A Hasidic Teaching About Hanukkah For This Divisive Holiday Season

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The notion that Hanukkah conveys an urgent message about diminishing one’s anger, being compassionate to the lost, wicked, and alienated, and abandoning judgementalism might seem surprising. After all, isn’t this the holiday that celebrates the triumph of the righteous and a military victory against the oppressive other? A holiday that celebrates lines drawn in the sand and a vivid sense of black and white? Well, that fails to take into consideration the Rabbinic transformation of the holiday- first at the hands of the Talmudic Rabbis, and then at the hands of Chasidic mystics like Reb Nosson of Nemirov (R’ Nathan Sternhartz, 1780-1844).

 

Reb Nosson was the amenuensis of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), his closest disciple and secretary, and single handedly responsible for the preservation of Rebbe Nachman’s mystical writings and famed stories. Reb Nosson was also a brilliant teacher and writer in his own right, and his letters and commentaries are studied to this day by Hasidim. Among the works he left behind is a massive, ingenious commentary on the Shulchan Aruch. This commentary, called “Likutey Halachot” (Collected Writings on Jewish Laws) is a penetrating, kaleidoscopic meditation on the spiritual and psychological implications of Jewish legal rulings, using his master Rebbe Nachman’s teachings as the theological lodestone.  It is here that we see Reb Nosson’s perennially relevant insights into Hanukkah.

 

Light

When the Seleucid Greek Empire attempted to suppress Jewish religious practices, the Maccabees, led by Matityahu and his son Yehuda, defeated the Greeks. The Temple, which had been intentionally profaned by the Greek army, was restored and rededicated. This was established as a holiday early on, and the rededication of the Temple was celebrated by no less of a Jewish celebrity than Jesus less than than two hundred years later, according to the book of John.

Some time later the Rabbis canonized a story about a tiny amount of pure oil in the Temple burning miraculously for eight days (in Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 21b). The Rabbis chose to put the miracle of burning oil and the imagery of light at the centre of Hanukkah. To quote Malka Simkovitch, a Jewish scholar:

From a historical vantage point, there is no doubt that the origin of the holiday lies in the Hasmonean military victory. However, the rabbis effectively rebranded the holiday so that instead of glorifying Hasmonean military prowess, the holiday instead glorifies the unconditional and miraculous divine light that Jews can depend on, even in the gloomiest of darkness.

In the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) Hillel and Shammai, eternal sparring partners in the transcendent realm of Jewish archetypes, have an argument about the way the Hanukkah lights should be kindled. Shammai says the light should be reduced every day (from 8 to 1) and Hillel says they should be increased every day (from 1 to 8). In Likutey Halakhot 4.11, Reb Nosson writes that this debate highlights Shammai’s strictness and Hillel’s kindness. Both agree that the spiritual light of the holiday increases day by day. Hillel thus argues that we should add another candle each day. Yet this is very reason Shammai thinks we should reduce the candles- if we make so much spiritual light accessible, the “wicked and the distant (from Torah)” may make use of it!

 

This debate reflects a deeper rift between the houses of Shammai and the houses of Hillel, Reb Nosson writes. Hillel generally believes, as is shown in the famous Torah story about his patient response to the potential convert who impertinently asked him to explain the whole Torah on one foot, that spiritual light should be given out freely without fear or judgementalism. Shammai disagrees, as shown by his chasing that same convert out of his house angrily brandishing a tool he had been using. Though Jewish tradition historically and officially favoured Hillel, it is sad to see how much contemporary Ultra-Orthodoxy has defected to the school of Shammai, both with regards to converts and much else. The house of Hillel, Reb Nosson explains, believed that the more light was available, the more “we need to shine this light into the world, to illuminate the entire world, to being closer even the most distant people, to enlighten the smallest and lowest, to heal the most spiritually ill.”

 

“How could anyone think we should decrease holiness?”, Reb Nosson asks, and then answers: “There are tzaddikim (righteous ones) who are truly great….due to the intensity of their holiness, they distance people and decrease holiness, for people become angry with them for being unable to accept their behaviour. But this is not what God desires. God always desires lovingkindness, and that the tzaddikim should always have compassion….even when God himself is in great anger with them on account of their conduct, He wants the tzaddikim to pray for them and elevate them. As our sages said on the verse, “Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, far from the camp” (Exodus 33:56): Rashi’s commentary adds that God says, ‘If I am angry and you are angry, who will bring them close?’.

