Monday, March 26, 2007

Dear Basya: G-d is One

Our Key Largo classroom

A few months ago, a girl named Basya commented on my blog, reacting to my notions about Chabad being “the truth.” Her questions inquired into my reasoning for promoting the Chabad way of life, and the learning of Chassidus.

While I can only say I try to live a Chabad life, and I wish I learned more of the Chassidus I so passionately preach, Basya pointed out that I may have had some experiences that can serve to answer her questions, which she says no one has ever properly answered.

I have had brief interaction with her via e-mail, and have decided – especially by the demand of other Hilltop enthusiasts – to start responding to her on my blog. This way, a larger audience can benefit from our interaction.

Basya’s question was personal. Therefore, so is my response.

The following is the first step.

-----


Dearest Basya,

To begin answering your question, I must take you back in time, and then to the present, to highlight what I want to propose as the foundation to this discussion.

Over two years ago, I was sitting in a non-Chabad classroom in Har Nof. The teacher’s elbows lay on both sides of a Hebrew text. He taught us enthusiastically as we took notes. It was nearing nightfall, and the trees could be heard moving through the window in the back of the classroom.

Suddenly, one of the students pointed our attention to the beautiful display of intense colors that the sky was showcasing. The sun was setting in Israel, and the Har Nof mountains made for no humble exhibit.

Naturally, we all got up and rushed to the window. Camera’s came out, and our wonderfully overwhelmed sounds filled the room.

In an effort to get girls back to their seats, our teacher was suddenly heard yelling out, "Girls, come on! We're learning Torah here!" He smacked the text with the back of his right hand to elucidate his point, but did not succeed in deterring a group of eighteen year old girls from marveling at a beautiful sky.

The teacher did not scream, nor was his reaction overboard in temper. However, it was what he said that is so troubling.

While our fascination with the sunset clearly interrupted classroom decorum, it was Torah itself that the teacher pointed out as being victimized by our inattention to the text.

How is it that a supposedly Torah-learned man has come to view Torah as something separate from the very world which it seeks to describe and illuminate? The fact that this Rabbi was hired to teach and inspire girls is worrisome, and that he represents a larger group of people is even worse. Although the incident seems subtle, and almost understandable, I have come to learn that it reflects an ideology owned by a lot of people who, in Torah’s name, maintain a rather warped view of the world.

The Rabbi’s words represented a huge portion of world Jewry that don't view the world as one entity in which G-d dwells in everything.

Flash forward some years to about a month and a half ago.

I am in Key Largo, learning Chassidus with women from all over the world. As you can imagine, the scenery in Florida is splendid.

During one particular class, about twenty students are gathered around Rabbi Manis Friedman, feeling his words like needle points in and out of the fabric of their lives. It’s evening, and we're sitting cozily in the lobby, with only a closed curtain behind our teacher separating us from swaying palm trees and the glistening ocean. We're talking about love. We're talking about G-d. We’re talking about our forefathers. Torah's wellsprings are spilling forth, and quenching the thirst of its drinkers.

Suddenly, Rabbi Friedman gets out of his seat.

In all the hours I've spent in Rabbi Friedman's classes, I have never seen him make any unnecessary gesture, movement, even eye contact.

He turns his back to the group, and, with a sweep of his hand, pulls the curtain all the way open to reveal a bright sunset, warm with orange and darkening in purple hues.

And with that, he takes his seat and resumes the class,

Something about Rabbi Friedman's action felt so right, and moved me to my core. While the sunset and deep lessons blended to form an almost euphoric experience, my mind went searching for the root of what I found so beautiful in Rabbi Friedman’s decision to open the blinds during class.

-----

It was a passing moment that defined the eyes through which Chabad views the world.

The core differentiation between the two classes is what I always knew was different about being Chabad. No matter where I was personally holding, and how much I was actually learning, I always sensed that these were the eyes I wanted to have.

If something is going to be teaching me truth, it better be in line with the world around me – the world I walk in, the world I breathe in. If you’re going to illuminate Torah for me and inspire me to serve our creator, it better happen without leaving a trace of his craft out of my hold.

And, at the root of my fascination with Chassidus, is this very idea – that the whole world is G-d, and G-d is the whole world. G-d is invested in everything. It’s not one G-d and one world. Rather, it’s all G-d.

