Supporting Docs | 9

[ (a.) The Epistemic of Holy Folly ]

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Bosi LeGani

Bosi LeGani (1950), the hasidic discourse of the Rebbe’s Rebbe and father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, a discourse that came to serve as a kind of manifesto defining the general platform of the Rebbe’s career as teacher, recommends holy folly (shtut d’kdusha) as an epistemic doctrine to explain how the basic job of human beings, which may be described as the business of sacrificing the vital energy of our animal existence and availing it to transformation into a higher energy, is something that cannot be accomplished on the basis of intelligence alone. For when a blameworthy ‘spirit of folly,’ a foolishness of the pedestrian and profane type, overtakes the individual and leads him astray into any of the varieties of ‘adultery,’ be it of the literal or of the metaphorical variety,1 i.e. when foolishness leads to sin, its tyranny over the individual cannot be broken by an intellect left to its our resources.

For this spirit [of profane folly] covers over the truth. The spirit of folly is the spirit of the Peal [klipa] and Other Side [sitra aḥara], and is called ‘folly’ along the lines of ‘old and senile king’ (Qoh. 4:13). And these cover over Light and Revelation. For Divinity is truth and life, as it is written: ‘The Lord is the true God, He is God of life’ [Jer. 10:10]. Whence [folly] is called by the appellation of ‘Peal’. For as the peal covers the fruit, so too does the spirit of folly cover over, obfuscate, and conceal the Light of the Divine Revelation.2

Since the intellect is readily defeated in the onslaught of such irresistible forces, the individual who possesses this intellect, if he interested in victory, is obliged to seek recourse in another faculty which is also in his possession, namely a faculty of folly which can match the ‘Other Side’ in sheer fire-power of berserkness but which bears the additional advantage that it falls on the side of holiness.

Thus, just as there is deviation below knowledge, which is called ‘Folly of the Peal’, so too there is a kind of deviation above knowledge, which is ‘Folly of Holiness.’ […] The elucidation of this matter is as follows. There is the ‘Infinite Light’ [or en-sof] that ‘no thinking can grasp at all’ [Tikunei Zohar 17a], which is above the parameters of conceptualization. For all conceptualization, even the most sublime, remains within the parameters of conceptual thinking notwithstanding. But that which is not enclosed within conceptual thinking cannot be grasped by concepts at all.3

This teaching regarding holy folly, which originates under this specific rubric with Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson’s father,4 has its locus classicus in the eighteenth chapter of the foundational text of abad epistemics, the Tanya of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. There it is explained how the most rudimentary gesture associable with cognition, for which he reserves the term okhmah in its specially Zoharic inflection5 (which term, otherwise, in its prosaic, exoteric sense is not incorrectly translated as ‘wisdom’), is something that, in its most pristine moment, does not yet partake of cognition proper as it is the gesture wherein cognition finds its transcendental and transcendent source. As a matter of provisional philosophical convenience, we may here translate okhmah, in this pristine sense of the phenomenon, by the term ‘wonder’—the name for that proto-cognitive event that Plato and Aristotle characterize as the origin of all philosophizing.6

Wonder [okhmah] is the source of the intellect and understanding; it is higher than the understanding, which is an understanding done by the intellect and by its conceptualization. Wonder is above understanding and conceptualization, being their source. Whence okhmah [חכמה] can be [rearranged into the notarikon]: koa mah [כ׳׳ח מ׳׳ה], ‘the ability of What,’ for this is a ‘what’ that is not conceivable or understandable and is not yet grasped by conceptual thinking. For this reason, the Infinite Light, blessed be He, Whom no thinking can grasp at all, garbs Himself with this wonder.7

