Cultivating an Identity Within the Framework of Chassidus
Concepts in Chassidus / Essays 2019
CHASSIDUS AND INDIVIDUALITY: AN OXYMORON?
We are all on the lifelong journey of figuring out who exactly we are, what speaks to us, and what we identify with. But what does chassidus say about cultivating a healthy self-identity, one that expresses our individuality without curtailing our potential? The objective of this essay is to demonstrate how chassidic philosophy provides powerful tools for embarking upon the lifelong journey of self-discovery and personal growth. More specifically, this essay will outline how cultivating an identity within the framework of chassidus is not an oxymoron, but an attainable reality.
Every year, at the annual Chabad Shluchim Kinus convention, a photograph is taken of the now 5,000 Chabad Rabbis attending the event. For as long as I can remember, every year when the photograph is released, I hear the same joke: “I spot my Rabbi; he’s the one with the beard in the black hat!”
While I laughed the first time I heard the joke, eventually it became pretty stale. And then it became distasteful.
The joke’s underlying premise is that all Chabad Rabbis are the exact same. The picture is a visual representation of the homogeneity of the movement, lending itself to the joke very well. And in turn, the photograph propels the popular misconception that orthodoxy, and specifically Chassidic culture, is synonymous with conformity. A total lack of individuality.
In reality, this could not be further from the truth.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe established the shlichus system, empowering the Chassidim to become leaders in their own right, sending them as emissaries all over the globe to spread Judaism to every last Jew. A key factor in the shlichus system is the utilization of every emissary’s individuality to expand and spread the movement in their community. Chabad houses host a variety of different programs, catered to the needs of their particular communities, with no standardization of physical proceedings, provided they align themselves with the values and standards of the Chabad movement.
Further proof of the individuality of the nature of shlichus: all the prominent Chabad organizations of today (JLI, CTeen, Friendship Circle, to name a few) were not products of the Rebbe’s personal handiwork, but were created by the shluchim themselves.
But self-identity is not just what you’re allowed to do; it’s who you’re able to become. And who you already are.
AUTHENTICITY IN IDENTITY
While, the cultivation of a self-identity is a journey that every single Jew has the ability to find meaning in, meaning can only be achieved with the acknowledgement of one’s intrinsicality. And in order to get to the root of one’s intrinsic self, we must first eliminate the antithesis of our Jewish reality–the notion of hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy means that there is a disconnect between who one essentially is, and how they outwardly behave. And yet, when we understand Chassidic philosophy, it becomes clear that in fact, the very idea of hypocrisy does not even exist on Judaism’s radar.
People don’t like hypocrisy because they value authenticity. But we absolutely fool ourselves when we become convinced that in the name of authenticity we should be spared of religious obligations. Our distorted justifications usually run along the lines of either:
- “What’s the point of keeping this one mitzvah, if I’m not also doing other mitzvahs?”
- “I don’t identify with Judaism; it’s not who I am.”
But at our core, who actually are we? Are we the limiting definitions we assign to ourselves, or are we something so unprocurable and intrinsic, that it transcends all our physical behavior and actually is the truest reflection of ourselves?
In school, I always struggled when the teachers attempted to get to know us by asking that we “share something about ourselves.” This is not because I would have nothing to share–it is because the question “share something about yourself” evokes a million-and-a-half responses in my head that it’s hard to even know where to begin. I am a Jew. A young woman. Chassidic. A daughter. A friend. A musician.
But essentially, these are all labels. They tell you something about me–about my interests, my skills, my roles as a human being relative to my relationships with other people. But do they tell you about me, and my deepest inherent individuality as a human being and as a Jew?
As are many people, I am multifaceted, nuanced, layered. Those aforementioned descriptions are not who I innately am. They are mere labels; each one limiting me from my other definitions, none truly encapsulating my innermost self. While my relationships and interests identify something about me, they are not my true identity.
So we are still left with our initial question: who even are we?