 

Reb Nosson goes on to enumerate other examples from the books of the Prophets showing God’s desire that tzaddikim take the side of the people, not the side of God’s holiness and judgement. He then goes on to assert that the greater the holiness one attains, the more careful on should be not to be angry or judgemental to those “lesser” than yourself, but rather the more you should exert yourself to “cleverly come up with new strategies and “constrictions” (tzimtzumim, which here means bringing things down to their level) to bring more and more souls closer and to heal even the worst and the sickest.”

The point here is not to be a clever salesman, but rather something more akin to Vygotsky’s “zones of proximity”- one needs to empathetically understand where these others are and then modify one’s message in whatever way needed to reach them and bring them authentic healing.

 

“All this is represented by the Chanukkah candles”, finishes Reb Nosson brilliantly, “which are lit below ten handbreadths, and this is why they must be lit in an increasing number.” In other words, the ritual of the menorah teaches us that unbounded light must be freely given, restricted and shaped so it can reach who it needs to be reached; that it must be at our level; and that it should slowly increase. Hanukkah, says Reb Nosson, is a lesson in generosity and pedagogy. It is also important to recognize that what makes the light shareable in the first place is the righteous one’s abandonment of anger, judgement and fear. This lesson couldn’t be more needed as we go into our Hanukkah festival in a world of divisions with vast gulfs of mis-understanding, anger, judgement and fear.

 

I am not suggesting that those reading (or writing) this article are tzaddikim, but Rebbe Nachman taught that everyone has a good point- a point of messianic light, or tzaddik-ness, that might shine towards a friend in a certain situation when the friend needs it (Likutey Moharan 34). We may find ourselves in that situation this holiday season in any number of ways. If we regard the impure other, rendered so by any number of things, perhaps by pro-Trump (or anti-Trump) comments, with fear, anger or judgement, then we miss what Reb Nosson says is a fundamental lesson of Hanukkah.

 

Reb Nosson’s lesson would first suggest that we need to abandon anger, fear and holier-than-thou judgement before we engage with our challenging friend or relative. We need to think about where they are at and why, and try to share what light we can. We should not go for broke. Maybe we can win a small victory, a little “a-ha” or a tiny concession and be happy with that. Maybe not- maybe all we can accomplish is to draw that person close and keep them in relationship to us. That might be the smallest reali light we can manage, but it might be something we can build on in the future, step by step, light by light.

 

 

Some Thoughts on Oneness, pt.1

Subjective Versus Objective

In many spiritual circles the attainment of the experience of oneness is held to be very important. It is usually cultivated by meditation (although it can be spurred by other things than meditation). It is sometimes understood subjectively and psychologically in terms of how it affects the mind, and sometimes objectively as an experience which reveals empirical truths about reality.

An example of the subjective approach is in early Buddhism, where the mind is intentionally unified on a single object. The reason for doing so, as is explicitly stated in the Pali scriptures, is because when the mind is in a state of unification (samadhi, jhana) it experiences pleasure, rapture, tranquility, equanimity, and other positive mental emotions/activities, and is temporarily freed from emotions/activities perceived as harmful (greed, anxiety, aversion, sloth, etc.).  This activation of positive aspects of the mind empowers insight and self-transformation. Another mental activity that is calmed in samadhi is the normal construction of self identity by the mind. In early Buddhism this was understood to be tactically important as the Buddha had argued that the activity of self-construction needed to be calmed in order for the insights and changes he valued to emerge. In other traditions (and in most later forms of Buddhism) the calming of self-construction was valued less as a tactic and more as itself uncovering an objective truth: that the constructed self does not exist. This brings us to the second way that states of mental unification are valued: as revealing reality.

To continue with the question of the self for a moment: in later Buddhism the experience of calming the construction of a self was valued because it was interpreted to reveal the hidden truth that there is no self (the Buddha himself rejected the teaching “there is no self” as harmful and dogmatic, but that was forgotten by the later Buddhist scholar-practitioners who developed the “no self” doctrine). Other traditions interpreted the experience of the calming of self-construction differently. In some streams of Hindu thought, along a certain Upanishadic/Yogic/Tantric/Vedantic continuum, the calming of self-making was seen to reveal “the true person” (purusha, Yogasutras) or the “true Self” (atman, Upanishads). According to this interpretation the experience of unified, simplified, blissful being is identified as the true identity of the person (as opposed to the constructed intellectual/psychological identity of everyday life). Our true being is satchidananda, “being, consciousness and bliss”.

Another bifurcation in interpretation exists over the relationship between this “true Self” and the rest of the world. Some assert that the true Self is actually ontologically and inherently separate from the universe, as in the Yogasutras where the attainment of “the true person” is called “kaivalya” (aloneness). Buddhist nirvana, though it is not interpreted as a self, is similar in that it is interpreted as a reality that transcends the world. The Buddha is quite explicit that Nirvana is not “the ground of being” or a unity with the whole. What gives it value is the very fact that it is beyond all phenomena (dhammas) and transcends the suffering cosmos ( it is lokuttara), which goes the same for Patanjali (author of the Yogasutras).

