exilic thoughts

A Thought on the Split Between the Kotzker and the Izhbitzer

Although the true origin of the 1839 split between the teacher R. Menachem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk and the disciple R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitz remains hidden within the concealment of history, it is possible to discern certain threads of thought that separate the two. This is not to claim a true grasp of the split, but rather an attempt to tease out certain cracks that appear within the worldviews of these two individuals. As R. Leibele Eiger- a student of R. Menachem Mendel who left Kotzk along with R. Mordechai Yosef- said: anyone who claims to know the true reason for the split, truly does not know.
One of the animating features of the Kotzker’s worldview was a radical quest for the origin. A belief that the individual can, and must uncover the true origin of their behaviors and affective stance towards the world. This call towards the origin demanded a radical quest for authenticity in which the multilayered motivations behind volitional action were investigated with rigorous exactitude. Once found, each layer of motivation was to be analyzed unflinchingly in order to ascertain whether the behavior was true or not. Truth in this sense does not mean veracity, but rather authenticity. To be authentic is to be clear of unconscious motivations that more often than not bespeak the all-too-human drive towards self-interest and self-aggrandizement. Armed with the radical belief that the individual can and must reach a point of pure-action unencumbered by the various drives and impulses that pollute human experience, the Kotzker demanded an unflinching self-introspection in the hopes of uncovering the “true kernel of subjectivity”, or a “single action that is done truly for the sake of Heaven”.
The Mei Shiloach of Izhbitz, on the other hand, seems to have doubted the possibility of retrieving the origin. Pure self-hood unencumbered by the vicissitudes of the unconscious drives was not the spiritual telos for R. Mordechai Yosef. Whether or not this Kotzkian dream of pure self-hood was simply seen as an untenable goal, or other than the goal of spiritual life will be discussed at a future point. For our sake, it is enough to assume that pure subjectivity cleansed of any self-interest was seen as an impossibility. In the place of the Kotzkian drive towards the origin, the Mei Shiloach disclosed a new path of subjective understanding. The task was not to uncover and eliminate the unconscious drives that animate our everyday experiences; but rather to confront them and come to terms with them. At the core of the self, instead of discovering the origin, R. Mordechai Yosef seems to have found the irreducible kernel of the unconscious, the naval of the dream, where all attempts at self-introspection are retroactively revealed to have been driven by the deepening sea of the unconscious whose waves announce nothing but the ultimate futility of (self)knowledge. The secret for the Mei Shiloach rests within what he saw as the true source of our unconscious drives and desires, namely a power greater than the self.


A Place of Calm Within the Storm: A Meditation on Torah from R. Moshe Rosenstein


This is a teaching from R’ Moshe  Rosenstein (1880-1941), the spiritual guide of the Lomza Yeshiva. This teaching was delivered Monday January 23rd,  1929 and recorded in the sefer “Ahavat Meisharim”. 

Every person needs a home, a dwelling wherein they may rest. A place where they may find relief for their body and soul whenever they may need it, so that even when they find themselves wandering outside they will know that they have a space to which they may return. In that space they will find all that they need, prepared and arranged for the rectification of their body and soul. Woe to the person who wanders incessantly with no permanent space to which they may return, dragged throughout the marketplaces and roads without comfort, with no place to hide from the stormy winds and pouring rain. Every person- wherever they find themselves- knows where their dwelling of comfort is, so that they may return there to find relief and comfort.

So too, each person as a thinking soul must know where their place of comfort is. A comforting space that is always with them even when they are forced to leave it, wandering away for the sake of this-worldly needs. They must know- even then- that they have a place of rest to which they may return. Woe to the person who has no answer when asked where their place of comfort is so that they may find relief. For this person is incessantly wandering with no place of comfort wherein they may find relief from the onslaught of the stormy winds we find ourselves in. Wandering from place to place without any permanent space within which they may hide and find relief. This is what the holy books describe when they speak of the punishment of “being flung from a slingshot” (kaf ha’kellah), wandering from place to place without any space to rest.

Now the soul’s place of comfort is within the Torah, as we find in the words of the Sages, “the Holy One blessed be He has no comfort except in the Torah”. This is obviously not speaking about G-d, but rather that which relates to the human spirit. Every person must build a dwelling of truth within the Torah to protect them, to hide them away from the strong winds of this world. To find comfort in the Torah itself.”

The Inner World of Addiction

The Inner World of Addiction


Before starting the series of classes on “addiction” through the lens of pnimiyus ha-Torah there are a number of introductions necessary.

