Even the mundane can become holy

Sefer Baal Shem Tov Bereishit 114 ( Tzavaat HaRivash):

Also, serve God with all your might, because everything is “required [for Above].” 3 God wishes to be served in all possible ways. This means the following:

Sometimes one may walk and talk to others and is then unable to study [Torah]. Nonetheless, you must attach yourself to God and effect yichudim (unifications). 4 So also when on the road, thus unable to pray and study as usual, you must serve [God] in other ways.

Do not be disturbed by this. For God wishes to be served in all possible ways, sometimes in one manner and sometimes in another. That is why it happened that you had to go on a journey or talk to people, i.e., in order that you serve Him in that alternate way.

The Baal Shem Tov believes human beings have the capacity to multitask.  We have the ability to talk to someone and be able to focus on G-d.   This is illustrated by many stories of great rabbis, in the midst of a conversation with another person, the rabbi would be able to give the person full attention while also be focused on G-d.  Or the tailor who works on fixing garments while in the meantime is focus on unifications (Yichudim). 

The question for today is; Is the Baal Shem Tov really assuming this is a possibility for all people or is this the level of great people, while the rest of us are not capable of such singlemindedness? In my opinion, I do believe this line can be read and incorporated into any individual’s daily practice.  However, as is a noted argument amongst historians of Hasidism, I am not convinced that the Baal Shem Tov would have considered this to be for the general public, rather this was an idea that would be for the aspiring elite.

17th of Tammuz?

The Chatam Sofer provides an interesting and creative answer to a question in the Gemara.  His answer comes from an approach in which the Neviim could not have erred.  This reminds me of the Abravanel who had to explain all the scribal errors in Jeremiah as resulting from his lacking in formal education.  Of course, the difficulty of that is that Jeremiah is also the attributed scribe of other Biblical works containing few errors.

The Gemara, assuming a uniformity for dating of events in the Jewish past, “(Taanis 28b) asks why we fast on 17 Tammuz if in Sefer Yirmiyahu it says that the walls of Yerushalayim were breached on the 9th of Tammuz and not on the 17th. The Gemara answers that the walls were breached on the 9th during Churban Bayis Rishon and on the 17th during Churban Bayis Sheni. Since we are in Galus from Churban Bayis Sheni, we fast on the 17th.”

The reality of professional athletes

The recent craze surrounding the phenomenal Stephen Strasbourg has caused many who write about sports to reflect on should’ves and could’ves.  Usually, the comparisons for Strasbourg include guys like Marc Prior, the former Cubs pitcher who ended up being injury prone after a few phenomenal years in the majors.  In an article in the New Republic, Noam Scheiber talks about a forgotten hero of the Washington Nationals, John Patterson, and how Patterson represents the reality of all sports, namely the challenges and difficulties of succeeding.

Has Hasidism Gone Astray?

This is the subject of a piece written by Art Green in this week’s Jewish Forward.  In his article, he describes how early Hasidic thinking was about love of G-d and infusing Judaism with spirit.  As with any grass-roots movement, however, events occurred making it main stream,  the teachings allowed for the eventuality of change and perceived loss of innocence.  Hasidism became dynastic, as each court saw familial successors and Hasidism became another vehicle to stave off Enlightenment in Eastern Europe.  To make matters worse for Green, post Holocaust Hasidism was highly insular, though this stemmed from a need to regroup and regrow.  Green calls for a return to a “pure” Hasidic thought. 

The challenge he presents is both real and naive at the same time.  For many in the Modern Orthodox community, the study of hasidic thought is a means of infusing life with spirit, yet we, like Green, try to gloss over the realities of what Hasidism is about.  It is about the rebbe/tzaddiq, which is described hagiographically even in the early Baal Shem Tov stories.  It is about fighting modernity, for to stave off monotony, we need to constantly be finding spirit in Judaism and not outside.  Hasidism is not necessarily compatible with a secular lifestyle.  Its early thinking can’t be removed from the people, who were all halachically centered. 

Of course, at the same time, never judge a religion by the people who practice it.

When we don’t know what to choose

The NY Times magazine had an interesting and heartwrenching piece in this past weekend’s magazine.  In “What Broke my Father’s Heart, ” Judith Butler describes the deaths of her two parents and the challenges the family faced while her father was declining in his health.  In this piece, she describes the choices her mother made which prolonged her father’s life to a point of complete mental deterioration instead of allowing nature to take its course.  Her mother decided to have a pacemaker placed in her husband to prolong his life.  She then immediately felt regret and spent the next few years wishing she could turn it off.

The piece describes the family’s struggles with the current medical establishment regarding the lack of discussion of advanced planning as well as what they perceived to be unnecessary medical procedures.  The story concludes with the author’s mother deciding against anything aggressive that might incapacitate, thus allowing her to die on her own time in complete control. 