Other traditions differ on this, however, and see the True Self as united with the Whole and indistinguishable from the ground of being from which everything arises (eg. the Upanisadic “atman is brahman”). Sometimes this is predicated on the assertion that all multiplicity is itself an illusion (jagad mithya, satyam brahma, “the world is an illusion, brahman alone is real”) and only the ground of being which underlies both the self and the world is real. Sometimes the world is seen not as an illusion but as an emanation (as in some forms of Shaivism and Tantrism), so that the self and the world emanate from the creative power of the ground of being and are part of it’s play of self-concealment and self-revelation. Hopefully you are getting my point by now: the state of meditative unification is subject to different interpretations. Each one of these traditions claims that their interpretation of what it means is the natural, obvious one. Even in terms of the psychological and ethical implications of oneness there is a diversity of opinions.

Everyone agrees that generally the experience of oneness has positive effects on those who experience it. There is a small subset of people who are mentally unhinged by it, unfortunately, as calming their habitual mental constructions actually seems to destabilize their mind.  The majority of people, however, claim that it makes them happier and kinder. Where the interpretations come in is why it makes them happier and kinder.

Happiness

The Buddha claimed that it has a tendency to produce these effects because it promotes mental clarity. The Buddha taught that calmer, happier mental states produce better thinking. Also taking a break from your habitual mental horizon can produce insight in the same way that traveling can help you see things differently when you return home. The same effect can sometimes be produced by forgetting your troubles watching a movie, but cultivating the ability to vacate your mind at will has a value that I think most people can intuitively grasp.

The Hindu traditions cited above tend to argue that the benefit of these states comes from the insight into the nature of reality that the state itself gives us. If, for instance, we realize that our true Self is not our psychological, constructed self but is rather the calm, blissful awareness/being that transcends it, or if we realize that our oneness with the ground of being is our true identity, than the ups and downs of life as experienced by the psychological self will not cause us suffering.    

Scientific studies affirm that many average people (not committed meditators) who stumble into states of oneness report experiencing love, peace, and a host of other positive emotions associated with it. Many of them believe they have experienced God and there is a strong tendency to feel comforted and inspired by the experience. Many report a reduction or elimination of their fear of death and an inspiration to be kinder, more loving people. There seems to be a general sense that the ultimate nature of reality is good, and this has profound and positive effects. Nevertheless, there is also a diversity of interpretation here. Not everyone interprets it as an experience of God, and it also does not impact all people equally profoundly, nor does it produce the same kind or degree of actual behavioral changes in the people who experience it.

Kindness

Some mystical literature claims that the experience of oneness is ethically transformative, making people more compassionate and other-regarding. The argument usually goes that once one realizes that “we are all one”, or that other selves are my self, one will care about other people as oneself.

It is not necessarily so, however. Certainly some mystics have interpreted their experiences this way in all religions, but again here there is diversity. Ramana Maharshi, who claimed to continuously experience his true self as one with the ground of all being, was indeed compassionate to those who came to live in his mountain ashram, and treated all equally regardless of class or even of species. When asked why he did not ally himself with social justice causes and try to help other people in the broader community, he replied, “Because there are no others.” This can strike you as either brilliant or just as brilliantly evasive, dependent on your cast of thought. Notably it is exactly the opposite of the effect mentioned above: here my oneness with others is the reason I don’t do anything for them. I have heard similar statements from many other nondualist teachers.

Many of Maharshi’s students were in fact solitaries, even those considered enlightened, avoiding contact with society as much as possible, and historically that is the majority reaction to Vedantic enlightenment. Most texts advise avoiding others, and most sages have either avoided other people or limited their interaction to purely spiritual matters (i.e. helping other people experience their True Self). There is a plethora of stories not only depicting sages as being reluctant to teach and interact with others but valorizing that disposition. The pleasures of absorption in the unified state are greater than those of interacting with others and with the world of multiplicity, and so these meditators are not inclined to.

There is also the radical nondualist interpretation of one-ness which holds that since selves and multiplicity are an illusion, so is morality. In traditional Tantra this was known pejoratively as the “left hand path”, but it has always had adherents and continues to have them today. Some Tantric texts praise the way of svecchara, or radical willing, where one does whatever one pleases unfettered by dualistic notions of “good and bad”. These same texts sometimes advise the use of black and magic and breaking social taboos (for instance eating meat, drinking and taking hallucinogens, and having illicit sex, including orgies, rape and incest). As a result of this tradition the yogi was sometimes seen as a bogeyman in Indian culture, and children were warned that if they were not good “the yogi would steal them”. The Buddha himself warned against this kind of radical nondualism, over a thousand years before it became significantly popular.