  1. When speaking of “addiction”, we are not referring to the diagnostic category of substance abuse related diseases or addiction as a mental illness. To attempt to speak of the spiritual world of the lived experience of addiction as a disease would be grossly inappropriate. This is not to say that there is no spiritual dimension to the experience of addiction, but rather that focusing on the spiritual and abstract expression of this condition while the individual is in the midst of real suffering is unethical in the truest sense. Addiction is a destructive disease that makes life nearly unlivable for the addict and anyone who loves the addict. The symptoms of addiction often result in abject suffering and death and as such any attempt to relegate this disease to the realm of spirituality is to ignore the significant role that both the brain and the body play in this disease and its treatment.
  2. For the purpose of these classes, the word and concept of “addiction” will be used in the most expansive form so as to include any mode of inner experience that drives the individual towards escaping life. Addiction is never simply addiction to a drug or chemical, but rather it is always already the sum total of suffering, despair and an attempted response to pain. While this pain may often be physical and neurobiological in nature, for the purpose of these classes we will be examining the psycho-spiritual pain that the individual experiences within the self/soul as opposed to the brain/body. In this sense any inner experience that results in the individuals attempt to escape life will be considered to be part and parcel of the addiction experience.
  3. While the ideas that will be discussed and shared in these classes have been tested in the real world of substance abuse recovery, nothing said in these classes should be considered clinical advice or suggestion with regards to addiction itself. If anyone finds themselves struggling with symptoms of addiction the first step should be reaching out for help.
  4.  When speaking of the inner experience of addiction, one must speak of the various modes of psychological experience that inform addiction. Anxiety, depression, attention, excitation, hopelessness, bipolarity etc. will all be discussed as natural parts of the human condition. When speaking of these moods-of-being we are not referring to the pathological and diagnosable forms of these conditions as described in psychiatric literature, but rather to the natural expression of these moods within each individual in everyday life. Our view is that when discussing anxiety and depression it is not a question of whether one has it or not, but rather a question of to what degree someone has it. Part of the natural consequence of being human is anticipating the future through anxiety and mourning the past through depression. When these symptoms begin to interfere with the individual’s ability to function “normally”, then psychiatric diagnosis becomes part of the discussion.
  5. When speaking of addiction, we are not simply referring to the maladaptive attachment to mind altering chemicals such as alcohol or drugs. When addiction is limited to the space of mind altering chemicals a sharp distinction is made between us and them. “Us” as the normal, functioning individuals who have not undergone the process of physical tolerance and dependency, and “them” as the individuals who have gone through the process of use, misuse and abuse developing a tolerance and dependency on mind altering chemicals. In order to insure that we move away from the misleading platitudes that have littered the field of addiction wherein one is either addicted or not addicted; we would like to posit that everybody qua human being lives within the possibility-of-addiction. Whether process addictions in the form of repetitive behaviors that ease the everyday pains of life, or the insistence of negative habits and traits, addiction is something that affects each and every person whether or not they have moved from the realm of potential possibility into the realm of actual experience.
  6. The guiding principle behind most of these classes is that addiction is rooted within the recesses of the soul and as such the soul is the place where comfort and recovery must come from. The soul of the addict or the addicted soul is one that contains within itself vast storehouses of intensity and desire. It is for this reason that the process out of addiction towards recovery offers gifts that could never have been realized without addiction. In this sense, addiction will be seen as a profoundly difficult condition that can give birth to an equally if not more profound sense of spiritual sensitivity and experience. One need not have experienced the descent into addiction in order to benefit from the ascent out of it; one must simply be willing to pay mind to the possibility-of-addiction that abides within each individual qua human being.
  7. While most of the ideas contained within these classes are rooted in psychological and philosophical texts, it is our belief and experience that the vast storehouses of Jewish thought contain within themselves the rarified and intense expression of these ideas in accordance with the particular ethos, pathos and idioms through which the spiritually attuned individual lives. It is particularly within the space of the interiority of Torah (pnimiyut ha-Torah) as expressed in the teachings of the Arizal and his students; the Baal Shem Tov and his students; the Vilna Gaon and his students; the Rashash and his students; and the Ramchal and his students that we find these ideas expressed most clearly and fully. In particular, it is the school of Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Iszhbitz (Mei Shiloach) and his students with a specific emphasis on his student Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin; Rebbe Nachman of Breslov; and the second and fifth leaders of the Chabad Chassidic movement Rav DovBer Schneuri (the Mitteler Rebbe) and Rav Shalom Dovber Schneersohn (the Rashab) where we find most of our ideas.

Thoughts on Addiction

The addict does not enjoy drugs more than the other, being sober is simply slightly more unbearable.


Substance abuse, the abuse of substance, seeking, demanding, craving something more substantial. 


