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.

Author: Matthew Zachary Gindin

Freelance journalist and teacher. I write regularly for the Forward, All That In Interesting, and the Jewish Independent, and have been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Elephant Journal, and elsewhere.

3 thoughts on “Affirmation: A Response to Jay Michaelson”

  1. Thanks for this carefully considered and brilliant analysis, with which I basically agree.

    There are numerous immanentist concepts and metaphors in the Breslov literature (e.g., the Water Castle, the “good days hidden in the bad days” in LM I, 33, “Yesod HaPashut” in LM I, 4, G-d’s “hidden presence” in the Chalal HaPanui in LM I, 65, etc.).

    Yet RN insists that we take free will and the problem of suffering and the primacy of Shulchan Aruch most seriously.

    “Neti neti?”

    1. Thanks for the comment Eiver,and the examples of Immanentism in R”N. R”N is not alone in being a non-dualist who defends moral codes, of course- Sri Ramana Maharshi once said, “Do not neglect the yamas and niyamas (rules of yogic morality). They protect the sadhaka (chasid) a long way along the journey.” Of course this quote implies that at some point they are not necessary, which R” Nachman would certainly disagree with. Of course his practice of irrational, childlike behaviour on the way to Israel (see the book “Madness and Mysticism” for a good discussion) comes close, but doesn’t reach the idea in Indian non dual traditions that the Sage is beyond normal standards of morality.

      With regards to the problem of suffering, I’m not familiar off the top of my head with R’ Nachman’s discussion of this except his affirmation that everything that happens without exception is for the good ( a stance strongly emphasized these days by the Breslover R’ Shalom Arush). Free will, though, is a concept only the Ishbitzer is willing to question as far as I know. Indian non dualists often entirely dispense with freewill, as do some Muslim theologians (maybe all?).

      What did you mean here by “neti, neti”? That neither immanentism or transcendentalism, neither non dualism or dualism, is the final reality?


  2. Before returning to Reb Nachman, there’s a Chassidic story you may already be familiar with about a group of Chassidim who were hanging around their Rebbe’s beis midrash one Chanukah evening playing chess — instead of studying Torah or doing something more constructive. Suddenly the Rebbe (I think it was the Stefanester Rebbe) entered the room, to their embarrassment. He smiled and said, “Do you know the rules of chess? You can only take one step at a time; you must move forward, not backward; and when you arrive at the goal, you can move anywhere you like!”

    So in some sense the Chassidic tzaddik is beyond convention.

    There is also the view of the Gemara that the mitzvos will be nullified in “time to come” (however that works — I think Heschel speaks about it in the end of “Torah min HaShomayim” / Heavenly Torah).

    Maybe there’s some resonance between traditions here?

    Reb Nachman darshans on the Gemara that we must praise G-d in all circumstances, and that everything is for the good (LM I, 4 and 33 and some other places). But he also deals with suffering as suffering in LM I, 65, which is also a meditative teaching; and in LM II, 119 remarks that “maybe what people call ‘Olam Hazeh’ (meaning both ‘This World’ and in a slang sense ‘The Good Life’) exists somewhere or other — but the world we see here is hell!”

    There is much deep empathy with the suffering of all creatures in RN’s teachings, despite the underlying acosmism which I think he shares with his great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov.

    As for what you said about the “neti neti” concept, that’s just what I meant.

    This “both/and” also extends to free will. On the one hand, he says that “this world in its entirety only exists for the sake of bechirah / free will.” On the other, he states that when we see through the riddle of Divine foreknowledge and human free choice, we will transcend the human condition and becomes like angels (who have no such inner division or free choice); see LM I, 21.

    Have a good night!

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