The Chabad Rabbeim were brave enough to reveal a vital aspect of Judaism’s most essential prayer - the Shema. They saw the word “Echad” and revealed what it truly means. “Echad” means a oneness that encompasses and includes all existence, unlike “Yachid” which implies a one that allows for the existence of a second, a third, and so on. When our Rabbeim unraveled the true definition of the Shema, they revealed a oneness that is about unity, and not numbers.

I have experienced this distinction to be at the heart of the difference between the Chabad and non-Chabad world. To not believe in G-d’s unity is to believe that things exist by themselves, on their own. It means believing that G-d is separate from existence. And when you believe that, you can be a very learned Jew and feel like a foreigner to the world, like the world is out to get you – like a sunset is the enemy.

Part of my decision to strongly pursue the study of Chassidus was to ensure that I would never be learning from a Rabbi who is threatened by the world outside his window.

I found people who learned Chassidus to be extremely humble, for they knew that the world we live in is real and huge and relevant. While I saw other teachers swell with ego, my Chassidus teachers were eager to hear our insights - they understood that the truth that they were teaching were sitting inside the hearts and minds of their students. While the study of sources and texts were vital, it was never seen as something separate from the world, our experiences, and the rhythm of the universe which G-d created.

Chassidus is the only thing that has actually showed me that G-d is one. Everyone else only talked about it. And talked and talked some more - like a preachy sermon in a church. As Jews, we know that we have to believe in one G-d. For me, no one ever challenged this belief to its depths until I really learned Chassidus.

And no, it is not the invention of the so called Lubavitch movement. It is the essence of Judaism. However, Chassidus is the study which confronts, explains and enlivens G-d’s oneness, so that it truly comes to life, changing the eyes through which we view the world, and each other.

So, you ask, Why Chassidus when you can be frum without it? Yes, of course you can be frum without Chassidus. Chassidus isn't about being religious. It's about understanding the makeup of the world and our creator with clarity and truth. It's about tuning your eyes to the G-dliness in the world, inherent in everything and everyone.

For me, this theme is the beginning point necessary before dissecting all the aspects of Chabad that inspire the tone you hear in my writing. I hope this serves as a strong foundation for the rest of our discussions which will, G-d willing, be enlightening for the both of us.

All my best,

Mimi

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

WOW Mimi!!!

Hands down the best article yet!!!!

it should be published by every G-D seeking website/blog.

Happy Passover - the Chag when g-d was reviled in a very special way.


Aliza W.

Mimi said...

Wow.

It's wonderful to get such an enthusiastic first comment, right after I post it.

Thank you, Aliza (do I know you?).

Alex said...

Aliza, I think you mean "revealed" - "reviled" means something else entirely, not at all pleasant...

Mimi: it's probable that your first teacher was trying to act in accordance with the statement in Avos (3:7), which criticizes a person who interrupts their learning to admire a beautiful natural sight. It is a pity, though, that he couldn't have found a way to integrate it into what you were learning, and use it as a lesson about Hashem's greatness - which, as you say, Chassidus tries to do.

(I just saw something interesting on this in R' Moshe Bogomilsky's sefer, Vedibarta Bam on Pirkei Avos: he says that the problem described in the Mishnah is indeed that the person is admiring the sight as just a "natural" phenomenon, without considering its Creator.)

Avi said...

Because you focused on what was right about the chassidic approach to torah and not what was wrong with an alternative, I agree with you...
But Alex is right re: Pirkei Avos.
How can you criticize a teacher - especially when you insist he did it pleasantly and professionally - for urging his students to act studently?

Beautiful article.
(AGD was too late for "reviled" :'( )

LubaGal said...

OH NICE!!!!!!!!!!
This is really great!!

Daily Derher said...

This post is really something!

The Nekuda of Torah HaChassidus is Etzem and Yechida. These terms
- by definition - have no definition.

This makes explaining the Nekuda of Chassidus very difficult. Yet your post managed to bring out this profound point in such a clear and simple way.

W/O Chassidus, Yiddishkeit can equal something but it can't equal everything. W/O Chassidus, Elokus can be part of your life, but it can not be life itself. W/O Chassidus there be "Kel Ha'Olam but not Kel Olam." Your article really showed why this is true.
--
One quick note - though maybe this is what you meant...