Addicts do not crave drugs because they enjoy the high, they are always already in a state of perpetual craving. The high simply interrupts the ceaseless desire for a moment. When the drug wears off, the craving returns.


Recovery is not about joy or success, it is about acceptance. Living, not in spite of ones lack, but in and through the lack itself. 


The addict is simply more attuned to the suffering of the world. Like the prophets of the past, the burdensome message they carry is often too much to bear. 


Addiction is rooted in lack, recovery is rooted in a newfound sense of enoughness. 



In the Place Where the ‘Addict’ Stands, the ‘Non-Addicted’ Cannot Stand

For the past few years I have been giving a spirituality talk to individuals in acute inpatient recovery for addiction. This parable has been shared countless times, put down in writing in response to numerous requests. Addiction is but a metaphor…




An event is announced: “the vase will be on display for a limited time only”.

The hall was set up for the showing. Ushers were called in; with partitions set to ensure the requisite distance between human and art (human beings are extra cautious when it comes to minding the gap between the two). The vase was placed on a white concrete stand with a glass casing covering over the vase for protection.

Being that the announcement was published in the magazine whose readership made up the who’s who of the rich and stable, the hall was packed on opening night. Dressed in their finest, they wandered around the room paying more attention to the expressions on each other’s faces than to the vase centered in the middle of the room. A subtle air of boredom suffocated the room.

Suddenly, the back doors of the hall fly open and in stumbles the town addict (alcoholic, user, junky, crackhead, drunk etc. all dependent on the relative respect with which the rich and stable address the other). All heads turn towards the back of the hall, mouths gaping, audible shock. Now they have something to look at, something that draws their attention away from their preoccupation with nothing but themselves.

The addict stumbles towards the center of the room. With guests moving quickly out of the way so as not to catch his illness (but not too far as to miss the excitement of it all), the addict quickly arrives at the center of the room. At this point the silence is palpable, what will he do next? Myriad questions (and assumptions) run through the minds of all those present, except of course the one question that would be helpful, namely: “can I help you in anyway?”

The addict pushes the ushers out of the way. Knocks down the partitions (closing in on the distance that separates human frailty from the sublimity of art, albeit through the self-destructive repetition in which the addict loses themselves). Smudges his hands all over the glass casing, he casts it to the side. Picks up the vase and holds it for a moment. The crowd at this point is waiting with bated breath to see what happens next.

The anonymous addict lifts the vase, and lets it fall from his hands, shattering into a million little pieces. The crowd goes wild. “It’s his parents fault!” yells one person; “it’s the schools fault!” yells another. “It’s the pharmaceutical companies!” cries the third; “it’s his own fault!” says the crowd in unison. Of course, nobody approaches the addict to see if they can help pick up the pieces. No one sits with the addict, quietly sharing his pain/shame/guilt/hopelessness about the destruction. The voice of the chorus continues to swell- until suddenly- the crowd gets bored again, slowly exiting the hall, back towards their lives in search of a less severe, less abject form of entertainment.

Left alone, the addicted individual has two options. He can wander off in search of something else to break; or, he can sit amid the mess, amongst the broken pieces, and slowly try to put the vase back together.

The addict sits, slowly and painstakingly putting the vase back together piece by piece. Making progress, it falls apart again. Cutting himself on the broken glass. Losing hope, finding hope. The addict slowly but surely puts the vase back together. He places the vase back on the concrete stand. Walking over to the glass covering, he cleans the smudges. Puts the partitions back in place, calling the ushers back for a new showing.

A new showing is announced, the rich and stable return to look at the vase. The addicted individual puts on new clothes, vanishing- anonymously- back into the burgeoning crowd. At this point the crowd and the addict are gazing at the same vase. But while the crowd sees the same old vase in all of its boring banality, the addict sees something entirely new. Intimately aware of the delicacy of the vase, he is attentive to each and every detail that makes up the vase. Anxiously aware of the vulnerability that cuts through the heart of what appears stable, the addict enjoys each and every moment of the vase in its stability.

Where the crowd sees the same, the recovering individual sees the perpetually new.






R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen on Purim: Minimal Excess

This is the aspect of Purim, that they did not accept upon themselves the prohibition of  melacha (TB. Megillah 5b). For in truth, the nullification of melacha is from the perspective of God who has no need for effort (his’tadlut), and it is only applicable to the perspective of God and the sanctity of the Sabbath which is permanent and enduring.

