The Night of the Tzimtzum
Dear Reb Simon,
For some reason I was very disturbed by the pictures in
the NY Times and all over the media of Rabbis clad in Hassidic
garb being marched in chains, under arrest for their alleged
money laundering and other crimes. The screaming headlines,
“Rabbis and mayors charged in NJ corruption sweep”
(online the Times later changed the title to “clergy”)
have touched a deep chord in me and, I suspect, in many
My children, for whom I am trying to provide a good Jewish
ethical education, have asked me about it. And frankly,
I don’t have much to say. I haven’t shared with
them the sad fact that in my teenage years, I was turned
off and repulsed, as were many others of my generation,
by hypocrisy coming from our own Hebrew School teachers
I sincerely believe that it would serve us all well to
hear your thoughts on this. You have demonstrated in the
past your willingness and courage to address controversial
topics that others shy away from. And I, for one, know much
that has empowered me in my journey.
Thank you and may you have an inspiring Tisha B’Av,
Initially I was inclined not to react to this story, one
of many similar scandals, which we have unfortunately become
accustomed to, and would rather they simply go away. “What’s
the point of addressing it?” I thought. We live in
a corrupt world and crimes happen all the time. In this
case they happen to involve religious Jews. So what does
this tell us? That people of faith are not immune to temptation;
they are no different than the rest of the world’s
population. No one needs me to communicate this “revelation.”
It is common knowledge.
I also have no interest in dwelling on negatives, or on
condemning – or defending –individuals who may
or may not have perpetrated the crimes they are accused
of. The fact that this particular story includes a religious
“mosser” (an FBI informer), who set up people
of his own community, makes it more intriguing and embarrassing.
But my soul did not come down to earth to expose or relish
intrigue, or to pontificate about the vices of others. I
have enough challenges of my own to deal with.
Especially when these events, as sad as it sounds, are
“nothing new under the sun.” I have been trained,
and would like to believe, that my writing should be dedicated
to matters “above” the sun, trying to discover
new ways to rise above the grimy streets of earth, trying
to ignite new hope, new strength and new insights on how
to transform this dark world into a brighter place.
But the e-mails, postings and phone calls kept coming in,
reflecting how disturbed people were about this disgraceful
news. I have learned not to ignore the call for clarity
coming from so many different directions. As I thought about
it some more, I began wondering: maybe this is not just
an issue of (some people being shaken up by) the arrest
of a few allegedly corrupt individuals, who happen to be
religious. Perhaps there is something more fundamental going
on which is affecting us.
To boot, one cannot ignore the fact that this incident
took place in the sad Nine Days, when we grieve over our
iniquities and the ruins they brought upon us. In explaining
the purpose of fast days, Maimonides poignantly declares:
When a calamity strikes the community we must cry out,
examine our lives and correct our ways. To say that the
calamity is merely a natural phenomenon and a chance occurrence
is insensitive and cruel. I wondered, perhaps there
is a deeper message that we all can learn from this latest
So here I am, sitting at a keyboard on Tisha B’Av
afternoon – when the flames rose to their highest
as they consumed our Holy Temple – writing about the
essential theme of this saddest day in the calendar: Dissonance.
Dissonance may seem like a mild word, but it is hardly
mild. Yes, it includes subtle inconsistencies, but it also
includes fundamental schisms and contradictions –
hypocrisies, duplicity and deception – in people’s
behavior. You preach one thing and you do another; you smile
to someone and then stab him in his back; you dress a certain
way and then behave in direct contradiction.
Every lie is essentially dissonance. But the worst form
of it is when the contrast is strongest: Pain coming from
a loving source. Your life-long friend suddenly becomes
your enemy over a spat. Families are torn asunder due to
financial disagreements. It includes being abused by someone
who loves you – a parent, a teacher, a respected authority.
The deepest of all wounds is the one inflicted by someone
close to us. Strangers are strangers. Enemies are expected
to be adversarial. But when the dagger comes from someone
who was supposed to protect us from harm… that dissonance
does not easily fade.
No wonder then that we are shaken when we see Rabbis –
people who we respect for their increased piety, individuals
we expect to be better than the rest, authorities we entrust
with our education, our children, our values, our religious
commitments – hauled off in handcuffs…
Talk about dissonance. Shock is our healthy response to
the jarring observation of a seemingly good person acting
badly. Like seeing a dark spot on a bright surface, the
contrast is what disturbs us. That is, until we get used
to it. Once we become accustomed to duplicity – that
“what you see is not what you get” – out shock
subsides, at the expense of our souls’ desensitization.
