Affirmation: A Response to Jay Michaelson

I recently read Jay Michaelson’s provocative essay “Hasidism and ‘Nature’: Negation and Affirmation”, available here: . In this piece Michaelson considers whether Hasidic philosophy can serve as a source for environmentalist ethics and concludes that it cannot.
What Michaelson is particularly concerned with evaluating is the cogency of something he calls “neohasidic environmentalism”. This is the environmentalist mining of Hasidic texts by Jews who differ widely in observance and philosophy and are basing their spiritual lives in their own interpretations of Hasidic texts and spirituality. That Michaelson is skeptical of this movement is clear from his description of it as a “postmodern bricolage of early Hasidic mysticism, non-Western and New Age spirituality, and contemporary politics”. The somewhat condescending use of the word “bricolage” nevertheless accurately reflects part of Michaelson’s thesis: that NeoHasidim are using Hasidic texts in ways which have little to do with their original purposes. The other part of his argument is that the resources that the NeoHasidim are using are not only divorced from their original purpose, but do not in fact serve well the purpose they are now being put to. I think he is incorrect in both of these assertions.

Michaelson considers three forms of Hasidic thinking about the world which might serve as paradigms for thinking about nature:
1) the Ba’al Shem Tov era image of the simple shoemaker who does Kabbalistic unifications with each stitch of his art;

2) the absolute monism of the Tanya (all is God);

