, and in doing so cut ourselves off from being able to truly connect to Him. At the same time, in our minds we only consider Him real in capacities we understand and believe are appropriately G-dly, in effect limiting Him and invalidating Who He says He is in favor of a god that better conforms to our specifications.
The thread that unites these difficulties is the value we attribute to what we can measure. We believe that in the highest class of things are those that fall into neat categories and match pre-existing data we then use to forecast what will follow. Perhaps our preference for the empirical stems from a need for security. Outside of the safe bounds of the quantifiable, anything is possible, most of all our own abilities – and the weight of such awareness can be a terrifying thing to carry. Whatever the reason, we prefer what is within our reach over what appears intangible or beyond us. Without realizing it, we subscribe to a philosophy that locks us out of our own sense of worth, closes us off to connection to others, and leaves us with parts of ourselves vastly unexplored and out of reach.
III. Even Before Chassidus
The key out of our mental trappings starts even before Chassidus, though sometimes studying Chassidus helps us see it. The beginning of the answer lies in understanding that there can be more than one way of perceiving and understanding the set of facts available to us.
There is a fundamental difference between the approaches of Chassidus and Western culture to intellect. Modern thinking begins with how/in what form a thing exists while Chassidus begins with who/what and why. Where Western thought is concerned with quantitative realities, Chassidus is concerned with quality. Western disciplines define a thing by material content, discussing first the form it takes and second the purpose it serves. Is a pen a tube of plastic with ink and a point at one end commonly used for writing and drawing, or is a pen a physical vessel for the human’s need for expression in the form of a pointed plastic tube of ink? In Chassidus, purpose precedes creation – there is G-d, then His desires, then how He brings about His desires, and then, somewhere at the end of a long chain, a plastic clickety thing that writes. A thing in Chassidus is its purpose first; the form it adopts in this physical world is almost an extra, necessary only for technical reasons.
Chassidus speaks top-down, using a set of axioms that precede existence to navigate resultant reality, while science observes the facts available on the ground, working its way “bottom-up” into general principles, patterns, and theories it attempts to use to explain the world we live in. To the Western mind, our world is the default position and purpose is up for debate ( olamos bepshitus v’Elokus behischadshus). In Chassidic thought, G-d is the default reality while the physical space we occupy is secondary, only true for the worth bestowed upon it by G-d ( Elokus bepshitus v’olamos behischadshus).
The first thing that emerges out of this is that there can be two ways of understanding the world, and logic compels neither. This conclusion follows before even considering the actual content of what is discussed here. Following this you realize that the possibilities are not limited to two. What makes something logical is how internally consistent it is. The attempt to explain things rationally is the pursuit of contextualization, of making all the pieces fit. Any system of understanding, we soon realize, can be considered rational no matter how foreign its axioms may seem, as long as everything introduced into it follows the underlying principles and poses no contradiction to its fundamental maxims.
You don’t need Chassidus to demonstrate this point. The various schools of mathematics, physics, and philosophy are diverse and divergent enough to engender the realization that any system of ideas organized coherently and consistently can be entirely rational even as it runs contrary to common sense or other known systems. It is simply that the average Western layperson may tend to think only in the singly-focused way illustrated above and must be introduced to other systems of thought in order to arrive at this understanding. This newly acquired insight forces us to realize that even our beliefs are a choice. By extension, logic itself cannot compel the notion that our worth is measured by artificial standards of intelligence, education, achievement, or beauty; and if reason does not generate a singular set of values, then how we assess right and wrong, truth and falsehood, is a far more personally involved process than one of simple proof. It is a process that challenges our very sense of what it means to be human: our autonomy.
IV. Chassidus: What It Means To Be Human
In the Hemshech of Shavuos 5665, the Rebbe Rashab discusses the process by which G-d creates the world. This process is known as “Seder Hishtalshelus” and is the template model for our own internal psychology. The Rebbe Rashab explains how G-d moves through this process from one internal stage outward to the next, constantly making a renewed and active choice to further the process of creation. Though we will not go through each step of the process here, we will examine a couple of examples to bring out the point.