People’s different reactions to this scandal are in itself
an “interesting” study in human nature. Some are defending
the Rabbis, suggesting that they were set up and even blaming
anti-Semitism for the arrests. Others correctly state that
it’s premature to jump to conclusions; everyone is innocent
until proven guilty. We have no right, they claim, to be
judgmental. The majority of course is appalled by this incident.
And many others argue that this just confirms that all religion
I would like to submit that Tisha B’Av gives us a
completely different take on this, and shines the spotlight
on each of us, compelling us to discuss the issue and act
Why do we fast and grieve on Tisha B’Av? The conventional
answer, citing the Mishna, is due to the five tragic events
that happened on this day, including the destruction of
both Temples (Taanit 26b. See Five
Roots of Trauma).
But the question is simply carried over to these five events:
Why did they occur in the first place? Again, the conventional
answer is, due to our sins.
And why do we sin? We sin because it’s easier to
give in to self-interest and temptation than to do what
is right and virtuous.
Our sages and mystics, however, are not satisfied with
simply addressing the symptoms. They insist on digging to
the root of the problem. They therefore retrace the steps,
and deconstruct existence to its core elements, and in the
process discover the root foundation of all our iniquities
and crimes: Cosmic dissonance.
The great 16th Century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria
(whose yahrzeit is Av 5), revealed that existential dissonance
and all the schisms we experience in life are rooted in
the “secret of the tzimtzum” – the concealment
of the Divine consciousness, which allowed for the emergence
of our independent reality. The “withdrawal”
of the Divine presence created in effect two “realities,”
two perceptions and two types of consciousness: Pre-Tzimtzum
and Post-Tzimtzum. The Higher reality (Daas Elyon)
is a Divine consciousness that is all encompassing. The
lower reality (Daas Tachton) is an existential consciousness
that sees its own existence as primary and can barely sense
a reality outside of its own.
From the higher perspective all is one large field of energy,
and “there is nothing but Him.” From the lower
perspective we each are distinct and separate entities,
each driven by personal self-interest.
Take away this tzimtzum/schism – and all dichotomies
melt away, but all independent existence as we know it,
ceases to be, as well. With the tzimtzum in place, every
duplicitous act – from the most innocuous “white
crime” to the most vicious inhumane act – is
Since we are all integral parts of one whole, how, ask
the mystics, is it possible, that one person hurts another;
that one informs on others to protect his own skin; that
people murder each other, that parents hurt their own children?…
How is it possible – when we are all like organs in
one body? Would one healthy arm ever hurt another if it
The dissonance-driven tzimtzum is the answer. Due only
to our not sensing that we really are one, can we easily
hurt each other.
Tisha B’Av is the day – or shall we say the night – of
the Tzimtzum. On this day we recognize, with brutal honesty
and no silk gloves, the sheer power, and root, of dissonance
in our lives: The dissonance between matter and spirit,
earth and heaven, the human and the Divine.
This is why the sadness of Tisha B’Av is not only
attributed to the destruction of the two Temples, but also
to other events that happened on this day. We are not grieving
for the destroyed Temple alone; that was merely a symptom.
We are grieving for the causes – the human iniquities
– that brought on the destruction and all the other
tragedies of the day.
On this day of the year we refrain from eating, from partaking
of any other form of indulgence, and stand in awe and humility
before the great schism – the root core of all tragedies.
This dissonance manifests in a multitude of ways. Last
year we focused on its “child abuse” incarnation. This
year we shall focus on its impact on religion and faith.
Perhaps one of the strongest manifestations of tzimtzum-dissonance
today is the fundamental gap that exists between religion
and personal refinement, between rituality and spirituality.
How many people considered to be in the “religious”
category are simply religious by default? Born into religious
homes, educated in religious institutions, not by their
own choice, they continue to follow and conform to the rules,
guidelines and expectations of their families and communities.
Is this a religious person, or someone following a program
by rote, mechanical Judaism, as it were?
This does not mean that religion is not to be equated with
ethics, or that all people born into religion are mechanical.
Quite the contrary: Religious faith expects and demands
the highest standard of ethical behavior, and actually scorns
upon “mechanical” religiosity (G-d despises
“mitzvos anoshim melumodoh,” lip service and
by rote tradition taught by men – Isaiah 29:13). Indeed,
some of the most refined people you will ever meet are deeply
religious, and their faith is what drives them to be the
best they possible can.
Yet despite this supreme standard, history is witness to
the inconsistencies and paradoxes in the lives of “religious”
people. How often have we seen a so-called devout person
fall; holy men and women stoop to disgraceful behavior?
And then you wonder, were they true people of faith in the
first place, or mechanical saints, or even worse: just putting
on a show?
