Trust issues

From Why I am Not Modern Orthodox:

In conversation after conversation with friends, peers, colleagues within the ex-Haredi community, what I often hear is not a rejection of religion itself but the erosion of a basic trust. Trust in those who claim the mantle of authority to deliver timeless truths. Trust in rabbis and ancient texts and traditions. Trust that anyone but we as individuals can determine our own truths and values.

Yes, yes, yes and yes.

And I would change the last line to, ‘Trust that anyone can determine their own truths and values.’

Halakhic Man, by Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik


Written in 1944 by Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveichik, the head of the Rabbinacal school at Yeshiva University, Halakhic Man is a description of the ideal Jew in a modern world.

The Halakhic Man has a number of distinct characteristics.

1) He is rational

Like a mathematician he believes that there is an ideal world, which reality is at odds with. This is the world described by Halakha, and it can be approached only through reason. He studies all of its nuances, so that he can transform his reality into the preexisting ideal.

2) He is optimistic, content

Unlike the prototypical homo religiosus, he does not suffer from a conflict between body and soul. He sees no duality. His purpose is to rectify this world, and to yearn to transcend it, would be evading his purpose. Man can find his perfection only here, not in spiritual realms, or after death.

3) He is creative

“The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself.” -pg. 109

Creative as opposed to deterministic. In a deterministic world, time is linear.  You and everything that you do is is simply an effect of an earlier cause. Free choice gives a person the freedom to create each moment as it comes, and with that choice to redefine the past that led to it and the future to which it might lead.

Not a Litvak

As discussed in the essay ‘Rabbi Soloveichik’s Halakhic Man: Not a Mithnagged’, the Halakhic Man proposed here is not at all similar to the Lithuanian tradition from which Rabbi Soloveichik came. HM is similar to the Misnagdic tradition in his appreciation for study, and for the minutae of the law. He is dissimilar, and even contrary, to the idea that man’s purpose is to be found here, in this world. That is a Hassidic perspective, and a relatively modern idea.

However, the implications that RS and Hassidism take from that idea are however, very different. In Hassidism there’s a back and forth between heaven and earth – the desire to transcend the limits of this world, and the need to stay grounded here and carry out G-d’s will. Like the heart pumping, they’re the same movement really. The one drives the other.

According to RS, it’s all about this world. There’s no need to transcend when living a life according to the Halakhic blueprint is the true way to realizing your religious self.

Best quotes ever

Religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate, an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging, clamorous torrent of man’s consciousness with all its crises, pangs, and torments. – Footnote 4, pg. 142

Take that Raskolnikov.

Choice forms the base of creation. Causality and creation are two irreconcilable antagonists. -pg. 116

Forget evolution vs. creation. Are evolution and free choice (=creation) irreconcilable?

The experience of Halakhic Man is not circumscribed by his own individual past… His time is measured by the standards of the Torah, which began with the creation of heaven and earth. Similarly, Halakhic Man’s future does not terminate with the end of his own individual future at the moment of death but extends into the future of the people as a whole, the people who yearn for the coming of the Messiah and the kingdom of G-d… We have here a blurring of the boundaries dividing time from eternity, temporal life from everlasting life. -pg. 117

Welcome to infinity in the everyday.

Halakhic Man, Part I

A theological essay by Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik


Cognitive man –

The man of reason, the man who seeks an explanation for anything, who accepts only what is rational, and whose behavior follows his intellect. The scientist, the mathematician – disciplined, principled.
Math might be one of the purest forms of cognition since a world in math is an idealized, perfect version of our reality. One starts with ideal and then find how the world fits to what must be true, mathematically.

Homo Religiosus –
The artist. He revels in mystery. He wants outside of reason, beyond it, to the infinity he knows but can’t explain – the depth of feeling, the blurring of pain and pleasure, the in turns enormity and utter insignificance of the human being.
The religious man experiences intense conflict, periods of ecstasy, is constantly in the throes of a tumultuous questioning of existence and identity.

The religious man looks for questions he can’t answer; cognitive man looks for answers that are unquestionable.

Halakhic man –
He is, of course, the combination of both. He is a cognitive man, because to him, the world is a place to implement the idealized world that Halakha describes. He first seeks to understand what such a world would look like – hence the endless discussion of distance and size, endless what if scenarios, and pages devoted to the elucidation of one word.
He is a religious man because his cognition of the Halakhic world brings him closer and closer to truth, which he feels absolutely, but always within the framework of Halakha.

The implications –
Halakhic man does not suffer from the dualism usually associated with religion.