Ratzon: The first step in the process of Hishtalshelus is called ratzon. Often translated as “will”, ratzon is the pull from within the autonomous self to something external to it. It is the primal connection between parent and child, or the seeker’s pull to meaning. The first thing we notice about ratzon is that it establishes a connection between the self and something outside the self, something that could be entirely insignificant if not for the worth ascribed it by this ratzon-pull. Prior to ratzon, the self exists isolated and for all intents and purposes internally self-sufficient. Ratzon is the point at which the independent, volitional self first connects with a reality outside itself.
(In our experience, we feel ratzon not as an expression of our autonomy but as a pull we cannot control; however, this does not parallel ratzon in its purest form, as it exists pre-manifestation in the body. At its core, ratzon is the pull experienced by the self after the choice to establish a point of connection between the self and said external thing.)
Seichel: Seichel, the intellect or the seat of perception, is the next step in the process. Here is where the self attempts to internally contextualize – to “make sense of” – all it perceives within a rational structure. Seichel sees ratzon within a broader context and attempts to find reasonable methods of fulfilling the ratzon. Seichel is all about coherence and organization; where ratzon is high-powered and overpowering, seichel is calm and measured, methodical and consistent.
At this point, we have witnessed two transitions: the first from the self to ratzon, and then from ratzon to seichel(2). To analyze the transitions between the steps discussed so far:
The soul in and of itself is complete, requiring nothing to give its existence worth. It is unconnected to anything and has no need to be connected to anything. What is it that moves the soul to step outside of itself and establish a connection with the outside world? The Rebbe Rashab refers to this force as “chiddush”, meaning something new, some force from outside, a transcendent agent of change, without yet defining what exactly this “chiddush” actually is.
Ratzon, too, does not of itself necessitate seichel. Ratzon is powerful, almost forceful and overtaking. Seichel puts limits on ratzon’s expression. As the Rebbe Rashab points out, a meshugene (crazy person) is one who allows his ratzon to consume him. Seichel sets up parameters and guidelines, and even though ultimately it serves to achieve the end goal of the ratzon, it does so while taking into account the world around it, and this restrains some of the natural energy of ratzon. So while in our experience, our natural response to a powerful ratzon may actually be to devise, within seichel, a plan to achieve our desired ends, it is important to understand that there is nothing in the nature of ratzon itself as it exists within the preintellectual psyche that necessitates seichel as the next step, and, in fact, the very energy and nature of seichel runs contrary to the velocity ratzon defaults to. What is it in the self that allows for the leap from ratzon to seichel despite the vast divide that separates them? This, too, is referred to as “chiddush”.
In both cases, there is not only nothing of point A motivating the transition to point B, but transition to the next step runs contrary to the nature of point A. This pattern repeats itself throughout the steps of Hishtalshelus. While the contrast between steps is not always so stark as it is here, there is always that outside force that guides the self to the next step. This force does not emerge naturally as a byproduct of the previous step but instead is something external to the process, transcendent of it and yet necessary to further it. What is it?
This chiddush-force is the volitional will, the expression of the autonomy of the core self. G-d does not create the world by aligning a row of dominoes and tipping the first one. He is present at every level of creation , every moment choosing both to continue creating the world (see also Tanya Section II, Sha’ar Hayichud Veha’emunah) and to continually invest Himself, His autonomy, in the process of its creation from His deepest Being to the penultimate of external expression, the spoken word, that which emerges in our experience as created reality.
In light of all this, let us consider what it means to be human. What is the deepest part of ourselves, our humanity, and how does it manifest in our life and experience?
Man is created in the image of G-d. The most powerful expression of G-d’s connection to us is His commitment to continued investment, His activechoice at every moment to engage creation. Similarly, it is in choosing to engage and connect – and not in attempting rational perfection – that we access and express who we are as people.
A core difference that emerges between the two value systems – the one with logic at its head and the one sourced in G-d and His choice to bestow worth on creation via connection – is the accountability model of each. The belief that to be logical is to be perfect causes us to try to find the link between everything; how each step leads to the next. We believe something is real only insomuch as it can be understood. We may often attempt to trace people’s choices and decisions to an identifiable psychological influence, be it upbringing, a tenuous relationship with a parent, trauma, or mental well being. This compromises our sense of our own autonomy and traps us with the belief that we and everything we do continue to be inescapably caused by a force outside ourselves. In contrast, Chassidus believes in people and in their ability to make choices. We are responsible and therefore accountable for our actions. There is a cost to this belief system as well, and that is that our actions are less easily excusable. But herein our autonomy is given sanction, and in this we are most powerfully and indeed most vulnerably human.
