Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Lacanian psychoanalysis of Chabad and Modern Orthodox Judaism

(Slavoj Žižek, post-modernist troublemaker)

I am going to try to analyze Chabad and Modern Orthodoxy using the psychoanalytic approach of Lacanian triad: 'the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real' (I'll explain below).

I want to do this because I have for a long time thought about the dichotomy of the 'real' and the 'imaginary' in the MO world. In addition, recently, I have read Iraq: the Borrowed Kettle by Slavoj Žižek (pronounced as 'Slah-voy Zhih-zhek'), a Marxist philosopher-psychoanalyst. I obviously disagree with many of Žižek's ideas and conclusions about capitalism and the Western world, but I find his analytic methodology entertaining. (So, keep this in mind as you read the bits of this post about the Iraqi war. What matters is not the contents, but the analysis.)

In Iraq, Žižek analyzed the motivations for the 2003 invasion of Iraq using Lacanian psychoanalytic triad:

1. The imaginary: the purpose of the war was to spread the ideals and the benefits of the Western democracy. This was the official propaganda line fed to the masses in order to garner their support.

2. The symbolic: the purpose of the war was to spread American political hegemony. This level is called symbolic because the invasion of Iraq really served a 'symbolic' purpose in the international diplomatic stance of the USA: it strengthened its roles as the international policeman and 'paved the way' for the possibility and acceptability of now starting the war on the 'imaginary' grounds, without support of the UN, and in a form of preemptive strikes.

3. The real reason for the invasion, according to Žižek, was economic control over Iraqi oil and, more generally, strengthening of US dollar against the euro. (Perhaps one can tie in the Keynesian motive for mythical 'stimulus' of the economy through defense spending.) This is classical of Žižekian analysis of political events: he envisions a nation-state, a government, or a culture (e.g., the USA) as an individual, and applies to it Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, showing that (in his opinion) the sub-conscious drive is the real one.

Now, let me say at once that I do not necessarily agree with the above analysis of Iraqi war. Or, rather, I neither agree nor disagree. It is certainly the case that the invasion has failed on all three accounts: it did not help with spreading of democracy, either in the region or in the world; it has ruined US political image and led to diplomatic and military backlash, and it had an adverse effect on US economy on multiple levels, including, in the long-term, the current Great Recession. Of course, that doesn't mean that Zizek is wrong in his analysis of motivations.

As Kelsey Wood notes in Žižek: A Reader's Guide:
Žižek is careful to point out that in this Lacanian triad of imaginary-symbolic-real, each of these three levels has some degree of autonomy, and none of the is simply a mere semblance (Iraq, p.4). For example, ideological fantasy produces effects in people's behavior, and has an impact on people's lives. This indicates how fantasy is constitutive of symbolic reality. But again, with regard to the triad of imaginary-symbolic-real, 'it is not that one is the "truth" of the others; the "truth" is, rather, the very shift of perspective between them' (Iraq, p.6).
Again, I do not care whether or not Zizek's analysis is true. I care about using this method to analyse both MO and Chabad branches of 'frum' Judaism.

Let me start with Chabad, using davening as an example (I am crediting my wife for giving me this idea):

1. The imaginary: on this level, we look at davening through 'general' Orthodox Judaism. I.e., all the halachos of davening, the nusach, what davening consists of (the parts of davening), the zmanim, etc. Also, the purpose of davening as interpreted by Alter Rebbe: connection to Hashem.

The 'imaginary' level can also be termed 'ideal' or 'formal'. In a chess game, the 'imaginary' dimension of a chess piece is the rules by which it moves. A synonymous expression for 'imaginary' is 'make-belief', and that applies to the religious application of the Lacanian triad: the 'imaginary' aspect is not something that is not real (G-d forbid), but it is something one must believe in, or at least it's not something accessible to one's immediate experience; it is both a foundation and a goal, both of which must exist on the level of emunah-like commitment (you can read here more about the distinction between emunah and da'as).

2. The symbolic: when looked at through Chabad Chassidus, davening is not simply carrying out of the halachic obligation, but a path of self-development, literally an avoida ('service'). Again, I am using the 'symbolic' as merely Lacanian jargon. In an abstract sense, the act of prayer itself (i.e., what is literally a supplication) is a 'symbol' (an excuse, if you wish) for improving oneself and establishing a relationship with Hashem.

For that purpose, one must daven at length, with great concentration (oftentimes outside of the minyan), and, most significantly, one must learn Chassidus before davening, so that one can be hisboinen (contemplative, meditative) of the learned concepts (comprising either haskallah, the intellectual concepts, or avoida, the concepts of self-service, of Chassidus, or both). This has effect on the interpretation of Halacha (the first level), since, to fulfill the 'symbolic' aspect of davening, we must be lax with the zmanim, allow eating before davening, etc.

3. The real. In reality, you can find Shachris minyanim in 770 going on until almost after shkiah. Not because some chassidim use this much time to learn Chassidus, but because davening late has become a 'reality' of Chabad culture, independently of its 'imaginary' and 'symbolic' counterparts. The same goes for eating before davening (sometimes eating a quite substantial meal), etc.

Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that this is what happens to most Lubavitchers. (In fact, I don't really know what the numbers are.) I am just saying that this phenomenon (almost unique to Chabad) exists, and that's what its nature is.

