Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rationalizing Cynicism


Generally, the word leitz translates to "jester," and although in English that term has a positive connotation, in our context it means someone who doesn't take important things seriously. Actually, a more accurate translation would probably be "distorter" since it shares its root with words like melitz (interpreter) and melitza (poetry). But, in this less virtuous form it is basically one who ridicules or mocks the proper way of life. 

A dangerous path

In chassidic literature there is much discussion about this. In Torah Ohr, Parshas Toldos the Baal HaTanya addressed the question how the Pelishtim were able to block up the wells that were dug by Avrohom while those dug by Yitzchok endured. The Baal HaTanya explained that the Pelishtim represented leitzonus (mockery) and Avrohom represented chesed (kindness). Yet, chesed is often warm and joyous and at times can share certain common elements with leitzonus. While it was easy for the Pelishtim to find a foothold in their attempt to duplicate and corrupt chesed, they were unable to corrupt gevura (severity / strictness), the trait connected with Yitzchok.

What is the levity that the leitzim / Pelishtim represent?

Leitzonos is easy to find. Quite simply, it's cynicism; it's an attitude that nothing counts, that it's all a big joke. The Mitteler Rebbe of Lubavitch, discussed three levels of people who sin:

1) Those of us that believe in G-d, but out of weakness give in to our desires.

2) People that believe in G-d, but aren't serious, or don't think their actions really count.

3) People who don't believe at all.

From a certain perspective, the second of the three is the worst. It is the abode of the leitz, the scoffer. Of course it would seem that the atheist would be worse, but in fact, he can be easier to reach. He may not currently believe in G-d, but his denial of G-d is very likely because of what that belief would obligate him to do. Therefore, should he finally recognize that there IS a G-d, he would change his ways.

The second individual, however, already agrees that there is a G-d but it simply has no impact on his life. He says, "No problem, I believe in G-d, and G-d even created all of this", but nevertheless he takes life as a joke. He doesn't feel obligated to take the G-d he "believes" in seriously. For such an individual to change his ways is truly very hard, and for this reason, the leitz, and the gathering of such people, is highly destructive. This coldness or flippantness towards important matters, this lack of seriousness undermines the entire purpose of existence – and for this reason Chazal warn us against this and even caution us that a prerequisite to a Torah life is kabolas ol malchus Shomayim (seriousness in accepting upon oneself the yoke of Heaven) – the very opposite of leitzonus.

Reflecting on all of this, I was struck by a realization. Although I am a Chabad chossid and I enjoy learning Chassidus, I also take interest in books and discussing ideas with people who maintain a rationalist perspective. And while I maintain that all Torah perspectives are valid and necessary, it seems as if they all have their specific "risks."

I never felt that a rationalist approach was a road necessarily likely to lead one to kefira (heresy), as some have said, but suddenly it hit me that it may be worse. It can easily lead to a cynicism, jadedness, or lack of seriousness about holiness which may be much harder to undo. The rationalist perspective removes a layer of meaning and the almost palpable closeness to G-d from the "Pardes" of Yiddishkeit. It replaces it with a G-d that is more distant and less involved. It turns very real and relevant practices into rituals of limited and mostly of historical, communal, or two-dimensional legal importance. The concept of spiritual life becomes almost laughable while rationalizations of the rationalist become a higher form of worship.

Does this have to be so? Can't one still have a strong, real and serious relationship with G-d without focusing on the spiritual? I think anything's possible, but, to quote a certain ehrlicher Yid whom I know:

"The big problem with rationalism is that it is inadequate to address a supra-rational Creator and those aspects of reality that transcend human logic. Throughout the ages the tzaddikim felt that true hasagas Elokus depends more on kedushah and avodah than intellect…"

I'm no great thinker, nor am I a serious oved Hashem. In fact, that sad but true statement itself reflects on my need to address this lack of seriousness. But I do know my emotional response to different books, conversations, thought processes, and points of view. So, as much as I have my rationalist interests, I would be lying if I said that the rationalist side of me contains the less cynical and more committed elements of my make up. (A Simple Jew)

This Dvar Torah is dedicated to the recovery of Dovid ben Sarah.  

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