And this dissonance takes on another bizarre shape as well:
At the other end of the spectrum you will find people who,
by conventional standards (whatever that means), are extremely
“not religious” (and even anti-religious), yet
they are more sensitive and refined than many “religious”
people you meet.
I don’t believe the divide between “religious Jews” and
“non-religious Jews” is accurate today. I know many Jews
who do not keep Shabbos and eat kosher, but are more refined,
spiritual, ethical and virtuous than their “religious” counterparts.
Who then is more religious: The bearded man with payos,
a yarmulka and kapote, who devoutly keeps Shabbos and will
go to obsessive lengths to find a kosher meal, yet cheats
others, beats his wife and visits questionable environments,
or one without a beard, skullcap and religious garb, who
may not keep shabbos or kosher, but is impeccably caring,
scrupulously honest, helps anyone that comes his way, is
kind and giving, sensitive and virtuous?
Who is the more religious and devout of the two?
Some would reply, the former. But that would be wrong.
As if suggesting that outer garments and behavior are more
important than virtue and love. The Torah’s mitzvos
don’t just include Shabbos and kosher; they also include
love your neighbor, honesty, ethics and so on. In fact,
loving another is considered to be the most primary of all
mitzvos, as Rabbis Akiva and Hillel declare.
So why is religiosity defined more by externals than by
internals? There is no adequate answer to this mystery,
except that this is yet another manifestation of the dissonance
that we are honoring on Tisha B’Av
By no means is this a new phenomenon. Talking about Tisha
B’Av-dissonance – what do you think was going
on 1941 years ago when the Romans destroyed the Temple?
Thousands if not millions of religious Jews – and
then, everybody was observant – were roaming about,
devoutly following their beliefs, but… not far from the
surface a simmering, baseless hatred was toxifying their
environment and communities. The Talmud makes it very clear
that the Temple was destroyed not because the Romans were
so powerful, but due to Jewish sinas chinam,
baseless despise from one person to the other!
In the last Haftorah, read always as a prelude to Tisha
B’Av, the prophet Isaiah doesn’t mince words
when he relates G-d’s blunt statement about the dissonance
of the Jews in the Temple: Who has required that you
trample My courts when you come to appear in My presence?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings; they are offerings
of abomination to Me. New Moon, Sabbath, and the Festivals
- I cannot bear iniquity along with solemn assembly. My
soul hates your New Moons and your appointed feasts. They
are a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. When you
spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you. Yes,
even though you multiply your prayers, I will not hear;
your hands are full of blood (Isaiah 1:12-15). Your
princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves. Every
one loves bribes, and chases after rewards. They do not
judge the fatherless, nor does the widow's cause come to
How is it possible that in the shadow of a glorious Holy
Temple, where the Divine service was held day after day,
the Menorah burning steadily, offerings brought on a constant
basis, with the Holy of Holies at its center – how
at the same time could the Jews so callously hate each other?!
Surrounded by Divine revelation, how could they be so inconsistent,
bearing iniquity along with solemn assembly, to the
point that G-d “hates” their holidays and prayers?!
The same question can be asked of Adam and Eve in Paradise:
Here they were in a Divine Eden, all their needs taken care
of, a place of spiritual revelation (the Midrash says that
the Divine presence rested in Eden). And yet, they still
could not control themselves and gave into the temptation
to eat from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge
of Good and Evil… How is this paradox possible?
The same question can be asked of countless men and women
in subsequent generations, who served G-d on one end, and
then transgressed on the other.
How could such profound dissonance be possible?! The answer
my friends, is the insidious tzimtzum, which has
shaped the universe from its genesis. No one, not today,
not in the beginning of time, not at Sinai and not at the
Holy Temple, not Moses and not the lowliest man, is immune
to the tzimtzum’s effects.
This is not an excuse for any sin, nor is it an explanation
of the recent Divine desecration in New Jersey and New York.
It simply is a way of putting things into context: We are
all guilty of dissonance in one form or another. The tzimtzum
has affected us all. And even when some have fallen and
deserve to be called to task, we must always humbly remember
that we live in the same world with them, and we too are
part of the equation.
Our collective dissonance is aptly captured in the Talmud
‘s proverbial thief who prays to G-d “before
he goes out to steal” (Berachot 63a). On another occasion
Isaiah says in the name of G-d: These people come near
to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but
their hearts are removed from me. Their reverence for me
consists of rules learned by rote from men. Therefore,
I will continue to remain obscure to this people, obscurity
upon obscurity, and the wisdom of his wise men shall be
lost, and the understanding of his geniuses shall be hidden.
Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their
plans from the L-rd, who do their work in darkness and think,
“Who sees us? Who will know?” You turn things
upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the
clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “He
did not make me”? Can the pot say of the potter, “He
knows nothing”? (Isaiah 29:13-16).
Armed with these Tisha B’Av principles let us now return
to the issue at hand – religion and ethics.
What should be our reaction when we see bearded, kapote-clad,
pious Jews being hauled away in handcuffs for alleged crimes?
Firstly, we ought all be pained and hurt by the great Chilul
Hashem that this creates. Chilul Hashem means
desecration of G-d. When a person who appears like a
man of faith (even if that were not the case) is publicly
accused of a crime, it in some way desecrates faith and
G-d Himself. Instead of making G-d beloved in the eyes of
the beholder, it makes G-d and G-d’s expectations
of us “look bad” or even worse, irrelevant.
Without passing judgment on these individuals – that
is not our role; due process will determine their verdict,
and everyone is innocent until proven guilty (I fervently
wish they are exonerated) – but regardless: the desecration
has been done. Chilul Hashem is not about right and
wrong; it’s about perception. The great Talmudic sage,
Rav, would not buy meat on credit so that one should never
suspect or accuse an esteemed Rabbi of stealing meat (Yoma
It would be bad enough even if it were a one-time thing
that a “religious” Jew was accused of a crime.
That too is a Chilul Hashem. But the damage is infinitely
compounded by the fact that we are living in a non-neutral
climate. The status quo impression is that religion is riddled
with hypocrisy, falsehoods, abuse and corruption. That religious
people are no better than the rest of the population. Hollow
bar and bat mitzvah lessons, coupled with Woody Allen humor,
tripled by rabid anti-religious best-sellers (recently by
Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins), have hardened the stereotype
into stone that religious people are full of themselves,
without many redeeming features…
It would be bad enough if there was no basis for this negative
attitude. Unfortunately, many of the impressions and stereotypes
about religion are all too true and are continuously fueled
by religious establishments. I should know – I grew
up in a religious environment, and in my work and travels,
I have quite often been on the receiving end of the wrath
against religion. Speaking in different milieus, I have
often been attacked with cynicism: “Oh yeah, we know
you Chassidim… You preach about morality, as if you’re
holier than thou, and behind the scenes you are just as
bad, if not worse than everyone…” And even if
I get through the first block in this unyielding obstacle
course of relentless stereotypes, people will say: “OK,
maybe you’re different. I like you as individual.
I can relate to your teachings and approach. But you are
an anomaly, an exception to most religious people. I cannot
relate to, and I even despise the religious community, with
their condescension and judgmental mentality.”
So, now with these latest images being beamed across the
world of Rabbis in cuffs, you can imagine that the pre-existing
stereotype, and its resulting chilul Hashem,
are reinforced, and any work and progress achieved to bring
some healing and reconciliation is set back by miles. One
fool can burn down a palace built by a hundred prodigies.
So first, we have to acknowledge the very real chilul
Hashem created by this episode – its consequences,
the responsibility carried by the perpetrators, and above
all, the great care that must be taken in the future to
prevent more of the same.
But we cannot suffice with that. The root cause for such
behavior is the profound schism that exists between Torah
life and secular life. I’ve read some Orthodox Jewish
columns stating that the problem is Orthodox insulation
and lack of respect for secular law. I humbly disagree:
If Orthodox Jews were truly secluded, then they wouldn’t
be interacting with the business world, and wouldn’t
be tempted by illegal moneymaking methods. But with all
due respect, they are not insulated, and neither are most
people in today’s open world. They may feel insulated
in their minds, but in reality they, as much as anyone,
are investing their time, money, ingenuity, profit making
and so on in the real material world. They are very much
engaged in the ways of this world, and the more money they
make the more engaged they become. Where exactly is the
insulation? Yes, the Orthodox eat, pray and celebrate with
their own; many live in secluded communities where secular
people are not welcome. But when it comes to business, which
occupies most peoples’ time, their minds and hearts
are immersed in navigating the rules of the marketplace,
and are very much influenced by the secular forces at work,
whether it be technology or advertising, politics or media.
The problem is not insulation; the problem is lack of integration.
It’s one thing if you go off living in a desert, oasis
or mountain – like the Biblical Patriarchs did as
shepherds – with little or no interaction with the
world around you. Where your income is not dependent on
clients, customers, employers, employees and co-workers.
But when your sustenance is reliant on the modern economy,
and you are immersed business wise, the only choice to not
becoming overwhelmed or compromised by the temptations of
the marketplace is to learn how to fuse your business with
In fact, G-d never intended that we be isolated; that was
the grave mistake of the scouts, which not incidentally
took place on Tisha B’Av, in yet another expression
of dissonance (see Holy
Land). The purpose of existence is that despite the
tzimtzum induced schism between matter and spirit, we bridge
the two worlds (see Orthodoxy
vs. The World).