Since God in His infinite inscrutability is prior to the manifestation in Creation of this power of wonder with which He invests Himself like a garment in order to be ultimately available to finite human cognition, to understanding and conceptualization, the human being, prior to such cognitive gestures, equipped with nothing but open-ended wonder and the ability to pose the question ‘What …?’,8 has access to this revelation via sheer trust in God. Such access exists because trust in God is something that takes place above knowledge and conceptualization. Of course, ‘a fool believes everything, but the clever man understands etc.’ [Prov. 14:15] But vis-à-vis the Holy One, blessed be He, Who is above intelligence and knowledge, and Whom no thinking can grasp at all, all are like fools before Him, may He be blessed.’ Under the exegetical inclinations of the author of the Tanya, the verse from Proverbs thus assumes new meaning: cleverness follows folly not as its nemesis and its better but as its consummation, because, as the verse says, cleverness is a matter of understanding (binah), and the faculty of understanding is subsequent to the faculty of wonder (okhmah) in the order of the Concatenation of Sefirot. In this admittedly odd-sounding re-configuration of terms, okhmah, which is typically held to mean ‘wisdom,’ is actually closer to what is usually taken to be wisdom’s opposite, namely folly. Since the specific type of giddiness peculiar to okhmah in its pristine state is the giddiness of wonder, the folly embodied in okhmah is a natural, constitutive folly that belongs to the human condition simply on account of the latter’s finitude. It is an essential folly, of which the folly of sinners is an accidental derivative. Yet a similarity does remain. By the same token that essential folly all too easily becomes a gullibility that ‘believes everything’ like a fool or a child and hence facilitates wantonness and sinfulness, it also contains the possibility of the most vital connection to God, a kind of umbilicus of the soul with life-giving physiological functions of trust, reliance, confidence, fidelity.9

Now in installing this epistemological framework behind the discussion at hand, especially in the background to such a serious subject as Auschwitz where the promotion of any kind of folly must seem like so much inappropriate levity, it is important to specify the need for folly with a little more precision. In its more minimal moment, the epistemic professes de docta ignorantia, what we find in the via negativa of Maimonides for example; which says: the Infinite is inscrutable. In its less cautious moment this epistemic sings in laudem stultitiam, opening the very door that it just shut; which says: the Infinite, if not open to scrutiny, is somehow available to foolishness. How so? In so far as Auschwitz presents one problem among several problems within theology (viz. the problem of theodicy), the possibility of wrapping our minds around this problem are ruled out automatically because, as the Rebbe writes, ‘that the entire process of posing the problem and of wishing to understand with the intellect that which is higher than the intellect, is something that cannot take place.’ As such, the problem is solved, or at least addressed, by a ‘despite’ and a ‘nevertheless’: despite our ignorance, we believe nevertheless. In insisting on venturing into the second moment of the epistemic, a ‘because’ that charges against windmills, thus re-opening a foolish approach to the problem after every approach has been barred, the Rebbe seems to signal, first of all, the sui generis nature of the problem. Auschwitz, and theodicy in general, is not one problem among others in theology, not even the ‘first objection’ confronting ‘belief in God’s existence.’10 The Rebbe, as we just read, alludes to a midrash of radical, deep-reaching implications regarding the Torah and Auschwitz. The Torah was given to Moses. Then Moses gave us the Torah.11 Moses’s entire being was submerged under and saturated by nothing but the Torah. In the face-to-face with God which stands above all others in its passionate desire for intimacy with (‘knowledge of’) the Giver of the Torah, Moses implores: ‘Please, make Your ways known to me!—so I will know You. In order to find grace in Your eyes. And look—for this nation is Your people!’ (Exod. 33:13) It is the highest, most difficult question put by a man to God—and by no ordinary man at that, indeed, by the least ordinary man (Num. 12:3). What is the content of this question? Rabbi Yoḥanan, speaking in the name of Rabbi Yose, tells us that Moses’s request was the question: ‘Master of the Universe, why is there such a thing a righteous man who prosper and there is a righteous man who suffers, there is a wicked man who suffers and a wicked man who prospers?’ The fact that this was the specific issue at stake in the question concerning the Divine ‘ways’ of is indicated by what God says the ensuing verse (v. 19): ‘I will be indulgent to whom I will be indulgent, and will be compassionate to whom I will be compassionate.’ Which Rabbi Meir, on the same talmudic page,12 interprets to mean that God did not at all provide an answer to Moses’ question, simply because such an answer would be tantamount to nothing less than seeing God’s face; ‘and He said, you cannot see My face. For a man cannot see My face and live’ (v. 20). The fact that the man who asked this specific and impossible question was ‘none other than our teacher Moses’13 hinges the significance of the entire Torah around the ‘problem of evil’ in such a radical and copernican fashion that, not only is this one more attestation to the fact that the Torah has very little to do with theology,14 but it also shows that the problem that the theological tradition came to designate as ‘theodicy’ has just as little to do with the Torah, inasmuch as any theological theodicy, as the etyma indicate, must be an attempt to arrive at a logos of the diké of God, be it an actually logical account of the God’s justice or, in any case, something more reasonable than an expression of utterly unnegotiable folly.15 Spelling out the implications of Wiesel’s extemporaneous suggestion that Auschwitz be regarded as ‘Anti-Sinai,’ we might say that this appellation which serves to hint at the revelatory voice of Auschwitz thereby also serves retroactively to excavate the apocalyptic dimensions of Sinai, whence it is possible to read the equation in its symmetrical quality and to speak of Sinai as Anti-Auschwitz. It remains to be seen how messianic mania in particular brings the meaning of this equation to full expression.