I will leave aside the clear political leanings of the article.  In terms of the human element, I always find that either people are ill-informed and don’t know what to ask or that people are too timid to ask questions.  At the same time, there are drs. who sometimes forget that healing isn’t always about making physically better.  Drs also run into problems when it comes to advising because there is a fine line between allowing for patient autonomy and also providing them with legitimate, expert advice. 

Read the piece and consider the challenges of dealing with our elderly.  This goes back to the piece I discussed a few weeks ago about the dual thinking about death and dying.

Responsiblity above all else

Without placing blame on any particular party in the Gulf oil spill, R. Shmuly Yanklowitz discusses the issue of collective responsibility from a Jewish perspective.  It is refreshing to get a perspective on a major current event without having to resort to finger pointing.  The finger pointing is potentially important from other perspectives, but when it comes to lessons learned, perhaps better we observe what else we can garner from a tragic situation. 

In this piece he discusses human fallacy, arguing from the Shulchan Aruch that while error is natural for human beings, blaming something on an accident doesn’t always remove personal responsibility.  We should learn from the oil spill that we need to be more wary of what we do in our lives and minimize potential damage and accident.  Our goal in life is to both do good and avoid harm.

How generations evolve

The following piece Involuntary Transit Through Evolving Consciousness by Jonathan Schorsch spoke to me about the ideas of parenting in relationship to each person’s place in the world.  Here are some thoughts as I posted at The Book of Doctrines and Opinions: notes on Jewish theology and spirituality

I found much truth in Schorsch’s self portrait. We all look for our own voice in this world, breaking the previous generations voice. Yet we forget that we are mere mortals who cannot know all. Eventually, the next generation begins to see that we are not the be all and end all of all discussion, thus they also explore. The challenge is the obvious need to let go.

In terms of the image of Terach and Abraham, I think the real fear, not mentioned, is that eventually the Abraham goes out on his own, and all that is left of the Terach is VaYamat Terach B’Haran, that Terach dies without fulfilling his ultimate goal. In a sense, the final element of the metaphor might be the seeming irrelevance of the previous generation. Yet, we know that the ideal is to look to the previous generation for wisdom in old age. Perhaps, this is part of why the one idol was not destroyed. We can destroy the idols of the previous generation, but something must remain as a connection.

The Rebbe – book review

Disclaimer:  I purchased the book The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

I think to some up my whole review in one word, this book was disappointing.  Much of my concerns have been discussed in other reviews which I have posted to at the end.  However, I will share some of my personal impressions of The Rebbe

First, the authors attempt, rather poorly, at psychoanalyzing the life of R. Schneerson.  Part of their challenge is that they do not engage more of his thought.  How can I gain an insight into a person’s inner psyche when I am not privy to what he was thinking and saying.  Profs. Heilman and Friedman conjecture and speculate based on secondary material and mere speculation.  The most obvious examples include the question of why he spends years in Berlin and Paris.  Profs Heilman and Friedman believe this was his way of living a cosmopolitan, secular life.  This is assumed for the simple reason as there seems not to be another legitimate reason for R. Schneerson spending time in the decadence of the west. 

Another disappointment of the book was that the book seems to die immediately after R. Schneerson dies.  They devote one chapter to the movement post R. Schneerson.  In the chapter, they seem to argue that Chabad-Lubavitch can'[t last without someone in charge.  I would beg to differ on the following grounds.  One, we cannot conjecture from other movements because Chabad is the first chasidic movement to have losts its Rebbe physically but to have a vast library of audio and video that can keep him alive.  Regarding his teachings, let me just state one word, Breslov.  Chasidic movements can exist without a Rebbe if the movement believes the Rebbe continues to lead even after life.  Third, in our world, many of the major Orthodox movements, such as Lakewood or YU Orthodoxy continue to thrive without the visionary figurehead.  Their followers, whether they were impacted directly by the particular rabbi, continue to look to the rabbi’s books to find inspiration and answers in this world. 

Not to say this book is a complete waste, I do want to delve briefly into one aspect of R. Schneerson’s personality which I do believe the authors were able to stress.  R. Schneerson was alone.  He seems to have not had a human confidante other than his wife with whom he could express his fears, doubts, etc.  Heilman and Friedman claim this is part of led to his supposed increasing sense of messiahship, based on their belief that R. Schneerson believed and hence acted as if he would be the Messiah.  Their argument was that if he had people to whom he could turn who weren’t his Hasidim, then perhaps he wouldn’t have been caught up in his own hype.  Again, I do think they lack evidence to fully justify their comments on this subject, yet I do concede that R. Schneerson partially spent much time at his father in law’s grave so as to have time to be alone with someone whom he could “talk to” about his problems, etc. 

I may have more thoughts on their book later in the week.   Meanwhile, again, please read some of these reviews for different perspectives on The Rebbe.

For additional and informative reviews of this book see the following links:

Chaim Rapoport Review

“Giving the Rebbe a Biography”

No Holds Barred: Did the Lubavitcher Rebbe con the world?