OUR SOLE IDENTITY, THE SOUL WITHIN
Biology explains the anatomy of the body; chassidus explains the anatomy of the soul. And to know our souls, is to know ourselves.
The deepest dimension of our souls is called the yechidah. Yechidah comes from the word yachid, meaning oneness, because this level of the soul is eternally and intrinsically bound with G-d, receiving from the Oneness and Singularity of His very essence.
The yechidah expresses the innate essence of who we are, unaffected by all the superficialities and externalities of our worldly existence. For this reason, the yechidah is primarily expressed once a year, on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is a day where we deprive ourselves of ordinary, physical experiences, (eating, bathing, etc.) so that we get in touch with the spirituality and holiness of our intrinsicality.
In fact, the yechidah’s unparalleled holiness has a unique status from the rest of the soul: the total inability to ever become contaminated. The reason is simple: since the yechidah is such a deep, transcendental level of the spiritual soul, no physical act of the body can taint its eternal purity.
Illustrating this point is an interesting disagreement that takes place in the Talmud(1), concerning G-d pardoning our sins on Yom Kippur. While the sages maintain that “Yom Kippur atones only for those who repent,” Rebbi, author of the Mishna, states that “The essence of the day itself brings atonement. While the practical Jewish law follows that of the sages(2), Chassidus(3) explains how Rebbi could even claim such a seemingly radical statement.
Says chassidus, there are three different modes of connection to G-d. While the first two are dependent on one’s observance of G-d’s commandments or feelings of regret for transgressing His Will, such expressed sentiments are limited to the physical capacity of the human relationship. The third level, the deepest level of connection, is the level of essence. By virtue of our possessing a soul– which the Alter Rebbe describes in Tanya as “A literal piece of G-d from above(4)”–the depth of our essential being is completely one with the essence of G-d Himself.
On Yom Kippur, that essential connection and bond between G-d and the Jewish people is revealed. Therefore, Rebbi did not even factor sins into the equation when teaching his statement (that the essence of the day itself brings atonement), because at the essential, transcendental level of the soul, physical behavior is utterly insignificant. The mere fact that a day reveals the deep, essential bond between G-d and the Jewish people, independent of one’s personal observance, is enough for that unbreakable bond to remove the stain of sin.
And all this soul talk is not just a description of G-d or spirituality. It is a description of you–you at your innermost core.
So the excuse to not improve your relationship with G-d because it would be inauthentic and hypocritical in the context of your non-observant lifestyle, is antithetical to the truth of who you really are within. You are not a hypocrite for doing a particular mitzvah, despite how many others you may not be practicing, or whether or not it currently speaks to you, since the fulfillment of mitzvahs is actually the most reflective truth of your essential identity.
IT’S THE RULES THAT SET YOU FREE
But now, a fundamental question arises: Does cultivating an individual identity contradict the fact that our G-dly reality is our intrinsic essence?
The answer to this question can best be illustrated by taking a small trip down memory lane, and through the lens of nostalgia, recalling a game you likely spent a majority of your childhood playing: hide-and-go-seek. Though hide-and-go seek’s self-understood title follows the incredibly simple rules of: 1) hide and 2) go seek, there is a third imperative rule in the game, either explicitly stated or intrinsically understood: creating boundaries as to where the game can be played. Overhear children propose to play a game of hide-and-go-seek, and the conversation almost always sounds like this: “Let’s play hide-and-go-seek, upstairs is out of bounds.”
Imagine, momentarily, that this rule did not exist. Say two adults decided to embark on the hide-and go-seek adventure of a lifetime by beginning their game at an airport and not implementing a boundary rule. In fact, in this version, players can book flights to anywhere in the world, and the person tasked with ‘seeking’ the hidden, has the entire earth as a possibility in which to find his hiding friend.
As ridiculous as this sounds, without a boundary rule, this play would not be prohibited. Yet the problem with this method of playing is that the game would be totally worthless, not to mention inconclusive. It is near-impossible that a person could find their hiding friend when they have an entire globe as an option of where they may have disappeared to.