In recent times we have the example of teachers like Papaji, who taught the same thing as Ramana Maharshi but interpreted it as giving him moral license to act spontaneously and in an almost toddler like fashion. He would lie habitually, change his decisions on a whim, and do things like marry a young woman as his second wife and have a child with her than lose interest and abandon them both. Despite this behaviour many of Ramana Maharshi’s disciples consider him enlightened and he was the guru of some popular contemporary nondualists like Mooji and Gangaji.   

I tend to favor the Buddhist interpretation of states of oneness as being healing and promoting well-being and clarity, but I am cautious about what ontological, religious or philosophical lessons we learn from them. I am not saying that I don’t think we should draw such lessons from them, I am saying that we should think carefully about the lessons we draw. What I have written above is a relatively superficial account of the different interpretations and effects states of one-ness have on people (one could go into a lot more detail, and I haven’t touched on, for example, Sufi or Christian interpretations of these states). What I hope it demonstrates is that states of one-ness do not “self-interpret”. The assumptions we bring to them, and the clarity and depth of thought we apply to them afterwards, affect the meaning we find in them.

The other point I want to make about them is that I don’t think some of the interpretations applied to them are that compelling, an idea I hope to discuss in a follow-up post.  

The Book of Esther As A Manual of The Resistance

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In the Book of Esther, the Persian empire is ruled by a foolish, narcissistic King with neither principle nor empathy. While drunk at a party he summons his Queen, Vashti, to dance naked before the guests, and when she refuses he has her banished and makes plans to replace her (“You’re fired”, he might have said). Ahasuerus searches among all the young girls of the empire like pastries in a display case and chooses a Jewish virgin, Hadassah- Esther (Ishtar) in Persian, the story explains, the adopted daughter of Mordecai. Ahasuerus has an advisor named Haman who becomes enraged one day when Mordecai refuses to bow down to him, or, one might say, refuses to put obeisance to the state above his own conscience and his own minority identity within the Empire. Mordecai is a loyal Persian citizen, something he has proven by reporting traitorous activity and possibly saving Ahasuerus’ life. Nevertheless, Haman convinces Ahasuerus to eliminate Persia’s Jews, presenting them as a dangerous fifth column within the glorious nation.

The parallels should be all too obvious. Trump fits the model of Ahasuerus all too closely, consistently showing a marked lack of empathy for others and concern for no principles outside of his own self-aggrandizement. Like Ahasuerus, his commitments are fickle and turn with the wind. Yesterday Trump announced who his chief strategist and senior counsellor would be: Stephen Bannon,  the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement, previously the senior editor of Breitbart, the alt-right mouthpiece that under his tutelage became the nest for the iron birds of nationalism, white supremacism, misogyny and anti-Semitism. What will Bannon-Haman be whispering in the ears of King Trump?

What policy Trump will take towards Jews is unclear, and so far he seems far more dangerous as an enabler of anti-Semites. I am not suggesting that the Trump-Bannon team is chiefly a concern for Jews, however, not by a longshot. They are clearly a threat to every vulnerable group in the US- Muslims, LGBQT, women, African-Americans, refugees, immigrants, and more. What can we learn from the book of Esther about how to resist the insane malice and ignorance of Trump’s white house?