In mind: There is no schizophrenia, no yo-yoing between the heights of spiritual ecstasy and the depths of soul-sucking materialism.
Unlike the mystic, he does not presume to find G-d only outside of reality, in rapturous awe, or overwhelming love. The whole of his relationship with G-d consists of his interaction with this world, of his realizing the idealized Halakhic map, in practice.

In heart: Halakhic man is not uncomfortable in this world. He doesn’t see it as a dark and evil place, devoid of G-dliness. It is not an obstacle to but the means by which he encounters G-d.

In behavior: There is no dualism in his behavior. He is not one man during prayer, and another in the marketplace. His relationship with G-d doesn’t end at the door of the prayer-house. It penetrates every moment, every place, every aspect of his own nature. Every waking moment, there is a Halakhic model to inform his behavior.

Nevertheless, he is not devoid of the depth of emotion for which the homo religiosus, only it is contained. Instead of a futile quest, and the confusion/hopelessness/emptiness/madness that often accompanies it, the religious experience of the Halakhic man is grounded in knowledge and reason.


In Chapter IX (pg. 49-63) the author highlights the difference between Halakhic man and a prototypical follower of the Chabad branch of Chassidism.

He argues that according to Chabad there is an inherent dualism, which results in exactly the characteristics that Halakhic man is free of. According to the Chabad doctrine G-d is in exile in this world of lies and faithlessness (Shecinta Begalusa). Therefore, the Chasid (one who studies Chassidism) desires to escape this world, his soul reaches heavenward – to free itself, to free G-d. He is torn between two worlds, and dismayed by the state of the reality he is forced to live with every day.

To support the idea that this world is anathema to a Chasid, he cites a discussion about whether G-d created the world for the sake of his kindness, or his will. The mystics (presumably this means or includes Chabad since most of the quoted material here is from Chabad sources) take the position that G-d created the world out of kindness, while Halakhic man says that G-d created it for his will. The difference being that if G-d created it out of kindness, it indicates a concession on G-d’s part, a lowering of Himself for the sake of creation. If He created it for His own will, then the world is clearly not a contradiction to Him. He desired it, and desired man to be in it, not to abandon it for inclusion in the oneness of G-d.

The advantage of the Halakhic man is that he’s free of all this conflict and depression. This is his only world.

This argument is missing two points.

First, Chapter 36 of Tanya – the same book and author that Rabbi Soloveichik quotes to argue his point – starts with a paraphrased quote from the Midrash, “G-d desired to make for himself a dwelling place in the lower realms.” It is explained to mean that the motivation to create the world was an inexplicable desire to be hidden and then recognized. In other words. That is the crux of the Chassidic understanding of – to bring G-d here.

In fact, Rabbi Soloveichik notes this himself in footnote 65. “It is interesting that even Habad doctrine understood creation from a voluntaristic standpoint…. But this entire matter is of exceptional profundity.”

According to that, the Halakhic and Hassidic men are in agreement that this world is not a necessary evil. It is, or could be through our effort, G-d’s happy place.

But there the agreement ends. R.S. claims that there is only downward motion of putting G-d’s vision of this world into practice. In Chassidus the yo-yoing described earlier – on one hand to cleave to G-d, on the other to engage the world – that is the necessary pulse of life. It is necessary both to wish for a purer, truer place and at the same time to transcribe G-d’s plan, outlined in the Torah and Halakha, into the real world. To bring Him here.

I’m assuming I’m missing something here. Rabbi S. knew all this. Nevertheless he a. gives the impression that Chabad Chassidus does not believe that this world is G-d’s goal and b. never mentions the yo-yo theory – leaving us with either the desire to escape the world, or to live solely within it.

Those two ideas are deeply ingrained in me, so I’m going to need to address them if I am to understand what R.S. really means.

An interesting aside that may or may not be important: R.S. quotes a Midrash to prove his point that the world is the end, not the means – which at that point would have been revolutionary (1944). That same Midrash is used to illustrate the same point in the Chabad Rebbe’s first discourse in 1951, which is basically his manifesto. The two draw different conclusions from there, but is it a coincidence?

So I’m left with this –
What’s wrong with the bi-directional approach? We need to desire something above and beyond us, and G-d needs to penetrate every beautiful and vile and picayune part of our lives.
Is the approach of the last two Chabad Rebiim, that this world is G-d’s true home, revolutionary even within Chassidus? Whose ideas influenced whose?
From the prospective of Rabbi Soloveichik – what is truly the advantage of the Halakhic man over the approach of the Chabad Chasid?


I found Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher from the first half of the 1800’s, and was immediately intrigued.

I was surprised to find his work so religious, and to find that it was lyrical and searching, not rational and a dissertation.

I know that when I listen to the lectures on it, and understand more of what I’ve read, some of the magic will be gone. But for now I’m still at the stage where what I’ve read has validated and articulated some of the things I always knew but always questioned. I feel less alone.