So in other words, creating parameters and boundaries in hide-and-go-seek does not restrict or inhibit the game; rather, it enables the game to be played properly, and ensures it can be completed successfully.
With this in mind, we can understand the answer to our earlier question.
Cultivating a self-identity is not the cessation of your individuality; it is merely the realization that, first and foremost, you are your G-dly soul. But every person was born with unique natures.
(In fact, the Alter Rebbe explains(5) that there are myriads of levels of souls among the Jewish people–whether interspersed throughout the various generations, or even just the vast difference between one generation’s leaders and its simpletons.) And since we are all built into bodies, with unique minds, abilities, and experiences that nobody else in the entire world possesses, it’s up to us to reconcile the uniqueness of our natural character with the innate truth of our innermost identity.
In our modern society, without the parameters enabling us to properly express our individuality, we see alarming statistics. In 2019, close to 50% of marriages worldwide end in divorce .(6) Additionally, since the turn of the 21st century, American suicide rates have been consistently increasing, among both men and women. Moreover, according to the 2017 World Happiness Report, Americans’ overall happiness has been steadily declining over the past decade.
Wouldn’t it be logical to assume that as society advances toward a culture more welcoming of all types of self-expression, happiness and overall life contentment would statistically increase along with it?
Yet this is evidently far from the case. Why?
The answer is simple: Attempting the daunting, lifelong task of finding ourselves, and cultivating our identities, like the boundaryless hide-and-go-seek game, is far too large a task to tackle without definitive, clear-cut parameters. These parameters do not serve as restrictions of our self-expression; rather, it is the parameters themselves which enable us to express ourselves in a way, finding true meaning and personal contentment.
TYING IT ALL TOGETHER
So now it all makes sense. Living completely immersed in the physical universe inevitably desensitizes us to spirituality, which is why we naturally identify with the uniqueness of our character, the giluyim, and not the intrinsicality of our G-dly essence, the etzem.
But G-d intentionally created us with two aspects to our soul: the expressed characteristics, and the essential, transcendental yechidah–the total Oneness between the Jewish people and the essence of G-d. And the yechidah is not just an intrinsic, eternal spirit, with no practical influence on our worldly realities. Rather, the yechida itself exerts its influence in all aspects of a person’s existence(7), thus permeating even his physicality with the essence of G-d.
And this does not at all take away from our individuality. Souls are like fingerprints. They are all the same thing, yet completely unique. Though the souls are all sourced in is the Supernal Wisdom of G-d(8), the varying giluyim of our emotional faculties, ultimately reflect our diverse individuality.
This was the problem with Babel. Babel(9) was a society of totalitarianism; one mission, one shared language, with no tolerance for individual identity. Choosing to punish the sinners by disseminate their unity–which had ultimately become the suppression of individuality–is G-d’s way of showing us how much He values individual identity.
Understanding all this, Chassidism does not remotely appear to be a culture of conformity or suppression. On the contrary, recognizing the truth of my G-dly existence as my real existence, empowers me to cultivating an identity where my personality, characteristics, and expressed identity accurately reflects my G-dly, inner identity. The real me.
So 5,000 Chabad Rabbis take one picture on a busy Brooklyn street. They may look the same, dress the same, and even think the same. But are they? Are they defined by their coats, their hats and their beards — or by something far deeper than that?
1 Shavuos 13a
2 Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 1:3; Hilchos Shegagos 3:10; cited by the Shulchan Aruch HaRav607:16.
3 Adapted from the maamar entitled Vichol Adam, 5723, and Sichos Simchas Beis HaShoevah, 5723, as well as Likkutei Sichos, Vol IV, Yom Kippur
4 Tanya, Chapter 2
5 Tanya, Chapter 2
7 Sichos in English, Tishre-Kislev 5747, Vol. 33, p. 48
8 Tanya, Chapter 2
9 Adapted from Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, https://digitalcommons.sacredheart.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1134&context=shureview