    1. Don’t bow. Mordecai does not sacrifice his conscience before the demands of the Persian government. At this time we must not budge and inch in demanding decency, rational discourse, ethical probity, and protection for the vulnerable whether we are American or, like me, we are a close neighbour concerned about the global spread of the “emotional plague” of Trumpism.
    2. Mourn Publically. When Mordecai heard of the Kings decree, he put on sack cloth and ashes and walked the streets of the city wailing loudly. Jews all throughout the provinces joined him (Esther 4:1-3). So far in the week since Trump’s election, Jews have joined protests, sat shiva in synagogues, and penned group letters expressing solidarity with vulnerable minorities. Major Jewish publications like Tablet and The Forward have been aggressively watchful and critical of Trump. This is all good, and it must continue relentlessly, especially when the Trump government begins making actual law and policy.But what of the Jewish Republicans? We turn to that next.
    3. The Lessons of Esther. I’m sure the association of Esther with Jewish Republicans will make some people very unhappy, and understandingly so. A more natural choice might be Ivanka. Whether she will play a role in standing up to Trump behind the scenes remains to be seen, and one can always hope. Ivanka aside, the Jewish Republicans are the Jews in Esther’s seat, sitting in the house of power. The Book of Esther has prophetic words for them: “Mordecai has this message delivered to Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis (Esther 4:13-14).”
    4. The Lesson of The Happy/Unhappy Ending of Esther Ultimately Esther and Mordecai together turn the tables on Haman, and he is humiliated and defeated. Fickle Ahasuerus is turned again to favour the Jews, and he allows them to arm themselves and fight the hordes who descend on them on their appointed Kristallnacht. The Jews route their attackers and kill thousands of them. This is in one sense a happy ending- the Jews live, and after all the ones they kill are genocidal maniacs bent on the murder of innocent men, women and children.  On the other hand, the fact that the crisis wrought by Ahasuerus and Haman is solved by a bloody civil war between different people groups is hardly something for unalloyed joy. This is exactly the danger America, and countries throughout the world, are in danger of. If White America rises up to vent its frustrations on Muslims, Jews, African-Americans, etc., then the “minor” violence of the anti-Trump protests and the post-election hate crimes may escalate into more serious, and more bloody conflict. Now is the time for us to forge inter-communal ties, and advocate for fierce non-violence. May the Compassionate One have mercy on us all and inspire us with endurance, discernment, and love.

Rivka and the Ratzon L’ Hashpia

According to the brilliant Kabbalistic theology of Rav Yehuda Lev Ashlag, z'l, the purpose of Creation is for human beings to become “like” Hashem through affinity of form. This is the ultimate good, the pleasure and delight, that Hashem wished to bestow on us, and is the reason for Creation. The “affinity of form” Rav Ashlag is referring to consists of developing the ratzon l' hashpia, or “desire to give benefit”. Hashem, needing nothing, has only a ratzon l' hashpia, and he has created us with a ratzon l' kabel, a desire to receive. By developing our own ratzon l' hashpia we attain greater affinity of form with HaKadosh Baruch Hu until finally we are able to receive in order to give- a state in which we are both givers of benefit to others, and thus like Hashem, and receivers of the “delight and goodness” which Hashem intended to give us. This is outlined in Rav Ashlag's Introduction to the Perush HaSulam, his commentary on the Zohar, and other works.

 

Rav Ashlag states further, in Matan Torah, that the Avot (and logically the Imahot) did not recieve the practical Torah (the actual mitzvot) but rather warranted the ruchniyut of the Torah, the spirituality of the Torah, because of their loftiness of soul. This loftiness of soul consisted, of course, in the ratzon l' hashpia, the desire to give benefit. The R”H is known also as “Ve'ahavta L' Reacha Kamocha”, loving your neighbour as yourself, which Rav Ashlag affirms is the klal gadol b' Torah, which he interprets to mean the one mitzvah which the entire Torah comes to bring into being and complete. The Avot and Imahot, while not possessing the practical mizvot of the Torah, did possess this one mitzvah as an expression of “the loftiness of their neshamot (souls)”. It was this loftiness which led Hashem to choose them and bless them to be the parents of Israel, and it was on its account that Israel warranted to receive the Torah, whose whole purpose is to purify Israel so they can develop the R”H, and thus attain d'vekut with Hashem (affinity of form, as the Gemarra also defines d' vekut).

 

This is reflected strongly in the chesed (kindness) of Avraham, and is also reflected this week in the detailed narrative of Eleazar and Rivka. Avraham, on his death bed, tells Eleazar, his servant, to leave Canaan and travel to Avraham's relatives, to see if he can find a wife for Yitzhak there. In the view of the Torah, the customs of the Canaanites are not those of Avraham's family, and he wants a wife from his people and their way of life. Eleazar chooses, as his sign, that the woman should spontaneously offer him and his camels water to drink. In other words, she will practice the Hesed of Avraham. Despite being “merely” the servant of Avraham, Eleazar seems to understand his ways well. He knows that Avraham is not merely interested in a relative, but rather a relative who embodies the code of his family- a code of chesed and righteousness. Eleazar finds that person in Rivka.

 

Letting Go of Hate | Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks | Orthodox Union

Letting Go of Hate | Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks | Orthodox Union.

Excellent essay. I’m assuming this was inspired by the recent tragic attack on Palestinians by a group of Israeli teenagers.

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture

I'm currently reading Yoram Hazony's recent book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. I am not done yet, but at the half-way point I think this is one of a handful of the most important Jewish books of the modern era. Even if the second half is tripe I'd say so. Anyone interested in in the true structure and message of the foundational text of Judaism, the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) should read this book without delay. Whether you love the Tanakh or struggle with it, or even hate it, read this book.