3) an image from a story told by R’ Zeev Wolf of Zhitomir: In this story R Akiva contemplates the form of a beautiful gentile woman and raises his consciousness by recognizing the expression of beautiful cosmic forces which delight the Creator in her phenomenal manifestation, thus transcending a simple and inappropriate (in this case) lust; and
4) R’ Nachman of Breslov’s teaching that one should go out to fields and forests to pray so that the melody of the grasses can join with your prayer and lift it to Heaven.
Michaelson considers these models as each one better than the last, but all ultimately not satisfying.
The first image is used by some NeoHasidim as a glorification of the material world and of simple labour. Michaelson considers this unworkable because if the shoemaker can make unifications while stitching shoes he could in theory make unifications while clear-cutting a forest. Strictly speaking this is probably untrue: Michaelson does not address the fact that unifications cannot be accomplished during activities which violate the principles of Jewish law and ethics. Michaelson explicitly states that he will not be addressing halachic issues in his essay- a move I think inevitably results in an artifical and incomplete argument. I’ll leave that point aside, however, and continue to look at Michaelson’s argument as he presents it.
Michaelson argues that the ontology which sees devotion as possible during all actions does not provide a rationale for ecologically responsible actions being better than any other. While Michaelson is correct as far as his argument goes, I think what he misses here is that it is legitimate to view this parable as advocating the simple point that skilled manual labour can be a sacred activity. This message is quite important for those who wish to take up farming, craftsmanship, or other forms of “re-skilling” neccessary to make our lives more local and more sustainable. This use of the parable seems justified and straightforward, and I fail to see Michaelson’s view as compelling. He seems to be arguing that there is one logically required interpretation of the story, and it is not an environmentalist one. I simply disagree: there are more than one logically possible interpretation, and an environmentalist friendly one is possible.
The second model, of the Ba’al HaTanya’s monism, is also unsatisfying according to Michaelson, and for similar reasons. Some NeoHasidim see this image as inspiring a reverence for God’s presence in the Natural world, which is in fact, in the final analysis, itself nothing but G-d. Michaelson is skeptical: after all, if everything is God isn’t a parking lot as much God as a rainforest? Again Michaelson is correct as far as he goes, but the message of the Ba’al HaTanya could just as well be taken as a call to us to perceive the divinity in things and be moved to treat them with respect. This attitude is one which was traditionally shown by many Torah sages from the Talmud onwards. I would argue that whatever their exact philosophy, it was their sense of the divinity of Creation that was responsible for this attitude in them. Michaelson’s perspective on this teaching of the Ba’al Tanya seems awfully abstract. If divine immanentism does not inspire respect for nature, then why do so many people who take the idea seriously interpret it to do so?
The third model, of Rabbi Zeev Wolf, also falls short by Michaelson. R’Akiva is able to see the beauty of the sefirot (the divine emanations underlying this world) in a gentile woman. This suggests that human beauty reveals the beauty of the sefirot, in which the Creator delights. Therefore, postulates Michaelson, perhaps natural beauty is better than the artificial ugliness of a coal mine or a plastic flower. But R’ Wolf then goes on to praise R’ Akiva for seeing such beauty in “an impure place, in a defiled body, and the dust of the gentiles.” This suggests that the beauty is seen in ugliness, and Michaelson therefore argues that according to this story divine beauty could be seen in a garbage heap, and therefore it fails to provide us with a basis for valuing natural forms above toxic man-made ones. (Michaelson also refers to this morally unsettling comment as being an example of the largely “racist” nature of Hasidic thought, a characterization which I will examine below.) Thus again we fail to find what we are looking for: divine beauty does not rest particularly in the ecologically whole and natural, but in any creation. My critique is the same here as for the previous examples: isn’t it just as much a logical possibility to interpret this drash that creations made by God reflect the sefirot more clearly than those created by humans? If neoHasidim wish to interpret R’ Zeev Wolf that way, why argue with them?
As for Michaelson’s characterisation of “most Hasidic thought” as “racist”: I disagree with this claim. I believe Michaelson is referring to the characterizations of gentiles as “impure”, or “dust” or on a more extreme level as being from the “klipot”, the metaphysical forces which mask divinity, or as possessing animal souls which are less divine than Jewish souls. First off I would like to say that I reject all these teachings, which are based in the Kuzari and in the Kabbalah of the Zohar and the Arizal but which I do not think are well grounded in fundamental Torah. I do think that we need to be clear about what these teachings are saying however. To categorize them as “racist” is not accurate.
Gentiles are characterized this way because their lives are not percieved by these Jewish thinkers as inherently dedicated to G-d in the way that Jews are. Now, for this idea to make sense we have to realize that for the Hasidim a “Jew” meant a person born into, or converted into, the multi-ethnic tribe of Israel a tribe whose identity was fundamentally religious. For these Hasidism to be a Jew is first and foremost a religious fact, not an ethnic or racial identity. They did not have in mind the categories of ethnicity and race applied to Jews in more recent times. It also should be borne in mind that there are Hasidic and Kabbalistic  teachings which present a secular atheist Jew as being not just “impure” and hiding divinity like gentiles but actively Satanic and on a level far worse than a comparable gentile. Also of importance is the fact that if the gentile woman of the parable were to convert to Judaism, and thus be intitiated into the Jewish tribal identity and mission, then she would no longer be considered to belong to the “dust and impurity” of humanity not conscrated to God.
Now one may disagree with all of this for many reasons. I myself strongly disagree with this characterization of non-Jews. It is not, however, a straightforward racism comparable to the belief that Caucasians are superior to Asiatics or whites to blacks, or Germans to genetic descendants of Jews. It is a tribal and religious chauvinism, yes. We may find it repulsive and wish to argue against it: I myself am deeply troubled by it. But it is not “racism”. It does not exalt a particular race over others, or denigrate a particular race at the expense of another. You might think I’m mincing words, but I think clarity and just speech is quote important in these very sensitive matters.