How The Lubavitcher Rebbe Lives On

Rabbi’s Biography Disturbs Followers

The Life (and Death and Life) Of the Rebbe

The humanity of Rebbes

In a recent article in the AJS, Maya Balakirsky Katz presents a comparative analysis of the case history of the Rebbe Rashab, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, as written by his psychoanalyst Wilhelm Steckel and the Rebbe’s son, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson.  The obvious goal of the article is to parse out what really happened to the fateful and unique event in early 20th century Hasidic history, namely turning to a modern scientific figure for support in psychological crisis.  While this article has been recently quoted for its sensationalist element, the revelation that the Rebbe Rashab was highly likely to have been molested as a child, I think there is a more tremendous value in examining the whole piece. 

Many people thrust into positions of power by family or communal circumstance tend to struggle with the loneliness of being far removed from people.  This is especially true when one is seen as the individual to which one goes when crisis hits.  In hagiographic literature of religious figures, we are often given the false impression that the person, when expressing a sense of unworthiness, is really just speaking out of a sense of humility.  Clearly this is not always the case, and this article presents just one example.  The Rebbe Rashab, at least before his therapy, seemed to be a man who struggled with the concept of being a Rebbe when he was still working on himself.  He was struggling with something very common, how to quell his sexual desires, as a good Hasid was supposed to do, especially as Rebbe. 

Her article does a good job in its previously mentioned aim, comparing Steckel’s account with R. Yitzchak Yosef Schneerson’s account.  While both contain errors as is pointed out, one gets the clear sense that the rewriting was coming more from the hand of R. Schneerson.  Nevertheless, this rewriting is an interesting insight into the hasidic psychology of one’s evil inclination (regardless of how the inclination manifests). 

From a different, secondary perspective, her piece jogs in me the need to reexamine the question of what does spiritual leadership mean for the guru, the rebbe, the saint, etc?  To quote a favorite piece that illustrates the general burden of being in a position of leadership:

Sometime after his death, a friend said of the Chasidic Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn, “If there had been someone to whom he could have talked, he would still be alive.” Rabbi Moshe must have listened to the problems of his Chasidim for many years and was likely very helpful to them.  When it came to his own problems, however, he had nobody to whom he could pour out his heart.  His friend was convinced that if he had had such a person to talk to, he might not have died so prematurely. – “The Muse of Relational Listening,” Samuel Chiel from Jewish Relational Care A-Z ed. by Rabbi Jack H. Bloom PhD. p. 101

Not to excuse the actions of any individual who might act upon one’s evil inclinations, but recognize the pressures of leadership.  We often forget what it must mean for the spiritual leader to have others follow him/her.  Granted for some that is part of the thrill, hence the cult mentality.  For others the burdens can be tremendous due to one’s own problems, especially if one is humble enough to recognize that he/she does have problems that need to be addressed.

Update Jun. 18, 2010:  I found this interesting response piece about the sensationalism made of Katz’s article. See it an the accompanying links in that piece for more on the Rebbe Rashab’s encounter with Modern psychoanalysis.

Argument as a natural consequence of existence

Sefer Baal Shem Tov Bereishit # 52:

The purpose of man’s creation in this world is for one to busy oneself with Torah study and doing mitzvot as it says in the tiqqunim (Tiqqunei Zohar tiqun 40).  “‘And he divided the waters from the waters.’ The secret here is to be occupy oneself with oral Torah and to distinguish between the permitted and forbidden, the pure and impure, etc.”  From the Shechina, also known as halacha, comes forbidden, impure etc. However, everything emanates from the six extensions of the lesser countenance, which has a right and a left, which is kindness on the right and strength on the left.  How much more so does it emanate from the three upper sefirot (hochma, binah and daas), which are singular.  Therefore, our teacher explained the Gemara (Eruvin 13b, Hagigah 3b); even though these are permitted and these are forbidden, this refers to the level of the six extensions of the lesser countenance.  However, above the level of Binah, which is called “living G-d,” all is one.  This is what it means when we say “These and these are the words of the living G-d (Elu V’Elu Divrei Elokim Hayyim).” [Ben Porat Yosef 69c]

Apparently, the Baal Shem Tov reads the concept of mahloqet, argument, as being a natural consequence of creation.  As multiples come into existence, it becomes impossible to have any singularity other than G-d.  I find his claim much more compelling than to argue for a historical approach, namely, as things become forgotten, arguments occur.  In a global sense, any and all argument must be “true” for multiplicity of existence would also require an infinite amount of possibility of description and response. 

For an article on the notion of mahloqet in early hasidism, see Shaul Magid ” The intolerance of tolerance : “mahaloket” (controversy) and redemption in early Hasidism” Jewish Studies Quarterly 8,4 (2001) 326-368.

On Elu V’Elu in general, see the recently translated work, The Open Canon: On the Meaning of Halakhic Discourse, by Avi Sagi.