Chabad and Abraham: Humanism in Judaism

 (This post is a follow-on from Judaism finds life and Christianity loses it).

What has Chabad and Abraham have in common? Much. And Chabad and Abraham Maslow? Quite a lot.

The worldwide chassidic movement ChaBaD is an acronym for three words: Chochmah (wisdom), Binah (understanding) and Da’at (knowledge). 

“Knowledge” refers to factual knowledge (subject matter) and language skills, and “understanding” refers to the ability to organise these facts in a coherent manner. There are many definitions of “Wisdom;” I think the following definition does it for me: “the ability to discern what is right, true and lasting.”

So, to get wisdom you need to first get understanding; and to get understanding there has to be subject matter/content to understand.

Perhaps CHaBaD should rather have called itself DaBaCH, because then the acronym would not be topsy turvy, but would show the logical bottom-up progression of knowledge -> understanding -> wisdom, where knowledge would find its logical place at the bottom of the “ladder of instruction” (instruct, Hebrew yarah,  יָרָה {yaw-raw’}from which we get Torah), and where understanding sits on the middle rung and wisdom on the top rung. But then a chabadnik might retort that it is I who am topsy turvy because he is a piece of God above and if above, then his perspective is, like God’s, top down. Where does it say that a Jew or anyone is a piece of God above? In the second chapter of the Tanya: “The uniquely Jewish, soul is truly “a part of G-d above.” The Tanya claims that “A piece of G-d above is a quotation from Scripture.” (Job 31:2):

‘A part of G-d above’ is a quotation from Scripture (Iyov 31:2). The Alter Rebbe adds the word “truly” to stress the literal meaning of these words. For, as is known,1 some verses employ hyperbolic language. For example, the verse2 describing “great and fortified cities reaching into the heavens” is clearly meant to be taken figuratively, not literally. In order that we should not interpret the phrase “a part of G-d above” in a similar manner, the Alter Rebbe adds the word “truly”, thus emphasizing that the Jewish soul is quite literally a part of G-d above.”

The “Alter Rebbe” is Rabbi Shneur Zalman, who wrote the Tanya. According to the Alter Rebbe and,therefore, Chabad, it is only the Jewish soul that is a piece of God. So, I am right then; “neighbour” for a Jew excludes Gentiles. The Alter Rebbe’s views, understandably, have become the guiding light of Chabad Judaism, which has beome “de facto Judaism” (Rabbi Shmuley Boteach). Therefore it is no surprise to read the “Rebbe” (Menachem Mendel Schneerson) saying the same thing: “A Jew is a Jew, period. A ‘piece’ of G-d, placed in a body and planted in this world” (“The Rebbe, an appreciation,” free ebook).

 With regard to Job 31:2; surely this verse says nothing of the kind. Here is the verse in context:

1 “I made a covenant with my eyes

not to look lustfully at a young woman.

2 For what is our lot (portion) from God above,

our heritage from the Almighty on high?

3 Is it not ruin for the wicked,

disaster for those who do wrong?

4 Does he not see my ways

and count my every step?

Chabad regards the Tanya as Torah, as revealed (orally) at Sinai together with the written Torah. So, when Rabbi Zalman speaks, it’s divine revelation. I’m sorry to say that even when I read the original Hebrew, the Tanya’s interpretation makes no sense to me:

א בְּרִית, כָּרַתִּי לְעֵינָי; וּמָה אֶתְבּוֹנֵן, עַלבְּתוּלָה.

ב וּמֶה, חֵלֶק אֱלוֹהַּ מִמָּעַל; וְנַחֲלַת שַׁדַּי, מִמְּרֹמִים.

ג הֲלֹאאֵיד לְעַוָּל; וְנֵכֶר, לְפֹעֲלֵי אָוֶן.

ד הֲלֹאהוּא, יִרְאֶה דְרָכָי; וְכָלצְעָדַי יִסְפּוֹר

The two words חֵלֶק אֱלוֹהַּ cheilek elohei means, of course, “piece of God.” But in the context, it doesn’t literally mean this, surely? The Tanya, on the contrary, says truly it does. And who am I to argue with divine truth, would say Chabad. If the pope says black is white, then white it is, says Ignatius Loyola. That’s one nifty way of putting skin-lightening companies out of business.

You can know a lot and still understand little. Also, you can understand how the bits fit together, but remain nothing more than a wiseacre, in Yiddish, a chochom. Wait a minute, isn’t a chochom someone who has wisdom chochma (the Ch in Chabad)? If so, are you trying to tell me, asks a chabadnik, that all those who are wise happen to be fools?”

I answer: it depends whether you’re in a Yiddish or Hebrew mood; if Yiddish, then a chochom is an imbecile, if Hebrew, then a chochom is full of wisdom. 