In the actual translation, it is Echad that allows room for a second and third, while it is Yachid that implies "only one."

(Chassidus answers that Echad is still a bigger Chiddush. Yachid is one by definition. The Chiddush of Echad is that Hashem can create a world that looks like it gives room for a second and third, and despite all of this, still truly be the only one.)
(see Ata Echad 5729)

Shloim said...

Beautiful, powerful, meaningful, and so real. Mim, this especially rang true in my ears. I've often wanted to relay this very point and never found the right words. I agree wholeheartedly and great post; I think my favorite yet! Keep em' coming I check everyday hoping to find a new post. Your posts fill me up with light and a confidence to take on my day/week as a proud Jew!

Amazing!

Mimi said...

Alex: I contemplated putting that Pirkei Avos in this post, but decided not to in the end - I knew I could count on a commenter to bring it up!

You see, this Pirkei Avos actually goes very nicely with what I say here. To quote directly, the Mishna states that, "One who walks on the road and studies Torah, and interrupts his study and remarks 'How Beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!' Scripture considers it as if he were guilty of mortal sin."

You see, the words used in this Mishna are very specific and purposeful. The key word is here is "interrupts - Mafsik." The wrong here is not in noticing nature. Rather, it is seeing it as an INTERRUPTION to learning. So, one who is learning Torah and views it as an interruption to marvel at a tree or field is lacking in understanding of the relationship Torah has to the world.

That is the deeper - or Chassidic - explanation on that Mishna. And, with this understanding, you can look back at the first classroom experience and see that, according to this Mishna, it is the Rabbi who was in the wrong, for he saw noticing the sunset as an interruption!

This is just one way Chassidus comes to flip around our simple understanding of things, and forces us to look...just a little closer.

Anonymous said...

hi mimi,
first of all, beautiful article! Its funny that most of the comments you got are harping on the one small story you used at the begining of the article to bring out your point.
However, I have to be nitpicky too:)
Besides for what Pirkei Avos says about not interupting Torah learning..
I was actually in a Chabad Seminary in Israel when a very similar thing happened ..
A stunning sunset, most of hte class flying to the window to see and to take pictures.. and our teacher's reaction was very similar to the reaction of your non Chabad teacher. Our teacher quoted the same pirkei avos quoted in your commments..

and 20 girls jumping out of thier seats in middle of learning a maamar is just plain chutzpadik..

Chana said...

Mimi, the post is really great. You explain Chassidus so so beautifully. And I know everyone is picking on this one detail, but here's my take on it:

Although this rabbi, and his beliefs may very well be very very different from what Chassidus teaches about the world, I don't feel that these ideologies were expressed in the teacher's comment. The fact is, it seems that class was disrupted. I doubt any teacher would welcome 20+ seminary girls jumping out of their seats and running to the window during class. (In fact, this happened while I was in sem too... Guess I was in sem with Ms. Anonymous up there!!! with a Lubavitch teacher who I admire and respect, and his reaction was quite similar, though probably not using the same lashon.)

Another point is this:
I once heard Rabbi Leibel Groner speak about how much importance the Rebbe placed on fully committing oneself to one task at a time. If it was time for learning, then the bochurim in 770 should be learning. If it was time for mivtzoim, they should go on mivtzoim. Both learning and mivtzoim are equally important, but one should never push the other aside. We are supposed to fully be in the moment of whatever we are doing. So, getting distracted by a gorgeous view, even if it reminds you of G-d's wondrous creations, is still taking you out of the other learning that you were at that time committed to.

And back to that sunset in sem - it was the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen... Our teacher let us out a few minutes early so we could run outside and snap pics.

Chanie said...

hi mimi.. yet another nitpicker :)

I really liked that article, thank you!

I know this is not the point of your article, but it seems as if everyone is harping on this issue so…here is my 2 cents:

I think the underlying issue between interrupting Torah study to view a sunset is as follows:
Obviously on an essential level both the sunset and the maamar are all an expression of G-dliness Hashem cannot be divided into levels, groups, our parts with one part being more important than that other.