This contrast is strikingly manifest in the differences between the kinds of questions each paradigm will ask about a given choice. For the Western thinker, the obvious question regarding choice is “ why/what caused or influenced this choice”. The system of cause and effect precedes all, even our humanity. In Chassidus, such a question is incoherent because choice is axiomatically the starting point of all that follows. To ask why about a choice that precedes seichel(3) is to fundamentally misunderstand its being a choice, emerging directly out of 3 the individual’s volition. When it comes to issues of cause and effect, the question of Chassidus is not what caused this change but who. What Chassidus will ask about a choice is to what end it is directed – and the answer in creation, Chassidus teaches us, is simply connection. Midrash Tanchuma, Naso 16 states: “G-d desired to have a home in the lower worlds.” In contrast to the Western value for the mind above all else, Chassidus identifies our humanity by cutting through to our ability, like G-d (so to speak), to choose to connect, to direct our self to where we will it, sometimes so subtly that the difference to an outsider is indistinguishable, and sometimes so consequentially that we create new realities.
V. In Our Personal Lives
When we overvalue intellect and that which can be measured, placing it on a pedestal, worshipping it as a false god, we do ourselves a great disservice. Our self-worth suffers as do the things that ultimately give us the deepest satisfaction – connection to those we care about and the courage to tap into the parts of ourselves whose power is greater than we can measure.
We learn first that just because we default to a certain intellectual position does not mean it is the only view there is. Chassidus teaches us that expressing our humanity lies in making the choice to connect. Choosing G-d and connection allows us to live meaningfully no matter the circumstance, freeing us from the bounds of painfully measured human worth and the limits we place on ourselves and others. Choosing to believe in our own volition empowers us to take responsibility for our actions, good or otherwise – indeed, to most profoundly live. As Moshe Rabbeinu declares in Devarim 30:15-19: “Behold, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil… and you shall choose life.”
With regard to the specific issues enumerated above:
1. Within the self: Recognize that your worth is something bestowed upon you from above, not yours by any earned right. Study Chapter 2 of Likutei Amarim of Tanya with a competent teacher to more deeply understand your inherent worth. Acknowledge your emotions while not allowing them to limit you even as they may overwhelm you. Realize that difficult – which this is – does not mean bad.
2. In relating to others: Recognize the inherent worth of every individual, and learn to respect their ability to choose right or wrong. If your influence is warranted, let it be with this same respect for their autonomy; provide your information and support but leave the choosing to them. Respect their emotions as their experience and simultaneously believe in their ability to transcend the limitations they may sometimes impose on themselves. Seek to listen and understand, not to respond and resolve. Do not let the fear of being vulnerable limit you.
3. In faith/belief and intuition: Let go of the need to know what is coming and what you have available. Instead of saving up your resources in constant anticipation of disaster, recognize that G-d gives you the tools to deal with whatever you are faced with when you face it. Open yourself up to your right-brain abilities, the things you may have tended to ignore in the past. Trust that your abilities are deeper than you know. For this step in particular it is helpful to work with a mentor because life station and style of approach are unique to each individual.
4. In our connection to G-d: Often when we learn that G-d has made Himself vulnerable for the sake of connection to us, we react with horror. How could we possibly believe that the most complete and perfect Being has desires that He looks to us to fill? But in rejecting this understanding we betray our idealization of mathematical perfection. Appreciating connection as the highest form of living allows us to look to G-d with awe, wonder and tenderness for allowing us space in His reality.
May we all be so blessed to choose life.
1 A series of Chasidic discourses
2 In the Hemshech, the Rebbe Rashab continues down the chain of Hishtalshelus in detail. We will stop here for purposes of efficiency, but studying the rest of the process does provide greater insight and clarity on what we discuss here.
3 A distinction is made between choices that precede seichel and decisions that follow after seichel. The idea that a choice cannot be coherently questioned applies specifically to the kind of choice that precedes and leads to seichel.