We are hard pressed not to consider one final issue besetting any epistemic of folly before we go through the foolish transcendental logic of the ‘Because Auschwitz’ argument; notwithstanding the complexity of the issue, which here can only be touched upon with a perfunctory gesture. If it is in fact granted that an epistemic of folly will probably have more success than a rational approach in taking us into the heart of the madness of Auschwitz,16 by the same token, precisely because this would lure us into the darkest and most quixotic recesses of the mind, behind the civility of logic, deep into that jungle where psychological forces are freer at play than logical ones, how in such a journey can we ever be sure that folly, howbeit holy, will indeed provide us with a viable epistemic or meta-epistemic methodology, and not merely something like a dose of good old fashioned nuttiness? ‘Folly,’ after all, is a romantic word. It resonates all too well, for instance, with the romanticist proclivities of the specifically German type which found its ultimate literary hero in a self-appointed bare-headed human lightning rod like Hölderlin. Is the hasidic epistemic to hide behind a similar romantic bravado? What if we were to translate shtut dik’dushah in more prosaic clinical terms, such as ‘holy hypomania,’ or ‘holy bipolar disorder,’ or ‘holy psychosis’? What kind of perverse psychic collusion might there be lurking behind a putative ‘logic’ that would derive a justification for the strengthening of religious feelings and of faith from a first-hand experience of institutional cruelty which systematically destroyed every possible evidence for God’s interest in human welfare? If we may limit our line of inquiry to one perversion, in fact, we may ask whether there is not enough reason to suspect that a type of masochism must be operative here somewhere in the basement. Freud smartly observed how the demands of conscience are ‘all the more strict and distrustful the more virtuous the person is, so that in the end it is precisely those people who have carried it farthest into saintliness who impute the worst sinfulness to themselves.’17 There is certainly good reason to worry that the ‘Because Auschwitz’ type of religious faith is an excellent example of what Freud called ‘moral masochism,’ the religious condition par excellance wherein the ego’s twisted desire to be tormented by guilt feelings and to be punished conjures forth the sadism of the super-ego, and thus shows itself to be the exquisitely cultivated blossom, sweet to the smell but also with a putrid air about it, of the death-drive.18 Is this the dirty secret of the holy psychosis under consideration?

A cherished example of holy folly given in same chapter from the Tanya quoted above is that of a Jewish fool who is no ordinary fool but is ‘the most featherbrained among the featherbrains and sin-mongers of Israel.’ Even such spiritually frivolous delinquents, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman, have been known to climb into the flames of an auto-da-fé upon being invited to betray the God of their fathers.

… and even when they are boors and ignoramuses and do not know of the greatness of the Lord; and even the little they do know they never contemplate, and they do not sacrifice their lives on account of knowledge and contemplation of the Lord. Rather, without any knowledge or contemplation whatsoever, [they suffer martyrdom] simply as if it this is something that is altogether impossible, namely to forsake the one Lord; doing so without any reason or argument or dialectic whatsoever. This is because the one Lord illuminates and animates every soul by means of investing it in its fabric of wonder that is above a knowledge and intelligence that is conceptual and understandable.19

And yet what would deter the psychoanalyst from reading this beloved proof of the extraordinary power of foolish wonder as the most extreme case of masochism? This example of martyrdom, it is true, shows how inconsequential intelligence and erudition, or even a fanaticism based on a rudimentary literacy, are for the foundation of the trust in God. Jewish identity runs deeper than life itself. But even such a powerful subterranean sense of identity can be explained in terms of an all-but-ineradicable Oedipal feeling of guilt and indebtedness to the ancestors delighting masochistically in their apotheosis. Even without digging so deeply into the psyche, the powerful feelings of debt to one’s ancestors can be ascribed to the uneasy prospect that our deepest sense of identity is just a terrible mistake. The descendents and heirs of a faith, says Nietzsche, have convinced themselves that if an ancestor had ‘sincerely believed in something and had fought for his belief and was killed, it would be all too unfair if he had been inspired by a mere error. Such an occurrence seems to contradict eternal justice.’ And the axiom that psychology, along with the entire epistemic of lucid scientific thinking, and, perhaps most importantly, along with the plain evidence of Auschwitz and its like, permits itself the harsh freedom to assume that history is littered with the corpses of fools who gave up their lives by mistake, for the sake of a mistake; ‘for there is no eternal justice.’20