I also think it is important to recognize that many Hasidim, past and present, have argued that gentiles who follow the Noachide laws, or are in some way dedicated to virtue and or/God, are not “impure”, animalistic, etc. R’ Nachman, for one, who Michaelson turns his attention to next, taught that the Jewish Messiah would spend most of his time and attention on non-Jews. There are many voices in the Hasidic world as in all cultural worlds.
The fourth example pleases Michaelson the most although it still comes up short by him. This is the example of R’ Nachman’s prayer in the fields. Michaelson thinks that R’ Nachman sees the natural world not as mere illusion (as in the Tanya as Michaelson sees it) but as neccesary, or at least very  helpful, for spiritual growth. He then dismisses R’ Nachman’s hasidut as being a useful foundation for environmentalist neo-hasidism on the following grounds: R’ Nachman’s thought is not particularly Hasidic but is in fact more like run of the mill love of nature as in his rough contemporary Wordsworth. Further R’ Nachman is not a true immanentist, ie. he does not see “God in all things”. Since this is a neccessary feature of Hasidic thought according to Michaelson, R’ Nachman does not truly qualify as a Hasidic thinker but is a dualistic “outlier”, a Hasidic rogue. Therefore he does not provide a model for Neo-Hasidic Environmentalism.
A full discussion of this is beyond the scope of this essay, so I’ll state my argument in brief. 1) R’Nachman was a profoundly immanentist thinker, whose writings repeatedly refer to the omnipresence of Hashem and Torah in all things. If anything I would argue that his assertions about the ability to find Hashem in the most dark and concealed places, and about the presence of Torah and divine sparks and letters in even the most “unholy” places, surpass those of the Ba’al HaTanya. 2) R’ Nachman’s nature mysticism is not comparable to Wordsworth’s, but is firmly grounded in the Kabbalah of the Arizal. R’ Nachman’s teachings of the divinity of the grasses is not a mere romantic appreciation but a sense that every tip of grass is connected to angelic forces, and that in prayer and melody the Hasid can strengthen the grasses and the grasses him strengthen his prayer, through activating supernal forces. (For a full discussion of these matters, and an excellent overview of R’ Nachman’s though, see Zvi Mark’s “Madness and Mysticism”). 3) R’ Nachman was not an atypical Hasidic thinker. If anything he was the Hasidic thinker par excellence. To defend this claim is beyond me here, but I refer the curious reader to Zvi Mark’s excellent book.
After reading Michaelson’s essay, one question rose to mind above others: why has Michaelson decided to attempt to convince his fellow Jewish environmentalists that Hasidic spirituality cannot be an inspiration to them? And why has he undertaken this critique of the NeoHasidic project, that “bricolage”, in general?
If Michaelson were to succeed in convincing Jews that they should not shore up their environmentalism with Hasidic teachings, I’m not sure what positive goal would have been achieved. Even if Michaelson is right, and Hasidic ideas do not logically support environmentalist ethics, haven’t the Torah, and the words of our sages, been continually reinterpreted, elaborated, mined and reconfigured over the ages? Isn’t this in fact one of the central mechanisms of Jewish learning and creativity?
Ironically, many Hasidic teachings are themselves built on radical re-interpretions of the words of Biblical texts. While this manner of exegesis goes back at least to Mishnaic times it reached new heights in Hasidism, heights which have to be read to be believed. The fact of the extreme non-literal exegesis employed and celebrated regularly by Hasidim makes Michaelson’s critique of NeoHasidim for (perhaps) doing the same thing strange and ironic.
The irony of Michaelson defending Hasidic Rebbes like R’ Nachman’s original intentions against NeoHasidic interpretation is brought further into light by something R’Nachman himself told his students: “Crease and bend my book as much as you like”, he said, “But don’t change a dot of the Shulchan Arukh.” In other words, creatively re-interpret my own teachings freely, but don’t abandon Jewish law and ethics. Michaelson can certainly charge NeoHasidim with re-interpreting R’Nachman’s words in ways R’Nachman would not have liked, or in contexts (like a pro-feminist co-ed mikvah ritual in the forest, for instance) he would not have understood and perhaps would not have condoned. If NeoHasidim think that their interpretions are in line with Torah, though, and advance Jewish values and connection to God, who is Michaelson to dismiss them? Of course he can argue that they are wrong, that their values are not Torah values, but that is not what he is doing here. He is criticising them for the mere fact of interpreting Hasidic texts in ways which he believes are not in keeping with their original intent, or do not logically follow from what he perceives as their true conceptual architecture. I find this charge, in a Jewish religious context, bizarre.
Questions of the NeoHasidim’s right to interpret aside, are their interpretations in keeping with the intent of the original Hasidic masters or not? What was the general intent of the Hasidic masters? I think we can be fairly confident that it was to show people wonders from the Torah, to bring them closer to God, and to improve their ethical behaviour. On those counts I would argue that the NeoHasidic interpretations pass with flying colors.
The Hasidim of old Europe were not thinking as environmentalists because the environmental crisis had not yet begun. There spiritual teachings could not have been environmentalist then, but they can certainly be environmentalist now. This is no different from the way that King David’s poetry may not have been Kabbalistic in his mind, but was according to the needs of later Jews. They did not violate the wisdom or intent of the Psalms to do this. They honoured the fundamental intent of the Psalms- that of articulating a relationship to divinity- and mined the hidden structures of the Psalms wisdom.
Lastly, I believe thyat there is a core problem with Michaelson’s approach: his apparent belief that ontology determines ethics. This belief goes something like this: if somone believes Belief X, and Belief Y follows as a natural consequence, then they will behave in certain ways that are in accord with belief Y. This type of argument is used to condemn atheism, theism, communism, capitalism, ontological dualism, ontological nondualism, Christianity, Paganism, etc. Etc. The strategy is to choose a belief you don’t like, to find a possible logical consequence of that belief which you believe to be repugnant, and to use that supposedly consequent belief to criticize it. There are many problems with this approach:

  1. Beliefs do not exist in vaccuums. How a belief will effect someone’s life depends on what other beliefs they also hold.

    2. There are more then one possible logical conclusions to draw from any belief. One can postulate as to some people may draw, but we cannot claim that we know they will draw a certain conclusion.

    3. People’s behavious are not generally governed by philosophical positions, especially ontological ones. In fact, whole spiritual disciplines exist so people can spend a lifetime training themselves to govern their behaviours on the basis of certain ontologies! These does not mean that ontologies are irrelevant, but they are only one factor determining motivation and behaviour, and often a weak one. I should admit as a consequence of my belief that this is so, and despite my criticism of Michaelson’s arguments, I believe that the best source for guidance on environmentalist concerns is not in the realm of Hasidut or Kabbalah, but in the realm of mussar (ethics) and halachah. That said, I believe that NeoHasidim are acting with integrity, and in harmony with Jewish tradition. I think they are fully justified in mining Hasidic texts for Environmentalist inspiration and then attempting to suffuse their behaviour with that inspiration, and I wish them all strength and success in doing so.

Pour Out Your Love (Sfoch Ahavatcha)

Pour out your love on the nations who know You
And on kingdoms who call Your name.
For the good which they do for the seed of Jacob
And they shield Your people Israel from their enemies.
May they merit to see the good of Your chosen}
And to rejoice in the joy of Your nation.

-from a controversial manuscript claimed to date from the 16th century and most likely forged by R’ Chayyim Bloch in the 20th century.  R’ Jonathan Sacks has accepted it as a replacement to the traditional “Pour Out Your Wrath” , which I think is highly commendable. See here:

Rav Kook on Wise Gentiles and their Fate

This is a  fascinating comment of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, z”l. Rav Kook was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of 20th century pre-Israel Palestine and was a great mystic and poet.  Read it bearing in mind that the emended reading for the Rambam that he proposes is in fact found in the older Yemenite manuscripts of Mishneh Torah, and was also accepted and propounded by Rav Soloveitchik, z”l.

The Righteous Among The Nations

[The Rambam wrote:] “Any [gentile] who accepts the seven Noahide commandments and is careful in their performance is one of the righteous of the nations (chasidei umot ha’olam), and he has a portion in the world-to-come. That is if he accepts them and performs them because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded them in the Torah and proclaimed through Moses that Noahides had previously been commanded in these. But if they perform them because it makes sense [to them], such a person is … not one of the ‘righteous of the nations’ nor one of their wise men” (Hilchot Melachim 8:11).

[This statement of the Rambam requires emendation.] The correct reading is: “he is not [merely] one of ‘the righteous of the gentiles,’ but one of their wise men.”

I tend to think that the Rambam means to say that having a portion in the world-to-come is an inferior level (although it too is very great). Since even wicked and ignorant Jews attain it, it is-compared to [truly] spiritual levels-low. The Rambam says that intellectual awareness brings a person much closer to [understanding] the righteousness of God’s Providence.

