Nope, not how it works

So, my wife really enjoys listening to Matisyahu. I don’t. It’s nothing personal–I’m just not a reggae/house music-type guy. I know that Matisyahu is presently going through a different iteration of his music/identity at the moment, but his stuff generally makes me all hyper and weird-feeling, which is what my wife says about jazz.

I digress.

My wife (“Mrs. Secular Jew in Indianapolis” is too long a descriptor, don’t you think?) recently emailed these lyrics of Matisyahu’s to me, suggesting it might make an interesting blog post. (She’s right about that part, even if I think she’s wrong about Matisyahu’s music. But “de gustibus non est disputandum.”) These lyrics are from Matisyahu’s “Searchin”:

In the Earth, there are so many wonderful treasures.
And if you know where to dig, you will find gold, diamonds, jewelry, all kinds of treasures.
But if you don’t know where to dig, all you will find is rocks and dirt.
A rebbe is the geologist of the soul.
He can show you where to dig, and what to dig for, but the digging you must do yourself.

I looked at this and thought, okay, you’re sending this to me so that I’ll immediately disagree, or what? It’s a very Hasidic approach to things, that “A rebbe is the geologist of the soul/He can show you where to dig, and what to dig for.”

It’s not a Humanistic Jewish approach, and it’s actually in many ways an approach outside the historical norm for Judaism. Or, rather, it’s outside the norms for much of Judaism as it has existed, which has even since before the destruction of the Second Temple set forth the idea that the ability to understand the Torah “is not in heaven.” Deut. 30:12. Maimonides notes that, in the traditional sources, this means that no prophet may be accepted as bringing an innovation. Mishneh Torah Yesodei Hatorah 9:1-4. And this is in keeping with the Talmud’s discussion of Akhnai’s Oven, where Rabbi Eliezer called forth a divine voice (a “bat kol”) to prove his point in a halakhic debate, and such a voice did come forth–yet:

Rabbi Joshua sprang up and said, “It is not in heaven!” What does “It is not in heaven” mean? Said Rabbi Jeremiah, “Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we give no heed to a heavenly voice.”

b. Bava Metzia 59b.

This is part of what makes Matisyahu’s lyrics here troubling to me–and what made Hasidism so troubling to its opponents. (Naturally, politics played a role, but I’ve somewhat naively, perhaps, come to the conclusion that sometimes we should accept that what people say they mean is what they really mean.) The idea that there must be some intermediary between humans and the divine is very much at tension with many Jewish sources, and indeed with the idea that we should engage in Torah study.

This is all the more interesting to me because, on top of reading for my rabbinical school coursework, I’ve been reading Samuel Heilman’s and Menachem Friedman’s The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson. I remember, way back in the mid-to-late 1990’s when I was a master’s student, wondering along with my graduate advisor what exactly it was that turned an otherwise seemingly very conservative form of Judaism to a conclusion regarding the potential messianic status of a person that was so eerily (from the outside) like where early Christianity ended up.

Heilman’s and Friedman’s book has some of the answer to that, which is to say that they are similar but not nearly identical phenomena. But what is more interesting–and really, much more illuminating–is their discussion of the status of the Rebbe as spiritual mediator, and that the Rebbe (and the Rebbe before him) were in fact more capable of serving their people and addressing intercessory matters after their physical deaths.

Needless to say, this is not a great set of Humanist ideas.

So, my wife got her wish–a blog post on Matisyahu lyrics. But I have to disagree with his lyrics–we are, I think, left to find where to dig and to do the digging ourselves.

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3 thoughts on “Nope, not how it works

  1. First, it’s probably important to say that I am not Jewish, so any interpretation I have comes from a foreign perspective (for good or bad). I grew up in protestant Christianity, which always seemed a bit too…I guess I would call it ‘magical’…for me, but I’m interested in Jewish philosophy, which is how I ended up here.
    My interpretation of the geology analogy, having no other influencing knowledge, is that we should seek guidance from people who have more experience and knowledge, not necessarily that they are required as spiritual mediators. Since the point of it seems to be that the “hard part” has to be something you do on your own, the idea that you need an intercessor seems contradictory to the statement. I am aware of though not knowledgeable about Jewish mystical traditions that show that this belief exists, but I am interested to know how widespread this belief is that it should suggest itself to you as the foremost interpretation.

    • Knowledge of how Hasidic Judaism works and what it means when someone associated with Hasidism uses “Rebbe” are both important–they don’t merely drive the interpretation here, but are dispositive. The Rebbe (as opposed to “a rabbi”) is the head of a particular Hasidic sect, and is the person to whom Hasidic Jews will turn for spiritual guidance. There really is a mediation aspect to this, too, which has become especially important in the branch of Hasidism (Chabad-Lubavitch) with which Matisyahu had been engaged.

      So when Matisyahu says “The Rebbe,” that’s all there in the meaning. Matisyahu was clearly and explicitly identifying himself with Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidism at the time he wrote the song (he’s not so closely connected to it now). The Rebbe in that context means Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (who passed away nearly two decades ago but is still considered The Rebbe for Chabad Hasidim–there has been no replacement), who truly is considered by the broadest portion of Chabad Hasidism to be providing, posthumously, mediation and intercession with God.

      It’s not exactly a question of how widespread Chabad Hasidism is, so much as being familiar with the language used. Unfortunately, Jewish philosophy separated out from lots of the rest of Judaism (rabbinic texts, etc.) doesn’t necessarily read much differently from other philosophical traditions. So Maimonides sounds like many other neo-Aristotelians if you don’t know the other texts and the language that he uses, Hermann Cohen sounds like Kant, etc.

      The problem, I think, with the Matisyahu lyric is that the adherent only digs–he does not independently determine the broader plan for his life. It’s not a matter of looking for advice in this case. And with that lyric placed fully in the context of Chabad Hasidism, that’s really what all that means: The Rebbe tells you what spiritual matters to work on–because The Rebbe is connected to the divine in a much stronger manner than you, the individual are (no joke; read Heilman)–and it’s up to you do work on that matter.

      This involves a significant surrender of autonomy, and in that sense, it’s in keeping with the all-encompassing nature of Jewish law. But Jewish law mostly applied to what people did–it did not, in such a vast way, dictate what an individual’s spiritual inquiries might be.

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