How can such cutting psychological suspicions regarding ‘holy folly’ be deflected? They cannot be. To begin with, on grounds of a principle of health that can be derived from the Torah itself we should probably be slow to even seek out any such deflection. The incisive analytic business of cutting around and removing specious forms of pious conviction founded on guilt feelings of the Oedipal type and concomitant cockamamie proverbial theories of hereditary sin was one of the regular surgical tasks of the prophets.21 It was also a concern of the talmudic Sages.22 Psychology is very much a Jewish science, as Freud himself was prepared to concede,23 not despite its critique of religion, but precisely because this critique is an absolutely vital iconoclastic chore entailed in the second item of the Decalogue. If a deflection of the psychological critique is any way desirable, it is only in so far as such a critique presumes to accomplish a comprehensive reduction of all actions and passions that are called ‘holy’ to a the admittedly unsavoury and unholy complex of psychic waltzes and tangos so popular everywhere. And even here there is no place for a deflection of psychological critique. What there is room for, instead, is a peripatetic stroll around the critique which takes stock of the epistemic neighbourhood and the methodological axioms behind the psychological reduction. How does this reduction work?24 What does it presume to accomplish? Basically, it operates as a successful translation, a displacement and transportation, of an observable constellation of key phenomena which present themselves in their ‘religious’ interpretation (e.g. reverence, penance, ritual) into, or onto, an alternative hermeneutic schema where the same phenomena are now interpreted as forming a neurotic complex (e.g. masochism, guilt feelings, obsessive-compulsive behaviour). The translation works somewhat like a mirror in which everything that is observable remains unchanged—but the ‘inner’ reality finds new significance, much as a given constellation of stars can serve an astronomer and an astrologer alike with an equally useful point of reference on the night sky yet with profoundly irreconcilable receptacles of meaning. There is no way to refute a psychological (or sociological, or political, etc.) approach to a phenomenon such as ‘holy folly’ and its reduction to a form of neurosis or psychosis—precisely because such a reduction, operating within its own tightly woven axiomatology, leaves no loose ends.25 What the reduction misses, in other words, is the possibility of a counter-mirroring or counter-reduction whereby the neurosis complex is affirmed—again, axiomatically, beyond proof—as possessing an inner meaning that is simply not accessible to observation. When the Jew capitulates to and suffers through a folly that he calls holy, the pre-intellectual discovery of the depths of his own a priori commitment to the Torah which opens up in this experience, and in such a way that the commitment is now deepened even further for no ‘reason’ that can be justified, cannot be falsified by the mere option of an alternative commitment.26 Again, the one who would attain to a healthy and authentic holy folly must always be prepared to submit his folly to a trial of fire in the purgative temperatures of psychoanalytic scrutiny, an awesome and terrible process for which the Hebrew calendar has reserved a ten-day period between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. But to immolate the entire year in such a process, to cauterize every experience of mania from the body of holy life,27 may well amount to a paradoxical destruction of the life-source that infuses vitality into the very psychological examination of mania, namely the promotion of better health and a life lived a little closer to the truth. No doubt Nietzsche has put his finger on the anxieties that make us cower before the terrible prospect that ‘there is no eternal justice,’ and the heroic responsibility that would be required to face such a bleak prospect. But is there any less trembling or responsibility, any less freedom, any less need for innermost joy, for mad joy, before the differently awesome prospect that there may well be such a thing as eternal justice? And is it not possible to apply Nietzsche’s own praise of madness as the divine source of trust against this renewed neopagan and by now humdrum secular convention of belief, renewed by man himself,28 the belief that ‘there is no eternal justice,’ and, precisely by another madness, to passionately embrace an old confidence in eternal justice, by a demonstrative madness raging against the fashionable long robes and smoking thuribles of secularism, raging and proving that this old confidence is not a subjective spontaneity but is a gift granted from a source altogether external to and above established conventions?

With these last questions we close our praise of folly. We return to the application of this folly as it pertains to Auschwitz, to the mad flip of a ‘despite’ into a ‘because.’ How is it accomplished? Are there any precedents for such a thing?