On the other end of the spectrum, we need to acknowledge
the profound stereotype – and the resulting double
standard – that exists around religion. And here the
secular world need take notice: Is cheating more acceptable
if one does not pose as a religious person? We understand
that religious appearance compels higher responsibility:
to live up to the higher standards that you project and
judge others by. But should secular people be held less
accountable because they do not project holiness? And as
intelligent people, we need to be accountable for our stereotyping
and religious bashing as well. Just because the religious
communities are giving us fodder for ridicule, do we have
Above all, what needs to be addressed – and this
is perhaps the largest and most fundamental issue of all:
Are we part of the problem or part of the solution?
Yes, it’s easy to point fingers. Today we point them at
the “Rabbis” in handcuffs, and tomorrow at the “secularists”
in chains. Many easily succumb to the “I told you so” temptation:
“Ahh, you see, this only confirms what I always knew. All
the religiously clad Jews are thieves.” Or the other way
around: Religious people patting themselves on the back
when they see “non-believers” transgress, stating almost
the same slogan as those hurled at them: “Ahh, you see,
this is how “frayeh” (secular) people behave. They are all
This, my friends, is the unchanging world “under
the sun,” where nothing is new. It would terribly
monotonous if only it were not so tragic. Rule of thumb:
Most people will gravitate to justifying their own pre-conceived
notions. They are drawn to ideas and events that support
whatever position they have held all their lives.
And this, my friends, is the tragedy of Tisha B’Av.
This is the “tzimtzum” at work in full glory:
Separating us all from each other, pitting individual against
individual, community against community.
At the same time, deep within the tzimtzum driven dissonance
of Tisha B’Av also lays its cure; in the throes of
the flaming abyss of this sad day, the redemption is born.
And what is the cure? To travel “above the sun,”
and look at ourselves in a new way. Take that laser-sharp
microscope that we use to analyze others and turn it around.
Focus it on yourself.
Tisha B’Av awakens us to finally realizing that we are
all in “one boat,” we are all part of this dissonant universe,
living under the shadow of the great “tzimtzum,” which conceals
our inherent unity and our own inner seamlessness. All of
us are potential if not actual liars and thieves. All of
us are capable – and often more than that – of behavior
inconsistent with our inner consciences; all of us do not
live up to our own abilities and standards.
Appreciating the tzimtzum/dissonance of Tisha B’Av
makes us aware – as in the idiom: awareness is half
the cure of a disease – that we are also part of one
integral unified whole. When one of us falls and succumbs
to dissonance, all of us have fallen in a way. Whether it
is a person wearing “religious garb” or other
“garb,” whether it is someone who is internally
“religious” or not. When any one of us does
not live up to our expectations, instead of seeing it as
“someone else’s” problem, instead of pointing
accusatory fingers and saying “aha,” we must
realize that it truly is our own problem.
Dissonance anywhere is dissonance everywhere. Dissonance
in one corner of the earth is dissonance in all corners.
And they are all rooted in the same nasty place.
And the accumulative effects of this dissonance –
especially as it manifests in the schism between the spiritual
and the ritual, between blind mechanical Judaism and personal
refinement, between dogma and introspection, between the
external and internal dimensions of Judaism and Torah –
is what has caused the menticide of our people.
The countering force to Tisha B’Av-dissonance is
unconditional love and unity: Recognizing that we are an
integral unit, each indispensable musical notes of one composition.
To sum up: What should our attitude and response be when
we witness Rabbis arrested in chains?
1) Recognize the desecration
of G-d that this entails.
2) Don’t be judgmental.
You have your own discord to contend with.
3) Sadness – over
the fact that is the story of all our lives.
4) Do something positive
and loving. Extend unconditionally to someone in need.
5) Celebrate our unity,
instead of feeding our differences.
Let us conclude with a fascinating twist of irony: The
sages tell us that in the near future Tisha B’Av will
become the greatest of all holidays. In the most paradoxical
fashion, the saddest of days has the energy to become the
happiest. The most profound dissonance carries the impetus
to create the deepest expression of unity.
After all that we have been through we have the power to
make this a reality.
The question that remains is: Will we act on it? Will we
be part of the problem or part of the solution?
Next week: Explaining dissonance to children, how to respond
to children’s questions about hypocrisy, religious
corruption and the basic inconsistencies they witness when
supposedly good people behave in bad ways and when hurt
comes from those that are supposed to love us.