This is not the case when it comes to yom tov whose sanctity depends on the Jewish people and as such remains dependent on effort. The nullification of melacha, however, is only because on yom tov there is an additional sanctity that is created by the Jewish peoples sanctification. Furthermore, the sanctity of yom tov is rooted in the sanctity of the Sabbath , meaning, the sanctity of God that is the source of all from which all draw their strength. This surplus sanctity of yom tov then becomes an aspect of “permanent and enduring”.

On Purim however, there is no addition, rather, there is a disclosure of a light that negates the need for addition, for when one is connected to essence there is no surplus. This is the reason that while all  yamim tovim stand to be nullified in the future, Purim will never be nullified; for every yom tov  is rooted in the miracle and salvation that creates an addition, while in the future God will be “the light of days” negating all novelty and addition. Purim, however, is rooted in this very light.

In truth, there is no addition. It is only from the perspective of this worldliness that addition exists. There is only this additional insight which reveals that there is no addition whatsoever.

(Resisei Leila, 32:3)

Some Brief Thoughts on R. Shalom Sharabi on the Anniversary of his Death

Some brief thoughts on R. Shalom Sharabi, the Yemenite kabbalist known as the Rashash (1720-1777) on the anniversary of his passing.

It is only recently that the kabbalitic project of the Rashash has begun to move beyond the preconceived boundaries that enclose it.

Typically seen as a highly arcane model of Lurianic interpretation, the Rashash has often been described as an excessively complex, nearly mathematical interpreter of  Lurianic Kabbalah.  Associated with the meditative school of sefardi kabbalah the Rashash has typically been known for his re-codification of Lurianic intentions (kavaanot) and as such the lot of only the most erudite mystic. This is understandable in that the few authentic writings that we have (Nahar Shalom and its condensed introduction Rechovot ha-Nahar; Siddur ha-Rashash in all of its various manifestations; and his short glosses on R. Hayyim Vital’s Eitz Chayyim printed as Haggaot ha-Shemesh) seem to complicate the texts that they are coming to clarify. What appears relatively simple within the general depiction of Lurianic Kabbalah undergoes a process of complication in his brief comments. What seemed unified is separated, and what seemed whole is shown to be deficient. Universals are broken down into particulars and imaginative concepts are codified into technical symbols where, at first glance, they seem to lose their evocative power.

Part of this is due to the his writing style, short hints that beckon the expert as they discourage the novice. One gets the sense that for the Rashash, writing was a painful necessity whose sting is mitigated in the decision to write as minimally as possible. While this stylistic decision seems to be rooted in his unique hermeneutics of secrecy- a model influenced by both internal beliefs about the dissemination of secrets as well as external threats of misinterpretation- the way in which the Rashash’s ideas have been conveyed frustrate the hope for easy understanding.

This has all changed in recent years with the proliferation of teachings from the Jerusalem Kabbalist R. Yitzhak Meir Morgenstern, whose voluminous works that are astonishing in both their clarity as well as their depth. What R. Morgenstern has done to the teachings of the Rashash is simply unprecedented. Generally speaking, his elucidation on the Rashash’s system has two parts: A. Clarifying the simple intention explicit within the highly specific language of the Rashash and B. Bringing the profound conceptual ideas implicit within his teachings into communication with alternative models of Lurianic Kabbalah, namely the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and his students. What is most profound about R. Morgenstern’s project, however, is that the distillation of Kabbalat ha-Rashash into a more evocative indium does not minimize the complex particularity inherent within but rather highlights the necessity of this “mathematical language”, or what R. Morgenstern refers to as “omek ha-pratiyut“, the depths-of-particularity.

R. Morgenstern- and as of late his student R. Shmuel Ehrenfeld- are by no means the only explicators of Kabbalat ha-Rashash. R. Yaakov Moshe Hillel; R. Moshe Schatz; R. Itamar Schwartz; R. Benyahu Shmueli to name a few have been working on “translating” the ideas inherent within the Rashash into a more explicit and expressive system.

To end this brief, and mostly directionless thought, what the Rashash has done is deepen the simply unity of the Infinite (ein sof) to the point where even the most particularized aspect of being is shown to contain within it the light of the universal. Not only does the light of unity illuminate and subsume the universals-of-being, but it descends and transcends the very particularity that comes to darken it. If Eitz Hayyim describes the universal and historical process of being- from the tzimtzum of the Infinite light down to the evil that exists within the recesses of Asiyah- the Rashash shows us how this process is inherent within each and every action, each and every moment.

When unity is forced to confront the particularity of separation, the particulars are revealed to be part of the very unity they come to deny. As R. Hayyim de la Rossa- main student of the Rashash and author Torat Chocham- writes “I have seen from behind the creases of my master’s eyes…that the general (klal) and the particular (prat) are always equal”.