Of course, it is also true that davening has become a completely different experience ('reality') in Chabad circles, both for the newcomers and the 'balabatim'. Many people would describe davening at Chabad as a richer, deeper, more vibrant experience, albeit annoying to the Jews belonging to other branches of Orthodox Judaism, whose 'imaginary' and 'symbolic' (and, as a result, 'real') expectations of davening are somewhat different.

The same analysis can be applied to many other aspects of modern Chabad 'culture', both in terms of shlichus and the 'Crown Heights' velt. I think it can also be used in a positive sense. For example: a person is stopped on the street and asked to shake lulav and esrog:

1. The imaginary: the person does the mitzva of lulav and esrog, the formal obligation he has to G-d. G-d's Will is carried out in this world.

2. The symbolic: the act of doing the mitzva connects to the essence of his neshama, revealing it (potentially). The act of doing the mitzva is important not because of its dry obligatory context, but because of what it accomplishes: the unification of G-d with this world through the act of mitzva and the subsequent creation of dira b'tachtoinim (the dwelling place of G-d in the lower worlds). I.e., the mitzva is not just a dry fulfillment of a contract, but a vehicle (a 'symbol') for the essential purpose of creation and revelation.

3. The real: it is possible that the person will become interested in Yiddishkeit and inquire about it (and, perhaps, about Chabad specifically) and this simple encounter will bring him 'back' (or, at least, closer) to frumkeit. In this, the circle of the purpose of mivtzoim is closed.

Now, let's use the same analysis in application to Modern Orthodoxy:

1. The imaginary: MO views itself as Orthodox Judaism. In fact, it does not view itself as a 'b'dieved Judaism', i.e., Judaism of a compromise. According to the MO philosophy, its path of Yiddishkeit is preferred. Torah is given to be lived, in this world. (Note that this is not the same as the Chabad concept of engaging 'der velt' in order to make dira b'tachtonim. For Chabad, 'der velt' is the goal. For MO, it's simply the status quo. When a Lubavitcher gets a job, he is being an idealist, at least as far as Chabad Chassidus is concerned. When a MO Jew gets a job, he is being a realist.)

Likewise, Torah is given to real human beings, with real desires and everyday circumstances; it was not given to the angels.

2. The symbolic: In order to accomplish the goal making Torah accessible to the modern mentality of the 'real, everyday' Jew living in the Western world in modern times, one must unite Torah with 'modernity'. Because this contemporary Jew is the one commanded with both performance of the mitzvos and learning of Torah, we must be able to interpret the meaning of the former and the content of the latter from today's, modern, perspective.

From here comes the MO view of Judaism. Mitzvos are patterns of behavior that bind us together in a Jewish community. Torah is G-d's revelation of His message of how to live a fulfilling and successful life in everyday world. The 'realism' of the mitzvos and of Torah is pushed to the shadows. It doesn't matter whether the world was created in Six Days, 5773 years ago. What matters is the message of the story to us, today. It doesn't matter whether I accomplish 'objectively' anything when I shake lulav and esrog. What matters is that that I feel and 'experience' something when I do it, that I focus on the symbolism of the act, in its historical and (constantly reinterpreted) everyday context.

3. The real: Having their significance reduced to merely symbolic context, mitzvos and Torah stop being religious phenomena and start being social ones. They are no longer an aspect of the Jew's (or the community's) relationship with G-d; they are an aspect of the Jew's relationship with other Jews and a way for him to see his own culture and self-identity on the national and international scale.

When a Chabad rabbi speaks before Musaf, he talks about avoidas Hashem and da'as Hashem. He uses some aspect of the parsha or the Yom Tov as an illustration of what our relationship with G-d must be, or how we can understand G-dliness -- G-d's revelation of Himself in the worlds, the purpose and design of His creation, etc.

When a MO rabbi speaks before Musaf, he talks about Israeli politics, using a symbolic interpretation of an aspect of the parsha (reduced almost to an anecdote). Or, perhaps, he talks about how we must approach our everyday work environment or a project: the parsha can teach us about successful interpersonal relationships or work ethic and give us peace of mind.

The interpretation of the mitzvos also suffers from the symbolic approach. Because hair covering is looked at from the symbolic point of view, not either strictly legal (as a Litvish Jew might look at it) or 'realistic' -- i.e., having a real, objective purpose outside of one's perception (a Chabad Jew's perspective), it is only important insofar as it binds a Jewish woman to a particular community of hair-covering women, or if it adds anything to her personal experience. Otherwise, it is discarded.

The same goes for many other mitzvos. The tendency of make Torah 'livable', armed with always-ready ability to assign a symbolic interpretation to a mitzva, allows one to be as meichel as one possibly can (or as Rav Moishe allows), and then perhaps some more.

In reality, therefore, MO Judaism is 'Orthodox' in name only. In practice, both its theoretical view of Judaism and its practical observance is almost closer to Conservative Judaism, from which, after all, it has evolved (as one MO rabbi said, a bit tongue-in-cheek, 'if the Hareidim build mechitza up to the ceiling, and the Conservative don't have a mechitza at all, the Modern Orthodox mechitza will be exactly half-way').

I don't know what my conclusion might be. Writing of this post was mostly self-therapeutic in nature and perhaps may be of some help to those whose encounters with MO Judaism (or Chabad, for that matter) were frustrating.

Next project: psychoanalysis of the 'yechi' culture. Just kidding!..

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