Therefore, having a portion in the world-to-come is a level attained by the righteous of the nations who have not attained an intellectual awareness, but who have rather accepted the faith simply, with heart-felt emotion, and have acted well, as a result of having accepted the concept that the commandments were given by God. But if a person has come to understand the seven Noahide commandments as a result of his own thinking, he is truly wise of heart and filled with understanding. Such a person is considered one of their wise men, for the trait of wisdom is very great. And it is superfluous to say that he has a portion in the world-to-come. [Indeed,] he stands on a holy level that needs to be spoken of with a fuller expression than “having a portion in the world-to-come.”

However, even were we to accept the Rambam’s words simply [without emendation], we will find nothing in them strange if we say that the quality of the world-to-come that the Rambam is speaking of is a particular state that the divine and special nature of our holy Torah gives to those who keep the Torah. But there are other states that can be transmitted by anything good-only, it is not called the “world-to-come.” That special [state called the “world-to-come”] derives from the power of the Torah, and is appropriate for anyone who accepts it and the sanctity of its faith. But this does not in any way deny other qualities that can be imagined regarding every philosophy, each in its own way.
Igrot Hara’yah

This passage says that the spiritual level conveyed automatically to Jews (and non-Jews) with simple faith in the Torah, “the world to come”, is a lower level than that attained by truly wise gentiles. This reading of Rambam is exactly the opposite of the reading accepted by many pre-modern (and some modern) Ashkenazi Rabbis, who read the Rambam as saying that wise gentiles do not have a portion in “the world to come” since they were not on as high a level as a simple Jew or a gentile with faith in the Torah. R’ Kook’s comment that various attainments result from the various philosophies of the world, and higher attainments can be imagined for those reach knowledge of God’s will based on their own wisdom, is intriguing.


“A person should completely shatter the attributes of desire and anger. He should not get angry at all, even for the sake of a mitzvah, even when he is very upset….”
-The Maharal of Prague, Chaim v’Chessed, p.13, quoted in Haser Ka’as Milevecha, R’ Avraham Tubolsky, p.147.

Zen at Auschwitz

Alan Morinis, the contemporary Mussar teacher, has recently posted a very honest and vulnerable discussion of his anger at the Zen Peacemaker annual retreats at Auschwitz here:

I posted the following in response to Alan’s request for feedback:

First I would like to commend Alan on his honesty in exploring this issue. I admire Alan very much for his willingness to be vulnerable and open in his mussar work, despite his role as leader in the community.

I practice both in the mussar and the Zen communities, and am involved more generally in both Jewish and Buddhist practice.
I would like to say first off that I think this anger is not a wise or appropriate response, and needs to be examined and abandoned. Since Alan has asked for help I will offer a few thoughts to that end.

1) Alan questions “what good” the Peacemakers offering their meditation to the dead will do. In Buddhism meditation is very much akin in value to davenning or Torah learning, and just as a Jew might feel that reciting tehillim or learning mishnayos or saying kaddish will in some way benefit the dead, or make their memory a blessing for the living, Zen Buddhists feel the same way about meditating there. A Buddhist might ask the same question about a religious Jew learning mishnayos for their dead Buddhist father- “what good will that do? Reciting some ancient laws? if only he would meditate for him….” That would show as much interfaith insensitivity as Alan’s response to the idea of meditation at Aushwitz does.

2) Alan frames the retreat as merely providing “certain feelings” for the retreatants. Again, a Buddhist could view Torah study or davenning the same way: “Instead of doing something useful like feeding the poor or questioning the nature of the emotions, why is that Jew getting high learning gemarra, just for the sake of selfish intellectual pleasures that go nowhere? Davenning is just self-hypnotism for the sake of reassurance and feeling good. What a waste of time.” I think that Alan views the retreatants activities as only producing “certain feelings” because he does not share their religious views. That is not fair.

3) I would suggest looking over reports from the March of the Living, where I would guess you will find testimonies of people having many emotional, spiritual, etc. experiences which could also be interpreted as nothing but a form of self-indulgent “tourism” if one read them with a hermeneutic of suspicion, as Alan reads the Peacemakers.

