This made me think about some objections raised against Chabad “suprematism”. More about that further down.
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One of my rabbis likes to tell this story:
One time, a man had to have a part of his body amputated. He came to a doctor and said that he feels uncomfortable in the mikve and asked for a prosthesis. The doctor could only offer him a prosthesis made of wood. The patient agreed.The moral of the story is that not every feeling is genuine.
After a week or so, he came back and said: “Doctor, I have feelings in my prosthesis.” The doctor said that it was impossible. “No, I really have feelings there.”
“Fine, let me take a look.” The doctor examined the prosthesis and said: “It’s not feelings. It’s termites.”
The insistence of the teachings of Baal Shem Tov is that Hashem has be served with joy — simcha. In fact, there is a strong statement of Baal Shem Tov that you cannot serve Hashem without joy, because without joy one cannot fully attach himself to G-d (let alone have emunah in Hashem) and fight yetzer ha’rah. For explanation of this concept in Tanya, see this shiur.
It is a very strong and central opinion of Alter Rebbe that for an emotion to be real, it has to be internalized. When a husband does all his duties in the family and to his wife, but experiences no emotion towards her, this is not a marriage but a social contract. When a husband experiences emotion towards the wife but doesn’t know anything about the wife herself, this emotion is not about the wife — it’s about himself, his own experiences regarding the wife. It’s termites.
Likewise, one can experience an emotion about some aspect of Jewish culture — and not about Judaism itself. It is possible to do all the mitzvos — and technically fulfill one’s obligation in the realm of action — but still not fulfill the mitzvos completely (Arizal comments that Torah doesn’t say “all mitzvos”, but “the whole mitzva”, which includes fulfilling a mitzva with feeling, conscious intent and understanding the essence of the mitzva). Meaning, still fulfill the mitzvos and study Torah not for Hashem, but for oneself.
Finally, it is possible to fulfill the mitzvos (and pray to Hashem) with emotion — with this emotion being fake. How does one know it’s fake? It’s not about G-d. Why not? Because you don’t know anything about G-d.
Now, some may object that it is impossible to know anything about G-d. That’s true to a degree. One cannot know anything about G-d’s Essence — one can still learn about His revelation of Himself. Lehavdil, one cannot truly know anything about his wife’s essence (and the longer one is married, the more he realizes this), but this doesn’t mean one should give up trying to understand and learn about his wife, her personality, her views, thoughts and specific desires.
One cannot know anything about G-d’s Essence. But, thank G-d, we don’t have to. Our relationship with Hashem starts much lower — in the relationship He established with us and with this world; the interface He created for us to relate to Him. And one can learn about this interface.
One can learn those aspects about Hashem that are perceivable and important for us (His Oneness, His simplicity, uniqueness, lack of change; how He fills and encompases all the worlds — and what this means); those that Torah itself discusses and stresses. One can learn about the purpose for which Hashem created this world, and how we are capable of fulfilling it. At the very least, one can learn about the aspects of G-d that have to do very closely and personally with our everyday lives — His revelation of Himself as our King and Creator and as our Father.
Some may object that these concepts may be too difficult for a simple person to learn. That is why Chabad Chassidus explains these ideas in a way easy enough for everyone to understand. And I don’t hear too many people saying that Gemara should not be studied, because it’s too difficult. Is Chassidus too difficult? Fine, find a teacher. One should learn Torah with teacher anyway. And nowadays, one can even find someone able and willing to explain Chabad Chassidus online. [Update: see the next post for more detail on the supposed difficulty of learning esoteric concepts.]
But what if thinking about Hashem cannot produce emotion? That’s impossible, says Alter Rebbe, because mind rules naturally over the heart.
Now, of course, there is such a problem as “narrowness of the neck” (when understanding and knowledge of intellectual concepts does not penetrate into emotion and action). To rectify this problem, one must increase his learning of Chassidus (for me, Chassidus stopped being purely philosophical when I started learning about the most philosophical, mystical and intellectual concepts of it — for “the beginning is wedged in the end”).
One can also learn things that have to do more with his everyday reality. One can find a mashpia, or try to be surrounded by warm Jewish community — not so that the mashpia or the community create emotiona about Hashem and Torah (those emotions would be fake again), but so that they can pave the way for the real emotions, influenced by intellect, to arise.
At the end of the day, it is absolutely necessary for one’s emotion to be internalized and both it and one’s actions come from intellectual understanding.
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To someone who has learned Chabad Chassidus, all of the above is as obvious as a statement that a car’s motion needs to come from the engine’s rotations. “Well,” one could say, “it’s also possible to shift the car to neutral and push it. Or tie it to a horse and have the latter pull it.” Yes, but for how long — and most importantly, that is not what the car is about, is it? The whole chiddush of the automobile was internal combustion engine. The whole chiddush of Chassidus is serving Hashem with pnimiyus.
Aye, sometimes the battery dies, and the engine cannot be turned on, or the transmission is messed up, and the engine is working, but the wheels are not turning — fine, so fix the car. Don’t tell me it’s the problem with the car’s design. This particular car is broken, and before the internal combustion engine can be utilized, all the parts connecting it to the wheel need to be in place.
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This reminds me of something I read in Likkutei Diburim from Frierdiker Rebbe:
In our times, Chassidus is used not for what it was intended.
Fixing of middos does not have anything to do with Chassidus. The correction of middos has to happen earlier. For fixing of middos, and certainly for sur mei’roh and correction of bad moral qualities — for this Chassidus should not be used for sure. Even for asei toiv — the good moral qualities and ahavas Yisroel — even for this, the path of the service of Chassidus should not be used. [...]
The ultimate purpose of Chassidus is haskolo and hasogo [learning and understanding], even in the service of the heart. [...]
It used to be that people prayed with hishtapchus ha’nefesh — today one cannot see this at all. And to “think Chassidus”, to hold one’s though on some idea for several hours — people don’t even know the taste of this.