On faith:

Love,after all, has its priests in the poets, and occasionally one hears a voice that knows how to keep it in shape; but about faith one hears not a word, who speaks in this passion’s praises?

Faith, according to Kierkegaard, is the next step after philosophy. It’s more than rational. In Chassidic terminology, למעלה מטעם ודעת – higher than reason and knowledge.

On choosing the finite over the infinite:

But to be able to lose one’s understanding and with it the whole of the finite world whose stockbroker it is and then on the strength of the absurd get exactly the same finitude back again, that leaves me aghast (amazed).

The mind can take you as far as the infinite. It can lead you to reject this world for something more. But only faith, or what Kierkegaard calls ‘the absurd’ can bring you back, can make you recognize that the true challenge is to find meaning here. That’s the existentialist in him. Forget the spiritual, live in the temporal.

Existentialism should be incompatible with religion and faith. But not in this case. The Chassidic concept of Dira B’tachtonim, bringing G-d here, and not just G-d, but the ultimate essence of G-d – what is it not a celebration of the temporal? Of course according to Dira B’tachtonim, it’s a meeting of the finite and infinite, not one one over the other. Nevertheless.

And my favorite:

What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. (In his personal journal)

He says that every life has one content, in Hegel terminology ‘an unconditional commitment’ to an all encompassing purpose, that provides the content, the direction, the meaning of his life. Until it’s found a person won’t ever truly be a self. Some people never do find it, or commit to it.

Thoughts on ‘Fear and Trembling’ by Soren Kierkegaard, and the lectures on the book by Hubert Dreyfus at UC Berkley, found in iTunesU.

Everything is God

Thoughts on “Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism” by Jay Michaelson.

Early in the book, the author poses a startling question: If everything is God, why be Jewish?

A good question, once you’ve accepted the premise of nonduality, which is:

What we call God is simply a name for Existence. If you strip away the layers, at the core of everything you will find Him, It, You, God. Name it what you will, it is simply Being. It is Oneness. It cannot be defined, or delineated, and it definitely cannot be attributed desires, expectations, and moods.

The God we’ve come to know as kind, wise, forgiving, jealous, interested in what we eat and how we treat our neighbors, He is a dual God. He exists in a world only if we exist too, where there is good and evil, up and down, today and tomorrow.

In nondualism, where all of existence is just the pulse of Being, then the entire creation, the entire reality we know, the God that we know — it’s all meaningless. It’s a mirage, it’s a matrix. The only logical and possible choice is to lose the outlines of the self, and melt into the oneness.

And yet, instead of chasing oblivion, our sages have spent centuries arguing over the price of a stolen cow, and then insisted that this cow is the wisdom of God.

The answer is in the Zohar:

The Zohar can be read as an answer to a deceptively simple question: if everything is God, why does it appear as it does? Thus it begins from the premise of unity and then spends thousands of pages inquiring into multiplicity. How does the relative relate to the absolute? What is the meaning of evil, of distinction, of binaries and pairs? How does the undifferentiated light of the Ein Sof become refracted, as it were, through the prisms of the sefirot and into the many hues we know from our experience? By answering these questions the Zohar rebuilds the world. In this way, the Zohar is able to become the most outrageously anthropomorphic text in the Jewish tradition.

Among Hassidim there is a common quote that for the angels, “God is obvious. Creation is a curiosity.” For humans, “Creation is obvious. God is a curiosity.”

If we flip, and God becomes obvious, then the world loses its reality, and we need to reconstruct it. How is there coffee? Who am I? What am I doing here?

Yet despite this paragraph regarding the Zohar, the author never turns to Judaism as the mechanism of reconstruction. He claims that Judaism as a practice is inherently meaningless, except for cultural and nostalgic resonance. He maintains that there is no practice that could possibly allow for a relationship with the infinite. Any spiritual feeling, or idea, or experience can’t possibly be It, because if you can feel it, or conceive it, it’s not It.

What Hassidism claims is that truly, there is no way to relate to the infinite God, so God designed an elaborate mechanism where that impossibility happens. And that is why no matter how senseless Judaism seems to be, it’s the only sense there is. If God claims that making a blessing over a cup of wine when the clock strikes 6:36 is a better way to relate to him than by meditating on a mountain top, who are we to argue? It’s His matrix.

As an introduction to nonduality and nondual Judaism, this book is a treasure. But having brought us to the point of acknowledging that everything is nothing, the author leaves us with nothing. Finding God is only half the journey. Discovering what we’re doing here, where coffee smells like morning and trees sway in the breeze and babies die and children laugh, is just as crucial, and a lot more interesting.