On Translation and Living in Multiple Worlds

A Sermon for Hanukkah. Translated by Levi Morrow and Alan Brill, published in the blog kavvanah.wordpress.com

The Eros of Wisdom

“Greeks gathered against me / in the days of the Hasmoneans. / They breached the walls of my towers / and defiled all the oils. / But from the remaining jugs / a miracle was made for the lilies/ Wise men, eight days / established for song and rejoicing.”[1]

Many commentators understand the holiday of Hanukkah as the holiday, which more than any other, expresses the complex tension between the contact of Torah with wisdoms and cultures. According to these understandings, the war between the Greeks and the Maccabees was not about independence and control, rather a culture war over the purity of the “jug of oil” that represents the wisdom of Torah, a war that Judaism fights against the wisdom of Greece. I want to present the discussion of this tension in the philosophies of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook and Rabbi Naḥman of Bratslav, using them to give context to the religious phenomenon of new combinations of identities that is spreading nowadays, enabling a broad range of new religious options.

Before I begin, I want to make a methodological point. The wisdom of the Torah and the wisdom of Greece, along with the holy language and Greek language, were originally clear and distinctive signifiers: the Torah is the holy canon of the Jewish people and the holy language is the language of this people, while Greek language and wisdom were the language and literature of the Greeks. Over the course of history, however, these signifiers became, in various homilies, signifiers of a spiritual reality, in which they no longer signify specific languages or books, rather ways of learning and existing. Greek wisdom, therefore, is no longer the wisdom of the Greek people but a way of relating, able to exist even within the walls of the traditional Jewish study hall. A person reading these homilies – those from the ancient rabbis and those that came later – must determine how these signifiers are functioning.

The term “external wisdom” was used throughout Jewish history to refer to Greek wisdom. “External wisdom” is not evil wisdom, it simply belongs to the outside, meaning it lacks the intimacy of “being with itself,” and at its source is an objectification of the knowledge. Hence, the conflict [between Torah and Greek Wisdom] does not have to focus on the context of the wisdom or the language used, but on intimacy and personal identity, the intimacy and identity that are the eros of the wisdom.[2] The distinction between the wisdom of Greece and the wisdom of the Torah is between “the beauty of Japheth” and “the tents of Shem.”[3] Japheth, the biblical father of Greece who symbolizes Greekness, is the wisdom that is beautiful[4] and effective, but lacks all passion and intimacy; [Shem, representing Torah,] is a wisdom overflowing with meaning and intimacy, a revelation of existence and substantive content.

Japheth and Shem, external wisdom and internal wisdom, do not just oppose and reject each other. Rather they also sustain each other and are imprinted on one another. On the one hand, the rabbis warned that “a person who teaches his son Greek wisdom is cursed,” aiming to protect “the remaining jugs,” the oil stamped with the seal of the high priest. [5]  On the other hand, the rabbis expounded the verse, “God shall expand (yaft) Japheth and he will dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27): “the beauty (yafiyuto) of Japheth will be in the tents of Shem.”[6] Japheth must participate in “the tents of Shem,” in the intimate Jewish space.

The commandment of the Hanukkah candle expresses this tension. We light the candle of wisdom “just outside the entrance to the home.”[7] On the threshold of the tent, against the darkness of Greece, stands the candle of wisdom.[8] In light of this complex relationship between Shem and Japheth, what is the real character of the candle of Hanukkah in its showing the relation between Shem and Japheth? Is it a candle of strife, accompanied by the sounds of the war songs of the sons of light against the sons of darkness, coming to drive way the darkness and remove the black by way of light and fire? Alternatively, perhaps the candle, to a certain degree, relies on the darkness around it, which in truth is specifically shining from the outside into the inside of the home?


Greek Language On its Own

At the inauguration of the Mizrahi movement’s study hall (beit midrash) for teachers, during Hanukkah 1932, Rav Kook gave a sermon dealing with the topics of the holiday, including the relationship between wisdom and language:

We have to note the additional distinction made by the rabbis: “Greek language on its own and Greek wisdom on its own” (Bavli, Baba Kamma, 83a). We see that the main intent was to distinguish between content and style. Greekness as wisdom, as a worldview – harshly injures holiness, profanes it and defiles it. Greek language, however, the language in terms of its expressive capacity, in terms of how richly it describes things – this is an entirely different matter. In the latter, there is no clash between the contents of frameworks of beliefs and ideas. Rather, only an external improvement, which in and of itself does not make contact with or impinge upon internal matters […]. The content we need not accept other than from our holy Torah […]. This is not the case when it comes to style, to the external beautification of things […].

After all the wars with Greece and Greekness, the rabbis found support [=proof] for importing linguistic aspects into the world of the Jewish people, in a verse, “God shall expand (yaft) Japheth and he will dwell in the tents of Shem – the beauty (yafiyuto) of Japheth will be in the tents of Shem.”[9]

Rav Kook is delineating a boundary between the content, the light, and the container (keli), the medium and the language. “Greek language on its own and Greek wisdom on its own.” This distinction means that the emptying of the light of Torah into the Greek container cannot damage and change the light of Torah, but it is capable of contributing an external improvement, which does not make contact with or impinge upon internal matters. Rav Kook is not referring to Greek language specifically, but rather the tools (kelim) that Greek culture, symbolizing for him Western culture writ large, brought with it. These tools are, for examples, the tools of the academy – the reflection of research, philological and historical investigation, philosophical, literary, and linguistic richness, which Rav Kook was not afraid to make use of in writing his inspirations.

Not only this, but Rav Kook asserted in his book Eder Hayakar:

Any idea or thought that comes from research, investigation and critique in its own right, in its pure freedom, could never come to evil, not in the general faith shared by all straight of heart and knowledgeable people […] nor in the foundation of eternal Israel and its connection to the God of its strength […]. Only an evil heart, a licentious heart […] is what causes all the disturbance.[10]

Rav Kook had complete faith in the capacity of a thinking and researching individual to be unbiased and exact, such that he will not injure “the general faith” or “eternal Israel.” The critical gaze upon the Torah and improving its external layer (levushah) through Greek language, and what comes with it, will not overshadow its original holiness, on condition that the researcher and the reader do it with hearts clean of the desires that can darken their conclusions.

Rav Kook tried to compartmentalize between the medium of language, and the content expressed through it. In Greek language, he found the possibility of externally improving the light. His thought should be seen against the background of the Hegelian understanding according to which the spirit clarifies itself and advances by way of reflection. The spirit, which is the Jewish jug of oil, clarifies itself by way of Greek language, which examines it from an external perspective, investigates it, gives it definitions and conceptual characteristics, but does not defile it internally. According to his position, the problem of Greekness only appears when we try to import an “idol” into the temple of God, meaning the content itself, attempting to integrate with the wisdom of Greece. “Not so the temple – it is dedicated for interiority, a foreigner may not approach there, the spirit of [Noah’s son] Shem, the spirit of Israel its purity, needs to be preserved there.”[11]

In contrast to Rav Kook, Rebbe Naḥman of Bratslav did not think that the Greek medium was indifferent to the light. He identified it as a deep threat and ferociously attacked attempts to connect the tents of Shem with the beauty of Japheth. Rebbe Naḥman, who lived on the threshold of the bursting of the Enlightenment into the Jewish world of Eastern Europe, saw the clouds predicting its arrival, sensed the storm and the deep schism that it could, and did, create among the faithful Jews. “Someone who, God forbid, learns books of research and philosophy introduces doubts and heresy into his heart […] therefore we do not find any person who was made fitting and God-fearing by books of research.”[12] For this reason, he exhorted his devoted followers toward naiveté (temimut) as a way of life. “Fortunate is one who does not know at all from their books [=of research] and only goes naively.”[13] He continued: “it is wisdom and great service to be like an animal,”[14] meaning naiveté and simplicity, an instruction that he did not necessarily aim toward himself.

Rebbe Naḥman internalized a structural opposition between Jewish and Greek discourse, between a discourse that depends on revelation and a discourse that depends on human understanding, the source of which is the individual’s rebellion against revelation and the tradition. The fact that the scientific stance attempts to rely only on proofs constructs the individual as standing against, as lacking any readiness to nullify himself (lehitbatel).[15] The characteristics of Greek language are not imprinted in the ideas of the culture but in the essence of the discourse, in the nature of how the language functions. Rebbe Naḥman therefore asserted decisively, “even though their words contain some ideas about good virtues and the like, even so it is all nonsense, for they are more trouble than they are worth, for they greatly confuse a person’s mind.”[16] This confusion is not a result of problematic conclusions but, primarily, a result of the very essence of the method.

Indeed, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Rav Kook’s approach is not at all simple. The rabbis compared the day when the Torah was translated into Greek to the day when the Golden Calf was made![17] This statement rejects the distinction between form and content that Rav Kook traces, and for the rabbis it was clear that the form shapes the content and the medium penetrates into the core of the message.[18] We would add further that Rav Kook’s trust in the purity of the thinker and the scholar leads to the conclusion that if there is a contradiction between the two – faith and investigation, light and container – the thinker and the scholar will be accused of lacking sincerity and of a wicked heart.

According to the musar masters, a lack of faith is a result of a deficiency in character traits, a position whose mental cost may be unbearable. Parenthetically, I would add that even if we accept this [musar] position, that deficiency in faith is a mental deficiency, this still does not mean that this deficiency is a sin or that it is at all within a person’s control, or that the existence of this deficiency is a reason to besmirch the inner uprightness of that faithless person.


The Passion that is in Speech – Three Languages

Of course, Rebbe Naḥman instructed his devoted followers to avoid contact with the medium of Western enlightenment. “A person who teaches his son Greek wisdom,” and Greek language as well, “is cursed” since the jug of oil that is the Jewish soul must be pure, simple, and wholehearted (tamim). As the tzadik of the generation, however, he himself was destined for a different path. “In truth there is a great prohibition against being a scholar, God forbid, and against teaching books of wisdom, God forbid. Only the very great tzadik can enter into this.”[19] Rebbe Naḥman saw himself as a tzadik, an inspired person with intense religiosity and humanity. Entering the depths of the negative spirituality (kelipot) of heresy and denial is necessary in order for him to extract the fallen souls that fell there into their traps, due to the knowledge and skepticism of the enlightenment.

This is why Rebbe Naḥman attempted to combine irregular combinations in his teachings, such as those he called “waste of the land of Israel.”[20] He permitted himself to translate the Torah into Greek even though he was aware of the harsh cost of translation. On the one hand, the translation “reverses the combinations” of the original Torah, while on the other hand, it enables the tzadik to elevate the souls that are “far from the truth”[21] because the Enlightenment misled them. However, it would be a mistake to think that Rebbe Naḥman only attempted this translation, which he called “the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” in order to redeem the fallen. I will attempt to show that in “Greek” language (the parallel in Rebbe Naḥman’s terminology is “idolaters’ language”), Rebbe Naḥman found a great option for religious devotion that is lacking in someone who only speaks the wholesome (tamim) holy language. Translation is therefore necessary in its own right.

Rebbe Naḥman’s primary discussion of the translation of the Torah is in his book, Likutei Moharan (I:19), wherein he teaches about three languages: the holy language, idolaters’ language, and the language of translation.  Of course, Rebbe Naḥman himself switches between the language as a concrete language and the language as a meta-historical archetype, wherein a certain religious substance occurs:

How great and precious is the value of the holy language, with which the world was created […]. This is why it was called the holy language, for any place where you find separation from inappropriate sexuality you find holiness (Leviticus Rabbah 24) […] For through the holy language, the desire for adultery, the bonfire, was bound and imprisoned […] for the holy spirit gets rid of the spirit of idiocy. This is an instance of repairing the covenant (tikkun habrit), which is an instance of the Holy Spirit, an instance of “spirit did not rise again in any man” (Joshua 2) […] for repairing the covenant is dependent on the holy language.[22]

The holy language is that language where someone who speaks it is at one with himself. This is the creating language of God where “he does not make a statement separate from the event itself.”[23] This is a language without any gap between it and substantive reality, it does not maintain within it the duality of the signifier.

As we shall see below, this is speech spoken out of a consciousness of “I am who I am.” It does not have a rule that precedes speech; the speech imagines and legislates the law for itself. This speech creates space for itself in “the secret of the contraction (tsimtsum).”[24] The language creates without anything preceding it. This language is wholehearted (temimah), because it does not point to an object that is separate from it, rather it itself is the world. This language is not a signifier and its primary function is not communication. It exists for itself in a world without duality.[25]

This language preserves the covenant (shemirat habrit), since the person who speaks the language of the covenant is not grasping for something outside himself, he is entirely faithful to what he is. The holy language is not “speaking about.” It speaks in a language without any reflectivity whatsoever, which therefore structures a world entirely contained within the language. Rebbe Naḥman expresses this by depicting the world as composed of the words and letters of the holy language.[26] A language like this can be experienced through the practice of Bratslav or Ḥabad-style learning, with their various jargons, intuitions, movements, and deviation. This practice reveals that this is not study that refers to reality but study that itself becomes reality. It does not have an object, but rather exists in itself – existence as a Bratslav world or existence as a Ḥabad world.

The holy language stands in contrast to the idolaters’ language of “the seventy nations” that corrupts the covenant. The language of “the all-inclusive evil, in which are contained all the evils of the seventy languages, is the burning bonfire that is the desire for adultery, in which all seventy languages are immersed and contained […] for someone who damages the covenant destroys the holy language.”[27] The root of adultery is the will to dominate and acquire, and in order to acquire something a person must position themselves against the object, externally, and dominate it.

According to Rebbe Naḥman, the will to conquer and control via the word leads to corrupted sexuality. The connection between the sin of language and damage to the covenant is the desire to know,[28] but from the outside. This desire causes splitting duality, and corrupts both language and sexuality.[29] Language loses its unity with reality and becomes a language of duality and lack of faith, which “speaks about” and takes an objectifying and dominating stance. This distorts the point from which the substantive speech of the holy language is possible, and thus does not allow the language to speak or the event to occur. Instead, it inspires doubt and a will to prove that thwarts itself.

A linguistic situation like this makes the covenant impossible, because the language creates gaps between the individual and reality. Speech like this can never accept itself or enable the speaker to be what and how he is. Similarly, in other teachings Rebbe Naḥman teaches that this language presents itself as beautiful, wise, and refined, but insincere speech. This is the language of the demon-scholar (shed-talmid hakham), who uses his linguistic aesthetics and rhetoric to create an impression on the other and dominate him via language:

For Jewish demon Torah scholars (talmidei hakhamim shedin yehuda’in) receive their Torah from the demons (shedin), who have a fallen Torah […]. This is why all of their speech is proverbs and poetry, and wondrous inflections […] and these Torah scholars […] exhaust people that come to hear their Torah and sermons, and people think that this will bring them some value, that they will come to know how to serve God. However, these people do not achieve any value, for the Torah of these scholars lacks the power to guide people in the good path, for “from bad there will not be good.”[30]


The Tree of Knowledge – The Language of Translation

Like a Hanukkah candle standing between the interior of the house and the outside world, Rebbe Naḥman locates the language of translation, which is an instance of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and of “kelipat nogah,”[31] between holiness and the impure spiritual entities (kelipot), and between the holy and the idolaters’ languages.

We can identify the evolution of the concept of language in the case of the language of translation as well.[32] This originally meant a concrete language, the Aramaic that the ancient sages used to translate holy texts into language spoken and understood by everyone. In Rebbe Naḥman’s teaching, the translation changes from a concrete language to a signifier of reality, the reality of the language of translation that stands at the threshold:

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is the language of translation, which is an intermediary between the holy language and the language of the seventy nations […]. The language of translation is an instance of “an insightful (maskalet lit. prudent) wife” (Proverbs 19:14) […] for the language of translation is both good and bad, sometimes it makes you smarter (maskil) and sometimes it makes you bereaved (meshakel). The foolish wife [=the idolaters’ language] seduces the wise wife [=the holy language] by way of the insightful wife […] which is the language of translation, Aramaic […].

The primary construction and completion of the holy language is only through casting away the evil of the translation and picking out the good from the translation for the holy language, for through this the holy language is completed […] for the primary construction of the holy language is through translation. By picking out the good from translation for the holy language and casting away the evil in it, all seventy languages fall, an instance of “language falling on language.”[33]

The language of translation is born in sin, the sin of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,[34] wherein it distinguished itself from the wholesomeness (temimut) of the holy language. Rebbe Naḥman teaches that, from this position, it can turn in one of two ways. It can make you smarter (maskelet) or it can make you bereaved (meshakelet), knowledge of good or knowledge of evil.

The language of translation as “knowledge of good” manifests through beautiful speech spoken for the sake of Heaven, which is serious speech that intends to be substantive like the original holy language. Translation stands outside the creation of the holy language, enveloped in itself, granting the necessary reflectivity to someone who speaks the holy language and whose world-existence is bounded by it. However, this reflectivity does not try to appropriate the holy in a meager instrumental manner, rather the translation “illuminates the letters of the holy language,” aiming to clarify the spoken letters, not to conquer them. [35]

This seems similar to Rav Kook’s Hegelian outlook. Rebbe Naḥman calls it “an insightful wife” because someone who speaks the language of translation can see the great spiritual richness buried in the holy language, specifically because of his distanced position from it. According to Rebbe Naḥman, however, the language of translation does more than this. It also transforms the holy language itself, changing its primary sense. “The primary construction and completion of the holy language” requires translation, beyond just a sharper appearance of the contents of the holy.

“Laban the Aramean […] called it “Pillar-Witness” (“yagar shahaduta”) (Genesis 31:47), Jacob raised the translation to the holy language, and therefore called it “Pillar-Witness” (“gal ed”) in the holy language […] because the primary construction of the holy language is through translation.”

Rebbe Naḥman’s words pivot around the biblical event wherein Jacob and Laban the Aramean build a pillar as a memorial and a testimony. Laban calls the pillar “yagar shahaduta”in Aramaic, and then Jacob calls it “gal ed” in Hebrew. “Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. Jacob said to his kin, ‘Gather stones.’ They took stones, they made a mound, and they ate there by the mound” (Genesis 31:45-47). Rebbe Naḥman identifies Jacob’s action as raising the language of Laban the Aramean into the holy language. The translation changes the original meaning of the holy language when Jacob assimilates the language of translation, the Aramaic spoken by Laban, into the holy language, creating a change in the concepts of the holy themselves. The strange language penetrates into the feeling of being at home of the holy language, creating a new formulation – “gal ed.

Practically speaking, we are talking about Rebbe Naḥman’s creative capacity as the tzadik of Bratslav; the capacity for religious renewal radically interpreted as the renewal of divine presence in the world, or at least as the renewal of the tools (kelim) which enable this presence.

Rebbe Naḥman’s involvement in telling “stories of events from the days of yore” displays a self-awareness of this approach.[36] Rebbe Naḥman’s main purpose with his stories is to translate to transport the listener to a magical, mythical, world “from the days of yore.” This world has kings and princesses, fantastic lands and wondrous creatures, including giants, spirits, men of the woods, and a prince made entirely of precious stones. Not only do these worlds not belong to holiness or religious discourse, for the most part these stories do not have any Jewish or religious characteristics at all. Furthermore, the stories expose the listener to a world of experiences, which is entirely disconnected from the religious experience and its normal, accepted, forms in the traditional Jewish world. However, Rebbe Naḥman, leader of a hasidic court and grandson of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, is the one telling the story, and this throws the listener and his religious world into a fantastic literary world to which he himself does not belong. Rebbe Naḥman renews religiosity incorporating elements that were initially strange to it. For example, when Rebbe Naḥman describes the messiah as a trapper living in the wilderness or as a hippy playing songs, he is not just signifying him with random and interchangeable characteristics. He intends to color anew the image of the messiah. In this manner, the language of translation functions to complete the holy language. [37]

Understanding that we must raise translation into the holy language causes us to read the words of the rabbis with which we opened in an original fashion: “the beauty of Japheth will be in the tents of Shem.” In the words of Rav Kook we saw the classical understanding of this statement; we clothe the tents of Shem, the holy language, in the beauty of Japheth. This is only the first stage of translation, wherein we clothe the Torah in external terminology, clarifying the spirit and making its richness known. Sometimes the opposite occurs with the languages; Japheth is clothed in the tents of Shem. This is the important and crucial process by which the world of religious terminology – the holy, fear and love of God, and devotion to God – receives new and unexpected meaning from the elements and formulations assimilated into it.[38]


Split Identities and Faith as a Covenant

We should emphasize that Rebbe Naḥman repeatedly notes that “the tree of knowledge of good” can easily plummet to become “the tree of knowledge of evil.” Then the language of translation serves as a tool for the idolaters’ language to appropriate the holy language, preventing its creative renewal, thus leading to duality and religious barrenness. “Know that this foolish wife is all the evil of the seventy languages. These languages cannot draw on the wise wife, on the holy language mentioned previously, except by way of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, with which they seduce her and infect her with pollution.”[39] Furthermore, we cannot ignore the fact that Rebbe Naḥman understands only the tzadik, the perfect person, is able to translate. For his followers, of course, he laid out a different path; he guided them toward the naiveté (temimut) of the holy language.

The catch is that today we have to ask if maybe our situation has changed to one of “your nation are all righteous (tzadikim)” (Isaiah 60:21), where we have no choice but to exist in the space between inside and outside, between identity and strangeness. Rebbe Naḥman’s guidance toward naiveté and simplicity does not respond to our form of life. Of course, I am not invalidating religious naiveté, Heaven forbid. I do not see it as bad faith or self-deception. However, for most of the young men and women that I know, translation is the only option for sincere and substantive religious lives. Some have said that entering into these negative aspects (kelipot), using the language of translation, is too dangerous. They dismissed me because how could we succeed in what Rebbe Naḥman saw as the task of “the very great tzadik”. To them, I quote a passage from Rav Kook that says that anyone who does not suffer from spiritual descents has no chance of religious ascent. He supports this with the verse, “the rocks are a cover for hyraxes” (Psalms 104:18).[40] The soul endangers itself by its very descent into the world, but only this descent-endangerment can lead to ascent.

For better or worse, we are citizen of multiple cultures and we live in more than one world of values. We are not able to deny this situation, nor would we deny it if we could. Denying it would be self-denial, leading to deep, radical injury to our religious faith itself. Rebbe Naḥman’s approach to translation is therefore not only desirable, but also the only option for elevating the translation that is already happening anyway.

I see great importance in this characterization because we do not encounter the true problem of the encounter between Torah, religious life, and the Greek language -affecting us through the media, academia, literature, and much more- at the point when we encounter this language when we start studying at university after years of learning in yeshiva. Rather, much earlier, in the religious education that we received, in the foundation of our faith, and in the limited constructs that we make its content. We therefore need a substantial religious-spiritual-Jewish alternative, without which it is impossible to avoid internal contradictions that bear a heavy price. We recognize the contradictions in various forms: the formerly religious (datlashim), the laissez-faire religious (dati leit), Ultra-Orthodox Nationalists (hardalim), and the like.[41]

In order to understand the special position of the religious Zionist believer and the translation work he does, we must distinguish between multiple, split identities and compartmentalized identities, like that of Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, which I call the “two worlds” mindset.[42] Leibowitz lived in two worlds, the scientific-secular and the religious. He did this by opening an unbridgeable gap between them; he would never bring them together. He lived with a contradiction, but it remained external to him without reaching his subjectivity or personal identity.

In contrast, the multiple, split identity model puts together different worlds without recognizing compartmentalized truth-values or different realms of truth. We should describe the Religious Zionist soul as a soul that lives not in one world but in many worlds, which it likely cannot integrate. It does not compartmentalize them -Torah versus labor, faith versus science, religion versus secularism- but rather manages a confusing and often even schizophrenic set of relationships between them.

A new type of religiosity has therefore developed nowadays, one that cannot be defined by its location on any graph; it is scattered across many different (shonim), you could even call them “strange” (meshunim), centers. This religiosity does not define itself with the regular religious definitions, but enables a weaving of unusual identities, integrating multiple worlds- in a way that is not a way. He presents a deep personal faith that, in my opinion, carries the potential for religious redemption.

Where does this capacity for integrations and combinations come from? Answer: that very same deep personal faith. This faith is not faith in something, rather an act of self-acceptance. It recognizes a deep core of covenantal eros, which enables the freedom to translate and to make integrations, combinations, and connections that our fathers never dreamed of making.[43] The existence of faith is not dependent on some sort of faithfulness of a given individual, because its roots are much deeper than the consciousness of its bearers. It is present as a fact, and this gives rise to the covenant. Only thus can a person accept his faith and his way of life, a necessary condition for the novel religious phenomenon we are suggesting.

I will clarify. Faith is not some personal essence belonging to a person, an essence that a person discovers after removing all the excess, superficial layers around his true, stable identity. Whether its conscious source is a social construct, linguistic usage, national inheritance, etc., faith as “a form of life” cuts across the various spheres of identify. Faith is a leftover excess that a person cannot remove or digest. This leftover excess destroys the dichotomies and definitions of identity, readying them for encounter and creation. Faith is not grounded at the pole of any fixed image nor is part of a “whole.” It does not fall under any definition, and therefore it is often manifest as nonconformity. Ecstatic and multivalent figures are sprouting up before our eyes, and they cannot be located at any one place in society, for their faith comes from a much deeper place, from times gone by.

This faith is a remainder, a psycho-theological symptom manifesting as inexplicable stubbornness, as a willingness to be on the losing side of the world simply because “this is who I am and this is who I want to be,” without conscious justification. [44] As per Rebbe Naḥman, the deep meaning of preserving the covenant is eros. This is the significance of the small jug of oil with the seal of the high priest: the harmony of an individual with who and what he is, without locking himself into a specific identity; he can be who he is, whoever that may be.

I will add that self-acceptance opposes attempts by a religious community to enforce observance of yarmulke, prayer, fringes, phylacteries, etc. These attempts makes religiosity forced, cowardly, and alienating, one of the causes of the spiritual superficiality of the religious community. A religion that sees itself as at war for its survival is a religion without depth and roots.

In contrast, Habad expresses an ontology of a religious reality overflowing with Eros. “I am who I am, which is the innermost aspect of the highest will,”[45] a dimension that exists “beyond and in excess of its meaning.”[46] Ḥabad discourse says that this dimension “cannot be named, nor alluded to by any extraneous detail of the conventions of language at all,” because this reality promises eternity, the guarantee that “I will be as I will be” (Exodus 3:14).

This characterizes the personality of the ideal believer, for whom preserving the covenant means faithfulness to its Eros, to its interest and participation. This faithfulness enables the exciting and impossible encounter between parallel and contradictory worlds.


We read, “A righteous man (tsadik) lives by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). This faith comes from a person accepting faith’s presence in his life, which is a person’s readiness to live with what the creator gave him. At this level, the believer’s act comes from the qualities of humility, nullification (bitul) and a not knowing that open him up to devotion to what he is, to what was given to him, and to achieving oneness and personal identity. This is not the type of identification that compares the concrete manifestation of a person to a picture, symbol, or idea that exists “outside,” beyond him, but the revelation of the person as he is, without any “beyond” – this is me.

“A righteous man lives by his faith” – if this is his faith, whatever it is, he will live.

However, when the tzadik enters into these seven wisdoms, he strengthens himself and remains in his place through faith, and instance of “a tzadik lives by his faith.” For “a tzadik falls seven times and gets up (Proverbs 24:16), for the great tzadik takes the path of these seven wisdoms, even though he could slip and fall because of a stumbling block […] however the tzadik falls seven times, and gets up through faith.[47]



[1] From the traditional Hanukkah song “Ma’oz Tsur.”

[2] This is why family and the struggle over family propriety is integrally connected to the struggle over wisdom.

[3] “The tents of Shem” is a symbol in rabbinic discourse for the Jewish/Torah-governed space. See, for example, Bereshit Rabbah, 63:6.

[4] For example, the Jerusalem Talmud cites the halakhah that a person is permitted to teach his daughter Greek wisdom because it is like a decorative accessory (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah, 5:1).

[5] Talmud Bavli, Sotah, 49b.

[6] Talmud Bavli, Megillah, 9b.

[7] Talmud Bavli, Shabbat, 21b.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Rav Kook, cited in Tsvi Neriah, Mo’adei Hara’ayah: Hagim Uzmanim Behaguto Ube’orah Hayav Shel Maran Harav Avraham Yits’hak Hakohen Kook Zatsal (Jerusalem: Moriah Publishing, 1982), 183. This passage unquestionably reflects a significant facet of Kook’s thought, but as in other areas, his teachings included multiple, often contradictory, voices about the tension at play here.

[10] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Eder Hayakar (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1967), 52.

[11] Rav Kook, cited in Neriah, Mo’adei Hara’ayah, 159.

[12] Rebbe Naḥman. Sihot Haran. #5.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 15.

[15] For example, see Rebbe Naḥman. Lekutei Moharan. II 4:5-6; Idem. “Maaseh Behakham Vetam.” In Sippurei Maasiyot.

[16] Ibid., 5.

[17] Tractate Sofrim, 1:7.

[18] This influence is bidirectional, in that, when we adopt Greek language, it does not remain the same Greek language as before. Think of it as when a yeshiva student learns philosophy or reads secular literature. The context from which he approaches the texts inevitably influences their content and the meaning of the reading and learning. If we return to Rav Kook, we can say that Rav Kook did not really apprehend the spirit of the West. For example, he read Kant like a yeshiva student. This fact has both positive and negative implications.

[19] Rebbe Naḥman. Lekutei Moharan. II 19.

[20] Rebbe Naḥman. Lekutei Moharan. I 81.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 19:3.

[23] Jacque Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” in Difference in Translation (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985), ed. and trans. Joseph Graham, [p. 79 in Heb].

[24] “For the creation of the world was primarily via the empty space […]. For without this everything would be the divine infinite, and there would be no space for the creation of the world. Therefore [the divine infinite] contracted the light to the sides, thereby creating the empty space, within which he created all of creation, the days and the measures, through speech – “with the word of God the heavens were made” (Psalms 33) (Rebbe Naḥman, Lekutei Moharan, I 64:4).

[25] In contrast to Wittgenstein, who claimed that there is no private language, Walter Benjamin claimed that the original language was exactly a private language. See Walter Benjamin, “The Role of the Translator”. Idem, “Al Halashon Bikhlal Ve’al Lashon Benei Ha’adam Befrat,” in Mivhar Ketavim: Hirhurim (Tel Aviv: Hakibuts Hame’uhad, 1996), vol. 2, 293-295.

[26] “Everything individual thing has in it many combinations of letters with which the thing was created. Through the perfection of the holy language […] the power of the letters in each thing is aroused and increased” (Rebbe Naḥman, Lekutei Moharan, I 19:6).

[27] Ibid., 3.

[28] [It is worth noting that there is a clear erotic context – “The man had known his wife, Eve, and she conceived and gave birth” (Genesis 4:1) -Hebrew Editor].

[29] Damage to the covenant is bound up with imagination, in the “woman” which Lacan said does not exist. This is Lilith.

[30] Rebbe Naḥman, Lekutei Moharan, I 28:1.

[31] [A kabbalistic term meaning “the grey area” between holiness and impurity (the kelipot) -HE].

[32] [See the methodological discussion near the beginning of the sermon. –LM]

[33] Ibid., 19:4. [The Hebrew for “language falling upon language,” “lashon nofel al lashon,” is a classical rabbinic idiom for repeated sounds connecting different words or phrases. -LM]

[34] I would add that this is the difference between the opinions of Walter Benjamin, in his “On the Role of the Translator,” and Rebbe Naḥman. Benjamin thinks translation can fall into the sin of the tree of knowledge, while Rebbe Naḥman think the tree of knowledge is what causes the translation, which is the primary construction and completion of the holy language. [This is why Rebbe Naḥman chose not to give his sermon to his followers on the holiday of Shavuot in 1810, because “they are not really sinners that I should tell them Torah […] for there are many teachings that are made specifically by sins” (Rebbe Natan of Namirov, “Nesiyato Veyeshivato Be’uman,” in Hayye Moharan, #18) –Hebrew Editor].

[35] Like the Hanukkah candles that “are holy and may not be used, only looked at” (from the prayer “Hanerot Halalu,” which originated in Tractate Sofrim 20:6, and is recited after the lighting of the Hanukkah candles).

[36] See Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, “Mevo Lesipurei Ma’asiyot,” in HaHayyim Kega’agua: Keriot Hadashot Besipurei Ma’asiyot Shel R’ Naḥman Mibreslav, ed. Ro’i Horen (Jerusalem: Yediot Sefarim, 2010), 11-31.

[37] As Rebbe Naḥman described him in his “scroll of secrets.” See Zvi Mark, Megilat Setarim: Hazono Hameshihi Hasodi Shel R’ Naḥman Mibreslav (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University, 2006), 84-90.

[38] We find the same process in Rav Kook’s words, but with the roles reversed: See Rav Kook, Orot (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1993), 155-156. The dilemma he raises is not whether it is possible to dress Judaism in modern clothing but whether and how it is possible to dress general human ideals in Israelite clothing. See Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Luhot Ushvirei Luhot (Alon Shevut: Mekhon Kitvei Harav Shagar, 2013), 128-129.

[39] Rebbe Naḥman, Lekutei Moharan, I 19:3.

[40] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Orot Hakodesh (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1985), vol. 2, 314.

[41] This paragraph was originally a footnote- AB.

[42] See, for example, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, “Mitsvot Ma’asiyot,” in Yahadut, Am Yehudi, Umedinat Yisrael (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: Schocken Books, 1976) 13-36; Idem., “Ha’adam Bateva Ubahistoriyah Le’or Ha’emunah,” ibid., 357-359.

[43] I am speaking, for example, about someone who is careful about minor commandments just like major ones, to the point where we would define him as a mehadrin Orthodox, however, in practice he is “unorthodox-Orthodox.” His foundation, his language, his cultural and social contexts, and the connections between these contexts, give rise to an Orthodox existence without any orthodoxy, an existence purged of the unbearable Orthodox weightiness, entirely replaced by a lightness that is unbearable to the true mehadrin Orthodox person. This believer’s presence undermines the classic distinctions and definitions of orthodoxy and secularity.

[44] Based on Eric Santner, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001) [pp. 34, 56 in the Heb].

[45] Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Lekutei Torah, Pinhas, 80b. In this context, “the innermost aspect of the highest will” is the eros.

[46] Santner, Psychotheology, 44.

[47] Rebbe Naḥman, Lekutei Moharan, II 19. [The seven wisdoms are a reference to the seven medieval fields of study: Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. In traditional Hebrew writings, the term became a generic term for secular knowledge.-AB]

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