That being said:
When one comes to an appreciation of Getlichkeit through learning Torah that person is tapping into the essence of Hashem (ana nafshi ksavis yehavis)
when one comes to an appreciation of Hashem through a beautiful sunset he is tapping chitzonius/giluim of Hashem.

Both approaches to understanding Hashem and appreciating His glory are important, and each comes at its own time and place, but should one interrupt ETZEM to notice Gilui?

And this is besides for the whole “interrupting seder, disrupting the teacher concept”

Really nice post..I think I will read it again a little later when I am not at work..
Kosher and Freilichin Pesach

Basya said...

Dear Mimi!

I was so honored to finally see this post!

So far what you are saying, I agree with. This understanding of the world is part and parcel of Judiasm, how can we seperate them?!...

I guess what always bothered me is what seems to be a paradox: Chabad doesn't claim to have said anything new, just a deeper understanding of what already is. Yet at the same time we believe that it is not just an "extra" / different dimension but it is the core of judiasm itself- so how could judiasm have survived and survive today without it? Did chassidus always exist? in what way did it exist in our history (less revealed/more?)? At what points did we lose some of it if indeed we had it before? My questions may sound technical and superficial but I'm aiming at a complete understanding- the bottom line is that I don't like to see chassidus and Judiasm as two seperate things. Just like we strive to see the world and the Tora as one:)...

Thankyou for the article- I still have questions on the details of chassidus, but on the whole, amazingly(!) you've managed to explain it in a way I didn't think it could be explained:)!
All the best to you and all the comment posters! Looking forward for more articles...

Basya

temmi said...

mimacita...
i loved this post, def my favorite one yet.
want to discuss this with u and i am soo excited that you are home so that we can have a quality talk in ur living room.
:)
i'll c u

Anonymous said...

BS"D

sky has been on my mind lately
looking at the pic and aborsbing some drops
made me think about something chassidus
taught me. teaches me.teaches us
kli yakar aks why does the Abishter in Bereishit
call sky-rekia--instead of shamayim(heaven)
shemayim is made from 2 words-eish/fire and
mayim/water--to impress upon us perhaps
that when we look at shemayim-and see that
fire and water are getting along peacefully-why
not the rest of us?
looking through the bus window on my way to work you see how when the view is not obstructed
by bodega's and such-that everything in
creation strives to reach upward.
that blade of grass.
that tall tree, tall flower. yeah, growing upward.
it says if you take a candle and flip it upside
down the flame does not extinguish, in fact
it still burns striving to reach upward.
chassidus is about bittul.
it is about saying everyday-I did now know U
as matis sings-each and everyday i pray to get
to know You please....
doing tshuva everyday.
it says the whole miracle of nissan is being
able to reapear after having dissapeared.
devoting oneself to chassidut makes one
reapper after disapearing-re apear from nothing.
rabbi ginsberg explains that gematria
shalom is 8xbittul
...more to say, good to see ur back mim- missed
at the shul girl...
batya shalhevet

Anonymous said...

BS"D

from now basya to another
i dont know if you are familiar with necoma gresman
she is mamasha amazing....something she wrote
you can find here::
http://www.sichosinenglish.org/books/through-the-eyes-of-a-woman/40.htm

batya shalhevet

Batya said...

Thanks batya, I'll iy"H check it out!

Mimi said...

I too have been in a Chabad classroom where the teacher was frustrated when we couldn't keep from staring out the window (or singing to the music from the music store downstairs). And I agree that noticing things outside the window is most certainly an interruption to class. Of course! But, as I pointed out, this teacher felt more strong about Torah being offended. He was trying to protect Torah. A teacher who learns Chassidus knows that it's not Torah that's hurt by our attention to the outside world. My Chabad teachers would say, "Ladies, we're in middle of class, your attention please" and never "Girls, we're learning Torah!" As if! It is CLASS that is interrupted, not TORAH. The difference in attitude is very fine indeed, but it changes everything. (Although, in this piece, I didn't delve into the larger philosophy of the Har Nof teacher and his school of thought, you can be assured there is more than this story that showed me his way of thinking. His reaction to the sunset-incident, in this case, actually did reflect his views at large. And my experiences have shown me that he is far from alone in this type of thinking, which, at the core, just doesn't seem to understand G-d's unity the same way Chabad/Chassidus does...)

And again, this is just one small detail, and a personal example, of how Chabad views things differently because of a definition that Chassidus gives us. The ramifications are far greater than I can write in a mere article.

Thanks for all your involvement, everyone!


Now, BASYA! The comment I was waiting for! I am overjoyed that this was a new outlook for you, and that you gained from reading it. Your "technical" questions about Chassidus are SO important. Understanding the origins and makeup of Chassidus is vital. I remember having the same questions. I knew I loved learning Chassidus, but I wanted to know where it came from, why we treat is as "new", etc. You're 100% right about Chassidus not saying anything new. While the study and revelations of Chassidus took the world by storm when first revealed, it really only enlivens what was already there! So, the revelation is new, but not the ideas. It's Torah to the core, there are just different layers that need unraveling. There are some very important Sichas and Maamorim to learn on this topic, that clearly elucidate the origins and purpose of Chassidus (including why it was only revealed so recently). I wish I knew what they were by heart, but I can get back to you. But, the fact that you don't see Judaism and Chassidus as two separate things is right on. Whoever does see them as separate things is missing a very big part of what Chassidus is. You see? It all goes back to the ONENESS! Thanks for your feedback, Basya. I am looking forward to more.

litzo said...

G-d directs the footsteps of man.
it was HP that you were in class, and at that exact moment understood the Rabbi's words as a contradiction to chassidus.
all the above commentators are correct.
but leaving technicality aside, (or nit-picking which seemed to become a catch phrase, lol) G-d provided you with a drive to stop, drop, and study chassidus.
He chose this Rabbi's words as a means to revv your engine.
how fortunate you are that you take your cues. i gain such inspiration from your attention to the details. they count.
you're a pnimi!


basya, thanks for bringing this up.
mimi, thanks for allowing us to partake in this vital discussion.

may you go machayil el chayil!

Rach said...

Mim, your explanation of that halacha seems far fetched. you seem to be interpreting in a dishonest way in order to fit into a preconceived idea. the mishnah is very straightforward. there are no rishonim who don't view it as such. of course, though, nature should bring us to recognize God's wisdom and the wonders of the universe- we have brachas that reflect that idea, etc. but the torah is the ultimate reflection of God's infinate chachma and it needs to be treated as something kadosh and shown kavod. and so, when learning it, it's important to have that mindset and not interrupt the learning of it. and yes, according to God's halacha, even admiring His wondrous nature is an interruption.
Interpreting the halacha literally isn't coming to diminish the importance of seeing God through nature, rather protecting the kedusha of the Torah.

jackie said...

Mim, it was worth the wait for this post.

I relate very strongly to what you find in chassidus and I think your articulation of it is really beautiful. I think it's a concept I've found before in non-chassidish Jewish thought, but that doesn't matter. Whatever the case, it was a leasure to read your essay and I think it speaks a lot of truth about the chassidus tries to find.

I won't carp about the sunset example becasue the previous comments seem to have done justice there already.

Chag kasher v'sameach! Perahps I'll see you over yom tov?

Basya said...

Mimi- what is your comment to what Jackie had to say about the same concepts existing in none chassidish thought?

Rochel said...

Way to go Mimi!!!!
Thats a beatiful article, it makes up for the long wait! Looking forward to seeing more of ur awesome writings!

Rochel said...

Way to go Mimi!!!!
Thats a beatiful article, it makes up for the long wait! Looking forward to seeing more of ur awesome writings!

Anonymous said...

Mimi,

Are you going to share with us about your post-Purim introspection that you mention in the sidebar?

Anonymous said...

Mimi,

Are you going to share with us about your post-Purim introspection that you mention in the sidebar?

Mimi said...

Anonymous, I should, shouldn't I? It has much to do with uncovering whats real, seriously evaluating myself, where I'm holding, and what not. Oh, and wearing red nail polish. Expect a new post about that :)

Someone Else said...

Well Mimi, I appreciate you taking my request along with the others to write out your response to Basya. You really hit it on the nail with your explanation. There are tons of angles to look at anything anyone writes (for example, you see tons of ppl who analyze english, british etc. literature, poetry, and articles) and that's what ppl have been doing on your current post. It's good to think and comment on diff points. I feel that we should ALSO remember to internalize your point and try to apply it to our lives. As a Chassid(a) I would assume that it would be good to take in what the other readers said (ex: focus on one thing and be a Pnimi, see Hashem in everything and see the Oneness of Hashem and the world, etc.) We can also try to give those around us, students (everyone teaches someone), friends, siblings, and ourselves the flexibility to notice/ integrate/and learn from.... EVERYTHING!!!!!!
Keep it up Mimi! I look forward to more!

Israel Krasnianski said...

Mimi, all the questions that Basya is asking are addressed and answered by the Rebbe in widely-known sichos (yud tes kislev ones come to mind) letters of this theme that have been collected, and in the kuntres "inyono shel toras hachasidus (printed in english too)." Perhaps, if its possible, you two should set up some chavrusa time to learn together from the Rebbe's own words.

As talented as a writer may be, the words of the original, especially being the Rebbe's in this case, have no risk of being misunderstood or becoming diluted.

Btw, the gist of your post is the reason why we (Lubavitchers) are so careful not to eat cholov akum and consider it treif mamesh. v'hamaskilah tovin. see derech mitzvoisecha, hashbosas chametz v'achilas matzah.

Id love to know if, based on there, you can find a way to explain how the misnagdishe world's understanding of G-d is any different\better than a intelectual non-jew's?

this is in direct response to basya's "why chassidus". after learning that piece from the tzemach tzedek and understanding what matza and faith means, it becomes quite clear "why chassidus". because without it, a Jew's faith is no different than a non-jew's. hence the avoidance of cholov akum etc. check it out, its a fascinating thing. hard to capture it in a comment.

on shlichus in cali said...

Miriam with the red-nails... so glad to hear your true voice.

Now I can rest more easily.

This is by far my favorite of your posts, its so genuine and well concieved.

Love and more love always...

on shlichus in cali said...

Oh, wasn't it (drumroll...) Tylenol?

chanie said...

First off- I am not the Chanie you saw previously.

Second- Mimi- great post. About the echad/yachid, the idea of the maamar was that it shouldn't say echad, it should say yachid, because echad implies that there could ch"v be more than one. Maybe that's what you meant and I just missed it. At any rate, I think this is the best post yet. Keep it up!

Alex said...

To Basya's last comment ("what is your comment to what Jackie had to say about the same concepts existing in none chassidish thought?"),

There's was some gadol - I think it was the Beis HaLevi - who, when asked about the similarity of one of his divrei Torah to something someone else had said, replied (paraphrasing):

"When you walk on a straight road, you meet other people going the same way. When you walk on a crooked path, though, you're likely to be the only one."

So it's not surprising that non-chassidic Torah scholars would independently hit on some of the same ideas that are explicated in Chassidus.

Also, (although it's true that I don't know specifically which Jewish thinkers Jackie was referring to), there are numerous non-chassidic Gedolei Yisroel who were indeed influenced by chassidic ideas. Examples from the 20th century include R' Eliyahu Dessler and R' Avigdor Miller. Going back even further, the Lubavitcher Rebbe points out (in his Igros Kodesh, vol. 1 no. 11, in reply to a chassid who had discussed this with R' Dessler) that so early an authority as R' Chaim Volozhiner, a disciple of the Vilna Gaon, seems to have been influenced by ideas from Chassidus, since his view of "tzimtzum" (how G-d, Who is infinite, relates to our finite world) is different than that of his teacher, and closer to the way it's explained in the Tanya.

[Which gets us back full circle to the subject of Mimi's post: is G-d's presence indeed absent from our physical world (the Vilna Gaon)? Or is it present, but merely contracted and concealed (R' Chaim Volozhiner)? If so, then indeed a sunset and Torah are two different things. By contrast, if we say that G-d's presence exists equally everywhere, and that only the Divine energy that sustains our world is concealed (Chassidus), then indeed G-d is present as much in the sunset as in the Torah, and each has its place.]

jackie said...

I guess that also a lot of the chassidic ideas are based on kaballah...and many non-chassidim were also inspired by that same source. Like Ramban, for instance.

leah said...

About why we need chassidus now and why it wasn't revealed in other generations learn the sicha acharon shel pesach nof shin lamed (I think it's at the end of the chassidic heritage series 'on the essence of chasidus' too). Enjoy.