While musing about Chabad, the name of the famous “humanist” psychologist, Abraham Maslow, came to mind. But what I was really thinking of was not Maslow and his “hierarchy of needs” but Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. The taxonomy consists of the following three “domains”: cognitive (noggin), affective (heart), and psychomotor (hand): knowing, feeling and doing. Both Bloom and Maslow were Jews, of course.

Although Bloom’s taxonomy shares common features with the Chabadian trinity of wisdom-understanding-knowledge, we should not carry the comparison too far. There is, however, an affinity of Bloom’s “doing” with Chabad’s “wisdom” of desiring to repair the world, where repairing the world could involve a fair amount of Bloom’s psychomotor activity of “getting hands dirty.”

Chabad’s desire to repair the world brings me back to the humanism of Maslow. For Maslow, man needs to find himself before he can help others find themselves. While perusing through a bibliography of Maslow’s publications, one of them struck me between my Pauline eyeballs. It’s entitled “The need to know and the fear of knowing.” (Journal of General Psychology, 1963, 68, 111-25). The first chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans came immediately to mind:

Romans 1:18-21

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; 19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. 20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: 21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”

I searched the web for a free copy of Maslow’s article, but no luck. Instead I found the following essay,

Maslow’s hierarchy: how the house of cards crumbles. It begins:

 “Abraham Maslow, humanistic psychologist of the mid-twentieth century, offers sweeping claims to the confused mind of modern man. He promises what only God can deliver, a system of universal moral absolutes. Based on key presuppositions centered around the inherently good “inner nature” of man, he draws this conclusion and stakes his claim:

(Then follows an excerpt from Maslow):

“Observe that if these assumptions are proven true, they promise a scientific ethics, a natural value system, a court of ultimate appeal for the determination of good and bad, of right and wrong. The more we learn about man’s natural tendencies, the easier it will be to tell him how to be good, how to be happy, how to be fruitful, how to respect himself, how to love, how to fulfill his highest potentialities.” (Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 4).

 In the above article, Maslow talks much about “spirituality,” yet, being an atheist, like the majority of prominent Jewish psychologists, he means by “spirituality” no more than what the French call “esprit” (mind). Why call Maslow an atheist when he talks so much about “God”? Because Maslow’s “god” is no different from Viktor Frankl’s “god.” Both these Jewish psychologists believe God to be nothing more than a force, an integrating power. This is also a core principle of Reconstructionist Judaism. (The Spirit of Reconstructionist Judaism).

 Maslow, Bloom,  and Reconstructionist Jews, and most Jews, are humanists (isn’t “humanism” by definition atheist because it asserts that man creates God?). A core belief of Judaism, as it is with humanism, is that man is innately good. (I am reminded of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “Emile: on Education”).

In his “Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances,” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1880 – 1888) writes, “Judaism allows man to find God where man finds himself, whereas Christianity allows man to find God where man loses himself.(Original italics). So, in Judaism, when man finds himself, he finds God, whereas in Christianity, when man loses himself, he finds God.

Thanks be to God, that not all kinds of Judaism tout that motto. Here is an exception, which, unsurprisingly comes from the scriptures. The example from the scriptures is given by the “Rebbe” (Schneerson), and is mentioned in The Rebbe, an appreciation.

“Here is self-sacrifice not help myself first (the writer is talking about the “Rebbe”). The Rebbe unearthed the idea of Ahavas Yisrael [Love for Israel) in every subject of the Torah.” Here is one example:

1) The ritual of the Red Heifer contains a paradoxical paradoxical law: the kohen (priest) who prepares the material for the purification of the impure individual becomes impure himself. The lesson here, says the Rebbe, is that sometimes one must be willing to sacrifice one’s own spiritual status in order to help cleanse another.

In (Chabad) Judaism, “to find oneself” (whether Rabbi Hirsch’s way or the Rebbe’s way) is another way of saying “to repair oneself.” The process of repair begins when the “rational soul” tries to harmonise the innate good inclination (yetser tov) of the “spiritual soul” with the evil inclination (yetserhara) of the “natural soul.”

If Rabbi Hirsch is right, then only when “I’m all right Jack” will Jack be all right, and in helping put (repairing) Jack right, I shall find God. If, though, Christianity and the Rebbe are right, then only when God “finds” me, repairs me, and continues to repair me, will I be able to help others in a way pleasing to God.

The general (?) Jewish-humanist notion of innate human goodness is where Judaism and scripture (both “testaments”) part company. Scripture is clear: human nature – including the “spiritual soul” – is in darkness (which the Rebbe, of course, would reject). Who can understand this? Only God. In His mercy, we may come to know and understand a little, and feel the wise gentle gust of the Heilike Geist (Yiddish) at our backs, indeed,  in our souls.

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