4) I was quite surprised by Alan’s criticism of Roshi Bernie Glassman’s advice re: visualizing someone you are angry at wearing a clown’s nose. The fact that Alan didn’t appear to understand what Roshi was saying, or see any possible value in it, is a good example of the mind-clouding effects of anger. “Resh Lakish said, ‘Wisdom departs from one who gets angry’ prophecy departs from a prophet who gets angry’ (Pesachim 66b).

Roshi was saying that when you picture someone with a clown’s nose it disrupts the momentum of your hypnotism by anger, and suddenly makes your own seriousness and anger seem silly, and you realize that we are all clowns- all fools, silly children carried away by delusion and our yetzer ha-ra. The point is to be compassionate and forgiving of other’s foibles and imperfection. To me this is reminiscent of something R’ Nachman might say. It cuts through our own seriousness and self-importance, and also provides space and disruption inside the serious cloud of our anger. I have tried it since reading Alan’s piece, and it works.
Most interesting here though is the fact that Alan writes: “This reflects nothing of the wisdom of mussar at all”.
Nu, and why should it? Roshi is a Zen teacher. It does reflect Buddhist perspectives on the folly of the ego-mind. Alan, do Buddhists not have a right to be Buddhists then?

5) I think it needs to be understood that for Buddhists the meditative confrontation with mortality and suffering is a fundamental aspect of their practice. Buddhists have long went to cemeteries to meditate (have been doing this for 2500 years) and still do. The fact is that cemetery meditations are a fundamental Buddhist practice. We may disagree with this practice, but it seems delusional to be angry about it. It is a well intended part of Buddhist religious beliefs! Why do people who have adopted Buddhism and practice in line with it with good intentions deserve anger, even if one disagrees with their practice? As one person above wrote, they are not harming anyone. The opinions of the dead are unknown to us.
I can honestly say that if I was horribly killed, and a memorium was put up, and people came to meditate there and reflect on suffering, injustice, and death, and went away better people, I would be very happy about it- or at least I would want myself to be. Has Alan imagined himself as one of the dead? This might seems a strange suggestion, but I suggest it to anyone who thinks this practice is an offense to the dead.

6) Although it is a bit beyond limits of time and space here, I think that the rest of Alan’s piece makes a halakhicly and hashkafically false case for the admissability of anger and unfavorable judgement, especially towards a fellow Jew. This is so even if the Peacemakers are clearly in the wrong in some way, which I do not think is the case. I would just say that anyone interested in this should consult the halachic work “The Right and The Good” by R’ Daniel Z. Feldman, the chapters on judging favorably, grudges, hatred and love, and “Haser Ka’as Milevecha (Remove Anger From Your Heart)” by R’ Avraham Tubolsky.

I will limit my remarks to the above and the following summary: I feel that this is a great mussar opportunity for Alan. The opportunity is to put himself more radically into the place and perspective of the other, and understand how from a Zen Buddhist perspective this retreat is justifiable. I am not saying Alan will come to agree with the retreat, but rather to understand it’s function for the participants from their perspective, and to at least feel that itmaybe justifiable,maybe good, and therefore anger is not appropriate.

I would also suggest that even if Alan cannot get to this point and feels the retreat is objectively wrong and he somehow thinks he knows this for certain, and think he is therefore justified in judging everyone involved negatively and being angry with them and even perhaps hating them in his heart, has v’shalom; I would like to point out that believing someone else is grossly mistaken and objecting to their activities does not require anger. It is also possible to have compassion. This is the meaning of the clown’s nose. Even if we think that the Peacemakers are grossly mistaken who are we to judge them and be angry as if they were intentional wrongdoers, selfish, craven and evil? At worst they are imperfect human beings trying to live a spiritual life and benefit themselves and others but doing so in a confused way.
Not only is anger not a justified response from this perspective, it effectively closes off the possibility of communication between us and them.

Thank you for raising this issue Alan. I hope my thoughts have been helpful, and I hope you’ll post a response to all of us at some point.

Read more: